A key to history

Keay was in the city this week to participate in the bi-centennial celebration of the launch of the "Great Arc". He spoke to T. Ramakrishnan on history writing and the importance of humanities.

About six weeks ago, nearly 180 experts in Global Information Systems (GIS) from 70 countries gathered in Cambridge, U.K., to discuss latest developments in their field of activity. They began their discussion with a presentation on one of the greatest scientific accomplishments — the accurate mapping and surveying of India more than two centuries ago. This endeavour, which remained unsung till recently, was made famous following the publication in 2000 of "The Great Arc", a book by John Keay. This is not his only book on India. His other works include — "Into India" "A India: a History" and "India Discovered: The Recovery of a Lost Civilisation". Keay was in the city this week to participate in the bi-centennial celebration of the launch of the "Great Arc". He spoke to T. Ramakrishnan on history writing and the importance of humanities.

JOHN KEAY'S specialisation is not just India. He is an expert on the Far East and the Middle East as well. In fact, his recent work is about the Palestine question. Still, he would not like to call himself a "professional historian". He says academicians have made the subject of history too specialised for the common man to access, whereas this was not the situation in the past.

"History writing in the 19th century was much more accessible", he points out, adding that the great history writers of that time — Edward Gibbon, Macaulay and T.B. — were not academics.

When the subject becomes too complex, interest in it on the part of the people too declines. This is where he would prefer to be a corrective force, and kindle greater interest in history.

So, if someone complains that history does not attract the attention from many, his response is: "the way history is written should be as enthralling and interesting as the amount of research that goes into it". As for paying importance to history, Keay says it invariably depends on the requirements or needs of a given society. "In an economically-backward country where people struggle for drinking water, what is the point in having a large number of graduates in humanities? Instead, such a nation should have more engineers", he says.

The writer contrasts this situation with the U.K., where there are far too many students in humanities but universities find it difficult to fill vacancies for engineering seats. So, the nature of economy influences the kind of emphasis on the subject. At the same time, he is not for completely disregarding the study of history and insists that everyone should have a proper grounding in the subject.

Keay, who once worked as a writer/presenter for the BBC Radio 3 and 4 and subsequently, concentrated on writing books on the East India Company era and the history of exploration, feels that complete objectivity in history writing may not be possible but one should make all the attempts to be objective. Citing the case of the Middle East, he says history writing is "heavily politicised" and directed towards one particular point of view.

Moreover, political priorities of a country are also influencing factors. In the erstwhile Soviet Union, history was completely re-written from the Marxist point of view. Now, it is sought to be re-written again in a different way, he notes.

On the controversy surrounding the NCERT history textbooks in the country, his response: "the intellectual world in this country is sophisticated. It can handle such pressures effectively".

Keay notes with concern the increasing tendency of levying fee for entry to museums. Unfortunately, even in Britain, the situation is changing, contrary to its traditions. So, it disturbs him more when he finds a discriminatory entry fee system being adopted in historical monuments in this country for foreign tourists. "Most of the foreigners come to India only to see heritage and those visiting on a low-budget feel the pinch". If the authorities want more funds for maintaining the monuments, they can instead impose an indirect tax and collect the required money, he suggests.

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