History / 31.10.2009

By Anjum Altaf  Bruised and battered as Indian women might be (psychologically, not physically as the poll on this blog suggests), there is another side to Indian femininity reflected in the myths of powerful goddesses. I came across an interesting perspective on this in David Shulman’s review (A Passion for Hindu Myths, NYRB, Nov. 19, 2009) of the new book by Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History: Sometimes the history of India looks like a story about endless waves of virile invaders from the north-northwest – Scythians, White Huns, Afghans, Turks, and, most recently, the British – who slowly grow soft and decadent under the insidious influence of the dreamy, langorous, mystically inclined Hindus…. [But according to Doniger] India’s astonishing talent for absorbing and transforming the peoples pouring in from outside, seen through a Hindu lens, has nothing to do with any softening or melting down of a hard, preexisting monolithic culture; it is, rather an active process of selection and pragmatic recycling, with the female principle – mare, queen, dancing girl, or goddess – driving the rather helpless (often foreign) male.
History / 03.10.2009

Most of the time we imagine history – we carry in our mind a vision of the past that we believe to be true. Given that very few of us are actually studying history these days, or reading it for pleasure for that matter, there is little that can bridge the gap between the vision and the reality. Sometimes the gap can be very wide indeed. How can we test the truthfulness of our vision without investigating it ourselves? I am proceeding on the basis that it is futile to suggest people read alternative accounts of history and weigh their respective claims to objectivity and truth. Rather, I am going to propose something simpler that is more within the grasp of the overwhelmed citizen of the modern age. I am going to suggest a recourse to lived history that requires nothing more than looking around oneself and noting the patterns and rhythms of ordinary life.
History / 29.09.2009

The past is political, which makes interpreting it very tricky. In this post we try and illustrate some of the pitfalls involved in thinking about the past. One common tendency is to look at the past from a position that is anchored in the present. If the anchor is political it nearly always leads to finding an interpretation of the past that helps to justify or strengthen the stance in the present. In The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani puts it very plainly: “In India, as elsewhere, present politics are shaped by conceptions of the past. Broadly, there have been two different descriptions of Indian history…” We need not be concerned here with the details of the two descriptions. We only need to note that more than one interpretation of the same facts is possible and that the choice depends upon which political position in the present is being supported.
History / 18.09.2009

I am grateful to reader Ganpat Ram for suggesting a new line of thought with the following comment on Emperor Akbar: Every Muslim ruler with rare exceptions showed great concern to contain and push back Hinduism. Even the relatively broad-minded Akbar destroyed Hindu temples. My response to Ganpat Ram was that this was one opinion in the spectrum of opinions and I recalled an article (East and West: The Reach of Reason) by Professor Amartya Sen published in the year 2000 in which a contrary opinion had been expressed.
History / 31.08.2009

Jaswant Singh's book provides the excuse for this post. We are going to move away from narratives that seek a villain in the story. Rather, we will present a sequence of events that increasingly predisposed the outcome towards a division of the subcontinent. Along the path marked by these events, there were a number of crucial turning points at which different decisions could possibly have led to different outcomes. These remain the big what-ifs of our history.In this narrative we present just the big picture and the key highlights. Each of the turning points needs a chapter to itself but it is useful to sketch an overview before we begin to start filling in the details. We hope to use the commentary for that purpose.The British become masters of IndiaThe story can start at any number of points but let us begin it in 1803....

History / 25.08.2009

It is sad that the history we are taught in our countries is so one-dimensional that even the thought that the 'Other' might be semi-intelligent (let alone great) makes people catatonic. The predictable reaction is either to impugn the motives of the writer or to find selective evidence to prove that the real blame rests entirely on the ‘Other.’ The alternative of sifting through the arguments on their merits remains alien, unacceptable, impossible, or just too tiresome. The reason Jaswant Singh’s book has made such a splash is because he is a front ranking politician with a very high reputation for integrity (for which, read Strobe Talbott's Engaging India) and belongs to the BJP, all of which make the story impossible to ignore. Otherwise, this is an argument that has been made before and forgotten.