reviews and essays

Master of Centuries

The irascible brilliance of Sanjay Subrahmanyam


ABOUT A DECADE AGO, the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam launched a blistering polemic against Ashis Nandy, the celebrated and contrarian social theorist. Nandy had published a short essay in the magazine Outlook, responding to an earlier article by the veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar wherein the latter had criticised Nandy’s views on secularism in India. “The concept of secularism,” Nandy wrote, “emerged in a Europe torn by inter-religious strife, warfare and pogroms, when the resources for tolerance within traditions were depleted and looked exhausted.” This was not the case in India. Communal riots in India were mostly confined to the cities; Indian villages had their own ideas of tolerance going back centuries. The notion of secularism, by contrast, was a European import into India—an idea that was not only alien but unnecessary. If India had to look to Europe, he argued, why not “borrow the concept of convivencia from Medieval Islamic Spain, arguably the only truly plural polity Europe has produced?”

There was nothing new in Nandy’s piece. His views on secularism were well known and his exchange with Nayar echoed the arguments he had made over the previous decade. So, the timing and ferocity of Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s essay was a bit surprising. A historian of the early modern world, Subrahmanyam had edited (with Kaushik Basu) a collection of essays, Unravelling the Nation: Sectarian Conflict and India’s Secular Identity (1996). But he was not particularly prominent in the popular press and public debates in India. Reprinting his riposte to Nandy in this new collection of essays, Subrahmanyam concedes in the book’s introduction that it stemmed from a combination of intellectual and personal irritation at Nandy’s scholarship and style. Be that as it may, the piece is worth reading again, if only for its polemical style, with just the right dose of indignation and exaggeration.

Thus, Subrahmanyam dispatches Nandy as “tiresomely repetitive and profoundly ill-informed. And he is as innocent of the facts about India and her past as he is of Europe and hers. Armed with this blissful innocence, he can then brilliantly develop paradox after paradox. That none of his facts has any basis in reality has rarely fazed him.” He then proceeds to obliterate Nandy’s claims about secularism being a European idea and medieval Spain as a golden age of tolerance. Secularism, Subrahmanyam insists, has a purchase on Indian politics that it never had in Europe. And the term has acquired layers of meaning and significance in India that many Europeans would struggle to comprehend.

Those unfamiliar with Subrahmanyam’s vast corpus of scholarly work, which is to say most of us, might have been somewhat puzzled at his angle of attack. Reading the piece alongside the other essays in Is ‘Indian Civilization’ a Myth? (Permanent Black, 276 pages, Rs 595) clarifies the unique vantage-point from which Subrahmanyam set off that sizzling polemic. However, this is not the only—nor the main—reason why these essays should be read. Above all, this book provides a highly accessible introduction to one of the most brilliant and accomplished historians working today and one of the more interesting thinkers on the links between India’s past and present.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam stands out among his contemporaries in India and elsewhere on several counts. For starters, he displays a stunning breadth of historical vision and expertise. Most historians tend to specialise in fairly narrow periods of the past—seldom more than several decades. Subrahmanyam is a master of many centuries. His scholarship spans the entire early modern period, from the 15th to 18th centuries CE, and more besides. Similarly, his geographical expertise stretches from South, South-East and West Asia to Western Europe and Latin America. Then there are his technical skills, ranging from statistical analysis of economic data to interpretation of literary and visual materials. Although Subrahmanyam began as an economic historian, he has branched out to work on political, intellectual and cultural history. He works in over ten European and Asian languages and draws on sources from a dazzling array of archives. Finally, there is his sheer productivity. Subrahmanyam seems to write top-class history faster than most of us can read. He has written (singly or jointly) no fewer than 16 books and has edited almost as many. This is all the more astonishing considering the fact that he is only a little over 50 years old. He has held positions in major universities across the world and has received several academic accolades—the most recent being his election to the prestigious Collège de France, which is a first for any Indian scholar.

These qualities are amply showcased in this collection of essays. But the volume also stands out from his body of work for two other reasons. First, Subrahmanyam was the enfant terrible of Indian historians. His excessively combative style of academic writing prompted the historian Tapan Raychaudhuri to remind him of RH Tawney’s advice to Hugh Trevor-Roper in a famous controversy over the role of the gentry in the English revolution of the 17th century: an academic opponent was not “an Amalekite to be smote hip and thigh”. Going by the essays in this book, his ferocity has matured over time into a compound of sarcasm, irony and wit, and is all the more effective for it. Second, for all their scholarly qualities, Subrahmanyam’s previous essays and books—including ones that could have appealed to a more general audience, such as his biography of Vasco da Gama—were not distinguished by their readability. But here, Subrahmanyam shows that he is capable of writing lucid, elegant and, at times, memorable prose. The combination of these stylistic qualities with his high scholarship makes these essays a riveting read.

