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Racy, Risky History

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

By Maria Misra
Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 2007, pp. 536, £6.99


Serious historians would not want to write general histories because they are aware of the dangers of skipping over the important details which are so necessary to trace the course of causes which makes up a historical narrative. At the same time, the writing of a general history is also a challenging task for the scholar because it is a test of her or his ability to see the big picture, to isolate those overarching turning points and trends that are needed to make sense of the past. It is the proverbial dilemma of missing the woods for the trees, and of missing the trees for the woods. But we cannot do without the general histories, which sometimes some people contemptuously call ‘grand narrative’, the Serbian bog which sensible historians are supposed to avoid like a plague.   Thankfully, we have enough historians who like the adventure of writing a general history because otherwise the general reader would be completely left in darkness with regard to the past. There have been quite a number of general histories both of the textbook kind and meant-for-the-general-reader variety. Maria Misra, who is a lecturer in Modern History at Oxford University has taken on the task of meeting the needs of a textbook as well as that of the general reader. She avoids mere chronological narration. Hers is the interpretive narrative where she picks out the details as pegs to hang her arguments, which are dangerously persuasive and charming. She also tries the slightly literary device of framing her chapters with an opening and closing detail which are similar though divided by time and place.   She adroitly avoids giving anything about the actual sequence of events of the 1857 Great Rebellion. Instead she chooses the 1877 Imperial Assemblage held a Delhi on January 1 by the Viceroy, Lord Lytton. That was the day when Queen Victoria was made Empress of India. Misra goes on to show that the princes, princelings, the little feudal lords and zamindars who were gathered there was a move by the British to appropriate apparently the elites of traditional India. The 1857 Rebellion taught the British that they need to co-opt traditional India. And they did not hesitate to induct the newcomers like the taluqdars of the United Provinces who did not really belong to the traditional hierarchy but who were beneficiaries of British largesse. She quotes Lord Canning’s observation that ‘many taluqdars were “...

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