HISTORIAN’S CHOICE

As already implied by the notion that a book like this could and perhaps should be written or read from the present to the past, it should be taken not as a recording of events as they sequentially unfolded in real time but rather as an accounting. In the first instance, it is an account of how that part of mankind that has inhabited the Indian subcontinent devised ways of coping with the variable habitats of its landform, of the ideas and institutions they invented to give shape and continuity to their societies, and of how they exploited opportunities and coped with threats from beyond their land, often by incorporating threatening outsiders.

But there is another accounting to be made as well: my own view of that long, complex history. That is the outcome of a complex of knowledge, experi- ence and sentiments that have shaped my present attitudes and understanding of the history of the Indian subcontinent and influenced my evaluation of older historical views of events and processes as well as the newer interpreta- tions that have not yet received much attention.

An historian must be counted fortunate if important evidence comes to light such as to alter fundamental understandings. That happens only rarely when an historiography has existed for as long as that of India, about two centuries. More probable than new evidence are changes in methodology and theory requiring the re-evaluation of old evidence or the consideration of what had not previously been included as evidence. The past two decades have witnessed such new interpretations, and these, more than new evidence, have recast the framework for the understanding and appreciation of the Indian history presented here, and pointed to certain major themes in examining that history. One example is the rise of subaltern studies: writing history from below rather than concentrating so heavily upon the rulers and elite who have determined the written record, the artefacts and the archaeological remains of the past. Another is the rapidly proliferating field of gender studies: the consideration of the previously neglected (sinisterly less than) half of Indian humanity whose regulation nevertheless takes up so much time and space in the ideologies and thoughts of the historically and currently more powerful half. A third is the rise of environmental movements, in which India has played a pioneering role, both in the inspiration of Gandhian principles and in the world’s first government-sponsored birth control programmes. Teasing out meaningful interpretations of events and conditions as they affected the rela- tively inarticulate and illiterate but numerous subordinate social groupings requires new attitudes, understandings and sensitivities to the vestiges of the past, which I am still struggling to attain.

Leave a Comment