A Different History

 Overview

This poem is autobiographical and is an expression of Bhatt’s (pictured above) conflict between her Indian heritage and her life in the English speaking world.

The first stanza talks about India; she values the way gods and nature are respected and allowed to thrive, but contrasts this, quite angrily, with the way society and religion are too rigid and enforce too many rules upon the Indian people. The second stanza sees her talking about her inner conflict about enjoying being part of English speaking culture.

Mini-glossary
Great Pan – this chap was the Ancient Greek’s God of Nature.

Sarasvati – Indian/Hindu River God

Great Pan is not dead;
he simply emigrated
                         to India.
Here, the gods roam freely,
disguised as snakes or monkeys;
every tree is sacred
and it is a sin
to be rude to a book.
It is a sin to shove a book aside
                     with your foot,
a sin to slam books down
                       hard on a table,
a sin to toss one carelessly
                       across a room.
You must learn how to turn the pages gently
without disturbing Sarasvati,
without offending the tree
from whose wood the paper was made. 

      Which language
      has not been the oppressor’s tongue?
      Which language
      truly meant to murder someone?
      And how does it happen
      that after the torture,
      after the soul has been cropped
       with a long scythe swooping out
       of the conqueror’s face –
       the unborn grandchildren
       grow to love that strange language.    

Sujata Bhatt (1956-)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Bhatt is an Indian born in Pune, a metropolis (mega city) in the west of India. At 12, her family moved to the USA where she had to learn English from scratch.

She has talked about her identity struggle with Gujarati (an Indian language) representing the ‘deepest layer of her identity’, but English representing her daily life and work.

 Themes

There are a couple of themes that would enable you to link this poem to others in your selection. (See the Comparison Chart)

First of all we have the conflict over identity where she is questioning how a person can define who they are – she feels guilty for not feeling fully Indian and valuing aspects of the arch-enemy: English culture (I’ll explain later!).

She also discusses the way nature (personified as ‘Pan’ and ‘Sarasvati’ – Gods of Nature) is valued in Indian culture and by implication in Western culture in the first stanza. India is presented as somewhere that the natural world is important, whereas the West has abandoned the Gods and the natural world.

However, comparing on the theme of nature is a bit tricky as I think you can’t really discuss the second stanza with much relevance as it doesn’t really involve nature.

Content

The opening lines offer an immediate proclamation about the differences between India and the West. Pan’s emigration to India represents the fact the Western world has lost respect for both gods and the natural world and he has moved to the only place where he is still respected or afforded freedom. Initially this seems to be a positive for India as the gods and nature seem to be having a lovely time – ‘roam freely,/disguised as snakes or monkeys’.

Perhaps we see it as a negative for the West in relation to the destruction of nature and pollution of the natural world through heavy industry. I’m not overly convinced by this though.

However, the influence of religion soon becomes nefarious as she lists the ‘sins’ or rules that the gods imposed upon the people of India and restrict aspects of their lives. All the rules are objectively quite ridiculous and the tone of the poem suggests that Bhatt thinks that it is the people who should be afforded freedom and not the gods. Should a book (possibly meaning the Hindu holy books: Bhagavad-GitaRamayana and Veda or to nature – paper comes from trees…duh!) and its pages be treated with more respect and care than people?

The stanza ends with the suggestion that Indian people ‘must learn’ to avoid these sins, the nature of which seem petty ways to limit their freedom.

The second stanza is focused on the English culture she has become a part of after leaving in India. ‘Which language/has not been the oppressor tongue?’ Well, the oppressor for India is the British and there is still residual dislike for Brits because of their years of colonial domination.

As an Indian, Bhatt should also resent them. However, she doesn’t these lines make us question whether the British are really the bad guys? No, only really to India. For the French, the Germans are the oppressors. The Iraqis might see the Americans as the arseholes. It depends on perspective and it does not make everyone born to that nation someone you should hate. At some stage all cultures or people have been guilty of oppressing another (India vs. Pakistan or Bangladesh?).

The phrase ‘Which language’ means that Bhatt is trying to reconcile her use of English (the language of India’s oppressors) with India feeling about the English. It is not the language’s fault that colonialism happened, nor does the past action of the British mean that all English speakers should now be figures of hate – they are the language are not to blame.

She acknowledges where the resentment comes from with words like ‘torture’, ‘soul been cropped/With a long scythe’ suggesting a lasting historical imprint of colonial brutality and destruction of culture (the soul of the country). However, she separates the past and the present for the sake of her identity and to explain why she shouldn’t feel guilty. The past is distant to her, she has ‘a different history’ with the language than her grandparents may have and she is not ashamed to be apart of the English culture or speak the language, even acknowledging she has ‘grow[n] to love’ it.

Language and techniques

Core blimey! I could be here all day… this is not a definitive commentary and there are many things I may neglect to mention or gloss over that you think are important. Great! Explore your interpretation and explanation independently wherever possible.

In the first stanza I would focus on the contract between the ‘freedom’ of the gods and natural world and the ‘sin’ filled lives of Indian people. The repetition of ‘sin’ four times shows a frustration with these rules, ‘without’ being repeated twice creates a similar idea of restriction placed upon the people.

