The divide that separated me from Abhiji suddenly became clear to me. I remembered working as a tour guide in Prague, and taking Americans through Czech graveyards in search of their great-grandfathers. In the Western cultures, history is the words written on a stone, the lives carved into a tombstone. Abhiji, on the other hand, once explained to me how his caste is defined by a common ancestry from one rshi, or semi-divine sage. For Abhiji, there is no chronology to say when that sage existed, and when his great-grandfather lived, and so the two men merge in his perception; imagination creates history.
This difference between his view and mine appeared stark and irreconcilable. If the two of us differ so fundamentally in our conception of what constitutes our own past, how can we argue about history?
Abhiji has always struck me as a much-contented person, blessed with a happiness that comes from his strong faith in his gods and his ability to feel the divinity within himself. Perhaps the divine spirit pulses in his veins precisely because the tales of the past that he hears and tells are of gods. He grows into what his roots are. What is the point of forcing him to think "historically," to separate myth and history, to argue about stones instead of relying on his own imagination?
In the past Abhiji imagines and lives by, the sacred Gangaa is the womb from which all men once came and to which they return. The threat he hears in the English historian's article is not so much the argument itself, but the habit of looking for concrete evidence to support an objective explanation. By defining Abhiji's past for him, the historian also shapes what Abhiji believes himself to be.
In Abhiji's perspective, history is part of one's own belief and each individual has the right to create or choose his or her own. Thus, each individual also accepts that another person may choose a completely different version of the same story. The true origin of the Aryans is irrelevant. What is really at stake is how much claim the objective historian has over an area that is inherently private.
The dusk had deepened in Varanasi. The smoke-curtained sunset dazzled me. By and by I forgot both Abhiji and the Aryans, and another thought occurred to me: never before had I appreciated how much history defines who I am. I had seen the past as something that could be dug up and analyzed by others for me. I had seen the past as a stone. But perhaps if I considered the past to be a stone, I would become one, too. By surrendering to objective "truth," I might forfeit the freedom to create and recreate myself.
Inside, I rebelled against the heaviness of that truth. There was an art to this act of living, I thought, and my life was too precious to be dictated by fossils.
Perhaps it was this thought, or just the evening sun, but the Gangaa suddenly seemed to be more than the river I observed. She was vast and ageless and powerful. In her waters millions of lives merged into one.
I walked down along the river to a stone square where boys played cricket. Not ever doubting the superiority of soccer among games, I had never stopped before to watch a cricket match. That evening, however, I enthusiastically joined the youngsters in chasing wickets.