Historians and history buffs are generally perceived to be boring and an unattractive company. This notion comes from the belief that history is something which is stagnant and its concerns are those of the long past. But, whatever it is, history at some point is interesting. You get to learn about the happenings of the past. And we all at some point after reading history wish that if history repeats itself, we are so getting a dinosaur.
Sanjay Subrahmanyam has proved each and every cliché related to history wrong with his book ‘Is Indian Civilization a Myth.’ This book actually is an assortment of his articles, journalistic pieces, book reviews and essays on multiple aspects of history and past written over three decades, starting from the 1980s. This is not a novel, like the novel you all would generally read, this book is something that Subrahmanyam wrote to let his volley out. The volley of criticism against all. He also dismisses all the other authors in less charitable ways and he places himself as the most reliable interpreter of Empire and Cosmopolitans. Here, in this book Subrahmanyam has written sharp prose and unmatchable articles like, “The real question isn’t as Gayatri Spivak asked can the subaltern speak? But can the bourgeoisie listen?” He writes effortlessly not only about the Indian culture but also about writers and poets like Aravind Adiga, V.S Naipaul, and Ernest Hemingway.
Undoubtedly, Subrahmanyam has great information and facts of history at his fingertips. He knows it all, from Nehruvian socialism to everything native. In the book, you will all be shocked to see his audacity as he makes comments on his fellow academics and with ease he pulls them down and proves himself superior. One will surely be torn between the unease at his needless polemical tone and appreciation for the skills he deploys in making accessible a range of complicated issues relating methodology and nation.
Like most of the major historians nowadays, Subrahmanyam is from a very different academic background. He received his M.A and Ph.D. in economics from the prestigious D.S.E (Delhi School of Economics). After studying there, he wrote an article about his times in DSE which was full of his life experiences and tidbits about eminent economists like Dharma Kumar, Kaushik Basu. After this, he went on to do an interesting research on Dutch and Portuguese archives.
Subrahmanyam’s biggest strength lies in his crisp prose and his ability to effortlessly throw in information on wide variety of issues. An article in this book is based on his day in Paris, namely, ‘An ambiguous Parisian’ It can be treated as an example where he highlights how Paris is a city of immigrants and how popular cultures tries to overlook the sizeable proportions of Algerians, Portuguese and other communities living there. There is an exceedingly well-written essay on Marquez, Hemingway and the cult of power.
‘Is Indian Civilization a Myth’ also has his takes on fellow historian Ramchandra Guha for whom he mentions that,” He is self-defined ’liberal’, a word that actually has no real resonance in the world of Indian Politics today.” He also in his article talks about, the leading historians Mridula Mukherjee and Bipan Chandra whose India after Independence was not spared “stodgy, snore-inducing piece of nationalist Marxist writing from the rank of files of J.N.U.” It is no wonder Sanjay teaches and lives in France, otherwise after this book he would have found it difficult to find employment here in India.
His collection of essays has something for everyone, whether you are a lover of literature or not, you’ll love reading this book. The book comprises twenty long essays over which Subrahmanyam tells us ordinary folk, with much intellectual exuberance and caustic style, many of the things that he’s already expounded to the learned. It’s a book that normal human beings will want to look out for because it is so breathtakingly and unexpectedly wonderful to read.
If you have an inclination for mild historiography and want to know as to what exactly is an Empire, Churchill and The Great Man Theory of History, he has some excellent essays on these topics in this book. Subrahmanyam has shed all his pedantry and complexity of academic writing. This book definitely makes us rethink about India and the world around it. Subrahmanyam is the first to reveal that he is also a writer of accessible and delightful English prose.
This book is surely one of the best collection of essays to have come out in recent times.