India's Missing Historians: Mihir Bose Discusses the Paradox That India, a Land of History, Has a Surprisingly Weak Tradition of Historiography

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INDIA, THE LAND OF CONTRASTS, presents no greater contrast than this: in a land rich in history there is a dearth of native historians, particularly those willing to tackle big subjects. Few academic historians are ready to explain how modern India emerged. Nor do they write biographies of prominent Indians. Even scarcer are large format illustrated books of popular history.

Indian historians appear to worry that they might ruffle too many feathers, and there is every reason to sympathize with this fear. A couple of years ago, an American academic James Laine wrote a biography of Shivaji, the seventeenth-century Maratha king. Some modern-day Shivaji followers were so outraged by certain passages in the book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, that the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute where Laine had carried out the research was attacked. Oxford University Press withdrew the book from India where it was banned.

The lack of historical writing has deep roots. Ancient Indians believed poets are not only more valuable than historians but better able to write history. Kalhana, author of Rajatarngini, a twelfth-century history of the kings of Kashmir, began his book by saying, 'who but a poet can bring back the past in sweet composition, and what can make it intelligible if his art cannot?' As R. C. Majumdar, doyen of Indian historians, lamented in Ancient India (1968), 'One of the gravest defects of Indian culture, which defies rational explanation, is the aversion of Indians to writing history. They applied themselves to all conceivable branches of literature and excelled in many of them, but they never seriously took to the writing of history,' with the result that 'for a great deal of our knowledge of ancient Indian history we are indebted to foreigners'. So to write about ancient India today you have to consult Herodotus and the Greek writers who accompanied Alexander the Great's campaign to India; Megasthenes, the Greek historian who in c. 300 BC was ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya and collected material there for his work Indica; Ptolemy's Geographia; and the Chinese travellers Faxian and Xuanzang.

The first history of India was written in the eleventh century by Alberuni, a Muslim scholar who accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni's invasion of northwest India. The Muslim presence in India encouraged the recording of history and nearly all the great Mughal emperors from Babar, founder of the dynasty, left behind fascinating memoirs, something that their contemporary monarchs in the West did not emulate. Yet when it comes to evidence of what life was like in Mughal times the historian still has to turn to foreigners--as Abraham Eraly (an exception to the rule that Indians do not go in for big picture history books) discovered when he came to write The Mughal World (2007): 'For everyday life in Mughal India, the only sources are the writings of foreign travellers, and I have used them extensively.'

It is understandable that Indians do not want to study the Raj. British historians do that well enough, and many Indians would rather forget what they see as a shameful episode in India's past. But it does seem remarkable that the two most popular books to deal with the gaining of India's independence are Freedom at Midnight (1997) by Dominique Lapierre, a Frenchman, and Larry Collins, an American, and Liberty or Death (1998) by Patrick French, who is British.

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Indians have not even been keen to tell the story of the India that has emerged since 1947. A rare example of excellent narrative history is India After Gandhi (2007) by Ramachandra Guha. He complains he has had to struggle because there are no biographies of many of the leading politicians of the last sixty years, the only exceptions being Gandhi, Nehru (who himself had a taste for writing history, something he shared with his fellow Harrovian, Winston Churchill) and his daughter Indira. …