(Published in Mint Lounge, March 28 2020)
Writing in 1937 to the future president of India, Rajendra Prasad, historian Jadunath Sarkar put forth his views on what would constitute a good “national history” for the country. It could not, Sarkar argued, “suppress or whitewash” that which was “disgraceful” or embarrassing in India’s past. On the contrary, it had to be “true as regards the facts and reasonable in the interpretation of them”, not hesitating to acknowledge wrongs even while pointing out “nobler aspects” to offset such details. The historian’s job, Sarkar insisted, was “not to suppress any defect of the national character, but (to) add to his portraiture those higher qualities which, taken together with the former, help to constitute the entire individual”. Prasad agreed, noting in his reply that unless Indians learnt to “know and understand” their own “national defects”, there could be no moving forward as a people and society.
The age in which Sarkar worked was dominated by nationalism, given India’s struggle against the British Raj. But these words also hold substance in our time of hyper-nationalism, as Indians turn against other Indians with history (or imitations of it) as their preferred weapon. Reading T.C.A. Raghavan’s History Men, one is, in fact, startled that while the specifics might have changed, the broad dynamics remain the same in many ways. Then, as today, history provided raw material for multiple visions of the past, interpreted in different ways to cement conflicting ideas of the Indian nation. Debates on historiography, method and even historians’ own biases afflicted the writing of history in Sarkar’s time, and scholars found themselves in the cross hairs of chauvinism, regional and national sentiment, language and culture wars, and even plain old-fashioned clashes of ego, then as today.
Raghavan’s book is a splendid examination of these issues through the constructive and warm relationship Sarkar enjoyed with two other historians, G.S. Sardesai and Raghubir Sinh. The three men held each other in high regard, which is not to say that they agreed with each other on everything. Sarkar often found Sardesai too sympathetic to Maratha pride in his approach to Maratha history, for example, while Sardesai felt Sarkar did not give enough value to understanding different sides of the same story, and the purpose these served for each party’s identity. Sinh, the youngest of the three, and the most unusual, given his royal heritage, was deferential to his seniors, but did not hesitate in his work to nuance arguments and challenge some of their conclusions and deeply held beliefs. It was, in fact, their own internal debates and mutual criticism that nourished the partnership for decades.
The relationship began, as Raghavan relates, when Sarkar approached Sardesai in 1904 with a proposition: He was an expert on Persian documents and could provide inputs to Sardesai, if the latter helped him with Marathi sources pertaining to the Mughal period. It was the launch of a fascinating coalition, lasting till death, but fraught also with the troubles such an alliance caused in other quarters. Sarkar—who in many ways dominates the book as the grandest of the three—was a celebrity of sorts, publishing as he did in the English language universe. His work on Aurangzeb, particularly his attacks on the emperor’s orthodoxy, marked him as a “communal” historian for secular nationalists, even as his less than reverential take on Shivaji (who appears in his books as simply “Shiva”) upset proud Hindu elements with opposite political leanings, in another part of the country.
Naturally, Sardesai, who emerged in the 1920s after a long career at the court of the maharaja of Baroda, received flak from fellow Maharashtrian historians (specifically, the Poona School) for his closeness to Sarkar. That Sarkar used his influence with the British (whose police at one point had tried to charge him with sedition) to help Sardesai gain access to coveted but sealed archives further upset doyens of the Poona School who were denied this and refused even to acknowledge Sardesai as a proper historian. Language politics also played a role: Sardesai wrote in Marathi for the most part, but Sarkar’s support highlighted Sardesai’s work outside Maharashtra, to the angst of his rivals. Sarkar, of course, dismissed their criticism, putting it down to envy and labelling the Poona School a “clique” unable to rise above its own pettiness.
Raghavan—having mined a rich archive of correspondence between these men as well as Sinh’s library in Sitamau, Madhya Pradesh—does an excellent job in the book, in clear language and at a pace that never slackens, in explaining how much networks mattered, along with determination and the traditional skill sets of a historian. Sinh’s princely connections, for instance, were of great value in gaining access to royal archives, even if these came with their own problems. For instance, Sarkar would write a history of Jaipur for that princely state, only to see the manuscript gather dust. The issue, evidently, was that the court was not keen to have Jaipur’s time under Maratha domination advertised, and it was only in the 1980s that Sarkar’s book was posthumously published, thanks to Sinh’s efforts. Sardesai too tried to help Sarkar’s book see the light of day: A mother-in-law of the Jaipur ruler was Sardesai’s student, and he made an attempt to use this connection to persuade the maharaja to publish the manuscript.
Among the strengths of this charming book is the biographical element it contains. Sinh’s love for history saw him renounce claims to his princely seat, while the quest for the tale of his own ancestors led him to produce a superbly original revisionist account of Malwa’s history. Sarkar’s life witnessed tragedy, with two daughters widowed, a son murdered, and a grandson killed in an accident. Sardesai had to face the ire not only of the Poona School but also of his former employer, the Baroda maharaja, who, upset with him for retiring from service, slashed his hard-earned pension. We also get a glimpse, on a happier note, of Sardesai’s marriage in an entertaining diary entry by his wife. “My husband,” wrote a scandalized Mrs Sardesai once, “thinks I should wear my sari according to the new fashion without one end tucked up behind my back.” The issue led to a quarrel between the author of the 3,800-page Marathi Riyasat and his sartorially conservative spouse.
What shines ultimately in the book—and this is Raghavan’s underlying focus—is the sheer love for history that united all three men. They worked in a time of slow communications, when India was still forming itself into a single, modern whole. Their work involved plodding through fields, hunting for forgotten monuments, persuading hesitant families to publish their records, fighting court cases and legal threats, not to speak of negotiating a bureaucracy that had its own interests in manufacturing obstacles. Their work was criticized then, and their methods are in many ways outdated now, but these “history men” made phenomenal contributions and authored works of striking quality. And while students of history will entirely relate to Sarkar’s use of the term “mouth-watering” in the context of finding new records, Raghavan’s tribute to the man and his peers is equally delightful, revealing also to the lay reader what investigating the past entails, and the dynamics that shape any mission to understand India’s history—a story not just of chronicles but also of the chroniclers.