The British historian says Indian studies have come a long way from being ultra nationalist and the focus is no longer on whether empire was good or bad
For a generation of history students in Indian universities, his book Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars, a study of north Indian society during British expansion, was standard recommended reading. In the current polarised debates on imperialism – it was a great thing! it was a terrible thing! – he stands out as one of the more nuanced voices. So, it is almost appropriate that on this visit to India, historian Christopher Bayly should be part of a delegation from Cambridge University to attend the India-Cambridge Summit on the subject “India in the Global Age”, writes Kanika Datta.
We’re meeting at Varq at the Taj Mahal hotel in central Delhi, a restaurant I would not have chosen since experience suggests that the style outdoes the quality of the food. But the choice is a matter of convenience since Bayly expressed a preference for Indian food and is staying at the hotel. Varq’s attentive staff selects a quiet table and considerately provides a small stand for two weighty volumes I have lugged along for Bayly to sign. These are Forgotten Armies (2004) and Forgotten Wars (2007), co-authored with his colleague Tim Harper — two splendid histories on the fall of British Asia and the end of empire after World War II.
Napkins are solicitously spread on our laps and Bayly, who is director of the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University and Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, opts for white wine — Indian, he insists, because he thinks they’re pretty drinkable now. That’s a contrast, we laughingly recall, from the seventies when all that was available in India was a brand called Golconda, so lethally strong that it had to be upended in a glass of water to dispel the fumes.
Bayly had accompanied Cambridge University’s vice chancellor, so I assumed the visit presaged a possible offshore campus, the higher education model that appears to be in vogue. But no, he explains, the vice chancellor is “unimpressed with the idea of a campus”; instead, they’re exploring the possibility of an outlet in Delhi and one, possibly, in Bangalore for an exchange programme, building on connections they already have. Indeed, he says proudly, several of his graduate students are now in influential positions in Delhi though he's proudest of Harvard historian Sugata Bose, who recently wrote a well-received biography of his uncle Subhas Chandra Bose.
We’re chatting about a point he makes in his introduction to the third edition of Rulers, Townsmen…, which Oxford University Press released this year, linking the rise of Mukesh Ambani from “a two-roomed flat to a luxurious private residence” to a pattern of wealth and political influence he traces in the book, when I realise 15 minutes have passed. We hastily place our orders; Bayly wants something light and chooses fish steamed in vine leaves. Lunch is a big meal for me, so I select the rather more substantial Gosht Biryani.
So where, I ask, are Indian studies headed. It’s certainly less prone to “group thinking” now, he replies. That’s partly the result of a diverse community of academics with many more people of Indian origin – including women – teaching at British universities, “so you get different perspectives”.
There are, of course, people “who are quite keen on Empire” like Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian whose 2003 book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World was a robust defence of British colonialism — “but,” he jokes, “he’s gone to America, so we don’t feel that that’s our fault any longer”.
He is also critical of historians like Perry Anderson of the UCLA who recently wrote a hugely contentious 50,000-word polemic in the London Review of Books suggesting that Indian academics and thinkers are always boosting the country. “I wanted to tell him that that’s not the case, there’s a huge amount of criticism,” says Bayly, whose latest book, Recovering their Liberties, is on Indian thought in the age of empire.
The broad point he makes is that the focus is not really on “empire good or bad”. “We’ve moved away from just political economy to the role of ideas — especially the role of ideas outside Europe.” Thus, Indian studies have been through “the ultra nationalists, the cynical anti-nationalists, the neo-Marxists, subaltern studies — there’s a lot going on there too, but the history of ideas in a social context is taken much more seriously than it was 25 years ago.”
One of Bayly’s mentors at Oxford was S Gopal, author of the much admired three-volume biography of Nehru, and his first book was on Allahabad in the later 19th and early 20th century. “That was Gopal’s influence,” he recalls, “and I later realised why — he was coming out with the Nehru biography!” His grouse, however, is that the book based on his original thesis had a good deal about the mobilisation of people in rural areas in Allahabad district and various forms of radical anti-national movements in the countryside.
