“History of India 1707-1857” (2010) Lakshmi Subramanian (Orient Black Swan)

LakshmiI have just finished reading the best book I have yet seen on the historical debates that come out of India for the 18th and 19th centuries.  Of course there are more focussed ones, like Ranajit Guha’s ‘Elementary Structures of Peasant Insurgency’, and maybe the historico-ficto ‘Queen of Jhansi’ by Mahasweta Devi, but this so-called ‘textbook’ prepared by Lakshmi Subramanian on the basis of her teaching Indian history is the whirlwind tour. It is both a revision and a primer as well as a major contribution to the debates. If you have read some of the background stuff, like the late C.A.Bayly or some of the Subaltern Studies material, you will get gaps filled in where you did not even know there were gaps, you will get contextualisation that makes you look at things anew, you have recommendations of where to go next, and will be able to situate revisionists and Marxists and orientalists and more. There are further readings, but its never the case that you are left wondering how or where to proceed. You will want to proceed. This is contagious writing. There are many exciting hints you will want to chase up – whether your interest be in merchants and the transformation inflicted upon Mughal India by economic adjustments, of which the arrival of Europeans was merely a (huge) factor, or if you want to seek out and follow coins, opium, trade routes, or resistance. The debates are never closed down. What did the arrival of maritime power mean for trade? What were the consequences of changes to taxation and travel? How should we approach Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan, the Dal Khalsa Sikh resistance or the Santhals? Your thing might be education and institutions of colonial knowledge, or Macauley’s minute and the Serampore printing and translation machine that was Carey and co mission. Fine. If it has been a part of the debate in Indian historiography, it appears here in a narration that is both conversation and deep contemplative scholarship. The tone is balanced and engaged. In a densely packed volume there is so much but it is never overwhelming, it is so very well told, and the drive of good teaching comes through (I will follow up even some of the things which I had already read, but clearly not understood, or rather not understood in context). The book is not huge, it does not look like a textbook (my only complaint would be that my copy was bound so the text was sometimes squeezed towards the book’s spine) but it is absolutely essential and refreshing – a refresher – for historians, wanna-be historians, politicos, sociologists, anthros, visitors and citizens. I picked it up at the Foreign Book depot as a stocking filler in December, but there is no season better than now to grab this one and get a little perspective. Lal Salaam