Why I need biography to understand history

Reading biographies has been a passion for me for a long time. I started as a fiction reader and soon realised that I need my “stories” to be “realistic”. I was reading a popular novel when I was finishing college. At one point the author mentioned that the handsome hero of the novel seduced women and converted them to believing in Castro – and was thus responsible for the success of his revolution. I closed that book with that sentence and gave up novels for a while. That’s when I started reading biographies. Incredible as they may be at times, they’re a lot more realistic.

I started with biographies of local of local heroes including Gandhi and Vivek Ananda. I also read something of Ambedkar, but given my background, I did not understand it at all at that time. I found their lives and times fascinating. Reading about their struggles made me think that history as I had read it was too deterministic – too sure of the past that was not the case when things happened.  I was fascinated with that period of India’s history (and for that matter, world history).  So, I continued to read biographies of major Indian leaders of that time including Nehru, several of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Patel, Rajaji, and others.  They gave a sense of conflict of the times that a book of history did not give me.  At the same time, they also helped me understand what a struggle it was to forge new ideas, alliances and create action that we take for granted when we read in history. 

One striking moment is the Salt Satyagraha.  History books told me that salt touched the lives of everyone and it was almost a natural choice to choose as the symbol of protest.  When I read biographies of all these leaders, I realised that most of them were opposed to Gandhi’s idea of using salt – why go for such an insignificant thing?  Gandhi chose it given many tactical advantages it gave: for one, making salt is no pretense with which British can take away something like land that’s valuable to the individual (that they had done during the tax struggles of Bardoli).  These biographies gave me a sense of Gandhi’s genius that I did not get in the books of history.  Similarly, the fear that all of them had that India may not retain its independence was a surprise to me having grown with the notion that it is strong and reasonably united.

Similarly I started realising that biographies bring interesting dimensions to world history and started reading many from Europe, that of Mandela among others.  Recently someone asked me what are the biographies of women that I’ve read.  Despite being an avid reader of biographies, there was just one – that of Indira Gandhi that I had read.  I read one more that was a short biography of sorts about eight Dalit women living in various urban slums in India called “Pan on Fire”, which was fantastic.  Baring those, I had read nothing about women’s lives.

Biographies have the ability to throw light on the lives of people and the choices before them unlike history.  It highlights the emotional and the social that influence our lives.  It is thus sad that we do not have many biographies on the lives of women, Dalits, and common people.  Luckily this consciousness is going up, and hopefully we will see more such biographies coming in the future.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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