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.

The Pleasures Of Comfort Reading

We eat comfort food when we are sick, angry, depressed, or unhappy: chicken soup, chocolates, <insert your own, idiosyncratic favorite here>, substances that satisfy cravings which tap into some deep nexus of the mind and body and momentarily elevate our mood. Comfort food is comfortable because it is ‘easy’; it does not tax you unduly; it provides readily accessible pleasure; it goes down smoothly, bringing you up as it does so. Like comfort food, there is comfort reading too. Everyone has their own varietal.

Last Thursday, a bacterial infection that has, on and off over the past three weeks, subjected me to a sore throat, fever, body aches, a runny nose and eyes, and which I have subjected to two courses of antibiotics, returned with a vengeance. All too soon, I found myself canceling trips to the gym and social engagements, and retreating to the safety and comfort of my bed. There, unable to sleep, I turned to the most visible and tangible source of comfort: a good read.

My tastes in comfort reading follow well-established patterns: books on cricket; fiction by authors whose work I’ve read before; narrative, ‘trade’ or ‘popular’ history; and lastly, a perennial, military history. It was to this group, and to a particular subset of its offerings–military aviation–that I turned to this past weekend. With a slight twist.

For many years now, I’ve owned the last vestiges of my father’s book collection. (It deserves a blog post of its own, which I will write someday soon.) For the time being, it suffices to note that that collection includes two autobiographical accounts by pioneering test pilots: Neville Duke and Mike Lithgow.   The former’s Test Pilot and the latter’s Mach One, have long adorned my shelves; for some reason, I’d put off reading them ever since I brought them back from India a few years ago (after an extended quasi-archaeological rummaging through my brother’s garage.)

On Friday their day had come. I could not read Cass Sunstein on analogical reasoning in the law or Larry Alexander on being constrained by precedent in legal decision-making; I could not concentrate on Seneca‘s nostrums for a good life; I could not stare at a page of Mussolini expounding on fascism; I did not feel like hacking through a ninety-thousand word assemblage of notes and comments and semi-coherent writing. But I did think I could read, again, like I used to when I was a schoolboy, about pilots, and the machines they flew. I was ready to be transported again to familiar spaces in the mind.

Duke and Lithgow are now long gone (the latter in an aviation accident in 1963); in my father’s time, when he was a newly commissioned fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, their stories–about service in the Second World War, followed by flight testing work on the new generation of jets–must have served as inspiration and edification alike. The inscriptions in these books indicate my father bought them on 3rd May 1955 at the International Book Depot in Bombay; some sixty years later, in Brooklyn, I finally read them. It was a curious occasion on which to reconnect with my father, but there was no quibbling with the manner in which I did so.

Book Release Announcement: Eagles Over Bangladesh

Some readers of this blog might remember that I write on military aviation history; more specifically, the history of the Indian Air Force (IAF), and especially its role in India’s post-independence wars. Thus, I’m pleased to announce the release of my second book on this subject: Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War (HarperCollins, 2013). As with my first book on the Indian Air Force, The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965, this book is co-authored with PVS Jagan Mohan, India’s most accomplished military aviation historian. (My father and brother both flew for the IAF, in case you were curious why a philosophy professor is interested in military aviation history.)

Here is the cover for the hardback:

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Here is the jacket description:

In December 1971 Bangladesh was born. Its birthing was painful: it had suffered a brutal genocide conducted by its former countrymen from West Pakistan, and a war between the indigenous Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) and the Indian Armed Forces on one side, and the West Pakistani Armed Forces on the other. War broke out on the Western and Eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly; the West Pakistani Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later. A significant factor in facilitating the Indian Army’s progress to Dacca was the IAF, which neutralized the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), and provided deadly, timely and accurate firepower to support the Indian Army. The IAF flew a variety of missions: counter-air raids on airfields, steep glide dive-bombing attacks on runways, aircombat with PAF Sabres, helicopter borne operations, paradropping, and shipping attacks. Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War, provides a day by day recounting of the IAF’s activities, commencing with raids on Dacca on the first day of the war, and moving on to the final coup de grace delivered on the Governor’s House, all the while bolstered by first-person descriptions from IAF pilots. [links added]

Here is the cover for the paperback:

Eagles over bangladesh cover2

The Burdens of Proofreading and Copy-Editing

There must be some sort of writer’s law out there that captures the sensation I am about to describe: as your book approaches the finish line, and as the final proofreadings, corrections, indexing queries, and debates about jacket and cover compositions pile up, the author’s nausea at the sight of his former ‘dearly beloved’ increases in direct proportion.

