How to read Indian historical scholarship

A PhD-level readings-course is good for one thing, if for nothing else: it teaches you how to read 2500-3000 pages a week – without actually reading them.  The method is this, in brief:  one takes a book (or an article), skims the introduction and reads the conclusion fairly thoroughly; by this time one either a) gets it – and moves on – or b) one gets what one has yet to get — and knows precisely which section of the middle matter of the book (or article) to zero in on in order to get it.

 This method works fairly well in all fields of scholarly endeavor, from biochemistry to economics to Chinese medieval sociolinguistics; but there is one field of scholarship where it fails entirely: Indian historical scholarship. For some reason, by and large, the introductions and conclusions of scholarly papers on Indian history are entirely unhelpful and generally leave one more confused and less informed than one has begun. This seems to be in part due to the bizarre theoretical apparatus Indian scholars (by which I mean scholars of Indian history, whether Indian or feringhi) like to employ; but also to the puzzling mismatch between the overpowering ambition to theorize verbosely on the one hand and the frankly disarming inability to do so coherently on the other.

(I leave it to better men to explain why either should be the case).

Indeed, the best way to read scholarly papers on Indian history is to skip the ambitious introduction and conclusion and to focus on the unadorned middle section of the essays, where one is liable to discover the usual profusion of those weirdly delightful and ever-surprising facts which make India the treasure-chest of wonder she is: such as that Rajasthani Rajputs insisted on not adapting their combat techniques to new technological realities, which the ignorant Mughals in turn misinterpreted as stupidity (in the famous adage that „Rajputs know how to die but do not know how to fight”)1 ; or that the one significant upshot of the century-long Italian mission to Bihar was a lengthy unpublished treatise — in Italian — in defense of the caste system (er…  Ecoes?)2; or that sometime around the year 1600 an unsavory free-lancing Portuguese named Sebastiao Goncalves Tibau founded a kingdom on a muddy island in the middle of crocodile infested swamp in West Bengal.  Maybe it wasn’t much of a kingdom, but it was his.

Putting down the book, I close my eyes and muse: perhaps it would be unfittingly dull and boring for an Indian scholar to plow through so much delightfully zany detail and produce out of it, like chaff out of wheat, a perfectly rational theory: perhaps zany facts require zany theories. Or perhaps the history of India, like her present, really is what it so often seems to be, fundamentally incoherent, and no one, not even the best brains of the Academia, can ever hope to make sense out of it.

(Having said all this, if you read Meena Bhartava (ed.) Exploring Medieval India like it says here to do, you will like it).


1 In a broadly unfair simplification, although at the turn of the 16th century, sudden availability of good equestrian stock made horseback warfare possible in principle, tradition-loyal Rajputs preferred to gallop to battle, and, once having arrived, dismount and — face the enemy’s elephants, cannons et al, as manly tradition demanded:  on foot.

2As in: echoes of, of course.