Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Making history interesting

Compared to most kids growing up in India, I must say that I had a relatively good school. We had a good looking building, a large playground, labs that were sparsely equipped but existed, a healthy dose of sports and cultural activities, and teachers that tried, for the most part. Given those basics, it feels churlish to criticize what we did not have. But of late, I have been forced to concede this little fact - some of my teachers sucked. Not all of them. Just some. And they were sufficiently bad that they killed any interest one could have developed in their subjects.

The worst treatments were meted out to history. Our history books spared no effort at making the subject as dry, uninteresting and unconnected to our reality as they possibly could. My teachers took it from there and completed the job. One teacher in particular stands out. Mr.I.U.Khan was the teacher who 'taught' us history for the longest stint. His modus operandi was to sit at the head of the class and read verbatim from the book. What he hoped to achieve through this was not entirely clear, as all of us had the same books. To make matters worse, he would chew paan while he did this.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, paan is a mouth freshening concoction chewed after meals - it is made of betel leaves wrapped around areca nuts, tobacco, candied dry fruits and fennel seeds. In its purer forms, chewing paan is an act of supreme cultural refinement in parts of India. It is an act that has a lot of ceremony around it, and is the central component of many a social occasion in northern India. In its unrefined and uncouth version, it is a messy, spit inducing mess that makes for unsightly viewing.

So getting back to Mr.I.U.Khan, he would chew paan as he listlessly read from the insipid book, occasionally dabbing at the corners of his mouth with a once-white handkerchief. This would lead to endless under-the-radar action on all our parts. Which was tremendously risky. Because the one time Mr.Khan showed genuine emotion was when he caught someone 'breaking discipline'. He would be livid and turn into the devil himself. There were whispered stories of a grown boy wetting his pants under one of Mr. Khan's fierce batteries. (Yes, my American friends, our teachers bought wholeheartedly into the 'spare the rod, spoil the child' school of upbringing).

Is it any surprise then, that I have grown up hating history? In all the years of my reading life, I have scrupulously avoided reading history books of any kind. Over the last few years though, I have started taking some tentative steps back in time. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel was what started it all. There are some books that attain such an exalted status that ignoring them becomes pretty difficult. GGS is one such book. It made a tremendous impact on me, and for the first time, I started considering the stunningly novel possibility that maybe, just maybe, there could be something to this history thing.

I started this year with another great history book - India After Gandhi, by Ramchandra Guha. Right now, I am reading another history book, A Little History of the World by E.M. Gombrich. A fascinating 250-page run through of the history of human civilization, from pre-historic times to the early 20th century. Absolutely riveting stuff! In almost every page, I have an 'aaahh' moment, when some name, some vaguely understood historical incident falls into place. It is the kind of book that places the 'story' back in history.

With these books under my belt, I want to come right out and say it (maybe it would be therapeutic):

Mr. I.U.Khan, sir: All those years back, you killed and buried history for me. You were not a good teacher sir. No disrespect.


  1. Hi,
    Try out stuff about India about John Keay too. Have heard people raving about his books. I bought one a year ago, it's been on my table since then, have not read a page yet. Think my history teachers were related to yours.

  2. as someone who really enjoys reading history ..i always wondered that the kids who hated History is school would go home and fight over who gets to read Amar Chitra Kathas ..mayb our school teachers should take a lesson from Mr.Anant Pai , he really brought history to life for me , and I was always excited to discover charecters that I had read about in ACK , in our CBSE textbooks.
    Still it was a wonder to me how our teachers could take something so full of drama , valour , romance , intrigue ..and turn it into the insipid and lifeless thing that everyone hated.
    In an interview for a school level scholorship I even suggested the interviewer that ACKs should be made supplementry to our textbooks to bring some color to history ..i never got the scholorship , but i still think that the idea had some merit in it.

  3. On another note if you havent yet seen the Discovery documentry - The Story of India , you should get a copy , absolutely fascinating

  4. Thanks for the recommendations guys. They go into the 'to buy' list of books I carry around on my blackberry - much to my wife's grief.
    @ Ribhu: Hey man, I really enjoyed your Charles Morris recommendation. Will put the Story of India on my Netflix queue as well.

    I am also thinking of buying all ACKs and gifting them to my daughter (wink wink!). Your response inspires me even more to do that.

    @ Zen: Keay sounds good! Just looked him up on the Net. Gotta read India a History! Who are these great friends of yours that are recommending these books? Please introduce them to Brick and Rope! :)

  5. I used to love history in school, even though my teacher was uninspiring as well. I remember I used to read the history book through and through as soon as I laid hands on it at the start of the year (along with English). History was the first subject I chose in my NTSE exams post Class X. In fact, I would have chosen to continue studying history in Class XI / XII if there was a half decent career to be made there.
    My school teacher and classes in physics were probably the most interesting, but it didn't fascinate me half as much as history (now it does)

    So JS, I don't believe you gave up history because your teacher was bad. Seems you are setting the stage for saying that you never played sports because your sports teacher smoked cigarettes:-)At least give us a list of Top 3 sports related books?

  6. hey...i was thinking of buying a truckload of ACKs too for son and daughter. But wife nixed the plan. Maybe when I go to desh next.

    U-C vasi

  7. JS,John- Keay-reading-friends were introduced to this blog a few days after I discovered it, never fear.

    Ribhu, totally agree with you abotu ACK. Not just history, most of the mythology / religion I know about also comes from reading those.


  8. Hey JS: I think your teacher I.U.Khan had a south Indian relative who had the exact same teaching method for history- reading verbatim from the text book. In hindsight, it doesn't seem that redundant, because I don't believe there was any one else in class who was reading along with him!

    Growing up I shared the same passionate dislike for history as you did (geography was the only subject that seemed worse to me).

    One reason I think history was so boring in India was because of the effort taken to "sanitize" the content. Anything that was remotely related to religion, caste, language etc seemed to have been made so utterly boring that people would not get excited about it and cause potential trouble in the real world. Which reminds me of an Isaac Asimov short story where a country deliberately teaches history as this vague thing that happens in a far away time and is utterly boring. In the story this was done to prevent interest and research into a time machine that will let people go back in time and view history unfolding. Apparently this would have caused a sudden destruction of all privacy in the world since you could (for example) see what happened 1 second ago in your neighbor's house.

    I will check out "A little history of the world" soon.

  9. I familiar with love history in school, even though my teacher was uninspiring as well. I remember I used to read the history book through and through as soon as I laid hands on it in the beginning of the year (along with English). History was the first subject I chose in my NTSE exams post Class X. actually, I would have chosen to continue studying history in Class XI / XII if there was a half decent career to be made there.