The Book of Indian Rulers

February 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

A History of India – Volume Two (Spear, Percival)

This book is marketed by Penguin Books as the companion volume of Romila Thapar’s ‘A History of India Volume One’ (also known as ‘The Penguin History of Early India‘) – but the similarities end with the name, and the fact that they are both writing about the same piece of real estate.

Thapar’s book does refer to political history – kings, wars, dynasties, that sort of thing – but only tangentially. Hers is primarily a history of the people of India, an inquiry into the origin of our customs, languages, religions, cults and castes. It is written by an Indian, and intended for an Indian audience. By this, I don’t mean that it is written in an ultra-nationalist way – if anything, Thapar shows that it is possible to write history from a national perspective without engaging in jingoism or ancestor worship.

Spear, on the other hand, is mostly concerned with political events, then with administrative structures and processes. His is a history , not of the people, but of the rulers of India – Mughal, British, and the Nehru father-daughter tag team – between 1526 and 1977. And above everything else, it is a book written by a foreigner, and meant for a foreign audience.

India 1700-1792, from The Historical Atlas by William R Shepherd (1923)

Not, of course, that there is anything wrong with histories written by foreigners – the British view of India is a valid perspective, and I have been told that the best history of India in existence is still the one by AL Basham; moreover, a foreign view lends balance to the more hotly patriotic views that some Indian historians think it is their duty to hold. I merely wish to point out that Thapar’s book and Spear’s do not gel together as two volumes of a single body of knowledge.

Even in terms of chronological time, Spear’s narrative does not pick up where Thapar leaves off. Thapar had trailed off at around the time Qutb-uddin Aibak became Sultan of Delhi (1206 AD); Spear picks up play with the first battle of Panipat (1526 AD) and carries through till the installation of Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister of India in 1977. It is a slim book for so vast a topic – he jams in 450 years of history into 270 pages, and if your main concern is events, that’s a lot of goings-on per page. Spear himself thought that his book’s unique proposition was its combination of Mughal and British history in a single volume, but I am not so happy with the result. The advent of the British, typically reckoned from the Battle of Plassey in 1757, divides these 450 years into two roughly equal halves. I expected Spear to devote equal attention to his two main themes, but he doesn’t. By page 80, the Mughals have been dealt with, and Robert Clive is already in Bengal; by the time Lord Mountbatten leaves Delhi, we are on page 240, and the book is nearly over. I have no complaints with the emphasis on the British Raj; I only wish he’d devoted more space to the Mughals, and to Indians in general. For instance, Spear spends almost ten pages on Lord Cornwallis and his administration, yet devotes less than five pages to the 1857 mutiny (Tantiya Tope, the Rani of Jhansi and Nana Saheb are mentioned exactly once each). Also, he makes at least one factual error – he quotes the couplet, “From Delhi to Palam / Is the realm of Shah Alam” (‘az Dilli ta Palam/Badshah-i-Shah Alam‘) in context of the aftermath of Timur-i-lang’s invasion of Delhi in 1398, but the Shah Alam referred to in the couplet lived 400 years later. Perhaps he confused Timur with Nadir Shah? (Several months after I read this book, I finally made the connection: Spear was referring not to Shah Alam but to Alauddin Alam Shah, the last Sayyid dynasty ruler who abdicated the Delhi Sultanate in favor of Bahlul Lodi in 1448)

It was interesting, I suppose, to read the British perspective on the Raj and the freedom struggle. I had previously only read school textbooks that vilified the British and lionized Indian leaders, but Spear made me realize that both sides were human, had egos and ambitions, and made many tactical mistakes along the way. That, unfortunately, is the only good thing I can think of saying about Spear’s book. Apart from this, it made for pretty dull reading. Spear neither makes history come alive with evocative depictions of characters and events, nor does he offer sharp enough insights into the process by which the past became the present. Just as Thapar showed that you can be Indian and write unbiased Indian history, Spear showed that you can be British and choose not to avail of the biggest benefit of an outsider’s ring-seat view: the scholarly perspicacity that comes from disinterest. Thapar was eye-opening; Spear made me doze off.


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