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Charted and Uncharted Territory


Kanakalatha Mukund

LAND, POLITICS AND TRADE IN SOUTH ASIA
Edited by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 324, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 5-6 May/June 2004

At the outset, I have to admit to a strong negative reaction to this book with its  all-encompassing title which cleverly camouflages the lack of thematic unity and cohesive content which one expects in any book. Evidently those who brought out this book believe that by definition a book is only something which is printed and bound  between two covers. This book is a reprint of a volume of The Indian Economic and Social History Review (2002, nos. 2 and 3) brought out in honour of Dr. Dharma Kumar, with two additional papers, one by Ravi Ahuja and another by Thomas Trautmann. While it is only natural that Dharma Kumar’s many students, colleagues and friends would want to honour her memory, it seemed strange even when I first saw the journal that there was no central theme around which the papers were structured. When republished as a book, this lacuna seems even more striking.      The book begins with a brief introduction by Sanjay Subrahmanyam in which he locates Dharma Kumar’s work within the broader question of colonialism and Indian historiography. Incisive as ever, he points out that while it has been customary to classify historical perspectives as either nationalist or imperialist, in reality, the ideological biases and approaches of most historians have tended to shift and change over the years, and such black and white distinctions have become irrelevant when seen in the current context of historical research and interests. As he develops his arguments he also tends to dismiss the criticism that the second volume of the Cambridge Economic History of India had failed to address the issue of the impact of imperialism which had been made by a vocal group of Marxist historians, led by Irfan Habib. Since I have to confess that I myself am uncomfortable with the absence of references to colonialism in an economic history of India during the colonial period, Subrahmanyam’s defence of Dharma Kumar on this account does not seem quite convincing.      The first three contributions to the book are general in nature. The first is by Om Prakash, who is possibly the most senior economic historian in India of European trade and the Indian Ocean, and is what a reviewer would politely describe as a ‘cameo’.  Om Prakash recounts two anecdotes of the interaction between the Dutch, private European traders and indigenous merchants and bankers of Surat, against the backdrop of growing ...


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