Most of the essays in this volume have been published earlier but revised or brought up to date for this edition. They fall under three categories (although the author does not club them together in this fashion): history and historiography, literature, and memoirs. These are, he writes, “pieces d’occasion”. Yet some underlying views and preoccupations can be discerned from the outset. The opening essay outlines his approach both to Indian history and to the writing of history more generally. Subrahmanyam observes that there are two sharply differing conceptions of India amongst academics and the public. The first holds that India as it exists today was a creation of the encounter between British colonisers and the peoples of the subcontinent. This is a commonplace in the academe, but has trickled down to some non-academic elite Indians. The second view, which has a more popular hold, insists that a stable and self-contained notion of India has been around for centuries. In its crudest version this informs the ideology of the Hindu Right in India. But its traces can be found in the writings of such diverse figures as VS Naipaul and Jawaharlal Nehru (at least in Discovery of India).

By contrast, Subrahmanyam argues that “we need to see India not as a civilisation but as a crossroads, as a space open to external influences rather than a simple exporter of culture to its neighbours”. A national culture that lacks the confidence to admit that “like all other national cultures, it too is a hybrid, a crossroads, a mixture of elements derived from chance encounters and unforeseen consequences, can only take the path to xenophobia and cultural paranoia.” There is a characteristic sting in the tail: “if cultural cleansing is to start in India, we might begin by returning the khaki shorts of the RSS to their place of origin.”

India’s past, Subrahmanyam contends, can only be understood by placing it in the wider context of global history and by exploring its links with other parts of the world. To paraphrase Kipling: what do they know of India who only India know? In his academic writings, Subrahmanyam has advanced the fertile idea of exploring “connected histories” to uncover manifold historical links between countries of early modern Eurasia, as opposed to writing self-contained national accounts or engaging in comparative exercises. This idea lies at the heart of these popular essays as well. In many of these pieces, he also warns us against the tendency towards excessive simplification and caricaturing of the past. “There is comfort in this,” he writes, “but only for those comforted by clichés.”

THESE SENSIBILITIES ARE EVIDENT in several essays dealing with historical themes. Reviewing Ian Morris’s much-acclaimed book Why the West Rules (2011) Subrahmanyam concedes that the author displays “wide reading and extensive erudition”. Yet, he demolishes Morris’s central claim to have constructed a quantitative “index of social development” that not only explains all of recorded human history but also predicts the future. Morris’s index is composed of four elements: energy capture, organisation, war-making, and information technology. Subrahmanyam rightly observes that each of these categories is on its own too large to be reduced to a number—never mind combining them in a quantitative methodology. “The whole exercise,” he writes, “appears, frankly to be a form of mumbo-jumbo or naïve pseudo-science wherein the apparent accuracy of the numbers reflects no more than the qualitative instincts and prejudices of the author.” Subrahmanyam also dislikes the “unremittingly Bertie Woosterish tone” of the book. His verdict on the book strikes me as too dismissive, but is worth quoting as a sample of his style: “The book is peppered with ghastly sophomoric jokes that set one’s teeth on edge. Perhaps the medium is the message. Perhaps this is really a joke played on us by an erudite and accomplished scholar who has decided to metamorphose for a while into a synthesis of Nostradamus and Aunt Dahlia.” Touché!

Subrahmanyam is by no means averse to tackling big, important themes. On the contrary, he insists that even popular history should be more than agreeably written narratives and should address “large conceptual questions”. Indeed, in most of his review-essays of popular histories, he underlines the importance of a clear conceptual framework as well as significant historical detail. Then again, when it comes to periods that lie beyond his vast expertise, Subrahmanyam’s take on these large questions can be off-beam. Thus, in reviewing a book on Churchill and the British empire, he suggests that the key question pertains to Churchill’s “status as a thinker” and that what needs explanation is Churchill’s “arrested mental development”. No explanation is vouchsafed on why these are such important questions as opposed to other, more interesting possibilities.

