These are interesting times. But there is something about the idea of interesting times that is deeply meaningful and revealing of human psychology. While the evolutionary rules tell us that the most deeply seated intuition of life is to always move forward, there is a counter pressure among the average human to want the immediate stability and security guaranteed by status quo, though in the long run such a guarantee may be illusory. In practically every culture, there are received wisdoms, be it in the form of myths and legends or else as else as consciously constructed pieces of wisdom telling us of this human tendency towards the middle ground. Hence, it is even said there is a Chinese curse which goes something like: “May you live in interesting times.” The idea is, for the Chinese peasantry, a normalcy marked by staid daily routine of life, absent of the risks of political, economic or military campaigns, is what a happy contented life is about. That this thought is often attributed to the Chinese, apparently is apocryphal, and there are no hard evidences of such an origin of this saying. However, what is true is that the aspiration of most ordinary people in any given society is similar to what this adage points towards. George Eliot shows this in her novel Middlemarch. What the average person wants is a good steady job with income good enough to raise a family, educate and feed children etc, so that they in their turns may inherit the risk-free “Middlemarch” dreams of their parents, to be passed to their own children later. In Meitei, this thought is also what is expressed in the traditional advice: Ningthou semba yawganu, ningthou kanba yaw (stand with those loyal to the establishment [king], not with those who conspire to change it).
Ironically, the “interesting times” that stable societies are fearful of, are those which are also times of great progress, change and renewal. Charles Dickens could not have put this dilemma better than in describing the great industrial revolution in Europe of his time that saw both the rise of the nation state to its pinnacle of wealth and power, but also the abject impoverishment of the underprivileged working classes. Hence, the opening lines of his A Tale of Two Cities a novel set in the days ahead of the French Revolution goes: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way”. There probably can be no dispute about this that in any given society, there are pulls for stagnation and there are pulls for change. Too much stagnation, and equally too rapid changes, can be material for social neurosis. German philosopher, Friedrich Hegel’s description of this human condition in post Westphalian nation state also indicates this. His much-quoted line: “Happiness are the blank pages of history” encapsulates this same concern. Quite interestingly, the idea of Middlemarch as a universal tendency of human societies, also was the subject of several Greek mythologies, most pronouncedly in the legend of Icarus, son of master craftsman Daedalus who built wings for himself and his son to escape from the island of Crete where they were prisoners. The father’s warning to the son reflects this Middlemarch pull very much. He told his son to not fly too low or else his wings would become damp by the humidity of the sea and also not to fly too high or the sun would melt the wax in his wings. Like the Chinese farmer, Daedalus wanted his son work hard and not be complacent but also not to be too ambitious. At one point Icarus disregarded his father’s words and flew too high and his wings disintegrated after the sun’s heat melted the wax that held them together causing him to drop into the sea and drown.
If history is the story of state making, no doubt it comes with the burden and anxieties associated with state making and upkeep. But the question is, since the conclusion the European industrial era, also marked by colonialism, what exactly should constitute state making that qualifies to be history, both for the former colonisers as well as colonised? There are of course contentions of internal colonialism and therefore the fights for liberation in pockets within several postcolonial nations. There have also indeed been efforts to address this issue and the controversy over the Geneva Convention Protocol-II, which many nations with radical internal dissent refused to sign after initially pushing for it, is a testimony. There are arguments that the historical era did not conclude with the end of colonialism for it was dovetailed by the Cold War tussle for power between the Western Bloc lead by USA and the Easter Bloc lead by the then USSR, to engage historians. Indeed, when the Cold War ended with the collapse of the USSR, historian Francis Fukuyama’s celebrated essay End of History and the Last Man, later expanded into a book, called this chapter in geopolitics as the end of history. The presumption was, this would mark the return to a utopia of the Hegelian “blank pages of history” kind. In retrospect, we know nothing of this happened, and instead, as if to say this conflict vacuum must be filled, numerous other varieties of conflicts have raised their heads.
In the Indian context currently, the challenge of history writing is more than ever looking like a revision project to recast and reinterpret it to give it new colours as well as mythological origins. How far this will succeed in altering the rules of historiography, remains to be seen. Even aside of this aberration, the question of what must post colonial history be about, will not have any simple answer. This a question, historian Ramachandra Guha grapples with in his monumental India After Gandhi, which incidentally touches even the agitations in Manipur over the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in the custody of security forces, and its implication in conjuring up an idea of modern India and its history. Would history making have now to be just a record of the performance of different governments with all the idiosyncrasies of each regime? Would history no longer remain a grand project?
This discussion cannot but lead to another intriguing question for us in Manipur, especially in recent times: Has history ended for Manipur, and if so when did it do so? If it has not, what would be the stuff that can be considered history say after 1949, the year Manipur became part of India, or 1972, the year Manipur became a state ending Central rule as a Union territory since 1949? As Fukuyama did clarify later answering to debates that his book stirred, end of history is not any claim or assertion that time has come to a halt, but of the grandness of state-making associated with history, evaporating. The state and its ways now having reducing to what can only be considered quotidian, routine and mundane. Perhaps there is something of this that all new books on modern Manipur, written by contemporary historians, are either about what was before 1949 or else are marked by preoccupations with the roots of the various insurgencies and ethnic discontents, as if little or nothing else which has happened since are worthy of historical inquiries. This is somewhat understandable. For otherwise, Manipur’s modern history would be merely tales of how one politician outmanoeuvred another, or how many times any given leader has ditched their original parties for personal gains, how political ideologies cease to matter, how defectors were rewarded with ministerial berths till the Supreme Court intervened, how MLAs were encouraged to defect by those in power, how the defectors were protected so long as they remained defectors but were penalised if they showed any indication they relented what they did and wanted return to their original parties. Manipur’s history would also be about how in a place starved of large scale industrial activities, official corruption has become the way to millionaire status, and how this status regardless of how it was gained, is celebrated and envied in the society. Witnessing Manipur, it is tempting to assume Fukuyama was right. As for his other prophesy of the last man disappearing with the end of history, it would be interesting for Manipur to look back to see when was the last time a leader with a place in history was at the state’s helm.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author