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Category: Historians and history (Page 1 of 3)

Revisiting Tacitus

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who wrote in the early second century, during the reigns of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He wrote several books that have come down to modern times entirely or partially, including Germania, The Annals (about the first dynasty of Roman emperors, minus the founder Augustus, AD 14-68), and The Histories.

My first encounter with Tacitus was an excerpt of The Annals in my tenth-grade literature textbook, describing a fire that devastated the city of Rome in the year 64. As I recall, the passage hadn’t even been assigned for us to read, but I found it while flipping through the book and read it out of curiosity. I was taken by the vivid narrative explaining how the fire had spread through the city while the much-reviled emperor Nero whiled away the hours of the catastrophe singing about the burning of Troy. I was also intrigued by a brief reference to the Christians who were scapegoated for the fire—one of the earliest references to the practitioners of this new religion outside their own scriptures.

In eleventh grade, when my family went to Rome for Christmas and New Year’s, I brought along a Penguin edition of Tacitus’s Annals, translated by Michael Grant. Although there was much I couldn’t understand, I excitedly read the book on the trip to Italy and afterward. There were several episodes that stood out to me in the narrative, and I still remember them clearly. One of them was the assassination of Nero’s step-brother Britannicus, who was offed by putting poison in a cup that had already been tested, ostensibly to cool the too-hot drink down. There were many stories like this, about the intrigues and schemings of nobles in the inner circle of power.

Reading Tacitus corresponded with my own awakening as a scholar late in high school. Now that my days of adolescent apathy were past, I was beginning to see the world with new eyes, and it was turning out to be a big and fascinating place. The Annals was the beginning of an ancient history reading kick that continued with Josephus, Tacitus again (this time The Histories), Herodotus, Thucydides, and a little later (in college), Arrian (The Campaigns of Alexander).

When I read The Annals the first time, I took its content and style very much for granted. I guess I assumed that this was the one way to tell the history of early imperial Rome. By reading Tacitus, I felt that I was learning the true, authoritative history of Rome.

Ten years later, when I was in graduate school, I reread some parts of The Annals for a class about historiography (the history of history-writing). It was unsettling to read Tacitus again, because his writing didn’t seem so worshipful now. The parts that I read this time seemed petty and narrow-minded, as they focused almost completely on a small power-holding elite in a vast empire. There was nothing true or authoritative about any of this. I felt that my teenage self had been naïve to see the endless string of assassinations as the definitive account of Roman history. I now knew that there were many ways to tell the story of a time and place, and Tacitus had only chosen one of them.

I was ready to jettison Tacitus entirely when I reread him in grad school, but I have been assured—both by a friend who is a late-antique historian, and my own reading—that Tacitus is still an important and indispensable resource for early-imperial Roman history. The key is not to read him as the authoritative account and final word on everything, as I did in high school, but to read him critically as a source, much as I would read a project report for an Indian development project or an editorial from the Times of India or Hindustan.

But there is at least one fundamental way in which the work of an ancient historian differs from my own: I don’t have to reconstruct the past. Certain details of events that I am interested in might remain obscure, but the period that I as a modern historian study is very well-documented. That is not the case for Roman history. Most books, including Tacitus’s narrative histories, are missing large parts. Many books have disappeared entirely. Before ancient historians can study why something happened, they first must try to discover what happened. I have the luxury of skipping that step.

Remodeling Nehru’s house

In the three years since I did a little of my dissertation research there, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in New Delhi has become the subject of controversy over plans to remodel the museum or its surrounding grounds.

As much as I like NMML, I grant that the museum could use a good remodeling. It is housed in Teen Murti Bhawan, a British-era mansion that was originally built as the Commander-in-Chief’s house before independence, and after independence served as the official residence of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. After Nehru’s death in 1964, the house was converted into a museum rather than serving as the official residence of subsequent Prime Ministers.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bottom floor of the house has exhibits about Nehru’s life and the independence movement. It is a standard textbook-style narrative, and it is quite unengagingly presented with black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text in English and Hindi. The upper floor has some preserved rooms, including Nehru’s office and the bedroom where he died. The rooms are certainly interesting too look at, but they are not in the best of condition. I remember seeing water damage on the ceiling in one or two of them.

View of Nehrus office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

View of Nehru’s office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l'oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l’oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum.

The house is located on a large landscaped estate, which also includes a research library, a planetarium, and a medieval hunting lodge that was incorporated into the site plan when the mansion was built.

SLV-3, India's first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

SLV-3, India’s first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

Proposals to remodel NMML go in two different directions. One direction is modernizing the existing displays but keeping the nationalistic, Nehru-centered narrative intact. This is outlined in a document posted on the NMML website, “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” from September 2015. The black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text will go, to be replaced by touchscreens.

The other direction for remodeling the museum is completely overhauling it to honor all prime ministers, not just Nehru. This seems to be favored by the current ruling party, the BJP, which has made it a point to play down the legacy of Nehru.

From what I can tell, the proposals have reached a compromise of sorts, with Teen Murti Bhawan set to stay as it is and a national prime ministers museum to be built somewhere else on the estate.

