Why We Need To Understand Our History

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” 

― George Orwell

On Friday, 15th August, India celebrated her 67th year of independence. Indians all over the world took pride in this day. But there was an article in a local magazine about the descendants of Indian freedom fighters. Most are struggling to keep the memories of their ancestors alive, as the sacrifices of those freedom fighters and their contribution to the struggle for freedom has been tucked into the obscure folds of history, their names long forgotten, their lives and acts of courage rendered invisible.

This freedom came at a huge price. Thousands of people, men, women, and children, sacrificed their lives so their country could be free, so that the generations that followed could live in a free country that has its own identity and enjoy freedom and rights that the freedom fighters could only dream about. They did not sacrifice their lives for fame or glory. But remembering them is the least we can do to honour their lives. Keeping their ideologies in our collective consciousness is essential to make their vision for the country become a reality. But how do you understand ideologies that are never mentioned in the history books? Journalist Shivnath Jha wrote a book that recorded the lives of 200 freedom fighters and their descendants. He said that while researching for his book, he interacted with schoolchildren in India and asked them about some of the relatively well known freedom fighters. The children were quick to reply that they are characters that certain famous actors played in films!

I’m not a history expert, but I’ve been trying hard to remember my history lessons from school. I remember reading about the freedom movement in India, about freedom movements in the world, about world wars and civil movements. But I could not remember beyond a few names and events. Few prominent people, whose entire life is summed up in a single grand event that changed humanity for good or bad. Even the people who do find mention in history books are limited to their association with an event or an incident in the past. Their individual lives, their thoughts, their ideas are never really understood. When I tried to remember the events, I realised their descriptions were limited to a few dates and a sequence of happenings. So we end up with single stories, and the various facets of those individuals and their cultural impact remains buried in time. If you think back to all the history you’ve learnt in school, you’ll probably realise as well, that our understanding of history is so myopic, we have no idea how we or our world came to be where it is today.

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Our history education in school gives no cultural context to the events that are listed as a mere series of dates. Dates and events are meaningless and impersonal when you don’t understand how it has affected the society, both then and now, how it has formed the views that people hold today, how entire civilisations and cultures were shaped by the decisions made, especially when those decisions were made by the few in power.

The history we learn in school glosses over collective trauma. Our view of our past and present is based on our limited knowledge of our history. The traumas that nations and people have gone through are never put under a magnifying glass, because a closer look may reveal darker moments of humanity and will force us to look at our history in all its shades of grey, instead of the reassuring view in black and white. In his essay, These Men Must be Monsters, history teacher and researcher Alexander McGregor describes it well.

“The problem now is that we have created a binary paradigm wherein the past must be squeezed into our all-prevailing Good versus Evil worldview. History becomes myth. But fighting an enemy that is evil does not make you good. That someone acts monstrously does not make him or her less human.”

In his article, McGregor gives examples from history and sheds light on how cultural context would change our perspective on those events and on history in general — certainly worth a read.

What about the role of women in history? Why is history about the “brave men who fought wars”, “the great leaders who rallied those brave men towards freedom”? When the cultural references to role of women in history comes in the form of Game of Thrones, where women being treated like objects and being raped does not even raise an eyebrow, how do we create a current view that sees women for the much bigger role they have played in history?

Of course, some will argue that those interested in such details can pursue higher education in history and study it in detail at college or university level. The problem is that by then history has already lost the interest of intelligent young minds in schools who have no idea how their society has come to be the way they see it. When they don’t understand how it came to be, how are they supposed to participate and contribute to it? Why should they care about wars fought way before their time? How are they supposed to appreciate the value of freedom and rights, when they already have it and don’t know who and what made it available to them? How are they supposed to connect with people who are still fighting for those rights and for freedom?

Isn’t it strange that our school education doesn’t give us enough in-depth knowledge of the cultures and societies of the world so we can form a complete worldview? Imagine if we really had a deeper understanding of history, of how our world was formed, of what actions in the past have led to the conflicts we see in our world today, would we so easily succumb to the truth-twisting tactics of the politicians, or the one-sided stories revealed by the media? Would we be so afraid of our own world, of our neighbours, of our fellow beings, who, just like us, have been victims of historical ignorance? Because if we understood our history, we would appreciate the story of the person who opposes our worldview, we would recognise why and how we both came to be here in this moment in the collective history of humanity. We would realise that both our stories are not about who wins or loses. Such knowledge brings the desire to fix the problems, to go deeper to the roots of issues and difference, instead of merely treating the symptoms, and develops tolerance and compassion. Understanding our history brings solutions instead of knee-jerk reactions that exacerbate historical differences. It’s time we make an effort to understand out history. As Ray Brandbury says,

“We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And someday we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddamn steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in it and cover it up.” 

