Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, a versatile genius, left an indelible mark in different intellectual fields in Kerala in the first half of the 20th century. He brought about a veritable paradigm shift in Malayalam literary criticism through his innovative, interdisciplinary approach, and his writings on art, particularly painting, are regarded as masterpieces. He was a source of inspiration for the best among his junior contemporaries. As is usual with such “special” people, much of Kesari's writings had a freak element, with the result that any mention of his name generally evoked a smile in most people. His contributions to history, substantial though, did not quite earn him a large circle of followers.
This book is a monograph by Kesari on the chronology and historical geography of that part of Asia that covers approximately the southern and western parts of the continent.
In the introductory chapter, Kesari criticises and rejects what have come to be called the ‘Rankean canons' of historiography and makes a strong plea for taking traditions and legends into account while reconstructing the past. For him, Frazer of the Golden Bough is a much more acceptable authority and model for historical writing. In thus writing an alternative history, he contends, comparable legends and myths obtaining in the regions concerned are more useful than archaeological, epigraphical, and literary sources.
He has no difficulty in deriving ‘Yudhishtira' from Sumerian ‘Udultur' or identifying ‘Prachinabarhis' of the Puranas with ‘Erystheus' of the Greek legend; he is convinced that ‘Cakshusha Manu' is the same as Greek ‘Danaus' of Argos and ‘Uta Napishtum' of Babylon. For him, the “protohistoric Olympiad era can be identified with the Kali or Agasthya era” and “Hercules was the Narasimha incarnation of Vishnu.” If the chronology of all civilisations in the Old World had the same basis, their historical geography, too, rested on the same foundations. So also, in speaking about the “protohistoric” states, the author believes that the ancestors of “the Greeks and the Romans, of the Indians and Persians, of the Chinese and Tibetans, and of the Malays and Polynesians” were the same. Dvaraka was the same as Athens, Kosala was Kish, Mithila was Corinth, and Magadha was Nineveh. The list can go on endlessly. In the other chapters too, Kesari presents his ideas in a comparable fashion. It does not require any detailed argument to show that they do not meet the canons of common sense.
The range of reading evidenced by the essays is remarkable and their sweep is really breath-taking. It is entirely another matter that one may not be able to agree with the arguments and conclusions of Kesari. But they raise important questions about methodology. Is the practice of history as a discipline, in vogue in the academia, as impeccable as it was made out to be in the first half of the 20th century? Has this “scientific” discipline any monopoly over the retrieval of the past? Reject all his arguments, and you will still admire him for his boldness.
While the book is well printed, the editorial part of the production does considerable disservice to the author as well as the publisher, University of Kerala. The preface and the foreword may well serve as examples of how not to write anything.
Look at this passage appearing in the preface and make out whatever you can: “After a long process of researches and excavations with critical analysations of traditions, customs and myths of various provinces, he untied the cultural ancestry and surprisingly reached at the conclusion that the basic sources of human kind are one and the same.”