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The history jungle


MY father runs an academic bookshop. The people who visit it are mainly serious local readers and foreign scholars. Some of the younger visitors ask questions such as "Who are the best Indian historians?", and "Which books of theirs should we read?" A bookseller's answers may depend on the books he has in stock, and for some booksellers the best books are those on which they've received the fattest discount. But the questions are worth pondering over academically as well, regardless of which historians sell the most. Who, for instance, are thought of as the best living Indian historians, and which books are worth reading if you're seriously interested in Indian history?

If you think of Ancient India, you think first of Romila Thapar. Over the past 40 years, beginning with Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, she has become for Ancient Indian history what Vincent Smith declared Alexander the Great was for Ancient Indian chronology: "the sheet anchor". I've no idea what a sheet anchor is. In school, where I had to learn this phrase by heart, I imagined it was a bedsheet with a heavy stone tied to one end which Alexander used to clobber Porus. Now I only know that a sheet anchor is a very good thing, and that Ancient India would have been in deep trouble if Alexander hadn't shown up.

We're lucky his modern counterpart, Professor Thapar, showed up. She has no dearth of detractors, partly because she so sensibly loathes the Hindu fundamentalism which seeks to manipulate and distort the ancient past as illuminated in her work. But internationally as well as in the best Indian institutions, her regally upright and scholarly pre-eminence has never been in doubt. With the appearance of her collected essays, History and the Present, her stature has been conclusively reinforced. Shereen Ratnagar, R. Champakalakshmi, B.D. Chattopadhyaya, Dilip Chakrabarti, Ranabir Chakravarty, Kumkum Roy and Nayanjot Lahiri are some of the other Ancient India scholars whose work commands respect.

If Medireview India has a sheet anchor, there is little doubt in anyone's mind that it is Irfan Habib. During my years as a history editor, no out-of-print "classic" was in greater demand than Habib's seminal work, The Agrarian System of Mughal India. Like Romila Thapar's first book, this appeared in the early 1960s and was revised a few years ago. Habib's Atlas of the Mughal Empire is his other pathbreaking work. It is generally agreed that if there is a Colossus who bestrides (some would say "stifles") the world of medireview Indian history, it is he, it is he, and you can say that again. Habib's singular pre-eminence in Medireview Studies coincides with Thapar's in Ancient, and his ideological predilections, though more in an authoritarian Marxist mould than hers, have earned him equal respect as a secular foe of contemporary fundamentalisms.

Professor Habib's awesome presence at Aligarh has tended to overshadow India's other outstanding Indian medievalist, Professor Muzaffar Alam, who escaped his inflexible teacher and took intellectual shelter first in JNU, and now even further from Aligarh — in Chicago. A third major name in Medireview India is David Shulman of Jerusalem, whose various books have used South Indian literary materials in new ways to enlighten historical themes.

Modern Indian history is riddled with sheet anchors, which must be a contradiction in terms if sheet anchors are meant to exist only in the singular. You wouldn't get any straight answer if you asked "Who is the Alexander the Great of modern Indian history". The Cambridge historian C.A. Bayly, the Paris-Oxford historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the Calcutta-Columbia historian Partha Chatterjee, the rootedly Delhi-based Sumit Sarkar, the Canberra-Vienna Subaltern guru Ranajit Guha, the Harvard historian Sugata Bose, the New Zealander Hew McLeod, the Oberlin historian Michael Fisher, the Bangalore-Berkeley maverick Ram Guha, the statistically inclined Sumit Guha of Brown University, and Francis Robinson of London University have all produced an impressive body of books on modern India.

Then there is a long list of historians who have written at least one outstanding book of modern Indian history: Tanika Sarkar's Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation, Dipesh Chakrabarty's Rethinking Working-class History, Chetan Singh's Punjab in the Seventeenth Century, Shahid Amin's Event, Metaphor, Memory, Harjot Oberoi's The Construction of Religious Boundaries, Vasudha Dalmia's The Nationalisation of Hindu Traditions, Radhika Singha's A Despotism of Law, and David Hardiman's The Coming of the Devi come to my mind only because I've read them closely and had something or the other to do with their publication: there are very many other social history books in this class. Because Modern Indian history does not entail mastering Persian/Urdu or Sanskrit/Pali, the number of world-class historians in this field is considerable and growing.

But can one really write world-class modern Indian history without languages other than English? If one has to single out a historian while keeping this question in mind, only one name emerges: Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Recently appointed Professor of Indian History by Oxford University, he alone has the linguistic ability to use archives in Portuguese, French, Dutch, Tamil, Telugu and English. Subrahmanyam was once the enfant terrible of Modern Indian History and has now blossomed into its Phantom: he's everywhere, and when he walks, the Indian history jungle quakes — usually in envy. He is the most prolific historian that anyone can ever remember between Sir Jadunath Sarkar and now. I haven't enough space left to discuss Subrahmanyam's career: if he's visitable on a website, browsing through his list of publications might cost you a hundred hours of internet connection. What of the historians connected with the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR)? If there is a Black Hole of Indian History, it is the ICHR. The most noticeable feature about the historians I've mentioned is that not one of them has any time for the ICHR: nor, of course, for the historically blind Government which puts lackey historians into that Black Hole.

Rukun Advani is the author of Beethoven Among the Cows and runs a publishing house, Permanent Black, in New Delhi.

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