“Is not the pastness of the past the more profound, the more legendary, the more immediately it falls before the present ?” -Thomas Mann
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the communal violence in Gujarat, India, a religiously fuelled and politically sanctioned orgy of killings between Hindus and Muslims that echoed haunting memories of Partition. It also etched in the imagination a sense that the ‘two nation’ theory perhaps still held true, the idea that Hindus and Muslims constituted primordially different nations… a justification for the bloody scar that now cuts across South Asia and across my beloved city of Lahore.
I was in Pakistan that year, returning to the country after a series of history and literature courses at U.Va that had filled my young mind with cross-border love… why so divided, let us be one, tear down these walls, sing Yash Chopra songs in undisputed Kashmiri valleys! But my idealism was not only confronted with the reality of 60 years of formalized and now deeply entrenched statehood, but also the bloody television images from Gujarat. To a Pakistani audience who I had hoped to convert to my pan South Asian idealism, those images were the antithesis of cross-border and cross-cultural love.
There sits before Congress at the moment a resolution to mark the anniversary of the violence in Gujarat, to condemn the regional government for its role in the violence and to remember the victims. But Gujarat remains a deeply divisive and painful issue, a politicized scar on the reputation of modern, rising, democratic, multicultural India. Brave and more independent minded Bollywood stars including Nandita Das and Naseerudin Shah have made films on the subject, but like so many painful memories in South Asia, both personal and national, we choose to wear our finest colors instead and entertain the world with our exoticism and our exuberance.
In response to the Gujarat resolution, someone in Washington recently said to me, I prefer to move forward, not to look back.
If only life could be so simple. And yet for many Americans it often is.
We are a young nation and one that turns even the most painful chapters in our own history including slavery and Japanese interment into inspirational stories of glory and progress.
Living in Germany is a constant, incessant reminder that history surrounds and defines us… the sweep of history shapes nations, identities, creative expression, flirtation techniques, culinary choices, stereotypes. Hollywood still portrays Germans and the German language as if spoken in Hitler’s intonation; West Germans still resent the provincialism and debts of East Germany. History with a capital H is quite simply everywhere and yet today’s European liberals are trying to forge a new identity that transcends the scars of centuries of war. At every turn, they must face the historical landmines that still scatter this continent. When Greeks protest against Germany’s austerity measures with Nazi posters and images of Angela Merkel dressed as Hitler, the ugliest chapter in Europe’s life returns in full view.
What to make of the weight of history? To meditate and drown in its massiveness is to be rendered ineffective in living in the moment, to moving forward. Yet to dismiss it is as the forgettable past is to overlook its shadows as they chase us to this day.
I was really entertained by how President Obama handled that delicate balance during this week’s visit to Washington by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Instead of simply evoking the glories of our ‘Special Relationship’ and current obsession with Princess Middleton and her crew, President Obama touched on something strangely forgotten in contemporary American life: the legacy of British imperialism and brutality against the American colonies that sparked the original Tea Party. In his quick witted, hip hopping ways, President Obama gracefully slipped in a historical reference to the British sacking of Washington to David Cameron’s face, “…It’s now been almost 200 years since the British came here to the White House under somewhat different circumstances. They really made an impression. They lit up the place. But we moved on.“
And so in my own occasional confusion and sense of being overwhelmed living in Germany among the shadows and ruins of history, I draw inspiration from a President with a remarkably historical sense of the world…. that there is value in being aware of one’s place in the sweep of history, but there is also value in acknowledge that the conversation moves forward and so must we.