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Neha Chatterji

By Dipesh Chakrabarty
Permanent Black , in association with Ashoka University, Delhi, 2015, pp. 320, Rs. 795.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 2 February 2016

The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth by Dipesh Chakrabarty is remarkable for the exceptionality of its organization. Its prose is swift to communicate the basic argument that the author makes: the coming into being of academic history-writing in India from within informal public sphere debates between stalwart ‘amateur’ historians of early twentieth century who voiced an enthusiasm for ‘scientific history writing’. All these ‘amateur’ historians sought to serve the nation and her people by serving history. The nature of patriotic service contemplated by someone like Sir Jadunath Sarkar would be to bestow moral, political and historical wisdom on the people of India by training them to a judicious evaluation of ‘evidence’ and giving them their ‘true’/ ‘accurate’ history, ‘fearlessly exposing faults’ in the national character. The desire for history however, could also be the desire to challenge ‘statements of foreigners’—in the words of Tagore quoted by the author—to regenerate the ‘lowered heads and wounded hearts’ of the subjugated. Mutually at war one with the other, history was a sacred ‘calling’ from both these perspectives. And the birth of professional history-writing from within these debates over authentic evidence and ‘genuine research’ embroiled in the tensions of public life has left it exposed to variations of the same tensions even today. The author points out that it was Sarkar’s emphasis on the distinction of the ‘historical book meant for a permanent place on the library shelf ’ from ‘table talk’ or ‘modern political platform oration’ that worked to secure for history a ‘cloistered life’ of the academy; yet ‘he was all but forgotten’ in the academic life of Indian history by the 1970s. Sarkar’s idea of getting to the ‘historical truth’ by combating ‘biases’ was wholly displaced by academic historians of succeeding generations who ‘proudly wore their biases on their sleeves (Marxist or otherwise)’. If Chakrabarty’s endeavour, to begin with, was to understand the impersonal nuances of a Tonce-powerful-now-obsolete historical project in India and trace the later course of its obsolescence within the very institutions that were born of it, he has ended up weaving his argumentative prose in the literary trope of a minor tragedy to narrate the unceremonious ‘fall’ from academic ‘grace’ of the individual who epitomized that historical project. The author makes the point that the book is not a biography of Sarkar and yet the narrative centres his ...

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