Updated: Feb 9, 2021
Do you ever wonder how history smells? or how it sounds, feels? In my first encounter with history, it smelt like burning charcoal and felt like a rubber band, something that can dance around in your hand, stretch and twirl.
When I was eight years old, my grandmother handed me a copy of an Amar Chitra Katha, one on the Rani of Jhansi. I was amazed to see a woman on the cover page, that too holding a sword and sitting stoically on a horse. In the background of the cover page lay a dozen dead soldiers, surrounding the Rani and her horse. I was disquieted by the violence but also enamoured by the image of heroism the Rani displayed. On my first reading of the comic book, I had learned various things - she studied fencing and horse riding, she exercised in the form of weightlifting and wrestling, and her father called her ‘Chabilli’, which means ‘playful’. I understood the significance of her place in history and her symbol as one of India’s foremost patriots, but what I was most fascinated about was not the societal context of her life, but her as a person, as an individual who fought vehemently for what she believed in.
The second Amar Chitra Katha, my grandmother gave me, was on one of the most contentious figures in Indian history, Bhagat Singh. Through this comic book, I witnessed Indian history from a different perspective, I started to understand the motives of individuals - why Bhagat Singh chose to shoot John Saunders, why he decided to avenge the killing of Lala Lajpat Rai. I started to understand that history is flexible, it can bend the mind and stretch perspectives.
You see, for me, history is beyond fact. It is the legacy one leaves behind, it is the story that exudes from us and gets stuck in the machinery of the time. I think Hilary Mantel said it best ‘History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we tell it.’ History teems with narratives, writers, stories and emotion; the more one reads about history, the more he/she can grasp, catch the stories found in history before it starts to dance, twirl, stretch and most importantly, change.