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‘History should never fight shy of causing offence,’ says British historian John Keay

For a wider audience: ‘Too much history is intended simply for other historians.’  

British historian and journalist John Keay believes that history should be written not only for other historians but also for the general public. He has popularised the sub-genre of narrative history with more than 20 books that span a range of geographies and cultures — from South Asia to China, Mekong, Indonesia, and West Asia. In an email interview, Keay talks about, among other things, his fascination for South Asia, the East India Company, and the advantages of writing history as an ‘outsider’. Edited excerpts:

You have written many books on the subcontinent. What is it that you find so attractive about this region?

That I still know so little. India is inexhaustible and constantly changing. After 50 years’ acquaintance there is still so much to see and learn.

You say that you are not a historian but a history-writer. What do you don’t do that a historian might?

Today’s historians usually teach. I don’t. They are attached to an academic institution which may also influence their research choices and narrow their field of expertise. I’ve never belonged to a faculty or been subject to peer review pressures. The most revered Anglophone writers of history — Gibbon, Carlyle, Macaulay — would not today qualify as historians. They were history-writers for whom the writing was as important as the history. I subscribe to that. Too much history is intended simply for other historians. I try to reach a wider audience.

In the Indian context, do you think it is now nearly impossible to write history without offending someone, especially of people like Shivaji and Aurangzeb?

Yes, you’re probably right. But history should never fight shy of causing offence. It’s good that it gets out of the classroom and matters to a wider public. The purposes to which it is put may be questionable and should of course be challenged. But the level of engagement one finds in South Asia is surely better than the dumbing down or indifference that often prevails elsewhere.

Do you discern many differences between how an Indian writes Indian history and how an ‘outsider’ like yourself approaches the task?

Gandhi took exception to the Englishman’s habit of writing other peoples’ history, a habit that has since been construed as ‘Orientalist’ presumption. But as you suggest, in an often contested field, non-native history-writers do enjoy certain advantages — they may be more objective and dispassionate, have a wider frame of reference, and access to better archives and a wider readership. Ideally, for every Englishman writing Indian history there’d be an Indian writing English history. And perhaps this will come. I’m a Scot. Scots write English history and Englishmen write Scots history. It can engender controversy; it’s also stimulating and healthy.

You hold that the East India Company (EIC) did all kinds of nasty things only for about 20-30 years of its 270-year existence, with most of its depredations in India being largely dictated by the British government. For an Indian, why should this distinction even matter?

I wrote a history of the EIC. It’s been in print for over 30 years. It is just that — the history of a global trading company, not of India under Company rule. In fact, much of it deals with the Company’s activities elsewhere and before they involved post-Mughal India. Moreover, the book’s narrative ends in the late 1700s when the Company was effectively nationalised and before most of India was subject to its rule. The idea was to acquaint readers with an extraordinary and often bizarre enterprise that generated a global empire. It’s not in any sense a history of India or of injustices inflicted on its people.

Would it be correct to say that the mapping of India was driven primarily by military necessities?

The infrastructural improvements that mapping made possible were certainly dictated in large part by military considerations. The obvious examples would be the proliferation of railways and telegraph links in the aftermath of the 1857 Uprising. But the mapping exercise that intrigued me was the measurement of the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian from Kanyakumari to Dehradun. This began about the year 1800 and was completed in the 1840s. It was of great scientific significance and undoubtedly prefigured the idea of pan-Indian dominion. But it was of no military value.

You have written about the history of completely different regions and cultures — from India to China, Mekong, Indonesia, West Asia and so on. Which other region do you think makes for the most interesting comparison with Indian history?

Having written histories of both India and China I can’t help but be amazed by the ignorance and indifference to Indian history in China and vice versa. Each has so much to learn from the other, quite a bit in common, and quite a bit in contrast. A good starting point might be the radically different attitudes towards the past, with China’s history being a matter of interminable record and much revised writings and India’s of unfathomable myths and magnificent monuments.

Your first trip to India was in the 1960s, for trout fishing in Kashmir. Any plans of going back?

No. Visiting anywhere as traumatised as Kashmir is liable to be construed as a vote of confidence in the status quo.


John Keay will be speaking at The Hindu Lit for Life 2019. To be held on January 12, 13 & 14 at Lady Andal School premises, Harrington Road, Chennai. Visit www.thehindul .com to register

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 2:40:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/lit-for-life/in-conversation-with-historian-john-keay/article25908648.ece

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