January 28, 2020
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The Remembrance Of Things Past

It isn’t yet another gift-wrapped piece of Indology. John Keay’s is a balanced account of India.

The Remembrance Of Things Past

So what happened in India these last 5,000 years? Only the brave will set out to answer that one. No one, of course, knows what really happened and the most anyone can attempt is an approximation of a fraction of the ‘truth’. Historical ‘facts’ are, after all, only a selection made by the historian from random remnants. So, Scotland-based John Keay’s much talked-about India: A History is only "a" history. But of all recently written histories, it might perhaps be least distant from "the" history of India.

It helps, Keay says, that "I’m not an academic historian, just a writer of history." That a history of India should be written in an unknown village in Scotland rather than some crowded campus is a bit refreshing. This is where Keay wrote an encyclopaedia of Scotland and this is where he wrote his new book on India. "There are so many histories by people with an agenda," says Keay, "the nationalist histories, the Marxist histories, the Muslim imperialistic view, the British imperialistic view, the Hindu revivalist view. Then, in academia there are books for which funds are made available and they’re at the mercy of the latest fashions and ideologies. These are pressures I hope an individual writing alone isn’t subject to, for he’s not dependent on the ideology of the moment."

Keay writes untrapped by these familiar agendas. His is a history with a view but one without a school. "It seemed to me that what was badly needed was a history accessible to readers and not just to other historians. A history that was well-written and with a continuous and reasonably balanced account." Keay takes a robust view against the fashion that makes only the recent past historically significant; his span is from Harappa to the contemporary. "I can’t imagine anyone writing a history of Italy without the Roman Empire or a history of Egypt without the Pharaonic period. India has just as distinguished a classical past. Why write a history of India that devotes 50 pages to 3,000 years and 500 to the 19th and 20th centuries."

Keay’s first triumph (and it could be the lasting one) is what he didn’t do. "There aren’t that many balanced, comprehensive histories of India available. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I don’t know of another one. My book may not appeal to all, but it could become a sounding board. It’s an account that is dispassionate and I hope not entirely stupid and ignorant." So is this close to "the" history of India? Keay’s account is not prejudice-free; no account is. Anyone would do well to read that brilliant set of essays by E.H. Carr What Is History before picking up a history book. If you can’t see the prejudices at work, Carr tells us, either you’re tone deaf or the historian’s a dull dog. And it isn’t just the prejudices of the writer but the inclination of the reader that angles an approach; we believe of history what we want to. For, history is one thing, social memory is another. And the latter is what primarily determines how we interpret the past to construct the present.

But, to the historian that’s an inevitable danger. "You do have to struggle against some reconstruction of the past," says Keay. "And Indian history is much more vulnerable to re-interpretation largely because of the shortage of written material." And through his 500 pages and more Keay is watchful of his own constructs and the constructs of his sources. "I wanted to present the bare bones of the story while crediting the source, to show what they might have had in mind when doing what they were, to show what their agenda might have been. What people like to remember is always selective, but one certainly can have an awareness that something different is possible."

That selection is an explosive act in today’s politics, and that’s what makes Keay’s account politically important. The various schools of history aren’t just telling stories of the past from a certain point of view. They’re moulding our collective memories, they’re telling us where we come from-in fact they are fighting to tell us who we are. The attempt is to order the past to suit today’s prejudices. It’s clear then, that history is not just a story of what happened, that there’s more to it than being a simple scientific approximation of the past. But despite all this, the historian has a role as a remembrancer. And Keay’s is also a book of remembrance.

And, of all recent histories, also by far the most readable. It’s odd how our historians forget that the writing of history has much to do with the writing part too. Rare are the historians who can exhibit a felicity with the language as well. An immediate example is G.M. Trevelyan’s celebrated English Social History-a classic for its lucid writing. History writing has become something of an academic exercise, with historians talking to one another across campuses in arcane, unintelligible tongues. But Keay, happily enough, steers well away from such pitfalls.

But even as Keay speaks of being a sounding board for others, some issues inevitably become a sounding board for the historian himself. And in India, there’s no way he can get away from the Hindu-Muslim ‘question’. "The whole idea of India being overrun by foreign Muslims is a view I find difficult to take on board," says Keay. "The Muslim penetration of South Asia by ideas and by military means took an immensely long period, about 500 years. It was a very, very slow process, it didn’t just happen overnight." And Keay also does not see it as a confrontational event. "There was a significant amount of co-operation and collaboration between people of different faiths," he affirms.

And this is where he warns of allegedly historical accounts and the dangers of believing what people want to believe. "The desecration of Hindu temples by Muslims was really a part of history writing of those days, and so the Muslim historians wrote about it in vigorous fashion. That’s what a Muslim historian was there to do." And again, contrary to popular belief, Keay believes that Aurangzeb cannot be singled out as a despot and believes that he led "an undisputably good Muslim life." He is portrayed as being a great persecutor but seen in relation to many of the other Mughal rulers he was "not much worse than his predecessors; it was Shah Jahan who introduced elements of persecution of Hindus." Keay argues that it is only in the 20th century that differences between Hindus and Muslims really came to the fore. "Why this happened now and not before is worth a book of its own," he says.

But were the differences provoked by the British? Again Keay differs from popular views on the subject. "That perhaps did happen, but it was not intentional," he says. Discriminatory policies of recruitment to the army and the civil service in favour of Sikhs and Muslims were not a deliberate policy to eliminate Hindus, Keay says. "They might have thought a Sikh looks better in a uniform or makes a certain kind of soldier," he says. Apart from the questionable seriousness of the ‘uniform’ view, not all would agree that the British were quite so unwitting in what they did. But then again, that’s another pointer to the fact that there is no a priori history.

Writing a history of the subcontinent also means that one inevitably comes up against the Kashmir question. Keay writes of periods when Kashmir was being built up as a separate nation-state. "I’ve known the land for many years," Keay says. "I first visited Kashmir in 1965 and then went back in 1966 and stayed for six months. It seemed to me in those days that the Kashmiris had little in common with the rest of India. Not just because most were Muslim but because they simply were quite different. But I don’t see it that way any more. They are just one of the different subnational communities. I don’t see Kashmir’s credentials for an independent nation state as being greater than, say, that of the Marathas or the Bengalis."

Had the Mughal and the British rules not succeeded so sweepingly, embryonic states in the pre-Mughal period like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bengal might well have developed into separate nation states along European lines, says Keay. "But one reason that did not happen is because the geography is so different; India’s geography is not so readily suited for sub-divisions." But that’s not to say the subcontinent is united either. "It’s divided into three nation states, but I don’t see this as the final or lasting solution." So does he see more countries emerging out of these three? "Who knows, who knows." Is that a historian’s prejudice? Or ours in how we agree or disagree?

Who knows indeed!

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