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Origins of the Present, Legacies of the Past

Devika Sethi

By Ishita Bannerjee-Dube
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2015, pp. xvi 486 16 maps and plates in colour, Rs. 495.00


One does not envy the lot of an academic taking on the task of writing a comprehensive history of Modern India, balancing both events and interpretations. First, there is the question of the audience. Is the book geared towards a casual, general reader looking for an informed but flowing narrative? Is it going to serve the needs of the ‘average’ undergraduate student? Or is it a go-to book for researchers and teachers? The second problem (depending on successful negotiation of the first) is for the author of such a book to decide how much prior knowledge can be assumed on the part of the reader. The third challenge is to sufficiently distinguish one’s own book from other comprehensive histories, in a field as fertile (and therefore high yielding in its harvest of academic works) as India. The fourth dilemma is whether one merely recapitulates the historiography of contentious issues (such as the relationship of Indian capital to the national movement, just to cite one example), or comments on it and reveals one’s own opinions on the matter. In other words, should—or can, for that matter—the writer of such a book be a sutradhar, or narrator, alone? Ishita Banerjee Dube has negotiated most of these hurdles (and very many minefields) skilfully but in doing so, has given us a book much more relevant and valuable— indeed, indispensable—as a teachers’ or researchers’ handbook rather than as an (undergraduate) students’ textbook, or a narrative history for a general reader. Although it is satisfyingly littered with violent historiographical battles, Dube’s account of Modern Indian history does not begin with a military one—as the title of Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s From Plassey to Partition (2004) suggests (although even that book begins with a discussion of the successor states of the Mughals.) Nor is the narrative launched with the dramatic events of 1857— as in the case of Bipan Chandra et al India’s Struggle for Independence (1987). Unlike Sumit Sarkar’s Modern India (1983), the foundation of the Indian National Congress is also not taken to herald a new beginning. And in contrast to Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal’s Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy (1997), there is no nod towards India’s ancient or medieval past, however broadly defined.1 Dube’s work begins with the collapse of the Mughal empire and—like Bose and Jalal—goes beyond that of the British. ...

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