The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Popular history is not always bad history

The publication of William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 has posed two very important and related questions. One is the status of popular history in India and among Indian historians. The other is the failure of Indian historians to write in a manner that makes their work accessible to the intelligent layman interested in history.

The attitude to popular history is evident from some of the sniggers being directed at William Dalrymple and his book. Some prominent historians have already debunked the book (one suspects without even reading it) because its author is not a professionally-trained historian and because the book is not aimed at only historians but emphatically for a wider reading public. Writing popular history is considered infra dig by most Indian historians. This condescension is based on the rather misplaced notion that popular history writing, because it is meant for a popular readership, ignores/distorts facts and analysis and thus does not measure up to the standards of professional history writing.

There can be no denying that some history writing aimed at a general audience does take liberties with facts and analysis. The most recent example is the tome by Andrew Roberts (a historian who made a name for himself with a fine book called Eminent Churchillians) called A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900. As the review by Stephen Hugh-Jones in The Telegraph on Friday (Nov 10) pointed out, the book has innumerable egregious errors and is flawed by the most unspeakable prejudice.

But such examples should not allow for all popular history writing to be tarred by the same brush. Some highly acclaimed academic historians have written books that have been read with a great deal of enjoyment by all readers. One has to think of everything that A.J.P. Taylor wrote. He wrote with flair without deviating from the fundamentals of the historian’s craft. There are many other examples. Eric Hobsbawm’s multi-volume history of the modern world; Simon Schama’s narrative of the French Revolution or Orlando Figes’s great book on the Russian Revolution. All these books — many others can be cited — are immensely enjoyable because of the style of the authors and the manner in which the marshalled facts are made to blend with the authors’ analysis and perspective.

Two other related points need to be made here. One is that, it is often said, history writing becomes attractive and enjoyable for the general reader when the historian tells a story with a clear chronological line. This is not necessarily true. The book that made Taylor famous, The Origins of the Second World War does not have a chronological narrative. It is in fact a very analytical book that assumes some knowledge of British politics and European history. But this does not take away from either enjoyment or comprehension. Similarly, the approach in Hobsbawm’s history of the modern world is thematic rather than chronological. The story element in history is not a necessary condition of the attractiveness, rather the telling of it is.

The other point is that elementary errors are not the monopoly of those who seek to popularize history. Robert Darnton, one of the leading authorities in the world on the French Revolution and a professor at Princeton, in the book that made him famous, referred to Bengal as a river. Hobsbawm described Pather Panchali as a 19th century novel. India’s greatest medievalist, Irfan Habib, in the book, The Agrarian System of Mughal India, which transformed the way historians looked at the economy, society and politics of Mughal India, thought that a Xavier who travelled in India at the beginning of the 17th century was the same as St Francis Xavier. (At least Habib corrected the error, albeit it took him more than 30 years to do so, but Darnton and Hobsbawm’s books remain in print with the errors.) The Homers of history writing often nod, making mistakes that would make an undergraduate blush. So one should be careful before condemning those who write for a popular audience.

This discussion allows us to arrive at some kind of understanding about what popular history writing is. It is history writing that is accessible to anyone who is interested in history and is not aimed at a specialist audience. What makes it accessible is not so much the subject matter but the mode of writing. Good, limpid, evocative and logical prose is at the heart of history writing that is enjoyed by everybody. The great historian, Marc Bloch, showed that even an obscure and difficult subject such as the structure of feudal society could be presented to readers in a manner that excited and attracted all readers who were interested. It needs to be admitted that all historians do not possess the gift of stylish and elegant writing. Taylor’s prose with its succession of chiselled sentences, with a hint of mischief and paradox, made his books and articles impossible to put down.

Most Indian historians, bar a few, have never written with such style. It is easy to shrug this off with the excuse that English is not the mother tongue of Indian historians. While this is factually correct, there are many Indian historians who use the English language as if it is their first language. The reasons are perhaps more complex because they are related to the way history writing emerged in India.

In Britain, there was a rich tradition of history writing going back to the early 18th century. This tradition was manifest not in the works of professional historians but of amateur men of letters who wrote excellent history. I think here of the History of the Rebellion in England by Edward Hyde, the first earl of Clarendon, of Edward Gibbon and his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the historical essays of Thomas Babington Macaulay and so on. The writing of history came to be professionalized and became a part of the university system only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, professional history writing in Britain built on this tradition of history writing which was meant for the intelligent reader interested in history. Till a few years ago, Oxford undergraduates doing the History Schools had to study a compulsory paper on Gibbon and Macaulay.

In India, historians writing in English did not have such a tradition to build upon. Professional history writing came out of the universities and was thus aimed at the academic peer group. (The only exception is perhaps the economic history of India by R.C. Dutt, not by any means an easy book to write.) The result of this is obvious from a book like The Political History of Ancient India by H.C.Raychaudhuri which is a superb achievement in terms of the historian’s craft but utterly inaccessible to the ordinary reader and even to many students of history. Jadunath Sarkar’s volumes on Aurangzeb, and on the fall of the Mughal empire, all great works of history, are not to be recommended for the pleasure they bring to the non-specialist reader.

This is not to suggest that there was no tradition of popular history writing in India. But this tradition was embedded in Indian languages. In Bengal, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Tagore, R.C. Dutt and many others wrote history that was read and enjoyed by non-historians. But the emergence of academic history writing in English has completely swamped this tradition. Only very recently, scholars have begun to retrieve these writings as part of India’s intellectual history and to locate the origins of an Indian historiography of India in contrast to modes of history writing that were derived from Western academies.

Clio’s face, one could say after Walter Benjamin, is turned wistfully towards the popular. She wants to be familiar to more and more people. But a storm is blowing from the universities, pushing Clio to turn her face to the specialists. We catch her always with her face half-turned.

Email This Page