Similarly, in considering Ramachandra Guha’s history of independent India, India After Gandhi (2007), he argues that instead of being structured as a narrative history focused on high politics, the book could have been constructed around the theme of “social mobility and its limits in India”. He suggests that Partha Chatterjee’s schema of “civil society” versus “political society” could provide the axis for a general history of India after 1947. This seems as simplistic as any conceptual framework that Subrahmanyam criticises in other contexts.

The most off-key piece in this collection is the one on John Darwin’s After Tamerlane (2007). Darwin, he tells us, is “a relatively new entrant” to the field of global history. The book is said to be “a work of chutzpah” since it comes from the insular historical establishment of Britain. Most of the works referred to by Darwin are in English: “If you write about empires in Spanish, you are apparently provincial and unworthy of notice.” (Darwin hints at no such thing, of course.) Subrahmanyam then attempts to demonstrate that Darwin, the foremost historian of the British empire, does not quite understand the analytical category of “empire”. What is this if not “a clever exercise in condescension and faint praise” for which Subrahmanyam raps Naipaul’s knuckles in another piece?

That said, the essay on Naipaul is a gem in its own right. It places the writer more clearly and firmly against the background from which he emerged than anything else written about him. Subrahmanyam also shows that far from being unique in his sensibilities, Naipaul harbours a standard set of prejudices that arose from the historical context, especially the neo-Hinduism of the North Indian diaspora in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this essay as well as the ones on Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, Subrahmanyam combines his knowledge of their texts with a formidable grasp of global history (Latin American and Islamic in the latter two cases) and a keen eye for the conceits and self-representation of these writers.

The third set of essays mark a change of gear and shift in register. There are pieces here on the Delhi School of Economics (where he did his graduate work and taught for a decade), on Paris (where he lived and worked for some years), and on Lisbon (where he cut his teeth as a researcher in the Portuguese archives). He writes fondly and humorously of people and places, but never sentimentally. My own favourite is the rather sparky essay on his time in Lisbon. The book also reproduces an extended interview with Subrahmanyam, originally published in a Portuguese journal, which is quite revealing about the development and motivations of this outstanding historian.

After reading this collection of essays, I was left wondering why Subrahmanyam doesn’t write as elegantly and entertainingly in his scholarly essays and books. Perhaps a clue to this puzzle may be found in an interview given to their publisher Permanent Black by Subrahmanyam and his longstanding collaborator, the historian Muzaffar Alam. Responding to a question on popular and academic history, they observe that “such readable books cannot replace or do away with the proper academic monograph, which is based on textual or archival research, and can’t be read that easily by non-academics … we are constantly trying to push the frontiers of research, rather than those of readability”.

To be sure, there is a tension between the analytical demands of serious history and the need for a more accessible style in writing for a non-specialist audience. But these have not been insurmountable for the best historians. Think of John Elliott, Eric Hobsbawm, James McPherson and Natalie Zemon Davis from an older generation of historians; or Linda Colley, John Darwin, Mark Mazower and Arne Westad from a younger generation. Besides, history is not pure mathematics or theoretical physics where the “frontiers of research” are beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Indeed, many of the greatest historians have looked beyond the cloisters of academia and have been anxious to reach a large reading public. Going by the essays in this volume, particularly the ones on Thuggee and Vasco da Gama, Subrahmanyam can easily bridge this divide.

Subrahmanyam writes that he is approached “at least three or four times a year nowadays by agents or trade publishers asking that one abandon one’s usual modest monographic mode to write the next mammoth blockbuster”. He seems to have resisted the seductions of the trade press. But he does appear to have a blockbuster under his belt. In the foreword to one of Subrahmanyam’s recent books—Three Ways To Be Alien (2011)—David Shulman, another long-time collaborator, informs us that Subrahmanyam is writing a history of human civilisation. If any historian can pull off such an ambitious feat, it is Sanjay Subrahmanyam. And if he writes it in the style that is on display here, then we can look forward to that rarity: a book by an Indian historian that can be read for pleasure as well as profit.   

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He is the author of War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru Years (2010).


74 thoughts on “Master of Centuries”

His father did yeoman service to India.
The son has become a firangi and trashes his Indian roots.
Indian civilization is too vast and complex for one bearded historian to encapsutate in an article or book.

Indian civilization is not from 1500 and Vasco Da Gama did not discover India. Vasco was escorted by an Indian businessman in a larger ship to India as Vasco was not sure of the way.

He will soon be forgotten by the other bigot Ramachandra Guha, they both speak the colonizers language and for them. The Europeans and Americans will honour him for dissing India, and he like VS Naipaul will be the white men in brown skin, neither Indian nor white.

