As the title suggests, the key element to grasp in order to understand this poem is to see it as envisaging a different kind of history, which is accomplished in the first section of the poem. In this section, the speaker imagines that Pan, the god of the countryside in Greek mythology, didn't die, but simply moved over to India, which he describes as a place where "the gods roam freely" and books are respected. This rather confusing opening to the poem is explained further in the second section, which reflects on the way that all languages that are spoken nowadays at one time were the "oppressor's tongue," and comments on the way in which children come to accept the "oppressor's tongue" as their own:
And how does it happen
that after the torture,
after the soul has been cropped
with the long scythe swooping out
of the conqueror’s face –
the unborn grandchildren
grow to love that strange language?
The poem asks some very hard questions about colonialism and dominance, and explores the way in which all history is based on one people group oppressing and annexing another and instilling their own culture and language upon that people group. The irony of this poem written by an Indian is that this is precisely what has happened to him: the poet writes in English, which is for him "the oppressor's tongue" rather than in his own indigenous language. "A Different History" imagines a world where history is not built out of a whole series of cultural cullings, but one where original cultures are allowed to survive and thrive, whilst at the same time acknowledging that this could only ever be a dream. The poem is thus a meditation on how history is really made, becoming "A Different History" both from the point of view that it not only imagines a different history but also places emphasis on what really occurs in history, thus challenging the dominant view of what happened to a people or a nation.