I have said it before and I will say it again.
It’s not easy being a historian in India.
This is especially true now, with the proliferation of propagandist narratives via what is popularly called “WhatsApp University”, and the emergence of chronicles of the past that are easily bought and sold, but are skewed in their writing and methodology.
The purpose of this essay is to focus on the impact that faulty or flawed methodology can have on the telling of history, especially what is called “popular” history. The distinction is somewhat necessary, given the somewhat recent binary that has been drawn between academic and popular historians.
Academic histories are produced by professional historians, often within university settings, subject to certain protocols. As Rohan D’Souza recently pointed out in this essay in The Wire, in order to qualify as an academic historian, you have to adhere to a set of unwritten – albeit widely accepted – rules: from articles expanding on your research published in peer-reviewed journals to books hot off established university presses. Academic seminars, conferences and workshops are your defined circuit, wherein the claims and evidence of your research are vetted and debated by your peers.
I, on the other hand, am what is commonly known as a popular historian. I wish I could say that I came to the idea of where I fit on the intellectual spectrum instantly. But it took me a while to find my feet. Why?
Training or the lack of it
I’m often asked about my “research process.” Honestly, in 2014, I had none – primarily because I was a young research scholar who hadn’t been trained to think or write critically. As an erstwhile CBSE Board student, “mugging” or rote-learning was a way of life. There were set questions with set answers, and if you remembered it right, you could find yourself on the path to glory without a problem.
That system continued throughout my undergraduate years (yes, I studied history), and right through my post-graduate years. The same assignment questions and the same examination questions were repeated over the years, to the point where you could buy full sets of previous tutorials by toppers at your local Xerox shop on campus. It was only during my years studying for an M.Phil degree that I discovered, to my utter consternation, that I was supposed to write an entire dissertation, based on my own original thoughts and ideas.
For a student trained in the art of parroting information, rather than originality, this was bewildering to say the least. I had, by then, lost five foundational years of potential disciplinary (or inter-disciplinary) training. We had a course on research methodology, which introduced us to Weber and Foucault, but fell severely short when it came to the question of implementing the theories we had learned in our work. It also taught us little about how to question existing discourses, engage with current literature critically and contribute new ideas to the field of our specialisation.
I dropped out of conventional academia after my M Phil programme.
It’s possibly a twist of fate that brought me back to where I started when I began writing The Unsung Architect – a biography of VP Menon. But it was not within the framework of academia. I was – though I didn’t know how to phrase it then – an “independent scholar”. Whatever I learnt about research at that time, I learnt on the job – and I continue to learn today. For me, the obstacles in the process of writing The Unsung Architect were legion and many of them presented themselves to me only during the course of my research.
For one, I am VP Menon’s great-granddaughter. The obvious lens through which my finished work would be read was whether this was a typical hagiography. Going in, I had no desire to write a sanitised or whitewashed version of the past. I was already clear that in doing so, the study of history gained nothing.
Another hurdle was that I was gazing into an absolute void, as far as primary and secondary sources were concerned. There was no previous biography on VP, and while books on the transfer of power referred to him, they dismissed him within a charmingly descriptive sentence or two. I was in the pleasing position of finally – if not conventionally – contributing to the existing literature on the transfer of power.
The National Archives of India was my central focus for primary archival material, but it would take me months to navigate the bureaucratic red tape around the release of strategically tricky files (Kashmir, for example) or the frustration of an “NT” (Not Transferred from the ministry in question, but enticingly mentioned on the catalogue nonetheless). Eventually, I would come to learn of another obstacle in the path to originality: opacity.
Clarity or the lack of it
Opacity has existed in India’s archival access for years. It is not a new or recent phenomenon. It is in the private papers that are open but only selectively so; in the denial of access to study a particular period or region; in the boxes of papers in archives that lie unseen and unsorted for years. It is in the lack of attention to the need for trained archivists and in the 35-year declassification criteria that embargoes key collections from the public eye.
In some cases, like those of Rajiv Gandhi or Indira Gandhi, their closure prevents a deeper study of India’s development and growth across entire decades of our existence as an independent nation. Opacity, in short, is one of the prime reasons why the study of post-independence India is still a nascent field.
Next, as far as his personal life was concerned, VP was not the kind of man who poured his soul out in letters or journals. I would have to track down the extended Vappala clan, and interview them. My research travel list, in fact, was intimidating for an independent scholar with no funds.
I would have to visit archives and families in Bengaluru, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and within my own city, New Delhi. Overseas, I would have to find a way to get to London, to Oxford and Southampton. This, then, was yet another hurdle that I learnt to navigate on the job.
The path of an independent research scholar is a tricky one. It deprived me – then, as now – of access to the kind of journals I would need to read for research and the institutional affiliation that would be useful in applying for grants. Worse, at the time, I had no book deal, and I had no idea how to get one.
My last and most worrying obstacle was that VP had been a bureaucrat. By dint of easy stereotype, bureaucrats are almost always the last to be assigned the role of main characters in a story. It’s boring to think of a revolution or a freedom struggle in terms of paperwork in duplicate or triplicate, and you certainly don’t want to know about the impact of personnel shortage in a process as exciting as integration.
How, then, did I bring my great-grandfather, a civil servant and bureaucrat, out from the shadows of the legends of his generation? How did I research the story of a man who lived and worked behind the scenes of power and politics? Given that all his peers and contemporaries were long gone, whom did I speak to? How did I collect, collate and – more importantly – curate the sources I would need?
