Books interview: Benjamin B. Cohen

The author of An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad: Scandal in the Raj on gods, villains and Bond, libertine Britons in colonial India, and capturing ephemeral events

August 8, 2019
Benjamin Cohen

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
As a child, my family lived in India and I read Indian comic books: stories of Sita, Rama, gods and villains…As a teenager, I read mostly fiction, including Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Their narrative drive kept the pages turning and were matched by their cinematic counterparts.

Which books initially inspired your interest in colonial India?
In addition to Paul Scott’s Staying On, I read his voluminous The Raj Quartet. Scott does a lovely job of taking the reader inside certain aspects of the Raj. George Orwell’s Burmese Days and his essay “Shooting an Elephant” are not only masterfully written, but they pull back the curtain on some pleasant and less pleasant aspects of colonialism in Asia.

Your new book explores a ‘scandal in the Raj’ in the 1890s. Which books on the social (and sexual) history of British India would you recommend?
For the more libertine tendencies of the British Raj, and also a model for my own work, I think William Dalrymple’s White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India is wonderful. Durba Ghosh explores examples of mixed-race couples in her masterful work Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire. Broader overviews of Indian history such as Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf’s A Concise History of Modern India and David Gilmour’s The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj are both good reads.

Which earlier books built around a forgotten scandal did you find helpful in shaping your own?
The first things I read were about what is a scandal, and how do they work? Ari Adut’s On Scandal: Moral Disturbances in Society, Politics, and Art was extremely helpful. Scholars of Britain have theorised and explored scandals arguably more than scholars of India and south Asia, so I wandered into works such as Anna Clark’s Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution. Partha Chatterjee’s A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal provided a model of how professional historians can engage with what are sometimes seen as ephemeral events.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Recently my wife had a birthday. She is also a professional historian, working primarily on Victorian Britain. Usually we do not gift each other presents that are related to our work, but I knew she was interested in a project using Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Through the powers of online shopping and some wonderful antiquarian booksellers, I was able to give her an early edition of that multi-volume set.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
My own field has several new general histories that, I believe, take up new arguments about the Raj, for instance John Wilson’s India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire and David Gilmour’s The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience. Beyond the colonial period, India and south Asia in the 1950s and 1960s are long overdue for some attention by historians. As such, I think I might reach for Ajoy Bose’s Across the Universe: The Beatles in India.

Benjamin B. Cohen is professor of history at the University of Utah and the author of An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad: Scandal in the Raj (Harvard University Press).

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Print headline: Shelf Life: Benjamin B. Cohen

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