I have described this sensation before:

[W]eary and exhausted by the endless redrafting, polishing and proof-reading, I want only to be done with the damn thing. It’s not as if I’ve considered the ‘product’ then to be complete; rather, it is that I cannot summon up the energy for another painfully close and exacting edit. (Months later, when I look at the submitted version, I’m astonished by how much dross I let get by me.)


[C]opy-editing is hard, tedious work, of course, leaving behind many a scar worn in by memories of endless, iterative checks.

That moment is upon me again. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I are now getting close to the final production stages of the first volume of our history of the air war component of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh. (This is the second book we have worked on together; the first was a one-volume history of the 1965 air war between India and Pakistan). The book has been eight years in the making and I can’t wait for it to be over. The lion’s share of the work has been done by Jagan, but I’m still exhausted. I can’t imagine how he feels.

As is evident, I do not enjoy this process of ‘finishing’ a book, so much so that in the past, I have suffered from anxiety-ridden dreams about it. There is always, in these closing stages, a particularly insidious fear: that the process of revisions will never end, that I will be stuck, making revisions and emendations, caught in a perpetual loop of sorts, never seeing a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a manuscript come to fruition. Writing is a series of hurdles; this last stage, just like the first one, feels like the hardest. (Well, there’s those middle stages too, when you doubt the wisdom of ever having started the journey.)

Nothing makes copy-editing and proofreading less tedious. This morning, I have played classical music and electronica as sonic accompaniment; they offer only partial solace; they won’t do the reading and corrections for me; they won’t make the act of reading these four hundred odd pages for the umpteenth time any easier. I have, of course, sought relief in distraction: perhaps Facebook, perhaps Twitter, perhaps more sensibly, a little play-time with my little daughter.

Somewhere in the distance, because of the presence of the PDF file of the final proofs resident on my desktop, I can sense the final finished product: a slick paperback with an artfully designed cover, my name on its spine. But it’s still distant, and I feel overcome, again, by a curious mix of tedium and anxiety.

This thing, this beast, is supposedly a virtual intangible thing, an electronic file. But as I crawl toward the finish, it weighs on me like something far more corporeal.

Workplace Coercion, the Military, and Resisting Superiors

Corey Robin’s post on Arizona’s new anti-birth control legislation centers on a recurring concern of his: coercion in the private sector work-place, which remains largely impervious to constitutional circumscriptions of state power. I want to use this opportunity to talk about coercion in a very particular workplace: the military.

The coercion of subordinates by superiors in the military workplace is pretty much a constitutive aspect of it; there is a  ‘chain-of-command’ structure to be internalized, and the constant reminder that failure to obey orders–speedily and effectively–can be a matter of life and death. In terms of its sheer ruthlessness, its pure, unadulterated veneration of the superior, its near-perfect integration into the very concept of uniformed service, and in the sense of futility it can induce in a junior, there is nothing quite like a military hierarchy. Obey, conform, or hit the brig.

To run up against an obnoxious manager in any workplace is bad luck indeed; if it happens in the military, it can bring about career ruination. There is seemingly no recourse, nowhere to turn; very few juniors in the military complain about their superiors, for very little can be done. Nothing is more common in the tales that servicemen tell about their times in the services than the story of the sergeant, the captain, the lieutenant, the air marshal, who was the “biggest bastard that walked the face of the earth.” The stories of career trajectories derailed by the malign intervention of a superior are legendary among those who serve in the military; if a retired veteran ever urges his children to not bother emulating him, in all likelihood it is because he cannot bear the thought of his children going through the same agonizing repression he did.

Given this, it should have come as no surprise to me that in the many interviews I conducted with veterans–for the two books I have written on military aviation history–the most vivid conflicts recounted, even by those men that had fought in wars, were not against their ostensible enemies, but against their superiors on their own sides. The same man who could brush past, in a minute or two, the story of how he had carried out a rocket attack on tanks in the face of raging anti-aircraft fire, would take a leisurely ten minutes or so to describe to me how, back on the ground, he had bucked the trend, stood up for himself, and asserted common-sense, or perhaps just a little bit of the contrarian, in the face of a superior’s thickheadedness. This clash would be described in great detail, with every contour of the conflict mapped out with great precision: this is where I was sought to be oppressed, and this is where I resisted.

Sometimes, I wonder, if this reaction of theirs was revelatory of an insight worth transferring to other workplaces: that sometimes, resistance to an insidiously planted and constantly reinforced regime of power and regulation can be harder than summoning up the courage to face up to sudden, even-if-prepared-for, danger.