11 Lessons About Writing I Wish I Had Learnt Sooner

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

– Sylvia Plath



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I was speaking to another writer and I realised how much we writers deal with doubt. But as I talked to her, I found that I have learnt some valuable lessons since I started writing, lessons I wish someone had shared with me when I first decided to string some words together to tell a story. So I’m sharing some of them in the hope that it will help other writers.


1. There’s no perfect time to start

There’s just one way to be a writer: You write. There’s no point waiting for the muse, or sitting at your desk staring dreamily into the future where you see yourself winning the Man Booker Prize, or arranging your writing space till all your pens and pencils are perfectly aligned. If you want to share your words with the world, if you want to be a writer, start now. Make time each day and write. Bum, chair, write. You are welcome to change that sequence to suit your needs.

2. Learn how to tell a story

Whether you are writing a novel, a short story, or a blog, storytelling is an essential skill and it’s a skill that can be learnt. There are a number of books you can read that will give you valuable pointers on what makes a story work and how to write it, such as On Writing by Stephen King, Hooked by Les Edgerton and The Writer’s Journey – Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler, which is based on Joseph Campbell’s book, The Writer’s Journey.  If you want inspiration and motivation to write, follow Jeff Goins’ blog, where he generously shares his insights on writing and life.

These are just a few drops in a sea of advice that you can find on writing and storytelling. But remember, these are not strict rules, they are merely guidelines. When you search google maps or any GPS navigation device for routes, it usually gives you a number of route options. Whether you use  one of them or a combination of them, you can still get to your destination. You can be as adventurous as you want to be. It’s the same with writing.

3. Use your imagination

You know how people tell you to “Write what you know”? Well, if everyone wrote only what they know, world would be full of boring books, and the fascinating and thrilling books would all be written by sociopaths and killers. Yes, writing what you know is a good place to start. But don’t stop there. Explore and research. Dig deeper. Find out things you don’t know, little titbits of information can trigger a story. Use your imagination, we writers have been gifted with a vivid imagination. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be writing. Cultivate your imagination. It’s simple really. Take any dull situation and apply ‘What if …?’ to it. Say you are falling asleep at work or at a class in college, what if your boss or teacher turns into a dragon? What if he disappears right in front of your eyes? What if, in the middle of a meeting/class, he can’t remember who he is? Or what if he gets attacked by a ninja, drops down dead and people look to you to go after the ninja? I could go on like this whole day. It’s a lot of fun. But please, do be aware of where you do this and who is around you. You can be Walter Mitty if you want to be, but don’t blame me if you get fired trying to save your grumpy boss from an imaginary ninja.

4. Call yourself a writer

Go on, do it. Say this aloud, ‘I’m a writer’. Say it again. Remember these words. Keep repeating them till you find yourself saying it in your sleep. Remember them when you are full of self-doubts and you think you can’t write. Tell yourself this every morning when you wake up, irrespective of what your day job is, whether or not you believe it. Soon, you’ll believe in yourself and your abilities as a writer. And you will write better because you’ll make the effort to ‘be a writer’. And remember, like Spidey says, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Well, Uncle Ben Parker said that, but Spidey makes it sound so much cooler … at least the way I hear it in my head.

5. Listen to criticism

Find some writers you can trust and ask them to critique your writing. When I say critique, I mean constructive observations intended to improve your writing and story. Bullying or putting some one down is neither constructive nor acceptable. Don’t get defensive when someone tells you something isn’t working in your story. Hear them out. Whether you agree with them or not, that’s completely up to you. But if you turn a deaf ear to criticism, you’ll never learn. Writing requires learning, constant, persistent honing of your craft, like a sculptor chipping away at a chunk of stone to find that masterpiece.

 6. Read a lot and learn

These days when I read a book, I not only enjoy the story, I love figuring out what makes the story work. Things I like and don’t like become learning tools. I think about how I would have told the story and how different it would have been. And I learn from every book. You don’t have to necessarily do this. But read, a lot. As much as you can. One day when you are stuck with a plot in your book, you’ll find a way to fix it by remembering something you read in some book. Our minds have amazing ways of storing things, including books. Use it.

