How to Write It

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

  • India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha
    Macmillan, 900 pp, £25.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 230 01654 5
  • The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future by Martha Nussbaum
    Belknap, 403 pp, £19.95, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02482 3

It may seem perverse to begin an essay on India by invoking a historian of France: Eugen Weber, who died this year, a colleague of mine and a formidable presence at UCLA. He wrote a book in 1976 on how France became a proper nation by transforming ‘peasants into Frenchmen’. But the Weber I knew, and bantered with during the last years of his life, also had an Indian past of which he felt periodically obliged to speak, though he spoke of it to me with discomfort. Born in Bucharest, Weber was sent to school in England, served in the Second World War as a captain in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and in the course of his service spent the mid-1940s in India, after earlier stints in Belgium and Germany. Demobilised in 1947, he went to Cambridge, and devoted the rest of his life to history, mostly French history. He maintained his affection for India and visited it a few times in later years. It was an affection that was tempered by chilling memories of the religious violence he had witnessed at close quarters in 1946-47; hence the discomfort he felt in talking about it.

Weber is best known for his account of the building of the modern French nation in the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is an account that involves roads and railways, schoolrooms and stern instituteurs, and the production of homogeneous ‘Frenchness’ (as both reality and myth) from the diverse terroirs that still existed in 1870. It is either a version of modernisation theory, as some of its critics have claimed, or a sly account of the modernising pretensions and projects of the Parisian elite, or both of these – as Weber sometimes hinted. Devoid of pretentious jargon, or any overt nod in the direction of the social sciences, Weber’s work has been a model of how to write modern national histories since its publication thirty years ago. Its long shadow falls even on Benedict Anderson’s account of the way print capitalism helped create the ‘imagined communities’ that are today’s nation-states.

No such master account has yet been written of the modern Indian nation-state, partly because historians of the subcontinent have usually shied away from the period after 1947, leaving that task to political scientists, sociologists and omniscient travellers. The curious practices of Indian archives and their keepers have not helped either: documents are declassified and allowed into the public domain on a very erratic basis. When my wife, a historian of modern France, asked me some time ago to recommend an accessible work on the history of modern India, I couldn’t think of one. Sumit Sarkar’s sweeping but dense account, Modern India, stopped at 1947; the collective volume entitled India after Independence by Bipan Chandra, Aditya Mukherjee and Mridula Mukherjee was a stodgy piece of nationalist-Marxist writing from the rank and file of plodders at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Though an admirer of many of V.S. Naipaul’s novels, I could not subject my wife to a diet of such bile-infused travelogues as An Area of Darkness, or to Naipaul’s later apologia for right-wing Hindu nationalism in India: A Million Mutinies Now. Eventually, I settled for Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, an urbane, readable and sometimes personal account by a historically-minded political scientist who, again, had worked on France – his first book was Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France. Khilnani’s work on India has the virtue of assuming little prior knowledge of that part of the world. It also has one significant vice: its author’s weakness for the personality and ideas of independent India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), whose biography he is now writing.

It was only a matter of time before this massive historiographical gap would be filled. The task that Ramachandra Guha sets himself in his massive India after Gandhi is not quite that of describing the Indian fin des terroirs (the first French title of the translated Peasants into Frenchmen). But it is the story of the building of a rather improbable nation-state from a fragmented political landscape, and as such it is first of all a political account. Like Weber’s work, it is also primarily a narrative account, expertly and fluently written; it has apparently found its way to the top of the non-fiction bestseller list in India (a list that is itself a form of fiction). It also avoids jargon and too much use of the social sciences and their apparatus.

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