Ramachandra Guha On The Lack Of Modern Indian Histories

In India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (HarperCollins, New York, 2007), Ramachandra Guha writes:

Of his recent history of postwar Europe, Tony Judt writes that ‘a book of this kind rests, in the first instance, on the shoulders of other books’. He notes that ‘for the brief sixty-year period of Europe’s history since the end of the Second World War – indeed, for this period above all – the secondary literature in English is inexhaustible’. The situation in India is all too different. Here the gaps in our knowledge are colossal. The Republic of India is a union of twenty-eight states, some larger than France. Yet not even the bigger or more important of these states have had their histories written. In the 1950s and 60s India pioneered a new approach to foreign policy, and to economic policy and planning as well. Authoritative or even adequate accounts of these experiments remain to be written. India has produced entrepreneurs of great vision and dynamism – but the stories of the institutions they built and the wealth they created are mostly unwritten. Again, there are no proper biographies of some of the key figures in our modern history: such as Sheikh Abdullah or Master Tara Singh or M. G. Ramachandran, ‘provincial’ leaders each of whose province is the size of a large European country. [p. 13; links added]

Guha’s analysis here is, sadly enough, almost wholly correct. Guha’s own ‘opus,’ cited above, runs to over 800 pages, and yet it is barely more than a sampler, an appetizer, a pointer to the many corners of modern Indian history that remain unexplored: in the face of a historical project as imposing as that of modern India’s, even such large works can do little more than gesture at their own insignificance. I’m not a historian by trade (and professional historians have accused me of being an amateur) but even my ‘casual’ efforts have resulted in my encountering the lacunae in historical scholarship that Guha writes about. In the realm of military history, for instance, my co-author Jagan Mohan and I found–while working on our books on the 1965 and 1971 air wars  between India and Pakistan–few to none published works on Indian military history, and had to rely largely on personal accounts–autobiographical and biographical–with all of their inherent frailties as sources of information. Official archival stores were hard to access, their points of entry blocked sometimes by official legal strictures, sometimes by bureaucratic inflexibility. Moreover, to add final insult to injury, there simply wasn’t the readership–the all-critical market for publishers–for such historical works as ours. Quite simply, the failure that Guha speaks of was manifest at every level of the historical enterprise: actual histories were hard come by; historical sources were meager; interest in histories and antiquities was only marginal.  Under these conditions, the production of written history seemed intractable at best.

This state of affairs is especially peculiar in the context of the Indian popular imagination–one which finds its national pride grounded in tremendous antiquity of India’s civilizations and cultures. It offers a stark reminder that the nationalist imagination all too often outruns the actual national enterprise.

Barbara Tuchman Contra Hot Takes

Barbara Tuchman kicks off the preface to her Practicing History: Selected Essays (Ballantine Books, New York, 1981) by writing:

It is surprising to find, on reviewing one’s past work, which are the pieces that seem to stand up and which are those that have wilted. The only rule I can discover as a determinant–and it is a rule riddled with exceptions–is that, on the whole, articles or reports which have a “hard,” that is to say factual, subject matter or a personally observed story to tell are more readable today than “think” pieces intended as satire or advocacy, or written from the political passions of the moment. These tend to sound embarrassing after the passage of time, and have not, with or two exceptions been revived.

I sometimes try my hand at satire on this blog; those efforts survive here, sure to embarrass me in the future. And I’m often mortified by the pieces I write during election seasons; they strike me as a too quick, superficial at the best of times. But I don’t intend to stop writing either kind of blog post. For I write here to ‘practice,’ to keep writing–even as, and especially because, many forms of ‘writers’ block’ imperil my writing elsewhere. (Put it this way; if I didn’t write something here, I would have all too many days when I would not have written anything at all.) I publish the posts I write because the act of publishing acts as closure, compelling me to move on and not be tempted to return to the post to fiddle with it–even as I hope someday to return to the ‘scratch on the surface,’ to dig deeper, perhaps turning the little ditty here into a more elaborate essay. Despite this being a digital platform, I have no hopes that any of the writing will endure–even as I continue to entertain the fantasy that someday my daughter will read some of it.

Tuchman’s larger point is directed at ‘hot takes,’ at the effort directed to being topical, at the desperate attempts to stick one’s oar in the flow of opinion, to ‘contribute’ something, anything, to an ongoing discussion, failure to participate in which might be viewed as an abdication of responsibility by some who have appointed themselves pundits.  This pressure is especially acute now given the phenomena of a viral news item, one whose ubiquity in your social media feeds suggest the whole world is doing nothing but paying attention to every aspect of the incident reported. Tuchman suggests we’d do better to let our powder dry out, to bide our time, so that we may write in more considered fashion (perhaps with more ‘factual, subject matter’ too.) This is not a new point, but it is interestingly made by a historian here, one used to writing about matters that are sometimes long-forgotten. The historian knows the present is not the most important time of all; that much water remains to flow under the bridge, to join the voluminous oceans that have already done so.

History as Chronicle of the Inevitable

From Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America:

[A]s Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as “History,” harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.  The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

When I first studied history as a subject of formal instruction, one equipped with formal syllabi and textbooks, it was presented as a very particular narrative, the classic dates-and-kings-and-battles kind. There was no increase in the sophistication of our studies as we rose from the sixth to the eighth grades, merely a chronological transition from the Ancient to the Medieval to the Modern, eras that neatly terminated as centuries did. Our understanding of the events we studied remained pegged to the same paradigms in each grade in school: here was a cavalcade of occurrences, flowing through time, each bringing forth in neat succession the one after it; history was just one damn thing after another. (Later, military histories introduced me to the notion of history written by victors, to the selective presentation of those narratives that best validate and justify and tidy up the messiness of something as chaotic and morally problematic as war. These histories at least made clear their writing was a creative act.)

The contingencies that Roth’s narrator notices missing in school history are implicit there but their presence is easily masked by the fact of history looking back at the past, at events transpired and now fixed and unalterable. Viewed from this perspective, it is all too easy to imagine the collective weight of all that went before forcing into existence the events of historical narratives, turning them from potential to actual. When this is done, the indeterminate garden of forking paths that is the future suddenly and mysteriously becomes as determinate and necessary as the past–the transition through the present has this magical effect. We forget, all too soon, every moment’s pregnancy with possibility. This is facilitated, of course, by the selective narrow focus that ignores entire classes of humans, entire domains of human activity. Small wonder that historical events that do not reflect the rich diversity of historical forces in action at any given moment appear so inevitable.

Some kinds of histories–especially of those human activities considered to be conceptually divorced from social, political and economic contexts–are especially susceptible to acquiring an air of inevitability about them. Histories of science are sometimes understood in this fashion; the edifices of scientific knowledge are imagined built up in step-wise fashion, each stone rising ever higher on the basis of the logical and evidential support afforded by the ones beneath it; no alternative developments appear visible. It is only the closer look at the social embedding of the laboratory that enables the revelation of its many contingencies. Keeping the ‘terror of the unforeseen’ hidden here serves the ideological purpose of portraying scientific knowledge as untainted by even the slightest hint of subjectivity; the practitioners of science appear free of any distinctively human bias.