Seeing things historically


Seeing things historically

Last night your faded memory filled my heart Like spring's calm and advent in the wilderness, Like the soft desert footfalls of the breeze, Like peace somehow coming to one in sickness. Faiz Ahmed Faiz

DO you know the translator of these lines? Victor Gordon Kiernan. He turned 90 a month or so ago, and lives with his wife Heather in the tiny village of Stow in Scotland. Thanks to Prakash Karat, the editor of this book, and Leftword Books, the publishing house, a lot more people would have access to some of Kiernan's writings. The value of this elegantly produced volume is, doubtless, enhanced by E.J. Hobsbawm's brief but stimulating profile of his life-long comrade, and Harvey J. Kaye's thoughtful essay "Seeing Things Historically".

Most leading historians in South Asia build their reputation on, and bask in the sunshine of, their published Ph.D. By contrast, the range, diversity and voluminousness of Kiernan's scholarly output are truly impressive. His best-known works are on modern imperialism. The Lords of Human Kind (1969) surveys the attitudes towards "inferior races" engendered by European imperialism; Marxism and Imperialism (1974) evaluates the contribution of classical Marxist theory to certain complex issues in 19th and 20th Century imperialism; and From Conquest to Collapse: European Empires from 1815-1960 (1982) illumines a turbulent phase of Europe's military history. Commenting on this book, A.J.P. Taylor wrote: "Victor Kiernan has told this story more frankly than it has ever been told before and with the fruits of scholarship extending over a lifetime."

This collection reproduces three essays from Marxism and Imperialism, but just one from The Lords of Human Kind. Although their source base would appear thin to a modern-day historian, each one of them is brilliantly crafted. "Marx, Engels, and the Indian Mutiny" is a fine example of a historian's craft. Likewise, "After the Mutiny" is full of insightful comments. I wish a couple of other short pieces could have been included from The Lords of Human Kind. The one on the missionaries and their attitude towards Indian religions makes delightful reading.

Kiernan's reminiscences of India, though brief and sketchy, have been published for the first time in this collection. Go through it if you have not heard of P.C. Joshi, the communist leader, Nazir Ahmad, Principal of Lahore's Government College (The Lords of Human Kind is dedicated to him), Harold Barry, Principal of Aitchison College, Rahul Sankrityayan, and his Cambridge friends, Som Nath Chib and M.D. Taseer. One of the stories he narrates relates to the I.N.A. Trials of three officers — a Muslim, a Sikh, and a Hindu — at the Red Fort. The three travelled to Lahore on the same train as Kiernan. Here is a fragment from his memory: "At every halt jubilant crowds had gathered; at Lahore the big square outside the station was packed, every inch, by an immense multitude — it was quite a while before I could find a way out. Tragically, this was the last time that the three communities could feel their brotherhood; before long they would be at one another's throats, the three heroes forgotten."

Christopher Hill, the brilliant British Marxist historian, wrote that historians are interested in ideas not only because they influence societies, but also because they reveal the societies that give rise to them. Hence, the philosophical truth of the ideas is irrelevant to the historian's purpose, though all of us, Christopher Hill added, have our preferences. The reader of Across Time and Continents will no doubt soon discover Kiernan's preferences in what he writes on India.

In South Asia, Kiernan is widely known and respected in literary circles for translating Muhammad Iqbal and Faiz. What is probably not so well known is that he spent some of his creative years in India from 1938 to 1946. Despite fits of malaria and attacks of jaundice, he taught at the Sikh National College and the Aitchison College in Lahore, north India's leading cultural, literary and educational centre. Lahore was then the home of several renowned Urdu poets and writers associated with the Progressive Writers' Movement. His translations of Iqbal and Faiz were the result of this encounter. Between the two, he noticed a curious medley of contrasts and resemblances. In his introduction to Poems by Faiz, he commented on this aspect with utmost sensitivity and brought out the contrast in the colouring of their work. Iqbal was fond of the standard image of moth and candle; Faiz was loyal to that of garden and rosebed, a rosebed now as likely as not to typify the masses, the poor, buffeted by the rude winds of tyranny. At the same time, Kirernan discerned how Iqbal and Faiz shared the desire to alter the society, how they both looked abroad for ideas as well as home, and how they belonged very deeply to the Punjab.

Victor Kiernan belonged to a distinguished generation of British Marxist historians that includes Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rude and E.P. Thompson. However, he is the only one whose scholarly contribution is not so widely acknowledged. Is it because of the sheer universality of his historical concerns? Whatever may be the explanation, "in his career of enormous and, if anything, accelerating productivity ranging over centuries and continents [Victor Kiernan] has, so far as I am aware, no parallel among twentieth-century British historians" (Hobsbawm).

Across Time and Continents is a wonderfully pleasant tribute to a leading Marxist historian and a friend of the people of India and South Asia. Again, as Hobsbawm, the master historian of our times, observes: "His writings will outlive his death, but when he and those who have known him in person are gone, there will be no way of knowing quite how remarkable a human being Victor Gordon Kiernan was, and how those who knew him were so glad to be his contemporaries." While reading these lines, I was reminded of the following lines from Faiz Ahmed Faiz that Kiernan translated with such skill:

On gate and roof a crushing load of silence — From heaven a flowing tide of desolation — The moon's pale beams, whispered regrets, lying In pools ebbing away on dusty highroads — In the abodes of sleep a half formed darkness — From Nature's harp a dying strain of music On muted strings faintly, faintly lamenting.

Across Time and Continents: A Tribute to Victor G. Kiernan, edited by Prakash Karat, Leftword Books, 2003, p.255, Rs. 450.

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