Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Last Faint Clue

‘So small a thing,
This mummy lies,
Closed in death
Red-lidded eyes,
While, underneath
The swaddled clothes,
Brown arms, brown legs
Lie tight enclosed.
What miracle
If he could tell
Of other years
He knew so well;
What wonderment
To speak to me
The riddle of
His history’

From mysterious wrecked statues to ancient mummies, from the mighty pyramids, to the Rosette Stone, accounts of history appeal to our immense fascination with antiquity. They are whispers from the past which bring alive the dead and take us through an interesting and informative journey-one that is set in another era. Reading about what people were like before, helps us understand the present world and, indeed, ourselves, better. However, the credibility of history books becomes questionable when they, instead of providing objective accounts of the past, contain information that has been corrupted and changed over the years.

I have special interest in reading about the past. In exploring lost world. I like traveling to places and reading about the various civilizations of the past. The Indus, Greek, Egyptian and Mayan civilization are all enchanting fragments of a time long gone and are brought to us in the shape of history books- our first encounter with the remote past. The articles and pictures in these books depict the lifestyles, beliefs and means of communication of these ancient people. They contain pictures of archaeological findings such as the paintings and hieroglyphics which the Egyptians used to represent their ideas of life and death; as well as photographs of statues and other artifacts recovered from sites like Moen-jo-Daro. These books are thus gateways to lost worlds. They educate young people about the lifestyle of the ancients. These accounts are mostly reliable as they are based on archaeological findings.

In today’s world, technology plays a major role in determining the reliability of a historical account. Archaeological methods have become more sophisticated over the years and through various findings, for example the Rosetta Stone, we have even succeeded in deciphering the hieroglyphics. Technological advances such as carbon dating and genetics have helped in clarifying many doubts about the past. For example, through advances in science ad technology we know now that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was not just a mere farce. Findings like these lend credibility to the historical accounts in text books.

But that is probably the extent to which history books are wholly reliable – ancient history. When it comes to history of the modern world, the material in these books often becomes warped and twisted. It is ironic, that when there are better methods of recording data, fewer and fewer of these records are reliable. Many of them have passed through government censorship which leads to the government’s own version of events. George Orwell’s 1984 contains a fictional yet believable depiction of how the fascist government would delete passages from history and actually create new ones. This happens when history is used for propaganda and manipulation. With such unreliable sources of history, reliable evidence can hardly be obtained and history books actually become versions of what the State wants its people to know.

It is said that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. When history is written by an Indian, Japanese, or an American we see things form his particular point of view. The author’s social, cultural and religious prejudices come through when he writes a history book. The way in which history is interpreted by different people leads to questions over the reliability of history books. More often, we are left with biased, single-sided viewpoints on events that occurred in the past. For example, The Holocaust holds immense significance for the Jews as a reminder of the cruelty and injustice they had to suffer. On the other hand, Ahmedinejad of Iran dismissed it as a fabrication and a myth!

Although history books provide information about the past, they may not be wholly reliable. However, if we look in the right direction and trace the evidence back to the sources ‘till the last faint clue dies out’ we may be able to find out the truth for ourselves. Perhaps ‘nothing is so lost that it can never be found’.

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