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A Kanisetti, Lords of the Deccan author: I feel gleeful when I demolish binaries

When you began writing Lords of the Deccan, you saw yourself as “an outsider to the academic world of history and historiography”? To what extent has this changed after numerous book reviews, panels at literature festivals, and hobnobbing with historians?

That’s a great question. I am not really sure how to answer it but let me try. I suppose the one thing that has really stayed with me this year is the question of what makes a historian. Throughout human history, people have always been telling stories about the past. In a sense, the task of a storyteller is also the task of a historian. Though I am still – and always will be – a historian-in-training, I have been humbled by how tremendously supportive academics have been of the work that I try to do – bringing the history of southern India to the general public.

I have fond memories of the time when I was invited to be in conversation with some academics at Azim Premji University. They came to the panel discussion with copies of my book filled with bookmarks and annotations. It was really touching to see how closely they had read and engaged with my work. For a young author like me, it is encouraging to know that history can be written in new ways so that we do justice to our past without worrying too much about the specific qualifications of the person who is writing. When I see both early career researchers and veteran scholars appreciating my work, it gives me hope.

Daud Ali at the University of Pennsylvania, Gil Ben-Herut from the University of Southern Florida, Uthara Suvrathan and Sarada Natarajan at Azim Premji University, and Aloka Parasher-Sen from the University of Hyderabad have all been very kind and supportive.

You have told me about the good experiences. Have you faced any gatekeeping at all?

Thankfully, nobody has told me that I should not have written Lords of the Deccan because I do not have a PhD in history but there have been questions about the narrative style that I use. In most of my work, I try to recreate scenes from the past based on historical sources, and invite readers to exercise their imagination.

A few people have asked if such an approach is still historical. My answer to them would be that different cultures and periods require different approaches. The materials that survive from medieval India are not the same as the ones that we have from British India. If we want people to engage with the past, the nature of historical storytelling needs to change based on the material evidence that is available.

I like to show my readers what battles used to look like instead of merely telling them who fought and where, why they fought, and for how long. Most of the historians that I have spoken with think that my style might not be strictly academic but it is not any less credible.

While I was studying electronics and instrumentation engineering from BITS Pilani’s Goa campus, I also got a minor in philosophy, economics and politics, which gave me a strong grounding in the humanities and a familiarity with historical and historiographical methods. Soon after that, I began to experiment with public history through blogs, podcasts, and heritage walks.

How did you end up writing a book about the Chalukya, Pallava, Rashtrakuta and Chola dynasties? Did you ever feel like you had bitten off more than you could chew?

Soon after I moved from Hyderabad – where I grew up – to Bangalore for my first job, I figured that I would be living in Karnataka for a few years. So I went to Bookworm, a second-hand bookstore on Church Street. I asked them if they had any books in English on the history of Karnataka, and they didn’t. That was surprising for me. Over the next few years, I travelled a lot within Karnataka and also looked up academic writing on the state. The material that I found was fascinating but it was not written for lay readers. That’s where my motivation to write Lords of the Deccan came from. I wanted to do something for the state that was going to be my home, and in the process also fill a bit of the gaping hole in the understanding of how India came to be India at least for people who read in English.

Once I was immersed in the research process, I realized that there was so much to read and process and interpret. I submitted a monstrous first draft of 1,40,000 words. Let’s call it the confidence of youth! My editor, Parth Mehrotra, got back to me after six months, and the first thing that he said was this: You need to bring this manuscript down to 90,000 words! The editing process made me realize that I had tried so hard to cover everything that I had gotten completely lost in the subject matter. If my readers had read it, they would have been as lost.

I was slightly overwhelmed in fleeting moments, not while writing but while paring it down. What kept me going was my unbridled enthusiasm. Since Neelakanta Sastri’s A History of South India (1955) and Noburu Karashima’s book A Concise History of South India (2014), there has been no significant work on South India for a general audience. My ambition was my fuel.

You reject a tripartite division of India’s history into an ancient golden Hindu period, a dark medieval Muslim period, and an enlightened modern British period. Tell us why.

