From the Sultanate to Silicon Bangalore

A Concise History of India
December 6, 2002

The authors of this book "have come to recognize the implicit teleologies of 'national' history"; they "acknowledge that history is always written and, of necessity rewritten, to serve the needs of the present". The needs in this case include the rather artificial needs of the publisher that this should be a history of India and not a history of, or introduction to, South Asia. The constraint produces a strange teleology of its own; the current state of India appears as a natural product. Yet it is one of the most unusual states in South Asia - including only half of Punjab, only half of Bengal, but all of Assam and all of the peninsula. What was part of India but is now Pakistan or Bangladesh is effaced from this record.

The first two chapters are on the Sultanate, the Moguls and the advent of the Europeans. They assume knowledge that a reader new to the area is unlikely to have. The middle chapters of the book are the best, covering 1772 to 1939. They are best because they use well the subaltern studies that enable us to see how religious movements and technical and social change interacted with political change and the growing demands for independence. Much of chapter six on the interwar years is on Gandhi, almost to the exclusion of comment on Congress or the Muslim League. But the "potted" account of Gandhi is one of the best short accounts of his ideas and his impacts that I have read.

The later chapters on post-independence India are weak and sketchy. Chapter eight ends with a very odd comparison between the Nehru dynasty and the Kennedy family, concentrating on assassinations and plane crashes. In chapter nine, "Democratic India in the nineties: coalitions, class, community, consumers, and conflict", the interest in elite politics remains. References to Miss Universe, Silicon Bangalore and the Kentucky Fried Chicken incidents in 1995-96 hardly constitute an analysis of social change.

Nothing in the book, not even citations, is sourced. There is no list of references - just a brief "bibliographic essay" for each chapter. The authors mentioned in the text do not appear in the index. On these grounds, I would suggest this book to students only with a severe warning that this is an unacceptable way to publish.

Graham Chapman is professor of geography, University of Lancaster.

A Concise History of India

Author - Barbara Metcalf and Thomas Metcalf
ISBN - 0 521 630 4 and 63974 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 321

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