Books: Colourful and Rich Past; India - A History. by John Keay (HarperCollins, Pounds 24.99). Reviewed by Charlie Hill

By Hill, Charlie | The Birmingham Post (England), April 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

Books: Colourful and Rich Past; India - A History. by John Keay (HarperCollins, Pounds 24.99). Reviewed by Charlie Hill


Hill, Charlie, The Birmingham Post (England)


Throughout the colonial exploitation of the sub-continent, one aspect of the relationship between India and the West has had the most profound consequences.

This was a sense of inferiority that characterised much Indian thinking with regard to the value of their history and their contribution to the history of the world.

In the nineteenth century this lack of self-confidence, which along with the concept of a Patrician English-speaking elite has probably done most to hinder the development of the nation, was scored more deeply still into the Indian psyche.

The phenomenon and the reaction it has at times provoked was explored by Mark Tully in 1991 in his excellently argued No Full Stops in India, but

what this book did not do was trace the roots of this peculiarly Indian condition back to its logical genesis.

In his introduction to this history however, John Keay provides us with a possible explanation. The simple fact of the matter is that until recently the paucity of available source material was such that for 'more than 80 per cent of attestable Indian history there were no histories'. Whatever the reason for this deficiency, no people can grow when cut off from their roots.

The lack of documentary evidence also means that historians have to show a little initiative when trying to piece together a history of India. Some compound the intellectual insecurity of the sub-continent through 'the tendency to synchronise and subordinate things Indian to parallel events and achievements in the history of countries to the west of India,' which is 'a recurrent theme in Indian historiography'. Alternatively Keay argues for a more 'generalist' or 'explorational' approach. 'History based on histories looks to be the province of professionals,' he avers. 'But where so much of the past, even its chronology, has to be teased from less articulate objects like coins and charters, or pieced together from random inscriptions, titbits of oral tradition, literary compositions and religious texts, and where such researches are then usually consigned to

specialist publications and obscure monographs, there surely must be a need for an overview.'

Much of Keay's research then, is predicated on his many years physical experience of the country. 'Better still,' he writes 'thirty years of intermittent wandering about the sub-continent could now be construed as other than pure indulgence. DD Kosambi, the most inspirational of India's historians, reckoned that for the restoration and interpretation of India's past the main qualification was a willingness to cover the ground on foot.

'He called it 'field work'; and so it is.'

Furthermore he sets himself a literally monumental challenge in that 'to all but scholars steeped in the glories of Sanskrit literature it is the architectural and sculptural wonders of India which provide the most

eloquent testimony to its history? A history which acknowledged the prominence of India's buildings and provided a political, economic and ideological context for them looked to be useful.'

As anyone who has visited the place will tell you, in many respects this non-scholastic approach is absolutely necessary for any true understanding of the country: no amount of study nor interpretation of texts can give you anything like the insight into what was once described as 'the greatest galaxy of monuments in the world' that you glean from actually being there.

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