Uses of History: Ramanujan Edition

Some Indian Uses of History on a Rainy Day

1935. Professor of Sanskrit
on cultural exchange;
passing through; lost
in Berlin; reduced
to a literal, turbaned child,
spelling German signs on door, bus, and shop,
trying to guess go from stop;
for a way of telling apart
a familiar street from a strange,
or east
from west at night
the brown dog that barks
from the brown dog that doesn’t
memorising a foreign paradigm
of lanterns, landmarks,
a gothic lotus on the iron gate
suddenly comes home
in English, gesture, and Sanskrit,
the swastika
on the neighbour’s arm
in that roaring bus from a grey
nowhere to a green.
– AK Ramanujan

I have a piece on Ramanujan’s essay and the DU controversy in The Caravan, All the Myriad Ways:

It’s no surprise, then, that so consistently we receive a singular history of the State, a composite account that tells an overwhelmingly familiar arc of progress towards the very moment in which you—the school child, the dutiful citizen—happen to be reading and accepting that history. That the United States is a melting pot, or that India contains multitudes is itself a monolithic and singular account.

We, for whom the history of the State is a familiar battleground; we, who grew up in dictatorships, for whom history was the first and most potent weapon for warfare, know this intimately. In Pakistan, there is no multitude of narratives when it comes to our pasts. In Islam, there are no voices that interpret scripture in divergent ways. Notions like these are quickly labelled heretical and such voices are shunted off to the mortuary. Notice the fate of Punjab’s governor, Salmaan Taseer, who dared to imagine a Constitution that might include another voice, admit to another living diversity.

Do tell me what you think.

3 Replies to “Uses of History: Ramanujan Edition”

  1. Thanks for the link to the piece in ‘Caravan.’ And yes, that thematic link between “Elements of Composition” and the Ramayana essay is remarkable and precisely what I was also talking about in my comment on your earlier piece on Ramanujan. AKR has other Kannada poems too that do related, similar things with the image of composition/ decomposition. The beauty is how well and seamlessly all the elements of his writings in various genres (and languages) connect with each other.

  2. Very nice essay. I wonder about “The idea of singular history, whether championed by State, or Right, cannot bear such scholarly scrutiny. The historians privileged by the State make a point to ignore such multitudes.” Though there are voices like Ramanjuan off and on, there seems to an ancient antiscientific attitude from some text communities. In a discussion on Bronkhorst’s article Panini and Euclid, Aravindhan suggests ( that this already started by Panini’s time :
    “Panini’s grammar, from a methodological perspective, embodies two trends. The first is the trend towards the primacy of exegesis in scholarly discourse. For some reason, texts by renowned scholars came to have a very special status, eventually becoming a source of knowledge equal to or superior than observation. The second trend is the increasing importance of inductive reasoning, where you used specific examples to derive generalised rules. Taken together, these are capable of producing devastating errors.

    But Panini’s grammar did not create these trends, nor were they confined to grammatics. You find them equally in philosophical works of the period which – unlike earlier texts – only try to interpret, expound on and clarify the meanings of existing texts; and even the original work that is done still seeks support in interpretation of existing texts.

    We see exactly the same disease in the mathematics of the period. Bhaskara tries to argue mathematics using rules of mimamsa. Mimamsa, for heaven’s sake! And proofs – where they are provided – tend to be anecdotal, rather than deductive. Bronkhorst argues that philosophy in that period understood the concept of proof. He’s right, technically speaking, but the form of proofs they used lacked rigour and routinely accepted exegetic and anectdotal evidence as “proof”. Just as the mathematicians did.”
    Going through some of the articles on Indian astronomy in ‘Sanskrit Knowledge Systems’ ( I find a tendency among Indian astronomers, right up to nineteenth century, to fit new observations in to puananic accounts of the world. Perhaps it is not just state but text communities with strong beliefs started this trend long ago.

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