Summary of A Different History by Sujata Bhatt
To begin with them the title the authority of history is immediately called into question. The subjectivity of history is implied as though historical accounts represent only the success of one story over another. The first line immediately offers an image of cultural splendor with a declaration that great pan is not dead. Pan is the ancient Greek god of nature with his appearance half-man half-goat. As a figure of dual identity pan is perfect to represent the idea that identity itself is the product of different cultural and linguistic roots or rather different histories. But pan has moved away from his birthplace and next to the language moves from the extravagant exclamation of the first line to the casual simplicity of the second and third he simply emigrated to India. In terms of register, it as if we’ve moved from religious epiphany to a geography textbook or from oratory to conversation. The abrupt change in register reflects a kind of playful movement that begins to take shape in the first stanza. The word emigrated evokes the idea of different peoples and cultures having emigrated across both land and time. The word perhaps hints at the idea of escape from the forces which do not allow one to move freely. This freedom of movement is illustrated through the poetic form of the first stanza so clearly contrasted with the second like the gods they describe each line may roam freely. Yet there is also the suggestion that such freedom is not absolute. Like emigrated earlier that they should be disguised perhaps suggests a desire to be hidden as though their Liberty was still under threat. Indeed even in the idea of the gods being able to roam freely. If we listen carefully there is in that word roamed, the subtle. ironic echo of an imperial past still reverberating through time and space.
Next, we are told that “every tree is sacred / and it is a sin / to be rude to a book.(Lines6-8) Here trees are worthy of religious devotion and books are objects of great delicacy and significance. The repetition of it is a sin throughout the remaining lines offers a touch of gravity with the word sin igniting visions of moral law. ‘To shove, to slam and to toss one carelessly’ are all images of indifference and even disrespect. And the poetic form with the sudden line indentations seems to reflect that indifference to tradition as though the poetry now moves just as carelessly as the actions it describes. But with the entrance of the longest line in the poem the tone changes to one of quiet Authority and meditation. There is a delicacy in the image of turning a page and the word gently contrasts sharply with the preceding images which seem comparatively violent. ‘Sarasvati’ is the Hindu god of literature and the arts whose serenity must not be disturbed by the barbaric indifference of the sins mentioned earlier. Here given that a book dominates so much of the first stanza finally being linked to a god we should perhaps take a moment to reflect on their significance. Books may be considered symbols of knowledge, wisdom, culture, and tradition. They are the keepers of history and the repositories of language in them we may find our history and perhaps therefore ourselves. The personification of the tree conveys the idea that a book is not simply a lifeless inanimate collection of pages. It is not one object among many but a link in the chain that runs across millennia linking past and present man and nature humanity and the gods. Here they are objects worthy of devotion and as the final lines of the stanza make clear they are of course related to the trees from whose wood they were made. Just as we are shaped by the histories from which we came and yet books are filled with that powerful beautiful dangerous diverse and endlessly fascinating concept language.
Which brings us to the second stanza with language now the protagonist. The opening four lines offer two rhetorical questions with brutal implications and yet a touch of ambiguity at the same time. The first language is directly associated with oppression whether it be wars between nations or arguments between individuals. Language is a weapon with which wars are waged. In the next question but is even more explicit with the mention of murder. Language is seen as a violent murderous for but here it is not physical murder that is envisaged but the metaphorical mutilation of identity. Yet at the same time the words “which language truly meant to murder someone” also point to the seeming innocence of language as if such brutality is often not truly intended. Language seems to be both the innocent messenger and the guilty party. This ambiguity runs throughout the remainder of the poem it is also worth mentioning that the opening lines of the second stanza are for the first and only evidence of a partial rhyme scheme with a temporary a.b a.b structure. In contrast with the free verse of the preceding lines this sudden more traditional poetic structure. Perhaps suggests that there is a timeless element to these ideas that language is has been and always will be a source of tremendous conflict and controversy. As the rhyme conveys every tongue belongs to someone and there is, therefore, the instrument of oppression within all of us. But here the poet moves away from stern critique if indeed that was ever truly present.
As the stanza continues we seem to be met with another question in. How does it happen? the tone emanating from that word how appears to be one of uncertainty confusion or mystery. The word “torture” adds a sadistic element to the violence of the previous lines and next we have an abstract image and extended metaphor suggesting that language can attack and distort the very core of our being. With its curved shape and capacity to injure the ‘long scythe’ is compared to the tongue coming from the ‘conquerors face’ and the result is that the soul has been cropped. Here in the second stanza there are no gods only violence words are the foot soldiers in the colonizing army of the Conqueror and it is not land or gold at stake but the souls of men. The contrast in the two stanzas may serve to convey the idea that it is our attitude to language that defines us. If seen as something worthy of reverence and devotion then language can give us links to our history, culture and even the gods. But used only as a weapon language becomes a violent source of destruction and men the victims in a godless world. Seen through this lens poetry itself with its emphasis on the importance of language might function as a liberating force amidst the world of would-be conquerors. These lines involving the scythe perhaps the most evocative in the poem lend themselves to a variety of interpretations which combine to convey the author’s own ambivalence with regard to language. Aside through images of the Grim Reaper is often associated with death which reinforces the vision of murder mentioned earlier, Yet aside as an agricultural tool is also necessary for the preservation and regeneration of crops enabling them ultimately to grow again like the unborn grandchildren mentioned in the final lines. Perhaps then without the continued confrontation of words and languages then whole cultures like crops left untended might wither and die. We might then consider identity culture and even history as existing in a continual process of regeneration born of conflict. However painful a process it might be Sujata Bhatt seems to suggest that it is inevitable. And yet as the final two lines reveal it is not something only to be lamented for it will yield be young and the loved in the shape of the ‘unborn grandchildren’ with those words the author is looking to the future. Imagining a time when her grandchildren will grow up speaking a different language to the Gujarati that she herself has speaking. In a way then those grandchildren will themselves have the different history of the title and there is perhaps a sense of estrangement and even sadness in those final two lines as the image of grandmother and grandchild speakers of different native languages are separated by an ocean of linguistic and therefore cultural difference. Yet if there is sadness there is also perhaps acceptance for what seemingly began as a question with how does it happen. Now ends as a statement with no question mark to be seen it is as though the author has recognized the inevitability of the process that languages change and evolve and that the young cannot help but love the language they know.