Ramachandra Guha in 'History in the Box' (The Telegraph, Feb 19) raised the question about Indian historians shying away from writing for a wider public. The point is somewhat self-evident. There is no historian in India who quite enjoys the wide recognition and popularity that A.J.P. Taylor enjoyed at one time in Great Britain or what Ian Kershaw (the biographer of Hitler) and Simon Schama (the author and presenter of the History of Britain series on BBC) enjoy in the same country.
The truth of this statement cannot take away the problematic element from the term 'popular history' or writing for a wider public. It is always assumed that to write for a wider public ' to make history popular ' a historian has to simplify arguments to the extent of vulgarizing them. It is this assumption of dumbing down which keeps academic historians confined to writing for their own peer group.
But this is not necessarily the case. Take the example of a book called A Princely Imposter' by Partha Chatterjee. This tells the story of the Bhawal sanyasi who claimed to be the second kumar of the zamindari of Bhawal and had been presumed to be dead. The story is told by Chatterjee through the celebrated legal case that dragged on for well over a decade from the lower court in Dacca to the High Court in Calcutta and the Privy Council in London.
Chatterjee narrates a straightforward story, providing always the necessary context and character sketches of the principal actors to endow the story with meaning. He breaks the narrative at two points. One is a longish discursive chapter, placed strategically in the middle of the book, on the philosophical problems of establishing anyone's identity. This chapter is important since the Bhawal case was ultimately about identity. Chatterjee wanted to make the point about the elusiveness of identity since even after ploughing through the records and evidence, he is by no means certain that the sanyasi was the kumar. But readers of the book who have no interest in matters philosophical can easily skip the chapter and follow the story and its analysis by the author.
The other break comes in a sub-section in which Chatterjee links his story with the history of nationalism. This section does not take away from the story but enriches the readers' understanding of what was going on in the Bhawal case. There were issues involved which made it something more than the cause c'l'bre that it was.
The story and its telling are by no means simple and Chatterjee does not hesitate to spell out the complexities. But I know of quite a few non-historians, all avid readers, who have read Chatterjee's book with great enjoyment. These readers constitute, by any definition of the term, the wider public. What they enjoyed in the book was the story and the mode of telling it. Chatterjee's book was styled, deliberately so, as narrative history and it was narrative history at its best.
The wider reading public, when it gets down to reading history, likes to read a good story, and it likes the story to be well told. This explains the popularity of a book like Citizens by Simon Schama. That book had the subtitle, 'A chronicle of the French Revolution', and brought back narrative history with a bang into the realms of academic respectability. Both Chatterjee and Schama, in different ways, relied upon facts and their organization, which are the staples of the historian's craft. But they brought to their presentation a certain style, readability and even humour. They used, in other words, the devices used by novelists to render their narratives more accessible and attractive.
Indian historians since the Sixties have been driven by the notion of scientific history. This was partly derived from the Marxist method of understanding history and partly from the methods of the social sciences. Clio was to be elevated from being a mere muse to being something more exact and rigorous. What suffered most, as a result, was style and readability. Irfan Habib's masterly analysis of the agrarian system of Mughal India was a superb achievement but readability was definitely not a point on which to recommend it. Even historians find it difficult and boring to read.
Thus banished from respectability, narrative history was considered to be an inferior form of history-writing. Ranajit Guha, arguably the most self-conscious stylist of all Indian historians, adopted a rigorous structuralist approach in Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. The result was brilliant but the book had none of the elegance of his previous A Rule of Property for Bengal which was conceived as an attack on the tendency to take ideas out of history, one of the thrusts of a certain type of scientific history.
There is history-writing that is good and enjoyable to read; this appeals to anyone who cares to read and has interest in history. There is the other kind which is good history-writing because it is based on facts and their analysis but is boring to read. The latter kind puts off non-historians and is read by only those historians who have a specialists' interest in the subject. Most Indian historians have contributed to the second category.
One reason for this is that most Indian historians write with a contempt for style. Style is supposed to demean analysis and take away from the scientific nature of the analysis. Books get written in a prose that is devoid of any style or literary quality. Overlaid on this is the temptation to fall back on jargon and clich'. In the days when economic history held sway, nothing could be written without reference to the 'mode of production' leaving readers unfamiliar with the Marxist lexicon utterly bewildered. Mode of production was soon to be dethroned by hegemony. The influence of post-modernism has brought in the current favourites like discourse, trope, power and so on. These terms, convenient shorthand for complex ideas, are understood (or claimed to be understood!) by the cognoscenti but for the ordinary reader, not interested in history, they only serve to stop access by hindering comprehension. They are alienating devices.
Ramachandra Guha makes the suggestion that Indian historians are too timid and worry about the fact that their works, if available to a wider audience, might provoke sectarian violence. I would like to argue that the failure lies not in an absence of courage but in an inadequate appreciation of the role style and good prose play in making history-writing attractive and persuasive.
In a country where somebody who last read history in high school or read history honours fifty years ago claims to be knowledgeable about history, it is necessary to mark out history as a specialists' domain. But to do this it is necessary to write better. Good prose is an aid, not a hindrance, to good analysis.