Our routine daily activities – and their chequered histories (Book Review)

Title: A Million Years in a Day – A Curious History of Daily Life; Author: Greg Jenner; Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson/Hachette India; Pages: 320; Price: Rs 499

If any of us was sent back into the past, some centuries ago or even to the time before recorded history began, could the daily activities and home life of our ancestors make sense to us? They not only would, but also be quite familiar – apart from the absence of certain technological developments and devices we now deem necessary requirements of our existence.

It is not our recent forebears with whom we would find ourselves at home with in their homes – well almost – as popular historian Greg Jenner tells us in this book on the history of our daily activities, but even those from the prehistoric era, who were far from boorish, grunting cave-dwellers as perceived.

“Every day of our lives, most of us rotate through the same ritual habits that humans have been repeating for millennia – getting out of bed, going to the toilet, grabbing some breakfast, washing our bodies, choosing our clothes, telling the time, communicating with others, eating together, having a drink, cleaning our teeth, getting into bed and setting the alarm clock..”

But all these, which we never think about much, “bring with them a story written over countless generations by our predecessors”, which are different in many aspects and degrees, but also surprisingly similar in many others. And it is these stories, Jenner tells us – with considerable humour.

Historical consultant and co-writer for BBC’s lauded comedy show “Horrible Histories” as well as involved in many historical documentaries, dramas, comedies, and digital interactive projects for BBC and other channels, Jenner’s account is set on a lazy weekend, and encompasses 13 activities. These range from waking up to setting the alarm clock prior to dozing off at night, and including breakfasting, time with a pets, and an informal gathering of friends over drinks and dinner.

Each activity offers Jenner an opportunity to delve into the evolution of personal habits and social customs and mores (and the technologies necessary) that made our lives both safer, smoother and convenient. It also proves the human race at its most inventive – and obdurate.

Take the first activity – waking up to the shrill but insistent call of the alarm. This predicated a global standard for measurement of time – and that was more difficult than it seems, leave alone the later battles over a fixed mean time and daylight savings. But here – and later too – Jenner enlivens his narrative with plentiful wit, telling us that “to delve into the history of timekeeping is similar to watching a Belgian soap opera without the subtitles; at first it’s baffling, but slowly it becomes strangely compelling”.

While many times his contentions proving counter-intuitive – e.g. the Neolithic Age, when humans became settled and took up agriculture, and “is often heralded as one of the greatest transitions in human history, also paradoxically led to a sizeable decrease in human health” – he painstaking explains why.

Among other examples that stands out – and will be of key relevance to a whole raft of Indian policymakers, in is section on drinks, where Jenner deals with the American experiment with Prohibition in the early 20th century, what it accomplished – and what else it led to.

Then we come to know which fearsome warrior achieved incomparable military feats, and killed so many people “that the forests regrew on all the abandoned farmland and CO2 levels dropped by 700 million tonnes – yet a man who could reverse global warming couldn’t stop his soldiers getting tipsy”.

And in this vein, there is much more illuminating and unexpected information coming our way from Jenner, who never ignores any place or era where something notable was reported or learnt – we know the Harappans led in civic planning and sanitation but he also shows us which key medical treatment seems to have originated from the region. No, it wasn’t plastic surgery, artificial insemination or genetics as some sections claim.

There is much more that Indians can be proud of – and Jenner doesn’t stint in telling us.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

–IANS

vd

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