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Sanjay Subrahmanyam, myth buster

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan 

Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Permanent Black

262 pages; Rs 595

In the 1960s, there used to be a professor at Delhi School of Economics called Ajit Biswas. Irritated by what had happened to economics, he once said, "An abstraction from reality is a theory but an abstraction from an abstraction is an absurdity." He was referring to what mathematical economics had become at the time.

This wonderful insight and put-down came to mind while reading this eminently scholarly, readable, erudite and wide-ranging book because it epitomises an age-old question: do facts alone represent truth or can truth be gleaned from interpretations of facts?

In many of these 20 (very) angry essays in this volume, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who has now emerged as an acerbic but highly respected historian, quite emphatically says yes, mere facts will do. Of course, they have to be right facts. These essays are collected here from newspapers and international periodicals over the past dozen or so years.

They are an absolute delight to read because they are so deliciously catty and so utterly lacking in the formal but fake politeness that academics adopt. I loved it, and so will you if you are inclined to derive pleasure from serious topics. Even if not, you should read the book simply for its style.

The first essay is provocatively called "Is Indian Civilisation a Myth?" and goes on to say, broadly, yes, it is. The emphasis is on Indian rather than on civilisation, because India itself is relatively new. Unfortunately, though, he does not quite tell us what we should understand by the term "civilisation".

The second essay asks why "The West Rules the World" and proceeds to savage a British historian, named Ian Morris, who tried to explain why. Mr Subrahmanyam's view is that "Morris' ideas of 'West' and 'East' are more or less meaningless".

The third essay, called "Secularism and the Happy Indian Village", tackles the notion of secularism. But it is, in fact, an extraordinarily intemperate attack on Ashis Nandy. The author also attacks Amit Chaudhuri, non-resident Indians and Narendra Modi. In style.

Essay number four is on Ramachandra Guha as a historian, but it digresses into Max Weber's and Martha Nussbaum's works. The peg is Mr Guha's book India After Gandhi. It's a fine book, Mr Subrahmanyam says kindly, but he adds that it doesn't go deep enough to satisfy the real scholars. He then sticks the pin into his toenail: Mr Guha's main rival, he says, is William Dalrymple! Ouch!

In chapter five, he takes on V S Naipaul, whom he regards as being deeply prejudiced and with an "utter lack of self-awareness". The essay is a book review but expresses a lot of opinion, in an obiter sort of way. The claws are out yet again when he says, "It would appear that for Naipaul there is only one way to be modern, and that is to be Western". Modernisation appears that way not just to Mr Naipaul, actually. It also appears that way to many Bharatiya Janata Party-haters - which is odd, considering Mr Naipaul is supposed to have a soft corner for it.

There is an essay on Winston Churchill's "Great Man Theory" of history, which the author debunks. There is another on the Asian experience with Europe that shows how old the visits by European traders really were. The core of this essay is about what the Malayalis thought of Vasco da Gama - apparently, not much.

Then there is the one that asks, "What, exactly, is an Empire?" It is actually a review of a book on empires. It raises many questions about empires, most of which are left unanswered possibly because they cannot be answered sensibly.

Space does not permit me to describe each of the 20 essays, many of which lack the quality that the others offer in such abundance. But two of them stand out.

One of these has been taken from a volume called D-School Days to which I had also contributed. It was edited by Dharma Kumar and Mrinal Datta-Chaudhuri and published in 1993. The intention was to capture the memories of former students who had studied there when the going was better.

Mr Subrahmanyam recalls those days fondly and runs up micro portraits of some of those who taught there then - Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Dharma Kumar, Kaushik Basu with his female fan club, Prannoy Roy ditto, Ashok Lahiri and the like.

Then there is the one that is a must-read. It is titled "The Global Market for Indian History". It is about how Indian history has been studied in India and Britain and how, recently, the centre of gravity has shifted to the United States. Mr Subrahmanyam traces the ebbs and flows of academic trends and fashions in the study of Indian history under the Raj in a wonderfully wry and cynical style.

This is best typified by the story he tells about what Jean Dreze told him. A young researcher asks a farmer in a village (which has been researched by scores of other young researchers) what fertiliser he uses.

"That depends," replies the farmer.

"On what?" asks the student.

"On whether you are doing your MA or your PhD," replies the farmer.

First Published: Wed, November 13 2013. 21:25 IST