History teaches us a lot of things – surely, it teaches us more than it intends to. And more often than not, it must be amazed at what we have learnt from its chapters. One could almost hear it murmur, “I don’t think that was the point I was trying to make…”

I am sure somewhere along the way, History learns a thing or two from us too.

In my high school, for a few days I happened to sit next to a girl who was a lot of fun to be with. I think we had moved into a temporary classroom or something, I cannot recall, but she was not my usual neighbour in class. For all her ready jokes and attitude, she was not quite popular, owing to some of her weaknesses – or flaws, if you like. Those weaknesses of hers had actually made her who she was. But, as I said, many were not kind to her.

It was English class, and we had a chapter on Columbus’ journey. We Indians have a particular softness when it comes to Christopher Columbus. So many centuries have passed, but we still cannot forget the fact that the gent had come looking for us, the real Indians. Can he be blamed if he found a set of ‘barbarians’ instead and because he was so innocent and ignorant, he called them Indians? He must have loved us so much. The only thing we can do in return is include him in our English text book.

Anyway, the lesson was about the long and tiresome journey undertaken by Columbus and his men in their three ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Niña in their search for a new route to Asia. The chapter ended when Columbus landed on the New World. The penultimate paragraph of the chapter described the mutiny in the ship when no land was sighted for many days. I copied the following text from this location. We had something very similar in our textbook:

Columbus had to face a mutiny because the crew felt that they were lost in the middle of the Ocean. At the beginning of the voyage, they did not trust very much in a foreigner who wanted to carry out a crazy project; however they finally accepted to enrol in such an adventure. But after thirty days sailing in the middle of the scary ocean they thought that Columbus was lying about the distance to sail to get ashore. The admiral could finally suffocate the mutiny, but three days later a second mutiny, harder than the first one, occurred. They were completely sure that Columbus was not telling the truth about the distance to sail to find land, and that they were being deceived into thinking they were not lost. This time the Pinta‘s captain, Martin Alonso Pinzon had to intervene, because the crew even thought of throwing Columbus off the ship. 

As Alonso Pinzon was a well known mariner who counted on the admiration of the crew, the seafarers calmed down, but Columbus had to commit himself to return if they did not find land in three days. Two days later, they finally came across the New World.

As our teacher was reading these two paragraphs out loud, this girl said to me in a bored, matter-of-fact voice: “If they had thrown him out, we wouldn’t have to learn the last paragraph.”

I have no idea how I stifled my laughter for the rest of the class. She would look at me, see me turn red trying not to laugh, and grin. That was a joke in such enormous proportions that, years later, it still reduces me to giggles. If they had thrown him out… he wouldn’t have discovered America. No one in the world would have remembered his name. There wouldn’t even have been a chapter in an Indian text book dedicated to him. And who knows what would have happened to that continent itself?! Someone else might have come across it sooner or later, but things over there would have turned out so differently. And the last paragraph? It was merely two sentences long, learning it was the least important thing in this entire Universe.

The joke began to peel itself in layers and layers before my eyes that I think after the class was over, I exploded in laughter for a few long hours. The spontaneity of her delivery was so characteristic of her. I think she was a little surprised that I laughed so much.

History must have stood there, at that moment, astonished, halted in mid-performance, the hair on its head standing upright in shock, watching us break into chuckles over chuckles. Maybe after a few moments, it must have slapped its forehead and laughed along with us.

Like I said, History has absolutely no clue how each one of us learns or remembers the lessons it tries to teach.

Aside. I lost touch with her after school. I doubt if she would have any recollection of this incident at all. I only hope things worked out well for her.