7. Don’t let someone tell you how good a writer you are

Perhaps your English teacher told you that you should never write another word, ever. But you think you’ll be a good writer. You try and churn out some stories. But the face of your old school teacher looms in front of you every time you sit to write. Do you give up? Well, that’s completely up to you. How much effort are you willing to put in and how  badly do you want this? There will always be people who think you can’t do the things you think you can. Don’t do something just to prove them wrong. Do it because that’s the only thing you can see yourself doing, because you are willing to wake up on a cold morning, sit at your computer, and write for the next ten to fifteen years. Write because you have something to say and you need to say it. Learn everything you can about writing, and practice, a lot. Persistence is the key to being a great writer. It’s not enough to want to be a good writer, you have to do your very best to be a great one. Doing the best that you can is the best thing you can do. And don’t ever let anyone tell you how good you are at writing or in life. Only you know how good you can be.

8. Speak to other writers

I made a recent post about why art shouldn’t be lonely pursuit. We writers think we need to sit in our bat-caves to write “good things”.  But we forget that there are people out there, going through similar experiences, facing similar problems and difficulties, people who share our passion for writing and understand the frustrations that come with it. The idea that sharing a problem makes it easier to face applies more than ever to writers. We need to share, that’s fundamental  to who we are and what we do. So reach out and connect with other writers. You’d be surprised how generous your fellow writers can be, how willing they are to share their process or give advice on how to solve that pesky plotting problem you are having. No one expects you jump right in and pour your heart out. Take your time but don’t hide behind your computer, typewriter or notepad. Meet other writers and speak to them. There’s no reason you have to do this alone. And you never know, you might end up getting some amazing ideas or meeting another kindred spirit who could be your writing partner. As a writer, it’s very easy to stay in a cocoon. We need it sometimes to dig deeper into ourselves. But you need to come out at some point. You know what happens to the caterpillar that doesn’t emerge in time from it’s cocoon as a butterfly? It dies – cue in dramatic music.

9. Be generous

As an aspiring writer, your views on sharing can be split into two categories. One, people will steal my ideas. Two, I don’t know anything.

There are a lot of ideas and stories to go around. Even if someone is following a similar idea, there’s only one you. Find your unique voice and no one can take that away from you. That doesn’t mean you prattle on about the brilliant idea you have for a story to anyone and everyone. As a writer, you should know when to talk and when to listen. That skill never grows old and is always useful to have.

Don’t let your insecurity come in the way of sharing what you know. And trust me, you do know something. When you are just starting, your thoughts usually revolve around, “I don’t know anything”, “I don’t want to say something because people will think I’m stupid”, “I don’t want to ask for help because they’ll know I don’t know anything”. Say you are an engineer and another writer is working on a story in which the protagonist is an engineer and she wants to know what that really involves. She would be grateful for the information that you can share with her because you have the real life experience of being an engineer.  So don’t shy away from sharing what you know. And before you start saying something on the lines of “a story about engineers would be so boring”, people probably said that about archaeologists before Indiana Jones.

If you are still afraid someone is going to steal your ideas, write them down and put them in a vault. Don’t forget the combination for it though, or your ideas might never see the light of the day, literally.

10. First drafts are crap

So you’ve written your first draft to that mind-boggling novel or short story. You’ve left it for a few days and now you are ready to sift through it and polish it. You sit down to read it and it hits you, like a truck, full of smelly manure, all tumbling down on you  – every word is crap. What do you do, sit crying and rocking in the shower for hours because you can’t get rid of all that smell? Oh the drama! All that would do is give you a cold, make your bum sore and waste a lot of water. So when you are tempted to do something like this, remember these words: first drafts are almost always crap. And yes, it happens to everybody.

Most people feel this rush seeing their words flow on a page. That’s good. But the real work comes after you have finished it. It takes a lot of editing and rewriting to get a polished story that works. It’s part of the process and you’d have to be daft to skip it. And the fact that you recognise what makes your writing good or bad just proves that you have grown as a writer.

You might have read about writers who spew gems in their very first draft. They are the exception. Yes, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be one of them. But when you are just starting, it pays to learn as much as you can and be humble. In fact, it always pays to be humble, no matter how many books you have sold.

11. Live your life

There are many writers who have spent their life in isolation, crafting literary masterpieces. You could be one of them. But is that really what you want, a life of solitude, without the support of family and friends, without experiencing the beautiful world around you, without having walked on dew-covered grass or soaked yourself in the first rain of the season? The more you live your life, weather the highs and lows of life, the more enriched will your writing be. Travel and see new places whenever you can. It doesn’t have to be expensive trips. You will gain vast life experiences. You will draw inspiration from them and from the people you meet. Since I started writing, odd bits of conversations that I hear inspire me to write. I’ve found story ideas from words I thought I heard someone say. With my imagination, I hear the wildest of things and it has resulted in some fascinating stories.

The added bonus of living a full life is that instead of being a depressed writer leaning towards self-harm, you will be happy and alive to share your writing with people who enjoy reading it 🙂


Share your tips on writing in the comments.