Very few people can make history interesting to read. Most of our history books are written in such dull and prosaic style that only academicians can endure them. As a school student, I detested my history books. After school, I never touched history books until I came across writers like William Dalrymple. Recently I read Wendy Doniger’s Alternative History of Hinduism and fell in love with her – her style, I mean.
Sonia Dogra has chosen to present history in verse in her new book, Unlocked. She has clubbed poems on historical personalities together under the heading, ‘The Famous and the Infamous’, and the latter half of the book is titled ‘Epoch-Making Episodes’. People and events make up history. What makes Sonia’s book interesting is the fact that she has chosen some unusual aspect of history as the subject of each of these poems.
The very first poem, for example, is about Hitler. We meet the 6-year-old Hitler, however. The abuses from his father had made the little boy a psychological wreck. The poet asks:
If the parents of an infamous Adolf Hitler
hadn’t grievously faltered,
Do you think the course of history
could have been altered?
The poem on Mahatma Gandhi looks at certain less-known dimensions of the great soul’s life in South Africa. Titled ‘Sergeant Major Gandhi’, the poem shows us Gandhi leading the Natal Indian Congress and also raising the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps. The poet hints not so subtly about the shrewdness that guided some of Gandhi’s actions.
Cleopatra’s exquisite nose is the subject of another poem. A nose that could cast a magic spell “On the great men of Rome / who for the queen fell” deserves the attention of poets more than historians, and Sonia has done justice to it.
The second half of the book is about some events in history that catch our attention. The poet has made the collection very relevant by adding a poem “dedicated to the history of quarantine”. The Italian words ‘quaranta giorni’ mean forty days, she informs us. The ships that arrived at harbours in Venice were not allowed to land before forty days as a security measure.
Hundred years ago, the Spanish Flu created a quarantine situation similar to what’s happening now with closure of all public gatherings, schools, entertainment houses and games. “You needed a certificate to be on the lanes,” says the poem. “Face masks had suddenly made a quick foray / Fear and mistrust, speculation and gossip…” fill us with a strange sense of déjà vu.
Some episodes like the one presented in the poem ‘Unit 731’ are blood-curdling. Man’s inhumanity to man has always left trails of blood in history making us wonder again and again whether we are indeed a noble race of creatures.
Sonia Dogra opens certain doors wide so that we can clearly see some of our historical deeds and misdeeds. We can be proud of ourselves sometimes. We may need to hang our heads in shame occasionally. This book’s greatest service, perhaps, is the interest it rouses in history. We will be left at the end with a longing for more. Making us want more history is not a mean achievement.
PS. The book can be downloaded here: Unlocked
My book in the series is: Great Books for Great Thoughts