HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: Connected History: Essays and Arguments by Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Review: Connected History: Essays and Arguments by Sanjay Subrahmanyam

British historian, GM Trevelyan, once wrote, “There is nothing that more divides civilised from semi-savage man than to be conscious of our forefathers as they really were, and bit by bit to reconstruct the mosaic of the long forgotten past… How far can we know the real life of men in each successive age of the past?” It is for this reason that we treasure such works as A Short History of the World by HG Wells or A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee. Historians are quite a brave lot of people because they scour for the forensics of events that had happened centuries, sometimes, millennia ago.

A painting of Akbar conversing with Jahangir. Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam notes that the Mughal empire left a powerful cultural and institutional legacy of cohesion, “which we tend to neglect today because of Hindu right-wing rhetoric”. (HT Photo)
304 pp, ₹2049; Verso Books
304 pp, ₹2049; Verso Books

Writing popular history is one thing, but to talk about the grapevine – the academy and the politics behind history-writing – is what sets Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s book Connected History: Essays and Arguments quite delectably apart. This expanded edition published by Verso in 2022 was first published in India as Is ‘Indian Civilization’ a Myth? by Permanent Black in 2013 but the shelf value of the 21 chapters keeps it firmly rooted to the discourses that pervade the day. For instance, the first chapter (Is ‘Indian Civilization’ a Myth?) published in Outlook in 2001 is starkly relevant even in 2023. Many of the chapters appeared in diverse publications at home and abroad, spanning some 12 years of his academic life from 2001 to 2012, while the last one (History Speaks Many Languages), one of the two interviews with the historian included in this volume, was originally published in Paris on 27 January 2012 by the online journal Books & Ideas. The book contains two very interesting chapters, hitherto unpublished – An Ambiguous Parisian and A Lisbon Summer. While the first one is a curious take on the Parisian flair for criminals and criminality, the latter makes us privy to the academic provincialism of Portugal.

This particular volume is akin to handling an iron brought to the white heat of simplicity for it contains pièces d’occasion without any esoteric frisson or academese but still offers clues to the vast corpus of knowledge he handled in course of his writing, ranging from the early modern period (15th-18th centuries) to studies of India and the Indian Ocean, the early modern European empires, and reflections on global history. South India, the Mughal Empire, Central Asia, Iran, and South East Asia, early modern Europe and early modern Eurasia have all been grist to his mill. His academic trajectories took him from École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, to the University of Oxford and UCLA.

The fun of the book lies in its tone of irreverence, in its willingness to attack some of the most well-coddled ideas and shibboleths. But he carries no ideological cards, nor is troubled by any doctrinal baggage. Being a mercenary thinker, he has no compulsion to sit on either side of an ideological fence. “Here, the doctrinaire Marxists like to portray me as a right-wing person, the right-wing Hindu nationalists accuse me of being a Marxist, and so on”. Not that he seeks to rescue history-writing from the clutches of both the right-wingers and Marxists, but without the inherent biases in their interpretation of history, his voice is a fresh whiff of air.

For instance, in the chapter The Global Market for Indian History, he showed how the “Cambridge School” and “Subaltern Studies” – the two key oppositional camps while serving “a transatlantic mirror of sorts” to deal with Indian history – kept “the status of the third party in the equation, namely India… diminished radically”. The nationalist Indian historians who had written in the 1950s and 1960s of matters concerning the Indian national movement took serious exception to the purpose of the Cambridge historians for it was seen as demystifying Indian nationalism, cutting the heroic mythical figures of the national movement down to size, and stressing the extensive collaboration of “native” elites in the running of the British Empire in India. None of the historians trained in Cambridge (or Oxford) in the 1960s paid much attention to sources other than those in English, even though they diligently mined British official papers and documents. Subaltern Studies, in its primary incarnation, targeted both Indian nationalist historiography and the Cambridge School, alleging that both were profoundly elitist in their bias. There was no emphasis by Ranajit Guha and others, Subrahmanyam points out, on using vernacular sources. Gayatri Spivak’s essay Deconstructing Historiography (1988), and a review essay by Rosalind O’Hanlon (1988) pointed to the absence of gender questions in Subaltern Studies, besides the pitfalls of operating with one single-minded idea as subject — “to make the subaltern the maker of his own destiny”.

Subrahmanyam pits one historian against another. He sets Ramchandra Guha apart from Partha Chatterjee and Romila Thapar, and from the Delhi-based Scotsman William Dalrymple. In the chapter Secularism and the Happy Indian Village that was written around an essay by Ashis Nandy, A Billion Gandhis (Outlook, 21 June 2004), he makes no bones about his opposition to Nandy, with whom he clashed “on the consequences and meanings of Vasco da Gama’s 1498 voyage” publicly in New Delhi in 1998 – ironically, five centuries after the voyage took place, and later on his interpretation of secularism in India. The debate looks dated now as we are convinced that the idea of Indian secularism is not a western import but rather sui generis. While writing about Vasco da Gama, some Portuguese historians, who had never worked on the subject, thought it “belonged” to them, somehow interpreting the whole matter as a turf war.

The seminal chapter Is ‘Indian Civilization’ a Myth? negates any homogenising idea of India. If one judges the limits of the spread of Sanskrit or of Brahmanic culture, both of which take us far into Central Asia on the one hand, and South East Asia on the other, the claims of the extended limits of Indian sovereignty, could be equally made then by India’s neighbours using very similar sorts of evidence. Ashoka expanded his empire by conquest and alliances until at its height, in 250 BCE, it covered the entire subcontinent except for the southernmost tip, and incorporated present-day Pakistan, Kashmir, south-eastern Iran, much of Afghanistan and probably Nepal – an area of 13 million sq. km (5 million sq miles). It was the largest empire in the world at the time and the largest in Indian history, surpassed by neither the Mughals nor the British. Since the death of the indigenous Emperor Asoka in 232 BC, large parts of the subcontinent had been conquered by Turks, Afghans, Persians and Tocharians, as well as by Mongols. Cross-cultural encounters in Europe and Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the worlds of early modern Islam, Counter-Reformation Catholicism, Protestantism, and a newly emergent Hindu sphere – whereby Eurasian states and empires met and were forced to make sense of one another. Subrahmanyam noted that the Mughal empire left a powerful cultural and institutional legacy of cohesion, “which we tend to neglect today because of Hindu right-wing rhetoric”.

Author Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Julien Morvan / Wikimedia Commons)
Author Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Julien Morvan / Wikimedia Commons)

What, Exactly, is an Empire? gives the reader a hint of the vast sweep of Subrahmanyam’s scholarship for “empire” can connote a great sprawl of meaning. The term encompasses wide differences of origin and nature among the Macedonian, Carthaginian, Roman, Persian, Ottoman, Carolingian, Mongol, Incan, Mughal, British and Russian empires, to name just a few. When, from about 1870 onwards, a new wave of imperialism surged out upon the world, two countries of Western Europe, Britain and France, led the way with Germany, America and Japan following, not to speak of some smaller states like Belgium, Holland and Portugal.

The book draws on a wide range of persons, places and topics – Rushdie and Naipaul, Churchill and Warren Buffett, Márquez and Hemingway, Paris and Lisbon, besides vast numbers of historical tracts, sidelights and epiphanies – which are almost certain to gratify both a scholar and a historically-minded lay reader.

Prasenjit Chowdhury is an independent writer. He lives in Kolkata.

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