These proposals to remodel Nehru’s house are at their heart political, but I would like to look at them from a historical perspective—or rather a historiographical perspective, which means how history is interpreted.

I don’t know enough about the national prime ministers museum proposal to comment on it, but from studying the “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” I feel that it has missed an opportunity to reinterpret Nehru and his legacy in an appropriately critical light. As is it now, there is no room in Indian popular discourse for a critical discussion of Nehru. He can be either all good or all bad, and the debates about remodeling NMML fall into these predictable ruts.

Like every leader in the history of this planet, Nehru left a mixed legacy. This legacy should be open for interpretation, but it shouldn’t be inevitably polarized. Like many leaders of his time, Nehru promoted industrial growth and democratization at the expense of minority communities. He proudly trumpeted anti-colonialism but refused to criticize Soviet interventions in eastern Europe. He claimed to believe in democracy and self-determination but took a firm line on Kashmir and brutally suppressed an insurgency in Nagaland. This ambiguity in Nehru’s legacy needs to be taken seriously, not papered over by heroizing or villainizing narratives.

But isn’t it inevitable that a museum dedicated to one man’s legacy would portray him as a hero? I argue that it is not. As an example to the contrary, consider the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, USA. As president of the United States from 1963 to 1969, Johnson had as mixed a legacy as Nehru. He promoted civil rights legislation and social welfare programs known as the Great Society. But he also escalated the the American war in Vietnam, a war that left over a million people dead. The LBJ Library does not softpedal Johnson’s role in escalating the war.

The same approach can and should be taken for a remodeling of NMML. Nehru’s contested legacy should be acknowledged and explored in the museum dedicated to him.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

View of Shillong with Shillong Peak in the background.

The restless records of Assam

On January 21, 1972, the Indian state of Assam lost its capital Shillong to a new state, Meghalaya. Shillong had been the capital of Assam since colonial times, and the Assamese were proud of their capital, a charming hill station at 4,900 feet above sea level. A cosmopolitan, polyglot town, Shillong was surrounded by tribal land where the dominant language was Khasi rather than Assamese.

The location of Shillong became an issue after the state legislative assembly passed the Assam Official Language Bill, 1960, which declared:

Assamese and English … shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.1

The tribal population of the Khasi Hills felt marginalized by the elevation of Assamese over their own language. Khasi tribal leaders joined leaders from the Garo and Jaintia Hills from to form the Hill State Movement, agitating for separation of the tribal areas of the Meghalaya Plateau from Assam. In 1970, Meghalaya became and autonomous state in Assam, and in 1972 it became a full-fledged state within the Indian union.

The capital of Assam moved from the hills down to Dispur, a suburb of Gauhati (Guwahati) in the Brahmaputra River Valley. (Dispur has since been swallowed up in Guwahati’s urban sprawl.) Assam government offices and institutions moved down to Dispur. In 1980, the records of Assam shifted from Shillong and were set up in the Assam State Archives in Dispur. Meanwhile, the Government of Meghalaya set up its own State Records Room in Shillong. The records kept there were about the period after the split with Assam, because the records from before had moved down to Dispur.

This is something I wish I had understood before going to Guwahati and Shillong for research: most of the pre-1972 records are in Guwahati, even if they pertain directly to Shillong. After spending a week in Guwahati, I headed up to Shillong and went on some wild-goose chases looking for things that were back in Guwahati.

I spent two days in Shillong looking for the Shillong Times from the 1960s. I had already looked for the newspaper in the Library of Congress, which has practically everything. Although the LoC does have master copies of the paper from the time period I was interested in, there were no copies that patrons could read. No matter, I thought; I would look for Shillong Times in India. It seemed reasonable to assume that I would be able to find the newspaper in the city where it was published—but I couldn’t.

I started my wild-goose chase at the Central Library, but the head librarian told me that they only had post-1978 issues in Shillong; everything earlier was down in Guwahati. She suggested that I try Sacred Heart College Library and NEHU (North-Eastern Hill University) Library. I spent the afternoon visiting the two institutions, but the helpful staff at both failed to turn up anything. The next day, I went looking for the Shillong Times office, which a librarian at NEHU had assured me would have what I needed. It took me a while to find the office, as it was tucked away in a residential neighborhood in the Rilbong area south of the city center. In Rilbong, I had to ask a couple of people before I found the newspaper’s office, housed in a yellow Anglo-Assamese bungalow. There was no sign out front, just two brass medallions on the gate, one that said “S” and the other “T.” I inquired in the office about the newspaper from the 1960s. An employee went into the back and returned with the oldest issue they had, from 1986.

The mini-partition of Assam imposed an archival amnesia on Shillong. The Central Library does not even have archives of the city’s newspaper before the split—and neither does the head office of the paper.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Links

  • Assam State Archives have an interesting and informative website, including a virtual tour as well as more practical information about the collection.
  • NEHU Library
  • Shillong Times
  1. The full quotation is: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 346 and 347 of the Constitution of India and subject as hereinafter provided, Assamese and English, and when the latter is replaced under Article 343 of the Constitution of India, Hindi in place of English shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.” The Assam Gazette, October 10, 1960, pp. 623-25. []

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