When it was sent to readers, they told him “cut out the peasantry stuff and just do the cities”. “I was too young and naïve to realise that the next big thing in Indian studies focused on peasantry! That always annoyed me, so I tell my own graduate students, take no notice of reader’s reports. You can always adjust your work to what they say but don’t change it fundamentally.”
Minuscule portions of amuse bouche are served and dispatched in short order while I ask how he developed his interest in Indian history. It was forged, he says, during an overland backpacking tour from England via West Asia, Amritsar to Gwalior where a friend, a classical scholar teaching at the Scindia School, persuaded him to trace his return journey along the route taken by Alexander the Great. “I found it so fascinating that I gave up Russian history to focus on India.”
A series of lectures by the late Ashin Das Gupta, then reader in history at Oxford (later vice chancellor of Vishwa Bharati University), on Britain and India at the time of Warren Hastings helped him make up his mind. “I remember he was a wonderful lecturer and he never needed any notes — that’s something I can’t manage even today.”
Russia…I assumed, therefore, he was a Leftist (certainly in those days the word warranted a capital L). “Well, everybody at Balliol was in those days, though most of them came from aristocratic families, so the degree of their leftism was unclear and most of them became bankers,” he replies cheerfully.
His own background was far from aristocratic. His father was a merchant navy officer who became a school-teacher. Bayly went to a grammar school called Skinners (it had nothing to do with the famous Skinner’s Horse regiment in India; this Skinners had links with a fur trading company with operations mostly in Canada).
Our wine – a crisp Grover’s sauvignon blanc – is topped up and the food is served. Bayly’s fish dish looks frugal, so I offer some of my biryani, piled in what looks like an embarrassingly large humidor. “Just a spoonful,” he agrees.
Since much of his early research involved local documents, how did he read them? He learnt Hindi — but confesses it’s pretty rusty now (“I can read but mushkil se”). One of his main sources were the bahi khatas, accounts written by merchants but in mercantile scripts like Marwari that he couldn’t read. The solution was to “bring down some very elderly person from Benaras to Allahabad and we sat in the house of one of the great mahajans and went through them together”.
At any rate, he wasn’t short of original sources “because the British were entirely dependent on Indian capital in their early days”. He recalls going through almost 50 volumes of day-to-day commercial dealings. One of the standout facts he recalls from that mass was “the enormous amount of port that came up river from Calcutta — hundreds of bottles. And I remember thinking, there are only three Brits in Benaras — they can’t be drinking it all!”
Sponsors of academic chairs always intrigue me, so I ask who Vere Harmsworth was. Bayly is wryly amused because, he says, naval historians “are very cross I’ve got the job”.
Vere Harmsworth, it transpires, was the son of the Rothemere newspaper magnate (proprietor of the storied Daily Mail) who was killed in the World War I. “He was a naval officer who, for some reason found himself in the trenches. I thought he was killed in the Battle of Jutland but that was a historical fiction of my making,” he says.
A chair of naval history was set up in his name in 1918 but later amalgamated with a chair of imperial history. Thereafter, everybody who occupied it has been historian of parts of empire, but Bayly remembers his father, who used to be a naval officer “was appalled that I had got the job — ‘he can’t even read a chart,’ he used to say (but I could)!”
Now that we’re on to coffee, I haul out the books for Bayly to sign and ask about his co-author Tim Harper. They’re now in the process of a “velvet divorce”, after eight years of teaching a course that became the basis of these two volumes.
This is unusual and he answers my unspoken question. “You probably know that most historians who collaborate fall out and never speak to each other again. But we haven’t because we were teaching and, therefore, reliant on each other.” As I signal for the bill, I make a mental note that, should the opportunity arise, it won’t be a problem getting Harper to co-sign these books.