Sudipta Sen appears to have premised his encyclopedic Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River on the words of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: that the story of Ganga was the story of Indian civilization and culture. Written over twelve years using a wide range of sources from Hindu scriptures, archeological findings, writings of foreign travellers, and historical documents, Sen’s history of India’s “national river” begins in the mythological past and ends with controversies around the dams built on the river. It explores how the river and its valley have “sustained the imaginative life, material culture and daily subsistence of millions of inhabitants of the subcontinent.”
It may come as a surprise to Indians, although perhaps it should not, that were colonizers who were less than comfortable with the entire project of colonization. With the advantage of hindsight, and the availability of archives, the new writing about the empire has begun to disrupt the boundaries the colonized and the colonizers as mutually exclusive categories. One new book in this vein is Kief Hillsbery’s The Tiger and the Ruby: A Journey to the Other Side of British India, the account of a clerk who came to Calcutta to make a career but soon sabotaged it by getting himself transferred to a provincial city, and later on disappeared from India but did not return to England.
Persia was long a fault-line in an Islam that liked to think of itself, and was often presented as being, monolithic. Notwithstanding the best efforts of the Umayyad Caliphate—which defeated the Persian Sassanids in the 7th century—at both Arabization and Islamization, linguistic, cultural and even religious divisions remained. Persian identity began to reassert itself soon thereafter and the turn the of 10th century, the rise of the Ghaznavids constitute a very intriguing period from the point of view of flourishing of Persian literature, art, music, philosophy, and contribution in science and mathematics.
Krishna Sobti, the grande dame of Hindi literature (as she is often called in India), passed away in January this year. She was an unusual writer, writing as a woman and publishing some of her work under a masculine name. Her writing in Hindi is inflected with Urdu and Punjabi ways of speaking and makes translating her a challenge. Among her last works was Gujrat Pakistan se Gujarat Hindustan (2016), a novelized memoir about the early years of her career and of independent India.
Wisdom has it that forgetting the past risks repeating it. The old must remind both themselves and the young where they came from, what happened to them and why, and who was responsible.
Deborah Baker opens The Last Englishmen with the admission that she was looking for a new way to write about WW2 India when she came across the papers of John Bicknell Auden, the older brother of the well-known British poet, WH Auden. In her explorations, she found another brother of another poet—Michael Spender. The fortuitous connections lead her to yet another man, this time no brother, but a poet himself, Louis MacNeice. The result is a book that is a detailed account of who was having an affair with whom, especially one Nancy Sharp, a painter, and when, and who climbed which mountain peak and when, and discovered what. The book is three books in one: loving, mountaineering, and Baker’s original ambition to write a book about India.
In his new book, The Origins of Dislike, Amit Chaudhuri unwraps several aspects of reading, writing, publishing, criticism, and thinking in general, mostly to dismantle the perceived virtuosity of these phenomena.