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Communicating History


Devika Sethi

WINDOWS INTO THE PAST: LIFE HISTORIES AND THE HISTORIANS OF SOUTH ASIA
By Judith M. Brown
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2009, pp. xii+118, Rs.295.00

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 3 March 2012

Right at the beginning of this slim volume (the text, excluding notes,is ninety-five pages) based on lectures delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2008, Judith Brown explains her two primary objectives. The first is to communicate with a wider public that is interested in history but to whom most academic texts are incomprehensible; the second is to creatively use what she terms 'life histories' of individuals and institutions as a source for the writing of history. She achieves the first object with finesse, and provides some examples of the second by examining, in four chapters of the book respectively, the India connections of an Oxford College (Balliol), family history as a genre, the shaping of the public persona of two famous Indians (Gandhi and Nehru), and the moulding of their private selves. Brown is careful to underscore how her work differs from conventional institutional histories and biographies, both of which she feels attempt to narrate a straightforward account of landmark events and trivial details. In contrast, in the first chapter she writes a people centred institutional history of a British college, using an entirely new source: college alumni records spanning almost a century, from 1853 to 1947. By compiling a database of all British alumni of Balliol college who went on to serve in India as well as Indians who attended the college, she is able to demonstrate in a dazzlingly effective way the importance of this one institution in the socialization of many generations of Britons-and also Indians-in the imperial ideal. She demonstrates how a small college (comprising no more than 300 or so students at any given time in the 1920s and 1930s) sent as many as 345 Britons to India in the period under survey, almost 80% of whom joined the Indian Civil Service (p.12), and three of whom ended up as Viceroys. This chapter is replete with other fascinating nuggets of information, and to cite just one: in 1875 half of all ICS probationers studied in Balliol. No wonder she describes the college as 'a kindergarten for national and imperial public life' in one place (p.11), and is tempted to term British rule in India a 'Balliol Raj' in another (p.14). Brown does not stop here, and investigates the backgrounds of all 345 individuals, finding that more than one third (p.128) were connected to other Anglo-Indian (i.e., British-in-India and not Eurasian) families via marriage or kinship, and that most came ...


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