The simple past in simplified history

I had an interesting conversation with a fellow dog-owner, who happened to be an Indian nationalist [Edit: Apparently the term for people of this persuasion is “Hindu nationalist”, not “Indian nationalist”.  Thanks Adi Rajan], at the dog park.  My interlocutor was recounting some of the wrongs that had been visited on Hindus in India by foreign conquerers, and he described how one named Aurangzeb had a particularly bad habit of tearing down Hindu places of worship and replacing them with mosques.  As it happened I had just finished reading Atrocities again and was sort of on the same page mentally, or at least more prepared than average to hear stories of Mughal emperors sweeping armies across the subcontinent, disrupting agriculture and failing to plan for floods, and generally causing a kind of misery that has political power hundreds of years into the future.  Oh, and don’t ask me how we got on the topic.

You might be wondering why the parasol-bearer is so badly failing at his job.  Actually, what he’s holding aloft is a massive lemon meringue pie, which Mughal emperors would order baked after a successful military campaign as a show of strength.

Anyway, he mentioned one countermeasure that Hindus took during Aurangzeb’s reign to at least be pillaged on their own terms.  As was explained to us, it was (is?) normal in Hinduism to cremate bodies soon after death, so that the soul didn’t have anything in this world to cling to when it has to move on.  In the case of holy men, upon (physical) death the bodies were kept and/or preserved rather than cremated.  This was, of course, because holy men’s souls can move independently of their bodies.  Holy men’s mummified corpses from that era would presumably still be on hand if observant Hindus hadn’t taken it upon themselves to cremate them as well during Aurangzeb’s reign, to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Muslim conquerers, in a bit of proactive self-desecration. This was, according to the man at the dog park, characteristic of Hindus, who always sought to keep their faith pure.

I got to thinking about how common this practice (let’s call it proactive saint cremation, or PSC) could really have been, as part of my usual ruminations on how in the creation of a group narrative, “a few people did it” turns into “people did it” and then “we did it collectively displaying the unique characteristics of our people”.

I realized that some semantic properties of the “simple past” (scare quotes for bad naming – it’s no more “simple” than the “simple present”) might enable this transition.  Namely, the blurriness of the simple past with respect to whether it refers to a single event or a stereotyped, repeated event facilitates the transition of historical occurrences from discrete to characteristic of a people, place, or time period.  The fact that the adverbials that serve distinguish the simple past for single occurrences from the simple past for repeated occurrences are easily discarded is of significance as well, as well as other qualifiers on the noun subject which are often grammatically inessential.

For example, let’s say this is a historically justifiable statement:

Ruling Muslims from the upper class ordered Hindu monuments destroyed in 1699.

(I’m not saying that this sentence is true – just using it as an example)

With the adverbial prepositional phrase removed, it is easily interpretable as referring to a repeated action.

Ruling Muslims from the upper class ordered Hindu monuments destroyed.

And with all the grammatically inessential (i.e., non-head) information removed from the subject noun phrase,

Muslims ordered Hindu monuments destroyed.

It would be plausible for someone just joining the conversation at this point to hear a blanket indictment of Muslims rather than a description of a particular historical event.

Now, part of what makes this possible is the particular grammatical feature of English that the same verb form, the badly-named simple past, works both as a past version of the simple present (i.e., it paints the subject with a stereotyped action occurring at no particular time, like “dogs bark”) and as a reference to a single action taking place at a specific time (which the simple present does as well, but less often – see “he shoots, he scores” or “I arrive at 6 PM”).  Of course, if you want to be very specific about the fact that an action was repeated, you could use alternatives like “Hindus used to burn their dead” or “Holy men would be preserved instead”, but the simple past in the absence of qualifying adverbials leaves either interpretation open, and therefore makes extension of historical events from single and limited to common and characteristic very tempting.

Also driving this, of course, is the omnipresent impulse to narrativize one’s national history and define one’s or someone else’s ethnic group with characteristics that are “proven” with reference to stories like the above.  In fact, my inkling is that any ambiguity in descriptions of historical events will always be used to simplify them for inclusion in one country or another’s national story.  In Japanese, it is the lack of plurals for nouns, allowing “a Japanese apologized to comfort women” to become “the Japanese apologized to comfort women” with no change in wording.  I assume other languages have similar ambiguities that can ease the transition from events that happened to national triumphs or tribal enmities.  Grammatical ambiguity as in the simple past may be but one of many forms of catalyst that make historical events into parts of a story about us.


4 thoughts on “The simple past in simplified history

  1. This is really fascinating Mark. I need to think through the comment that’s churning in my head before I respond. A quick note about ‘Indian nationalist’ – in current parlance in India ,and from how you’ve described this gentleman, he sounds like a Hindu nationalist (also known as as Hindutva) rather than an Indian nationalist.


    • Thanks for the comment and correction. I wonder if using the term “Indian nationalist” used to identify a Hindu nationalist made it inadvertently sound like I supported his agenda, much like calling Castillian “Spanish” implicitly supports a Castillian-centered view of Spain. Is that the case?


      • In Hindutva rhetoric, Hindu & Indian nationalism are conflated but that’s probably because they tend to see India (erroneously) as a unitary European-style nation state: Hindu & Hindi-speaking. To my ear (and I might be mistaken) Indian nationalist sounds a lot more positive than Hindu nationalist which because of the organisations at its vanguard, are founded on narratives of superiority and exceptionalism and were once inspired by the Nazis and the like. I don’t see the phrase Indian nationalism at least in print journalism – it might be a bit dated – associated with anti-colonial resistance in British India.

        You dog-walker friend spouted to you the prevailing narrative of one side of the culture wars that are ongoing in India. The Hindu nationalist sees Indian history as the story of a pacifist civilization being disrupted first by Islam and then by the British. Temple destruction is central to this narrative.


      • That’s very interesting. Conflation of narratives and despoiled purity seem to be the name of the game for nationalist movements worldwide.


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