Sources or the lack of them
It is at this point in my research that I finally began asking the questions that I should have, by rights, been taught to ask during my undergraduate and postgraduate years. As I undertook a re-reading of almost all the papers to do with the independence movement and the first few years of independent India, I began to understand how I needed to tell this story. Bureaucrats and civil servants are almost always found behind the scenes of power. In order to tell VP’s story, I had to learn first how to locate VP in the history of the freedom struggle – and then relocate him to the forefront of historical change.
Put this together with my lack of foundational training in engaging with primary sources and my inability to understand how to navigate the behemoth that is the National Archives of India, and you might have some inkling of just how difficult it really was. But at the end of the day, what kept me going was the thought of a story I had to piece together, and the questions I had to ask myself of the man at the centre of it all.
What drove VP? What kept him within the walls of the Imperial Secretariat when he could have been out on the streets protesting against the Empire with the rest of the country? What really happened behind the scenes of the transfer of power?
My first real breakthrough was in 2016, with a short-term scholarship, courtesy the Charles Wallace India Trust, to read through the HV Hodson papers at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), in London. It was here, both as a great-granddaughter and as a historian, that I actually struck gold. Hodson’s interviews with VP comprise some 18 CDs, each an hour long. In them, VP’s own voice talks about his years in government service.
More importantly, he talks about what happened behind the scenes – the egos, vanities, jealousies and quarrels – as India prepared to declare independence and usher in a new era of democratic self-determination. I had never heard of oral history – primarily because, in the India of 2016, it was not considered an archival source at all, nor were you taught to pay attention to the voices of the past, unless they spoke from the pages of a textbook. But as I listened to my great-grandfather’s voice, I became deeply aware that I was listening to history as it had been made by not only him, but the fine minds he worked with.
As a result, I allowed VP’s voice to do much of the talking in the biography. This was a decision that landed my book in a controversial soup, specifically over Jawaharlal Nehru’s omission of Vallabhbhai Patel’s name as Deputy Prime Minister on India’s first Cabinet list. To cut a long story short, because I utilised an oral history source as primary evidence, my argument, it was contended, stood null and void.
Yet, oral history is the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word. Referring to oral histories not only leads to a more personal, intimate portrayal of the past, but a fuller, more accurate picture. This is because oral histories augment the information provided by public records, statistical data and other historical material.
In India, the use of oral history has been markedly selective, and it is only recently that historians like Anam Zakaria, Kavita Puri and Aanchal Malhotra have brought its importance into the limelight, by using oral histories to render fuller, more empathetic narratives of wounds left by visceral events like Partition or the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
In The Unsung Architect, apart from documented archival sources, then, I used oral histories of civil servants, former ministers and Congress leaders, and erstwhile Viceroys to flesh out a more personal picture, behind the scenes of the creation of modern India. On the more intimate side, I used oral histories to tell the story of a broken marriage, a mother expunged from family records, and a man as personally flawed as he was professionally brilliant.
Nuance or the lack of it
In an essay in Caravan, Meera Visvanathan argues, “The public view of history seeks villains and heroes, great powers and great men. It is shorn of the discussions on ideas, structures and processes that characterise scholarly debates or university curricula. In the popular imagination, history is often a dreary discipline that involves rote learning.” This is where recent popular historians have scored, in her opinion, by introducing narratives studded with visually rich anecdotes, and starring diverse casts from princes to pirates.
To be quite fair, though, “dreary” is the exact word I would use to describe how I was taught in school and university. History was definitely not a vivid world of bloodshed, conquest, wanderlust and war. It was a bleak roll call of dates and important figures who did important things on those dates. That is, quite possibly, what pushed me further towards writing the way I do. For me, as I wrote The Unsung Architect, that has been how history should be seen and told: with the past as a landscape, dotted – not by demigods or figureheads – but by flawed, often deeply complex human beings.
There will always be a debate on subjectivity, objectivity and bias as far as history is concerned. This is profoundly true in 21st century India. For a field that has produced such voluminous work on understanding our past, Indian history has suffered body blows over the years: from being used as a tool for political propaganda to bureaucratic apathy.
Today, historians – and the art of historiography – operate under severe constraints: societal, bureaucratic and political. I’m speaking, of course, of the most crudely practical aspect of writing history in this country. The barriers of caste, language and class, not to mention access and privilege, are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say, though, that these constraints only serve as further shackles on a higher education system that is indifferent to critical thinking, analysis and the process of writing simply and clearly about subjects that interest you.
It is perhaps not surprising that matters are now coming to a head, with arguments over accuracy, methodology and bias becoming increasingly fierce. In an era of ambiguity, false narratives and forwards on social media, we do our history – its study and its writing – no favours by encouraging old, hackneyed tropes, by pitting one political leader against the other, by eulogising problematic figures of our past to serve a political agenda or by sanitising the events or the people that make up a nation.
This is precisely why we need to bridge the gap in teaching, studying and writing history that exists at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. Training scholars to engage critically, and contribute intelligently to an ongoing discourse is the need of the hour in modern India. Irrespective of binaries between academic and popular, if we do not present trained historians to counter propaganda or perceptibly fake chronicles of our history, then we enable an Orwellian narrative of who controls how we see not just the past, but also the future.
Take working in the archives in India, for example. At no time in the recent past has there been absolute archival transparency. A combination of untrained archivists, red tape and embargoes, opacity, apathy and lack of access are the mainstays of the same institutions that should be, by rights, guardians of our collective memories and histories.