“Sir, I have a question.” A frail hand rose diffidently. Avinash looked at the girl in spectacles and nodded. “Sir, isn’t history also about progress?”
“What according to you is progress?”
“Progress is … it is how we progress, you know, Sir.”
“Give me an example.”
“Um, from barbarians we became very sophisticated,” ventured the girl.
“History is about change, certainly. It records how the change has occurred over a period of time. But all change is not progress, is it?”
“We no longer live in caves and in the jungles. We have homes and streets.” A boy from the back bench joined.
“That is a change alright, and it is progress, too.”
“Sir, is there change that is not also progress?”
“What is progress?” Avinash put the question again, looking at the whole class.
“To progress means to improve”
“To become better”
“OK. Alright.” Avinash raised his hand. “Think this over. In the olden days, we went to war with arrows. Each arrow could kill only one soldier. After a thousand years we have learnt to kill more efficiently – we use missiles that could potentially wipe out thousands of soldiers in one second.”
A boy let out a low whistle that drew titters from others.
“Yes?” Avinash pressed for a more enlightening response. “Given the definition of progress, do you call this progress?”
“Maybe we need to redefine progress,” someone said, and a few others supported him.
“Yea, yea,” they seconded and thumped the benches.
Avinash shook his head. “Consider this; it is not just soldiers dying by the thousands in a battle field, even civilian life is at a great risk of annihilation or permanent genetic injury. Think of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Cold War. Or, in our own time, the terrors unleashed by religious and ideological fanatics, who have progressed from rebellious victims to soulless militants.”
A girl responded “Sir, it is certainly progress as far as the weapons are concerned.”
“So,” concluded the teacher, “what has progressed is our capacity, not only to destroy legally people en masse, but also to boost our hatred in society to murderous limits. I wonder if you would call that progress.”
He waited for the thought to sink in. The class fell silent for some time.
“Sir, you said that memory is history. Does memory lead to progress or not?”
Avinash looked thoughtful for some time, his eyes scanning the questioning faces before him. He said, “An arrow evolved into a missile, right? And hate, that built the arrow, progressed into mass murder. So now we have become sophisticated barbarians.”
He paused, and then said, “If memory is holding you back, then there can be neither change nor progress.”
“But without memory I could not go back home,” protested a girl.
“Or remember anything for the exam!” said another.
“We are talking about the memories of hurt, of loss… ” Here he paused, wondering if he was not sliding into his own past. Into that region of memory that held his greatest secret – his hurt, his loss, his guilt, his fear.
He shook his head as if to clear it and continued “It is progress when you move up from class to class, from the position of a clerk to that of a manager. Is it progress when, psychologically speaking, you are where you have always been?”
The children looked perplexed, but he went on all the same. ‘Sow the seeds,’ was his motto, ‘who knows where they will sprout?’
“What would you call it, Sir, if it is not progress?”
“We don’t have a word yet, do we? Let’s try and invent one.”
[An excerpt from Magnificent Loss published by Indireads]