Indian History and Indian Historians

The celebrated Indian writer R.K. Narayan wrote in his essay, History is a Delicate Subject,

I love the study of history, but with a lot of distrust. In our college days we read British historians. We found the postage stamp size portraits of kings and governors dotting the pages of our text-book charming, and the writing itself competent and readable. One did not doubt the veracity of their statements and conclusions at any stage, until a young professor. In an aside announced one day. “There was neither Black, nor Hole, nor Calcutta”, referring to Siraj-ud-Dowlah, the ruler of Bengal who was supposed to have packed in a jam his prisoners of war, leaving them to suffocate in a small room. The same professor also disproved that certain Muslim rulers who were supposed to have demolished temples and proselytized with fire and sword, were actually tolerant and endowed temples. And thugs and bandits actually were freedom fighters-guerrilla fighters of those days.

I was born in the 1980s, when the pendulum had swung to the other extreme. The revision of the 1950s had expunged dubious claims of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Our text books year after year decried the evils of the British Empire and hammered the names and dates of everyone and everything connected with the freedom struggle.

Another thing changed was readability. History was no longer meant to tell stories. What it was meant to do, I have never been able to fathom. A typical history lecture would consist of 10 causes of the Revolt of 1857. The following week would be 10 consequences of the revolt of 1857. History was a turgid mountain of details to be crammed and regurgitated at the exam. The less it was digested the better as the less our answer strayed for the “model”, the better.

For the record, I remember none of these causes or consequences except for 2 details:

  1. My grandfather recounted the most offensive thing about the British rulers was not their economic exploitation and plunder but simply their pervasive racist arrogance.
  2. The Enfield rifle incident where cartridges for the new rifle of the East India Company were laced with cow and pig fat offending both Hindus and Muslims at a stroke. This only because my mother explained it to me while we were watching a movie.

Neither of these are due to anything I learnt in school. All of that I joyfully discarded after my middle school exams.

Even books produced for the general audience are often unreadable. I present before you a passage written by one of India’s most prominent historians, Romila Thapar in The Penguin History of Early India. To get a representative sample, I opened a page completely at random and reproduced the first passage I laid eyes on.

This all too brief survey of the archaeological evidence, prior to the textual, makes apparent the presence of multiple vibrant cultures in various parts of the sub-continent, particularly in the second and early first millennia BC. The nature of these cultures establishes that, whatever contemporary records there may be of a textual kind in later periods, the archaeological data has to be kept within historical vision.

What in God’s name does that mean? I read it three times before I got the gist. I am still not sure what she means by ‘historical vision’? Which ‘contemporary records’ is she talking about and what do they say? Deciphering page after page of these passages seems as formidable task to me as the Harappan script must look to historians.

Nehru’s Discovery of India, for all its faults and biases is at least enjoyable to read. As are Sanjay Sanyal’s The Land of Seven Rivers, Nayanjot Lahiri’s Finding Forgotten Cities, Charles Allen’s Ashoka and Dalrymple’s Return of a King. None of these aim at being definitive or comprehensive, but at least they are friendly and we need more of that in our history. It is after all, supposed our own story.


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