Imagination and reimagination of the past

The dominant group within a state always interprets and reinvents the past for its own convenience and interest. And when a new group gains prominence, it tries the same thing

Jun 7, 2018-I am staying in Campsie, an Asian (predominantly Chinese) suburb of Sydney, and reading The Fatal Shore, an epic narrative of Australia’s founding, by Robert Hughes. Campsie is not China Town, which is somewhere in the city on the map, but it looks very Chinese.  Its L-shaped market, a concentration of ethnic shops—from grocery to gadget—looks very Asian and the layout of the neighborhood, too, is very Asian—crowded, bustling, people of all ages hanging about or walking with bags filled with daily groceries.  I walk to the market to buy Asian greens, meat and other familiar vegetables, change money, or just hang out and watch the bustle.  

For the last two days, the temperature has hovered around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s been raining.  I have rented a car and will head out to Canberra and possibly Melbourne today to avoid the rains.  Yet, I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed walking to the market, catching the train to visit the city (it costs only $3.50 Australian dollars one way).  At the city center called Town Hall Square, blocks of indoor cavern is lined with shops, and the shops are staffed mostly by young Chinese women whose English accent betrays their new arrival to the country.  I bought an UGG alpaca scarf and a waterproof, wind-resistant Kathmandu brand hat from a Kathmandu store that sells travel and outdoor adventure apparel.  The Kathmandu brand was a pleasant surprise, and it turns out that it was founded in Christchurch, New Zealand, and its founders, too, are Australians and New Zealanders—and the company has gone through several permutations of mergers, buying and selling.  

Weave a story

In this mishmash world, Robert Hughes gives us a corrective to Australia’s founding.  Like every other nation-state, Australia, too, had its national narrative and mythmaking.  Begun as a penal colony for Britain’s social effluent—beggars, thieves, forgerers, etc—criminalised by its extremely harsh penal code related to property, Australia became the refuge after the American War of Independence when the United States newly-founded on the nobler principle of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness refused to take in any more convicts from Britain.  Hughes offers in extreme detail how the first batch of convicts arrived on January 20, 1788, in Botany Bay (today, Sydney Airport is located next to Botany Bay) and how they survived through years of starvation, how they made it, and how a new aristocracy arose and reinvented the past by both mythologising it and creating its own system of otherness and criminality by creating its own convict space in Norfolk Island, some 877 miles east of Australian mainland.  It mythologised the past by reimagining the origins of Australia’s founding as the result of Britain’s geostrategic policy of countering the French and the Dutch in their claims on India and the Spice Islands.

This aspect of nation-building has always interested me—mythology and reinvention of the origin narrative of a nation.  The dominant group within a state always interprets and reinvents the past for its own convenience and interest.  And when a new group gains prominence, it tries the same thing.  In South Africa in 2008, I saw the same thing—one dominant national narrative was waning and another rising.  The Robben Island prison of the apartheid years had turned into a busy museum and a pilgrimage—and apartheid itself had become a period of sacrifice and suffering through which the soul of South Africa had emerged well-forged and glorified as represented by Robben Island itself and by the Apartheid Museum.  Yet, when I visited the Voortrekker Monument near Pretoria, it was almost empty. I saw only an Afrikaner mother of two teenage children (a boy and a girl), showing them around, explaining the past in a reverential tone.  Indeed, that Great Trek east in a caravan of wagons away from the British power had been an epic journey for the Boar, who reinvented themselves and created their own system of us and them of the most notorious kind in the second half of the 20th century.  

A plethora of narratives

Similarly, India is witnessing a struggle between its Gandhian-Nehruvian-Ambedkarite multicultural, pluralist origin narrative of the Indian nation and its freedom struggle from colonial rule and the Hindutva narrative of the Hindu nationalists who seek the origin of the Indian nation in the mythic past of all-conquering Hindu emperors and noble kings like Ram, Raghu, Bharat and Krishna.  The Gandhian-Nehruvian-Ambedkarite narrative of the Indian nation as a liberal, tolerant community excluded Subhash Chandra Bose’s narrative of national self-esteem through valor, violence and assertion.  Similarly, the Puritan founding narrative of the United States of America stigmatised the fallen women, demonised the Native Americans and excluded the slaves.  Nepal’s own case has been going through permutations.  During the Panchayat system, Mahendra was a villain for the communists and democrats.  Now, not just King Prithvi but Jung Bahadur and King Mahendra and KP Oli have become national heroes for them.  Yet, this narrative is contested and will undergo change with the emergence of new dominant power structures.  

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Toni Morrison, it is the writers who have exposed the anomalies in the national origin narrative.  In the case of Australia, it’s Robert Hughes who has performed his duty grandiosely.   In India also, writers, such as Arundhati Roy and Ram Chandra Guha have taken up the task of telling their corrective versions.  In Nepal, too, this imagining and reimagining of the past continues in order to influence and shape the present.’

In Australia, Keven Rudd, the then prime minister, not many years ago issued an official apology to Australia’s aborigines for all the violence and displacement the settlers perpetrated on them.  And this was when the first settlers themselves had been the victims of Britain’s exclusionary justice system. Some may say that it’s not the past but the present that matters.  But Australia’s multicultural present of Asians, aborigines, Europeans and others will always do well to remember the messy travails of its origin so they can humanely reshape the present.

Published: 07-06-2018 07:19

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