Lens on the past, eye on the future

Written by Dhiraj Nayyar | Updated: Nov 30 2009, 02:28am hrs
Lets face it. It isnt easy to write a book on India or on India history these days without running the risk of sounding repetitive. Amidst the small industry that books on the subject of India have becomepartly a result of the sudden rise in global interest in Indiait is all too easy to pan a book for being unoriginal. So, Meghnad Desai certainly deserves a pat on the back for braving an entry into an already crowded field with his latest book The Rediscovery of India. And while the book does inevitably suffer from some of the problems of repetition (an Ive read this before sort of feeling) of what has already been well documented, it still manages to bring a freshness to the subject of Indian history.

Some of the freshness may have to do with the fact that Lord Desai isnt a professional historian, but is in fact an economist. Unlike the average economist though, Desai has drawn on a very broad canvas of history, politics, society (and of course economics) in his recent writing. That overarching perspective coupled with his inimitable and provocative style of writing makes this a book worth reading. Desai also writes from the point of view of an India now settled abroad, who can easily eschew some of the intellectual straightjackets encountered by writers based in India with a stake in the system here, while at the same time avoiding the romanticism of the foreign scholar. For those who have an interest in Indias history but are daunted by copious footnotes and endless cross referencing of traditional books on the subject, this one will prove to be a much friendlier read.

Interestingly, Desai starts the book with Indias Vasco Da Gama moment. Fittingly for an economist, he chooses to start that the point when Indian truly began to engage the world beyond just Asia. However, he is careful to point out that this trade wasnt with India as we know it now, but largely with the coastal areas of South India alone. North India continued to be linked by trade over land to Central Asia. A running theme through his book is that even though the subcontinent had certain strains of common identity through history, it never really had a sense of being one nation or one nation state. So, the Hindu caste system certainly provided one thread. The Buddhist Ashokas rule may have provided some administrative unity at one point in time as did the Mughal Empire under Aurangzeb much later. But even in the revolt of 1857, which is referred to by some historians as Indias first war of independence, nobody was fighting for the India we got to know in 1947. In fact, in 1857, the revolt was largely confined to what are now the northern states of India all of whom were fighting in the name of a much diminished Mughal emperor. Much of the battle in 1857 was fought by Indian soldiers on either side. The Marathas still harboured ambitions of a greater Maratha empire.

Of course, the later freedom struggle, especially under Gandhi provided greater unity but even then Desai questions why the Congress wasnt able to bring enough Muslims and dalits in particular under its fold. The book, from time to time, has small boxes considering the counterfactual (again the economists instinct). So, for example, Desai asks what might have happened if Gandhi hadnt pulled out of Non-Cooperation in the early 1920s after Chauri Chaura. Perhaps India would have won independence earlier.

The book has a substantial chunk which contains Indias history after independence. Desai, as he mentions in the book, was born seven years before independence and so he has had a ringside view of Indias changing polity, economy and society over the last 62 years. Desai is of course critical of the excessively socialist direction the economy took, first under Nehru and then under Indira Gandhi. And he is in his best form in the chapters after liberalisation began. Coincidentally, this was also a period when the single party rule of the Congress collapsed and a truly multiparty democracy took root. This fits in well with Desais claim that India is a multinational state. But the fact that unity always overrode diversity wasnt necessarily good. As the author points out, the overriding desire for unity without respecting diversity was a factor in the partition of 1947 and was then the reason that Pakistan broke into two in 1971. But now India seems to have a better balance of unity and diversity.

There is of course plenty to quibble about in the bookhistorians one is sure will take exception to the lightening up of history in places. Still, the book has a provocative thread which should keep the reader interested. For a reader born many decades after independence, this book will pleasantly come across as a view to the future rather than just a recounting of the past.