None of these periods are like the descriptions or adjectives that we attach to them. As I show in my book, there was no Hindu period that was golden. It was profoundly violent, like any other period. Besides that, it was not exclusively Hindu. There were Jain and Buddhist kings. There is a medieval period but it is not exclusively Muslim and the darkness is debatable. It is not fundamentally different from the period before, as far as structural violence is concerned. Hindus were part of the ruling class, and thriving even during the late medieval and early modern periods when the sultanates were a force to reckon with in the Indian subcontinent. Writers who are far more qualified than I am have written about India’s British period. There are many ways in which it could be described but ‘enlightened’ is certainly not one of them.

Apart from the factual basis for rejecting this tripartite division, there’s a political reason. The division has been foisted upon us by the British who wanted to divide and rule. They poisoned the minds of Hindu soldiers against Muslim soldiers, and Hindu voters against Muslim voters. If we continue to think along these lines in the 21st century, we are free of British rule but our minds are still colonized. The tripartite division is rejected by several British and Indian academics but it continues to hold sway in the public domain in India to create and reinforce divides in the name of religion. My rejection is anchored in respect for the complexity of what our past was like.

How did you resist the temptation of presenting historical figures as heroes and villains?

This is a really good question. Well, it is very important to me to establish that people who appear in the pages of history are people like you and I. None of us, except for a few, can really be described as heroes or villains. We have shades of grey. We have moral compasses that evolve and change. We have identities that shift depending on context. It is an injustice to people of the past to assume that they were any less capable of doing the same thing. It is patronizing to think of them as caricatures just because we want them to be unidimensional.

The sad truth is that we often talk of historical figures in terms of whether we need to be proud of them or hate them. Forcing the past to exist on our terms today is not a wise or productive way of engaging with it. Those individuals were remarkable in their own right. They were products of their times. They must be understood with respect to the physical and moral worlds that they inhabited. The nature of power is such that it skews judgement, and it forces people to do things that we might find distasteful. These people could be bureaucrats, policemen, kings and queens, or the CEO of Twitter. I don’t believe in heroes and villains, so my world view extends into the book that I wrote. I feel gleeful when I demolish binaries.

LISTEN MORE: Books and authors podcast with Anirudh Kanisetti

Your website mentions that your aim is “to make critical scholarship on ancient and medieval India accessible to the public, with an emphasis on culture and society.” What drives you to do this work? Does it feel risky given that you also write about religion?

In India, there is a gap between academia and the general public that has not really happened in the West. In the UK, for example, there is a thriving industry of publishing books on history for the general public and it is not disconnected from academia. There are academics who are keen to present their scholarship in a way that can speak to readers outside academia. I am thinking of authors like Peter Frankopan and Niall Ferguson who are able to engage with a variety of audiences. In India, there are very few historians doing this kind of work.

The reasons behind this are complex. Often, the political environment does not allow historians to really speak their mind. As a result, there is a worrying lack of historical literacy in India. People often don’t know how history is written, so they think that it is just a body of conspiracy theories churned out by ivory tower elites and thrust down their throats. They fall prey to narratives circulated by political actors; for example, narratives about genocide of people from one religion perpetrated by people of another religion. This is not history at all. It is just a bunch of snippets put together without any context to drive a particular interpretation.

Through my work, I want to draw attention to the process of how evidence is examined, inferences are made, and history is told. I want to equip my readers with the tools to enter history, and make sense of it, as citizens who look at the past with humane eyes. Indians comprise one-sixth of humanity. As custodians of the past and the future, we need to be responsible. We must be extremely wary of those who do not have the larger interests of our society at heart, and who appropriate the discipline of history to deepen existing divides and create new ones.

What are you currently working on?

I have been developing an art history podcast, and working on an online encyclopaedia of Indian art, for the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), which is located in Bangalore. As far as book-writing goes, my next one will focus on the history of the Cholas. In my opinion, far too much attention has been given to the imperial forces, and far less to the professional guilds, priests, devadasis, and monks who were a significant part of the Chola empire. I also find the history of the later Cholas, from the late eleventh to the thirteenth century, both fascinating and neglected because it is arguably in these centuries, when the dynasty became less important, that we can truly see and appreciate the changes that their ancestors had put into motion. Finally, I am convinced that the history of the Cholas cannot be told in a wholesome manner without referring to trade networks in the Indian Ocean that shaped economics and politics in southern India.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist and educator who tweets @chintanwriting

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