|Stories and histories|
I had come to Varanasi from the former Muslim capital of Delhi, a city dotted with tombs, both splendid and ruined, that stand and fall as the legacy of the Mogul rulers. The beauty and size of the tombs testify to the greatness of the rulers interred within, and their determination to mark their lives for posterity.
After arriving in Varanasi, I met up with my Hindi teacher, Abhiji. We talked about Indian history, and soon started discussing an essay I had just read. The article, which was written by an English scholar, said that the Aryans came to India from Central Asia and laid the foundation to what became the upper tiers of the caste system. The former inhabitants--both indigenous and recently arrived--evolved into the untouchables.
When I mentioned the article's thesis to him, Abhiji erupted. Foreign historians were propagating lies in order justify invaders of their own kind, he insisted. "The Britishers could never accept that the Aryans, including the English, originally came from India."
I had little reason to doubt the English scholar's account, but Abhiji's outburst troubled me. It reminded me of the agenda-loaded history books I had skimmed despairingly in a Delhi bookstore a few days earlier. History for Indians, even educated ones like Abhiji, appeared to mean advancing their own political objectives. Perhaps it was a legacy of the colonial era, when rejecting the doctrines of their British rulers was a matter of liberty or oppression. In any case, it seemed that I could rarely find a book or enter a debate in which a genuine attempt was made to find the truth about past events.
Later that day, however, I realized that I had misunderstood the reasons behind Abhiji's belief.
In the shadow of Manikarnika, I watched ashes being poured from the pyres. I watched those human remnants as they dispersed on the water surface, slowly drifting downstream and then vanishing. In the emptiness left behind, I imagined the gorgeous tombs of the Mogul rulers in Delhi, and the simple gravesites clustered around village churches back in my homeland, the Czech Republic.
The ashes and the tombs. Compared with the fire-drenched stones of Manikarnika,
the memorials of my Catholic and Czech culture and those of the Muslim
culture of the Moguls are much alike. They both speak to the same need
to remember, to preserve and magnify the memories of life. And yet here
was a culture that had always dissolved the material remains of man--the
stuff upon which any factual history is based.
Stories and histories