Tipping the scales in favour of south India

(Published in The National Herald, 23 December 2017)


Charles Allen’s Coromandel is a book that is ambitious in its sweep, charming in parts, and consistently conversational in tone. Some of the charm comes from the author’s own fascination for India, qualified as it is, however, by a clear awareness of his privilege as a white man born in the last decade of the British Raj. Allen’s relationship with India—and a relationship is what it is, lending to his writing some of the attendant strengths as well as weaknesses—began in a time when his father could borrow “a couple of elephants from a local maharaja to go in search of a legendary copper temple lost in the jungles of north-eastern Assam.”

While a sentence like this induces fear that the sahib’s son has produced a wistful romance to join other tedious works of colonial nostalgia, Coromandel is by no means a sentimental work. Allen has done his research and succeeds for most part in encapsulating significant swathes of Indian history in an eminently readable, and at times entertaining fashion. There will be questions asked of what he has chosen to leave out, of course, even though he preempts these by referring to the book as “personal history” that will, necessarily therefore, not always embrace expectations of academic exactness.

Indeed, the book does meander and there are moments when one wishes Allen had sustained his discussion on one particular subject without succumbing to his desire to tell the next interesting tale he encountered during his “adventures in the Indian south”. While the name Coromandel is a seductive one, the narrative is woven not only through peninsular history but extensively through the north, drawing into the reader’s view a fairly substantial landscape to negotiate—the picking and choosing of some places and episodes at the cost of others is inevitable with so large a canvas.

The best and most absorbing sections of the book pertain to its discussions on Buddhism and its cultural legacies from an age not often recognised or understood in Hinduised India. When Allen advances his reasonable conclusion that the Harappans were different from the Vedic people, one sits up, wondering how the Hindu nationalist might respond, given that today all narratives that are not part of a grand sequence leading to an inevitable Hindu triumph are deemed incorrect or prejudiced. So too when we are reminded that the river Saraswati might actually flow in Afghanistan, it makes for some excellent pages even as one visualises people in certain quarters itching to disagree.

Allen does not provoke for the sake of it. His sentences are measured, though at certain points, it must be said, they are also somewhat unexpected. India’s past, for instance, is remarkable, not least because “There is so damn much of it”. Elsewhere speculations concerning a mysterious ancient script by a nineteenth century scholar are described as “spot on” because they were correct. But if this informality of language, which serves its purpose in conveying the author’s enthusiasm, makes one smile, where Allen does touch on matters that could be seen as controversial, his tone is appropriate. Where it may be “politically awkward” to discuss the full brutality of Malik Kafur’s devastating attacks on Hindu temples in the south, he insists we recognize this “painful fact” even though it could be deployed against Indian Muslims today.

Similarly, where claims are made that the Buddhists were violently expelled from their shrines as the sun set on their faith here, he suggests caution in reaching this conclusion—while in some cases violence might have occurred, Buddhism was dying for a number of reasons in India. One telling cause for its inherent weakness was that unlike Brahmins who fathered sons to sustain Hindu traditions, celibate Buddhist monks were at a disadvantage when their message went out of fashion and they lost royal means of patronage and support.

There is much that is captivating in the book. The reader pauses in awe on learning of the Bhimbetka caves occupied 100,000 years ago by homo-erectus and then by our own ancestors, some 70,000 years later. The chapter on Jagganath is excellent, though the one on Travancore felt, somewhat, digressive—the reader would have benefitted, for instance, with more of the Coromandel itself, which properly appears only in Chapter 8. The tale of Nagapattinam, so wonderfully captured by Allen as a place of creative and religious confluence, might have profited with a corollary in Masulipattinam, for example, under the Golconda Sultans who controlled much of the Coromandel for many years but barely feature in the book.

Similarly, where we have a hugely instructive discussion by Allen of the Satavahana dynasty and their “undervalued” contributions to India, another such chapter on the Pallavas might have fit more naturally into the narrative than the section on Tipu in Malabar. The strength of an otherwise good work gets somewhat dissipated in the last two chapters, followed by an End Note that concludes with a call to protect free speech in India. This is not to lecture a gifted author on what he should or should not have written in his book—it reflects perhaps the reader’s greed for more material as appears in the book’s superior sections.

In terms of process, Allen does a good job of blending his travels and direct experience of places and customs with academic research. There are moments when a few jolts are delivered, however, which ought not to have missed the eyes of a fact-checker. The Bunts, for instance, are mainly from Tulu Nadu, not Tamil Nadu. The Travancore Census Report of 1931 could not have been authored by V Nagam Aiya, who was dead since the year of the Russian Revolution, though he did author some such reports in the previous century. The Namboodiris of Kerala never inflicted sati on their women, and it is prohibited explicitly in the 64 rules that distinguished them from other Brahmins. And the wisdom, in an otherwise compelling book, of allowing the term “Wikipedia” to appear among the notes and sources is questionable in a time when history is dangerously becoming what the largest (and loudest) number of contributors agree it is on platforms such as the one named.

But while these are not minor quibbles, one can yet perhaps allow them to pass. For Coromandel is an interesting work, written in an engaging manner, telling tales that deserve to be told. In sum, Allen succeeds in inspiring in the reader’s mind further thought and reflection on not only what makes Indian history but also what it is to think of oneself as Indian today. And for this reason, this is a book that deserves to be read widely and with due attention.