‘A Different History’ is one of the best-known poems by Sujata Bhatt, published in her debut collection, Brunizem (1988). This poem taps on the core features of Indian culture and faith, colonial past, and the very concept of colonial hangover. Bhatt writes about how to approach and appreciate Indian history from a revisionist, post-colonial point of view, with particular emphasis on the positive aspects of her own culture and spiritual traditions. She asks three intriguing questions revolving around language in the concluding stanza.
Explore A Different History
‘A Different History’ by Sujata Bhatt upholds the roots of Indian (particularly Hindu) culture and revisits the nation’s colonial past.
The poem begins with a reference to the ancient Greek god Pan. In Indian Vedic mythology, Pushan is the counterpart of Pan. According to the speaker, Pan settled permanently in India, where gods roam freely disguised as different creatures. Nature is worshipped as a deity and knowledge is regarded as divine. This is why Indians have to pay due respect to their books as well as the trees from which books are made. In the next stanza, she poses some questions regarding English, the language of the colonizers, and wonders how this “strange language” became so dear to the present generation.
You can read the full poem here.
Great Pan is not dead;
he simply emigrated
without disturbing Sarasvati,
without offending the tree
from whose wood the paper was made.
Sujata Bhatt’s poem ‘A Different History’ presents a revisionist glass to peek into India’s cultural and political past. The poem sets off with a direct allusion to the mythical god “Great Pan,” having a number of departments under his control that include nature, rustic music, shepherds, etc. In the Hindu religion, Pushan is the counterpart of the Greek Pan (or Roman Faunus). In Vedic mythology, Pushan is the son of goddess Aditi, brother of popular gods Indra and Vishnu. Pushan is responsible for journeys, marriages, and cattle in Hinduism.
According to the speaker, Pan ironically emigrated to India as the East India Company did, and took the name of Pushan, which is implied in the poem. In India, one can find gods roaming freely in streets and trees in the form of monkeys, snakes, and other creatures. Each tree is sacred as it is the home to virtuous souls or gods. Besides, there are some orthodox rules followed while reading or handling books. Bhatt notes down the list of prohibitions that must be adhered to while handling the books, including being rude to a book, shoving it aside carelessly, slamming them hard on a table, and tossing them across the room.
One must learn how to turn the pages of a book, else it can make the goddess of knowledge, Sarasvati, angry. It is believed that she resides in books in the form of knowledge. Therefore, one must respect the books and the trees from which paper is made. This brief overview helps readers know how books, trees, and different creatures have religious significance in Hinduism. Besides, in this poem, reading books is depicted as a sacred act.
has not been the oppressor’s tongue?
the unborn grandchildren
grow to love that strange language.
The second stanza of ‘A Different History’ begins with a set of two questions regarding language. Bhatt asks if anyone can point out one language that does not belong to the oppressor. In this way, she changes the dynamic of viewing a particular language from the post-colonial perspective. She implies that there is nothing wrong with the language itself, but it depends on who the user is.
The second question projects “language” as a human being able to murder someone. Here, the point she tries to make is the dominance of one language or culture over another. The dominant language (English), in turn, eliminates the importance and significance of the inferior ones (native languages). Through the question, the speaker describes no language murders another. It is the people in power responsible for murdering their subject’s culture.
The last question is a bit longer than the preceding questions. Bhatt wonders how one can forget the suffering of their ancestors and embrace the language of the oppressors. During colonial rule, Indians were tortured, humiliated, and reduced to nothingness.
The cropping of the soul is synonymous with deleting one’s cultural values and clipping one’s roots. This is caused by the metaphorical “scythe” swooping out of the conqueror’s face. It is a reference to the conqueror’s tongue, English. Their language, like a scythe, chopped the indigenous values and traditions that they regarded as weeds. Later, they implanted the seeds of their own culture.
Given this scenario, Bhatt wonders how the grandchildren (who are not even born yet) of the sufferers can become fond of the “strange language” or culture of those very oppressors. It is, indeed, astonishing.
Structure and Form
‘A Different History’ consists of two sections. The first stanza comprises 18 lines and the second stanza has a total of 11 lines. There is no regular rhyming pattern or meter in the poem. The poem is written in free-verse from the third-person point of view. Bhatt uses this aloof persona in order to hint at her own background. She left India and settled first in the US and later in Bremen, Germany. Still, she had a strong connection with her motherland. In order to present this “different” version of her own cultural past and political history, she has to distance herself and explore the events in an objective manner.
In ‘A Different History,’ Bhatt implements the following literary devices:
- Allusion: The poem begins with an allusion to the Greek god of nature and common folks, Pan: “Great Pan is not dead.” By the lines, “he simply emigrated/ to India,” Bhatt hints at the counterpart of Pan, Pushan, one of the Adityas in Hinduism. There is an allusion to the Hindu goddess of knowledge, Sarasvati or Saraswati as well.
- Repetition: Bhatt uses repetition as an artistic trope in the first stanza. The term “sin” occurs a number of times, highlighting the strict codes one must unquestionably follow.
- Anaphora: The phrase “a sin” is repeated at the beginning of lines 11 and 13. Similarly, the use of anaphora can be found in lines 16-17, beginning with the word “without.”
- Enjambment: This device is used a number of times in the poem. For instance, it occurs in “It is a sin to shove a book aside/ with your foot.”
- Rhetorical Question: In the second stanza, Bhatt asks three ironic questions to readers. The answers to these questions are implied, not explicitly stated.
In ‘A Different History,’ Bhatt makes use of the themes of colonial history, language, culture, and loss of one’s values. This poem revisits the colonial past of India from an objective narrator’s point of view. Ironically, the narrator (Sujata Bhatt) is Indian herself. She tries to present history from the post-colonial perspective without disparaging the very essence that makes her an Indian. Her poem shows how Hindus have a rich cultural heritage. They respect nature and worship even animals as embodiments of different deities. After imperialism spread its roots in the country, they were made to forget their way of living and love the language and culture of the settlers.
Sarasvati or Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, and art, is referred to in the poem. The poet describes how one should handle the books in which the goddess resides in the form of knowledge.
The main theme of Sujata Bhatt’s poem ‘A Different History’ is how to look at one’s past in a sensible and curious manner. Firstly, Bhatt points out the features of her culture, and then, she asks some intriguing questions about linguistic imperialism.
The tone or attitude of the speaker to the subject is objective, ironic, and critical. Bhatt uses this detached tone in order to revisit her cultural history and colonial past. She does not allow her personal emotions to taint readers’ interpretation of the text. Instead, she helps them to answer the questions in the second stanza on their own.
The poem begins with a direct reference to the Greek god of nature and common folks, Pan. In Hinduism, Pushan is the cognate of the “Great Pan.” Pushan is one of the Adityas, sons of goddess Aditi. Bhatt humorously describes how Pan emigrated to India along with the colonizers.
The following poems explore the themes present in Bhatt’s poem ‘A Different History.’ You can also read more poems by Sujata Bhatt.
- ‘Checking Out Me History’ by John Agard — This poem is made up of colonial history and features some influential historical figures whose contributions are long forgotten.
- ‘Answer’ by Chinua Achebe — This poem portrays one speaker’s insecurities about his homeland, once ruled by the colonizers.
- ‘Names’ by Derek Walcott — This poem provokes an anti-imperialism mood and describes how to search for one’s cultural roots.
- ‘Folk poet, Ysinno’ by Lakdasa Wikramasingha — This piece describes the plight of one Sri Lankan folk poet in order to build a bamboo hut.