History, a memoir

Feeling a deep sense of foreboding? Fayes T Kantawala has a way of relating to the frightening near-future that may await us

History, a memoir
My new obsession is watching Drunk History videos on YouTube. If you were unaware of these gems, allow me to introduce them to you. In essence: they are short videos that feature an extremely inebriated person describing a major historical event. The slurring and hilarious narration is performed by very famous actors in period costume (like Ryan Gosling, Octavia Spencer, Jim Carrey) and the results are thrilling. A more cynical mind would bemoan the videos as evidence that young people today don’t read anymore, but I like to think of it as proof that people have a sense of humour.

The videos are useful because part of the drama of youth is the delusion that nothing ever happened before your glorious self appeared on the planet. No one has felt the pain you do, no one has lost the love you have, no one has listened to Mariah Carey quite as intensely and exuberantly as you are going to once you open up that last tub of ice-cream. No one. Perhaps there is a self-obsession in the young that doesn’t allow for past events to be a real threat because, well, they haven’t really been yet. History is a bank of fossilised dates and place-names, things to be dug out, dusted off and turned into a Spielberg movie now and again but, like those T-Rex skeletons in natural history museums, ones that surely can’t bite you (unless you’re in the other Spielberg movie, obvs).
The only real difference between history and what's happening today is that with history you know what comes next

I used to wonder how it was that large global events snuck up on people, as if out of the blue. Didn’t they see it coming? How was it that people lost so much so quickly and didn’t realise a giant fireball was headed their way? My grandmother used to tell me stories of Partition (1947) and how it had affected various people she knew. From the neat, chronological narrative that I had been taught at school it seemed that everyone should have known Partition was going to happen. Obviously reading about them in retrospect allows us to neatly compartmentalise complicated events (as well as add a measure of nationalistic fiction writing). But the truth is there was no warning of the scale of disruption Partition would cause. One day there was one country and the next day there were two, and in the chaos that ensued no one really knew how longstanding the parting would remain. People went on holiday for a week and found themselves unable to go back home; houses were lost, families torn and lives interrupted. It was difficult for me to think about what those events would have been like as contemporary affairs - until very recently.

Drunk History - an alternative retelling of the past?
Drunk History - an alternative retelling of the past?

The speed and scale by which an individual’s life can be affected by events beyond one’s influence never really occurred to me. Or if it did I thought about it in the abstract, as something that happens to other people or during other times. I didn’t honestly ever think about those other times being mine. But living “during the Partition” was just living to those who were doing it, until historians later put a label on it. People were dealing with contemporary events as best they could and considering that makes the uncertainty of it all that much more scary. Because the only real difference between history and what’s happening today is that with history you know what comes next.

Donald Trump’s dangerous divisive vision for the new world order, and the deep fear that it evokes in all reasonable people, made me think of those people during the Partition, or World Wars, as more than just numbers in a census or sweeping historical summaries. The fear that the U.S can go to war with Iran, or ban immigrants en masse, or simply target Muslims in the most openly and unapologetically racist way were, until recently, not very likely in the popular imagination. Until very recently.

The travel ban reminded me of what happens when institutional power goes against you. As individuals, we have no real agency to be able to resist things like embargoes, bans, revolutions, government coups, bombings and large scale, society-screwing events. And yet they affect us, deeply and sometimes irrevocably. It occurred to me that it could very well be that in thirty years I could be sitting on a porch telling my grandkids what it was like when America banned all the Muslims, how no one knew it was going to happen and how when it did it all happened so very quickly. That’s as far as I want to let my imagination go right now but suffice it to say that I am, very sincerely, terrified of what is going to happen. I don’t think I am alone in this fear, which makes it slightly more bearable.

A rightwing nationalistic movement has taken over the white Christian world. It is tempting to think of Trump as the beginning of this but the frightening thing is that he is the result, not the cause. It is not just the United States either. Uber-nationalistic jargon is coming out of Britain, Australia, France, America, and so many others (even Canada before Trudeau came to power). Germany is the only one that is showing any kind of sense right now and for anyone who has seen Spielberg movies that is just very weird.

Perhaps that’s why Drunk History videos are soothing me right now. They make scary events seems funny and relatable. But more importantly they remind me that humour,that wonderfully human impulse, is the most powerful way to connect to other people and the events that they are surviving. Drunk or not.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com