As Good As Our Stories

By Neerja Singh


Blog , Boomers To Zoomers

“What we deplore is not that the gate of western knowledge was thrown open to Indians, but that such knowledge was imported to India at the sacrifice of our own cultural heritage. What was needed was a proper synthesis between the two systems and not neglect, far less destruction, of the Indian base”. Syama Prasad Mukherjee

India has the 6th largest number of World Heritage Sites in the world, 38 in number. There are 30 cultural sites, 7 natural sites, and 1 mixed as recognized by UNESCO.

If you were to stop the average John, Jaani, Janardhan on the road with this story he would shrug it off! In a country struggling under the crushing weight of poverty, illiteracy, and corruption, any mention of heritage is treated with incredulity, “People are dying here and you are talking about preserving history!” Oh no, we are not a nation too high on heritage walks or recording of ruins! The appreciation of glorious history is a luxury, as far as we see it, befitting races that are developed beyond the basic sustenance mark. Those are people who have sublimed beyond survival, with refined antennae for finer levels of cultural assimilation. We are too caught up meanwhile to be watching the back door out of which, unknown to us, our history and heritage are quietly vanishing.

A far greater number of people study Sanskrit outside of India today, for one. Hindustani music and classical dances have more and more takers outside the country. The most authoritative and best-researched books on our history, our culture, and our socio-religious nuances are written by non-Indians. We are oblivious, indifferent, and dismissive of our phenomenal legacy. If pushed, most Indians will claim a sense of pride in what is known as the “5000-year continuous civilization” but scratch some more, and the shocking fault lines will show up.

In a typical Indian home, any talk of the hoary past is synonymous with excavating buried ghosts and likely to invite impatience! There is little sense of lineage or history inculcated in the children. Most learn from watching their family elders who do not respect or recall family lore. The contempt for what has gone before extends into schools and colleges where History and Sociology are trashed as subjects inferior to the analytical Sciences and requiring only rote memory at that. There is nil acknowledgment of the urgent need to infect the new generations with the desire to claim, take charge of, and guard their own historical narrative.

We forget that we are only as good as our stories. And to grow unscathed beyond our diversity, we have to come to grips with our past, outlined in our own idiom. To move forward with vigor and conviction, we need to constantly look back at our common cultural wealth. Those are our survival coordinates. It will give us strength and lasting power to know and interpret our monuments, our sites, our deities, our traditions, our beliefs ourselves rather than have others tell us what we are about.

How wretched must our children feel on foreign campuses, to meet others who perhaps knew more about their history and heritage than they did? How did our records come to be in such a terrible state of disrepair? It is no secret that we hang clotheslines on archive balconies and house our historical treasures in rooms with broken windows and leaky roofs. Pigeon poop on priceless papers is not unusual and the less said about the ill-trained and destructive staff, the better. Arguably, of the 1000 plus heritage structures in Delhi alone, many are soot-covered on the inside from the squatters’ chullah smoke!

One does not hear any talk of the crisis need to preserve our heritage sites on any popular and mass forum. The deplorable fact is that there is no domestic laboring or analyzing or applying or studying our past. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) is forever looking for Heritage Walk Leaders to lead their weekend meanders.

I have been on some of their walks with Jaya Basera, Heritage Consultant, and passionate advocate for heritage conservation. The average size of the group she leads is about ten in all, an atom of the ocean that is Delhi! But the stories she relates and the facts she quotes, bring to life an achingly beautiful echo from the days done. Hidden under the dust and grime and foliage are sounds, sights, and smells of a bygone era, a foundation on which we stand today. Ironically, India’s conservation quick fix for all these hauntingly charming monuments is to put a lock at the entrance and keep out the intrepid urinators, dogs, romancing couples, and future cricketers.

Besides funding and expertise for the regular upkeep of heritage properties, the authorities have been struggling to create awareness and a sense of belonging among citizens regarding architectural wealth. Vandalism and defacement are two big challenges that neutralize most conservation efforts. Perhaps we do not cultivate a concern in our zoomers about where we have come from? We are too caught up in the mundane grind to hear historic notes straining to reach us from our crumbling glory? What is the state of our common legacy? In what condition does our combined heritage exist? Noted author and historian Swapna Liddle says, “Though these projects need refinement and not just footfalls, the communities must work in partnership with experts and private parties, where heritage can be a great engine for development. Until we, as stakeholders, take interest and responsibility, preservation is not possible.” The experts are unanimous that unless conservation is liberalized, we have no future, and corporates and civil society need to be equal partners

It costs just fifty bucks to take our kids on one of the heritage walks and sow the seed that might one day fill this void in our national portrait. The truth is that if you were to take away from us our history, literature, culture, we would cease to exist!