The second stanza uses a semantic field (look it up in the glossary – when I’ve done it :() of suffering and misery – ‘Torture’, ‘oppressor’, ‘murder’, ‘soul has been cropped’. These are all used to reflect Indian thoughts about their former colonial masters, the British. Soul cropping, in particularly, is a tasty one as it is associated with the Grim Reaper and death, which suggests Indians feel the British destroyed the soul of the country. This is how Bhatt feels she should feel about English culture, but she firmly tries to tie these thoughts to history and not to today.

Structure

Now, this is what I really want to talk about. I am not just terrible at formatting webpages; the poem is meant to look like that.

When Bhatt discusses India in stanza one you’ll notice that the lines seem to float around beginning at different places. It’s deliberate, trust me. Dual usage in my humble opinion. In one sense it represents the freedom of the gods, but on the other hand it could show the disorganisation of Indian priorities – gods and nature above the people.

The second stanza is organised and seems to make sense (perhaps a reflection on Western personal philosophy and the dying influence of religion). However, this could also have a dual meaning. Perhaps this shows the cold, hard rationality of the West, scientifically led world – organised, but uncreative.

Tone

It’s a bit of a mixture of mockery/frustration and guilt. She is trying to demonstrate that she doesn’t feel completely comfortable with Indian culture and its bias to religion above people, but also she is trying to excuse her guilt or explain why she has come to love English and the culture of the West.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

29 thoughts on “A Different History”

  1. Thank’s a lot ! Very useful analize, I am actually getting through by french degree in the international option and I have to study this poem among 5 others, thanks again

  2. Yes it is in the CIE 2015 syllabus. The syllabus will change in 2016 though. I’ve got my CIE lit exam in 2 days ? Btw this is very helpful. Thankyou!

    1. Yeah, that’s what I thought. So the exam tomorrow will be the last one on these poems :(.

      Good luck to anyone sitting it!

      1. Thanks for the help… gotta prep for World Literature tomorrow…. Sure was helpful… PETER Format to be followed for us………..?????????➰

      2. Not a problem. Is World Literature something for IB? Also, what is PETER? I presume some sort of Point Evidence Technique Explanation Response, but have never heard of that being used before.

        Mr Sir

    1. I think that’s her own position. Part of her respects India’s tradition and religious respect, but another part thinks that this is at the expense of personal freedoms, so people don’t enjoy the same freedoms as the gods.

      In a similar way, she condemns the Western world she has become a part of, but also forgives it and acknowledges her respect/love for it.

    2. both.
      She admires the fact that they kept their traditions, their god, their beliefs, but she also thinks that maybe it’s a little too much.

    1. Hi Onam, questions are usually expressed pretty generically so try to craft your own. Something like ‘Explore how Bhatt uses language and imagery to comment on her struggle with identity’ would work. Sorry for the late reply!

    1. My last name begins with an S and I teach in Uganda currently, Uzbekistan next year. Sorry to ruin your potential discovery. :d

  3. Thank you so much for this analysis! However, I’ve not seen much mention about the two gods in the poem and the comparison between them. Just wanted to point out that they may be important in understanding the theme of identity and the idea of ‘migration of culture’ in the poem.

    1. Its basically about how the concept of the Greek God, Pan, was accepted in India and she talks about how the qualities of the God were what were incorporated in their culture. That is why she says: “Great Pan is not dead/ he simply immigrated to India.” And therefore the gods roam freely. this is what she is trying to say that the concepts of gods in terms of their qualities and significant attributes, like of Pan, are acceptable in India.

      Then she talks about the importance of the book and its ‘sacred’ position in their culture because of the knowledge it contains and the link it creates to our history. That is why she says “you must turn the pages….without offending the tree.”

      The alignments in the first poem might show how the physical action of “shoving the book aside’, ‘kicking it with your foot’ and ‘tossing it carelessly across the room’ shifts those lines literally. And it means that she just wants our attention and changing the alignment of the poem will make us focus on the importance and significance of it.

      In the second stanza she talks generally about influences of other cultures that our ancestors might have hated, which we tend to love. She talks about how our conquerors’ languages influenced our language, which also symbolize the general influence their culture has on us, which we can generally see nowadays how western and eastern culture mingle together, and no ones culture is pure on its own and follows a constant flow throughout. She talks about how today’s history is different for everyone. Different in terms of our culture, influences, perceptions and all and how they all together have changed how we view history and how we act upon it.

      The irony here is that the language she talks about being the ‘oppressor’s tongue’ is now the language she wrote the poem in. You can show the contrast over here.

      I hope it is helpful. 🙂

  4. (These poems from Songs of Ourselves vol 1 are no longer part of the syllabus…)
    A similar approach to the current CIE IGCSE text Songs of Ourselves volume 2 would be much appreciated as soon as possible, as many centres have already started teaching it. Consistency in the range of support that CIE offers would be positive!

    1. Hi, I’m a teacher not CIE. This is still part of the syllabus, but they work on a two year cycle so it will not be examined in next year’s exam, but for current Year 11s it will be. As I am not teaching a Year 10 class at the moment it is not my top priority, but I may get round to it at some point. However, just to stress the point – this site is not run by the exam board. Sorry!

      1. You have no way of knowing, which means that we have to cover off poems in a thematic way so we can at least answer the comparison question. Also, incidentally, I’ve just come back from a ski holiday with your head of school and head of secondary!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *