Friday, June 10, 2005

The flavour of history

Lately, I've been reading up a lot on India for a project; its history, myths, and other stories that don't find their way into newspapers for a number of obvious reasons: controversy, fear of taking a stand, ignorance, or not enough current news value. The authors of these books are Indian and foreigners, and even though I'm just starting to discover Indian history (never having lived here, I studied European history in school and university), I find that the more enjoyable reads and the more relaxed prose comes from non-Indians. It could be my inexperience, but there is a sense of discovery to their books, and they express it simply, which is delightful. They find stories within history, knowing that history by itself can be interesting, but weighty. There are attempts to humanise the past and place it in the context of the present, and this brings history alive, and prompts questions and curiosity; it is very much like having an interesting teacher who makes you question, rather than one who comes to class, lectures, and disappears.

The Indian books I've read so far have, in comparison, the feeling that the subject of history is so jaded that it leaves me jaded. History is often put down pat, as if it were more a 12th-grade textbook and less something to be understood and enjoyed. I've had to read many of Romila Thapar's sentences three times to understand certain things. It was like being back in school again, where many textbooks had history with none of the excitement of history.

It is a pity because our history, I'm realising more and more, has some interesting periods that have relevance to today. The anti-conversion law, for instance, is not in keeping with our past or anything like that: it only clamps down on individuals. If protecting a religion is the aim, it's an utterly short-term aim, because religions expand and contract over centuries: Buddhism, for example, grew to become the state religion before Hinduism had a major revival, while Jainism went from being a major religion to a minor one. It takes centuries, you learn from history.

But back to books: in the end it really doesn't matter who knowledge comes from if it is accurate and readable. Indian or foreigner, it doesn't matter at all; it's just that one group is a lot more readable at the moment.

Update: Amit points out a piece by Ram Guha on - among other things - why Indian historians sound so laboured. Here's the piece, and here's Mr. Indiauncut's post from February.

Further update: The man's turning out to be my trove on this subject. Here's Rudrangshee Mukherjee on why there isn't any style in Indian history writing, and this is Amit's post.


Anonymous said...

Try Kiran Nagarkar. I'm not sure how accurate his rendition of history is, but I found his novles, "Cuckold" and "Ravan and Eddie" really good reads.
Steven Pressfield is another good author, albeit not related to Indian history.

Rahul said...

Thank you, I'll check them out.

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