Never a dull moment in this collection of the author’s essays and no-holds-barred reviews of historical writings

This new book by Sanjay Subrahmanyam carries an incendiary title at which cynics may smack their lips and jealous guardians of Indian culture rush to their arsenal. But the content of the book is sure to trick them both. The book contains an assortment of twenty articles, book-reviews and an interview which had been published elsewhere before, mostly over the last one decade, – in Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, Telegraph, The Guardian, L’Homme, L’Histoire, Outlook, India Today, Economic Times, Cultura: Revista de Historia e Teoria de Ideias and others – but now revised for a retelling.

Cultural paranoia

The collage touches many aspects of history — what others have written and what the author thinks of them — but they can assuredly be read “without falling directly into the arms of Morpheus.”

Regarding the question that has mischievously grabbed the title of the book, the author punctures the pampered national myth to say India needs to be seen not “as civilization but as a crossroads, as a space open to external influences rather than a simple exporter of culture to neighbours.” He rightly points out that a national culture that does not have the confidence to declare that, like all other national cultures, it too is hybrid, can only take the path to xenophobia and cultural paranoia.

Some of the book reviews which figure in this collection are interesting. Sanjay Subrahmanyam finds Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules – for Now an exercise in historical cherry-picking; he rebukes it for its “absolute devotion to teleology”, for mistaking history to be a predictive science and for embracing an indefensible quantitative methodology, besides being peppered with “ghastly sophomoric jokes that set one’s teeth on edge.”

He takes on Ashish Nandy over the latter’s strategy to defend the purveyors of communalism by quibbling over the word ‘secularism’. He is kinder to Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi — “doorstop of a tome” — though for all its attractive prose, sureness to details and fairness to regions, he says it could have been differently told as a story of social mobility and its limits. But he is more disappointed with Martha C. Nussbaum’s book, The Clash Within: “one is really left no wiser than by reading the Indian newspapers on an intermittent basis.”

Subrahmanyam finds V.S. Naipaul’s A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling an example of diasporic illusions about India while the central subaltern character in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger comes across “as badly made ventriloquist’s dummy…”

His reviews also explore the elusive world of thugs and thuggee and the elusive notion of Empire in history. Among those who figure in this mosaic of critical reviews are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Winston Churchill and Salman Rushdie, the spinner of The Satanic Verses.

The local and the universal

Historical writing is ever a contentious business. Sanjay shows that James C. Scott’s The Art of Not being Governed, which argues that civilisations cannot climb hills, as they suffer from altitude sickness, is an example of the central trick in social sciences to transform the local and particular into some form of the universal. Besides committing a functionalist fallacy, “no alternative hypothesis or contrary body of evidence is allowed much oxygen.”

Two ‘schools’ of modern Indian historiography, the Cambridge and the Subaltern, also come in for critical review not only in the context of changes and compromises they had to accept but also as artefacts in the global market. Besides, Subrahmanyam also shows that given South India’s familiarity with European travellers and trade associations Vasco da Gama’s appearance off the coast of Kerala would not have raised too many eyebrows.

Some of the essays that figure in this book as well as an interview with him are recollections of the author as a student in Delhi, and as researcher, traveller and a treasure-hunter in various European archives. They bring out the idiosyncratic in cities like Paris and Lisbon. He excels as a raconteur, with a fine penchant for detail, sharp historical sense and a good measure of mordant humour. No one who has won his attention has succeeded in missing his deft stiletto-stabs. But not a moment of dull reading is on offer in any of these essays and reviews.

(Surendra Rao was formerley professor of History, Mangalore University)

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