Part of my job as historian is sifting rhetoric from reality: Audrey Truschke

Audrey Truschke feels her prior training in philology and religious studies has made her a resourceful historian today

December 14, 2018 02:57 pm | Updated December 15, 2018 05:34 pm IST

‘I certainly hope that 20 years from now there is a lot of new scholarship on the Mughal Empire,’ says Audrey Truschke. Photo: Special arrangement

‘I certainly hope that 20 years from now there is a lot of new scholarship on the Mughal Empire,’ says Audrey Truschke. Photo: Special arrangement

Beyond the ‘bland’ established facts about the past — such as the names of kings and the dates of battles — history is work-in-progress, which strives to piece together disparate bits of information, says Audrey Truschke, Assistant Professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, Newark. The author of two books, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court , and, more recently, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King , Truschke will be at Lit for Life 2019 as part of a panel discussion on the transformation of Indian historical narratives into an ideological battleground. Excerpts from an e-mail interview:

You have said that it was your knowledge of Sanskrit and Persian that drew you to the study of South Asian history. But what drew you to Sanskrit and Persian in the first place?

As a first-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, I took a class on Hinduism, specifically on the Mahabharata . I was amazed and bewildered by the stories I encountered therein, and I wanted to know more about the Mahabharata specifically and the culture and tradition associated with this epic. To that end, I began studying Sanskrit and was quickly enraptured by the vast and understudied literature available in premodern Sanskrit texts. Things sort of snowballed from there. I learned Persian a bit later, largely as a graduate student, in order to access materials relevant to Indo-Islamic rule.

How did your learnings in the two languages lead you to your current core work — as a tutor of South Asian history at an American university?

In 2004, I graduated with a B.A. degree from the University of Chicago in Religious Studies with a focus on Hinduism and with four years of Sanskrit under my belt. The most obvious next steps were to attend graduate school, receive a Ph.D., and become a professor. My Ph.D. was in area studies, and I was trained, primarily, by a philologist. I always worked on historical topics, but my turn to history as a disciplinary home occurred in my postdoctoral years. I found the tools and language of historical method useful for the sorts of questions I was already asking about the Indian past. I think that I am a better, more resourceful historian today because of my prior training in philology and religious studies.

What would you say are the non-negotiable characteristics that any student of history needs to bring to the table? What ethical and moral values do you bring to the pursuit of history?

Historians need to be well-versed in historical method, including ethical considerations. Historical method helps us recover the past, use a wide range of texts responsibly, ask good question, and so forth. Historical method and scholarly guidelines more broadly also have ethical angles. For me, some of the key ethical guidelines of my work are honestly pursuing all relevant evidence, including evidence potentially contradictory to my own arguments, and being open to changing my mind. In the public sphere, people sometimes misunderstand how scholars work with historical sources and think that a single new piece of evidence can wipe away all prior knowledge on a given subject. History is, in large part, a work of synthesis as we strive to piece together disparate bits of information.

Do you consider yourself open to criticism of your ideas?

I welcome challenges to my work, and I am always open to further nuancing my views on a given historical topic. History is always a work-in-progress. I certainly hope that, say, 20 years from now, there is a lot of new scholarship on the Mughal Empire that has altered my views of this premodern polity.

Given that your area of work is centred around South Asian history, what would you say are modern-day political impulses that render South Asian (medieval) history particularly contentious?

In Modi’s India, the leading political party bases its authority on a fictional, bastardised version of the past. That house of cards trembles in the slightest breeze, and, in this analogy, serious historical work is closer to a cyclone. Hindu nationalists increasingly attack scholarly work, the academy, and individual scholars, in large part, because we offer a far more grounded analysis of the past.

You’ve suggested in the past that historians tend to sift through history and filter out elements. You’ve said: “The goal is to accurately reconstruct the past to the extent possible given the available sources. Sometimes the goal is also to understand why certain authors wrote as they did, complete with mistruths and biases.” How do you respond to those who would suggest that such an approach is problematic insofar as it filters real-time historical narratives through the prism of post-facto perspectives (some would say ‘biases’)?

Part of my job as a historian is sifting rhetoric from reality and then making appropriate claims using each type of evidence. Rhetoric still matters a great deal, but it tells us different things about the past. Historians use a robust set of critical thinking tools to parse texts and other sorts of historical evidence, including reading against the grain, comparing sources to one another, and so forth. In so doing, historians strive to reconstruct and analyse the past as accurately as possible, rather than dooming ourselves to repeating the biases and even the propaganda of our sources.

A broader philosophical question: Is there no such thing as settled history? Is all history susceptible to review and reinterpretation? What are the risks (if any) of a ceaseless reinterpretation of the past?

There are set facts about the past, but they are largely limited to bland names and dates, such as the year of a specific battle or a given king’s regional title. The modern practice of history is all the words between the names and dates. History is the narrative of the past, and it is an ongoing project. That the work of historians is never finished is an exciting promise that we can continually ask new and different questions and pursue better ways of understanding the past.

You’ve on many occasions stepped outside of the academic ‘ivory tower’ (so to speak) and waded into the Twitter trenches. What impels you to do that? Are such interactions capable of persuading critics? Do you think you have persuaded anyone?

Part of the academic project is to share scholarship with a broad audience, and I take that seriously. In the current Indian context, I engage with the public for those who are thirsty for knowledge but are not quite sure where to find a more grounded glimpse of Indian history.

In other words, I do not write for those who have already made up their mind, especially right-wingers. Ultranationalists have no use for calm, reasoned history. But there is a largely silent middle-ground still in India that can be persuaded perhaps by Hindutva ideology but is not yet completely convinced. I write popular pieces, in large part, to give such folks a set of rudimentary tools with which they might think critically about the past and the present.

What is the most reasoned (even if non-academic) criticism of your work that you have encountered (on Twitter or on other platforms) that you would, in the interest of openness, like to engage with and respond to?

I encounter criticisms of my work with some regularity from other scholars, and I generally find the feedback productive and helpful. I have not found social media to be the best forum for this.

Audrey Truschke will be speaking at The Hindu Lit for Life 2019. January 12, 13 & 14, at the Lady Andal School premises, Harrington Road, Chennai. Visit to register

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