‘For starters, he displays a stunning breadth of historical vision and expertise.’- yes, but he still doesn’t manage to say anything interesting. Why?
The answer, I suppose, is that he is afraid to think because to think is to tell a story and stories are interesting and being interesting is the very last thing an Indian historiographer wants to be accused of.
What does this mean? ‘ “if cultural cleansing is to start in India, we might begin by returning the khaki shorts of the RSS to their place of origin.’ Surely Sanju Baba understands that khaki is an Indian words and khaki shorts were first worn in India. Does he really believe that Europeans wore khaki shorts? What’s next? The revelation that they chewed paan and spat all over the place? Personally, I blame Narendra Modi. Now the EC has lifted its visa ban that fellow has probably set up a paan shop outside the Houses of Parliament and the pavements run red with betel juice. Hobsbawm must be turning in his grave.

‘Subrahmanyam argues that “we need to see India not as a civilisation but as a crossroads, as a space open to external influences rather than a simple exporter of culture to its neighbours”. A national culture that lacks the confidence to admit that “like all other national cultures, it too is a hybrid, a crossroads, a mixture of elements derived from chance encounters and unforeseen consequences, can only take the path to xenophobia and cultural paranoia.” –
I think the problem with Subhramanyam’s historiography is that it does not have a theory of cultural continuity and assimilation. What is the mechanism whereby a ‘chance encounter’ leads to a normative change? How do normative changes go from being epigenetic to phylogenetic? What are the channels through which change is disseminated?
There may be a few people who believed that Indian culture was an exporter of culture, but received no influence from outside but how significant were they? Why is Subhramanyam engaged in an Oedipal struggle with them? Was Partha Chatterjee one of them? Was Ranajit Guha? Has there in fact been a single eminent historian a decade or two senior or junior to Subhramanyam who has maintained such a thesis? If not, why is Subhramanyam tilting at those windmills and laying waste to those straw-men?
If Subhramanyam’s view is correct then some of the corollaries that follow are
1) twilight clauses for caste or tribe based affirmative action. If discrimination against Dalits or OBC’s or whatever was the product of a chance encounter and if chance encounters determine historical trajectories then there is nothing specifically Indian which continually re-inscribes them.
2) break up the Indian Nation State. It is an accidental agglomeration of heterogenous territories and can only maintain itself by systematic violence.
3) Carve out confessional states for non-Hindus out of the territory of India. Why? Hinduism can only generate paranoia and xenophobia. Islam can generate patriotism and an openness to influence from Islamic countries. Christianity can do the same w.r.t Christian countries. But K.Subhramanyam, Sanjay’s father, in boosting National defence, was doing something paranoid and xenophobic and evil and mad because he was decreasing the frequency of ‘chance encounters’ like invasion, genocide, mass rape and enslavement, which alone animates the country and gives it the semblance of life.
4)The fact that India has no history- just chance encounters- does not mean that no other country is incapable of having a history. So Indian history is only valuable if its study can yield sufficient money or prestige to permit emigration to a country which does have history and thus the will and the means to protect itself from ‘chance encounters’ in the same way that the DNA has evolved means to repair the effect of random mutations.
(extracted from an anonymous comment on my site)

In reading Sanjay Subhramanyam I am reminded of a Japanese friend’s comment re (the first ethnically West African, Hindu Godman) Swamy Ghanananda’s commentary on Jaimini Mimamsa Sutra which I personally found reminiscent of a line in Pessoa which itself referred back to the Jesuit Boscovitch whom Emerson and Nietzche mention and who, plausibly, shaped European ‘field theory’ along lines already familiar to the Japanese through the Vimalakirti sutra.
Why do I say this? It’s because I’m a fifty year old, four-eyed, Tambram Gussie Fink Nottle educated way beyond my intelligence. But, unlike Sanju Subbu, I’m not ‘brilliant’- I’m just deracinated. I’m not ‘irascible’- I’m abusive.
Why? The truth is I’m not a cross-roads demon offering a Faustian pact to Worthless Careerist Academics and Credentialist rent-seeking Bereaucrats- Sanju is..
This begs the question- is Sanju style historiography still a safe career-path for our kids?
No. They will end up waiting tables with massive student debt.
What is the point of celebrating this Clown Prince when the Credentialist Ponzi Scheme of a Kingdom he succeeds to is entirely bankrupt?

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