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Telling Lives

Meena Bhargava

By Richard M. Eaton
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. xiii 221, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 9 September 2008

This book is a fascinating study of the Deccan from the early fourteenth century to the rise of European colonialism in the eighteenth century. We can locate the region called the Deccan in modern India in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Written lucidly and with extraordinary ease, not for a moment does it distract the mind of the reader. The merit of the book lies in its sound facts, empirical strength and exhaustive research with absolutely no element of monotony. Eaton weaves the history of the Deccan around the life of eight individuals, engaged in different careers and situated in different circumstances, nonetheless blended in a way that illustrate the social processes of the region’s history and the relationship of the people of Deccan with north India. The eight disparate characters are—a maharaja, a sufi shaikh, a merchant, a general, a poet, a bandit, an African slave and a woman regent and commander.   The Deccan as compared to north India, Bengal and Tamil south, is an understudied region probably because as Eaton suggests, it has lacked an enduring geo-political centre. Breaking this shackle, the author provides a cohesive, coherent narrative of the region by adopting the genre of biography. Till the 1980s and the 1990s biography as a genre was not much accepted by social historians but since then it has been increasingly argued that writing about the lives of men and women is not all that antithetical to social history. Eaton observes that he had a varied purpose in using the genre of biography in this book: to set aside unhistorical myths often appropriated by politically motivated myth makers and to reclaim for history a subject-matter abandoned by professional historians. Invoking the genre of biography and writing about eight lives, the author investigates processes like colonization, factional strife, elite mobility, slavery, intercaste relations and social banditry. Each of these individuals had lived through and was thoroughly immersed in one or the other of these historical processes. But when Eaton chooses to write about these eight personalities, it is not because they were the pioneers or causes of such social processes but to emphasize that individuals are microcosms of at least some if not many aspects of the social macrocosms in which they live. He observes that unlike European biographies which are ‘coherent, linear, tidy and above all objective’ (p. 5), the lives of pre-colonial Indian ...

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