• Sunday, February 05, 2023

Interview with Amit Schandillia, author of ‘Don’t Forward That Text’

An overwhelming bulk of fakery that reaches us right now is in the shape of forwarded memes and messages.
on Jan 24, 2023
Amit Schandillia

Amit Schandillia is a language enthusiast and history communicator with a background in computers and finance. Besides language, Amit has a long relationship with history and has produced hundreds of popular Twitter threads on the subject, both Indian and otherwise. He is particularly interested in making history accessible to laypersons by breaking down stories into thrilling, enjoyable reads. Amit also authors India Uncharted, an audio series on Indian history, with Storytel.

Frontlist: Why did you choose "Don't Forward that Text" as your book's title?

Amit: Texts are the most efficient vehicles of misinformation today. An overwhelming bulk of fakery that reaches us right now is in the shape of forwarded memes and messages. One may or may not be on social media, but everybody is on WhatsApp. Not all misinformation is propaganda, but an alarming proportion pertains to history. Naturally, there's value in stopping this spread. My book strives to pick apart some pieces of misinformation about our history and help break the chain, hence the name. I aim to engage my readers with reason and appeal to their sense of inquiry.

Frontlist: What inspired you to formulate a book that debunks fallacies associated with history? 

Amit: History has grown into the fiercest ideological battlefield of our times, and it's only expected to grow fiercer. There's more misinformation being manufactured to subvert history than to subvert even science. Highly motivated ideologues increasingly realize that he, who controls the history, holds the narrative. In a world, as polarized as ours, the narrative is a potent weapon with severe and lasting real-life implications. From Tipu Sultan to Babri Masjid to beef, real blood is being spilled over who the narrative vilifies or deifies. While science misinformation is easy to debunk as scientific laws and theories are set in stone, history is filled with subjectivities and educated guesswork. That makes a compelling case for works that do their best to bring objectivity, nuance, and reason to the stories that matter.

Moreover, history is primarily seen as boring and pointless, a myth that I am interested in busting. History, especially Indian, is full of edge-of-the-seat thrillers and butterfly effects. 

Frontlist:  From the vast sea of misinformation available nowadays, why did you decide to address these thirty misconceptions?

Amit: Most of these are areas of solid contention. Subjects such as Aryan homeland, Tipu Sultan, and Swastika are incredibly controversial and rife with false narratives that cut across political lines. No ideology has the monopoly over deliberate obfuscations, identity politics, and flat-out distortion. Therefore, I selected those first because setting the record straight on them would kill a big chunk of the misinformation market. I have also chosen a few that may still be less contentious but not as well-understood. Topics like the origin of sugar, toilets, and musical notations do not trigger ideological warfare but still come loaded with wrong impressions. These are topics where a yawning gulf exists between what you’ve always known and the truth. So yeah, these were my two parameters—controversy and obscurity.

Frontlist: Social media plays a big part in spreading misinformation among the masses. What approaches can we incorporate to stop being deceived by false information?

Amit: Fake narratives aren’t as ardent to identify as they seem. There are tell-tale signs. The most prominent cue is the appeal to emotion. If a forwarded meme or story triggers a strong feeling in you, makes you furious, or makes you proud of something that isn’t your achievement, it’s most likely fake. Don’t engage. If a text seems politically motivated, it most certainly is. In those rare cases, things seem authentic but still run against what you already know about research. 

Research might sound intimidating, but with a whole world of information at your fingertips today, it isn’t. Google things, and search them up on Wikipedia. These are very layman-friendly approaches. From there, you can always dig deeper, depending on your appetite. For instance, you can (and should) always check citations and references on Wikipedia. Also, if you are into reading books, try to read authors of different ideological backgrounds, which will help you gain perspective. Separating the wheat from the chaff is an art, but not the kind you can’t master.

Frontlist: You've discussed in your book that Aryabhatta wasn't the one who introduced zero to the world. What made you inquire about this centuries-old belief, and how did you conduct your research about it?

Amit: Zero is the most done-to-death topic among nationalist circles and is not even new. We invented zero, which we've heard as a solid mic-drop comeback to any criticism of India since childhood. It also featured in a Bollywood film where Akshay Kumar delivered a monologue on India's positives in response to a group of White men dissing our country. This monologue involved zero too. It's become this trope you can drop every time you need to shut down any sign of Indophobia in any situation. Not that I doubted its authenticity, but indeed curious about how a concept like zero could be "invented" by any one culture, and more importantly, what other cultures did in its stead! This curiosity only grew stronger when I read about the incredible mathematics of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Then the question became even more pertinent, how could they possibly be doing such complex maths without zero? However, I decided to go down that rabbit hole. That's when I came across an excellent work called The Crest of the Peacock, which I strongly recommend. This book taught me not just about India's contribution to zero but a vast pre-Aryabhata digit history that I was never aware of even in the slightest. From then on, I spent over a year reading many other works, including research papers, on ancient arithmetic. Once loaded with enough understanding, I decided to share it with everyone else. It's truly awe-inspiring!

Frontlist: Author Devdutt Pattanaik wrote the foreword for your book, so what made him the ideal choice?

Amit: Devdutt Pattanaik is India’s foremost mythologist, actually the only mythologist I’d argue. And the most prolific. I have known him personally for more than two years now and am in awe of his output. Of course, this is one reason, I won’t like. Being a fan, I reached out to him and asked if he’d do a foreward for my maiden work and he agreed. But it’s more than that. Mythology and history are so deeply intertwined, we fail to appreciate that the line blurs more often than not. As he keeps saying, mythology is subjective history. Devdutt has a very strong sense of history even though he writes almost entirely on myths. It’s he who introduced me to the very idea of history mythbusting. I mean, yes, I always enjoyed history and storytelling, but never saw it as a subject of “fact check” per se. A commonm allegory he often uses on social media is that of swan and cockroach where the cockroach brings nothing but disease and filth to the table but has a remarkable knack for survival, whereas a swan is a thing of beauty and can even separate milk from water, but is extremely fragile. Separating milk from water, of course, being a metaphor for fack-check. In short, his idea of history and misinformation resonated with me, and there just couldn’t be a better pair of eyes to take an honest first look at my work which he kindly obliged with. 

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