The Forgettable History of a Forgotten Land

April 1, 2012 § 3 Comments


The Black Hills. Kutch in History and Legend: A Study in Indian Local Loyalties (Rushbrook Williams, L. F.)

The state of Gujarat, on the western vertex of the diamond-shaped map of India, looks like the beak of a pelican that gapes open-mouthedly into the Arabian Sea. The fat lower jaw, with drooping jowls, is Saurashtra or Kathiawar, a land renowned for mouth-watering food, towering statesmen (Gandhi and Jinnah were sons of the Kathiawari soil) and dashing cricketers with royal pedigree (Ranjitsinhji, Duleepsinhji and Ajay Jadeja). The upper jaw of the pelican, on the other hand, is Kachchh, a nondescript piece of real estate known outside Gujarat only for its wild asses and brine-soaked badlands.

It is this obscure wasteland that Rushbrook Williams, a Raj-era civil servant and academic of British origin, attempts to resurrect from the oblivion to which it has been consigned, in this equally obscure book, with its dull dust-colored cover, yellowing pages and grainy black-and-white photographs. He talks up Kachchh’s history, geography, legends, culture and industries, its bards and minstrels, its skilful seamen, its visionary and progressive rulers and its energetic and capable bania merchant community. Despite his best efforts, however, Rushbrook Williams’s narrative ends up reinforcing the feeling of timeless monotony. At one point, he admits:

 The upshot was that as Kutch interfered little with the mainland; protected Muslims and Hindus alike; offered no vast prizes in treasure to attract an invader; and set up no claims of stubborn independence to offend the pride of neighbouring potentates, it was left a good deal alone.

The famous female wild asses of Kutch...not as interesting as it sounds. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

For centuries, Kachchi history consists of clans of Rajput knights swaggering around and feuding bitterly with one another or with the neighboring kingdoms of Sind and Morvi, behaving more like bad-ass gangstas than royalty. It was a fairly standard feudal set up, with a Maharao in charge, recognized by a gang of hereditary feudal barons called the bhayyad, who owned and administered their own lands, and contributed fighting men to participate in the King’s martial exertions. Even their disputes and intrigues weren’t out of the ordinary; the monotony of the marshy landscape merged with that of the boring history. The great maritime traditions of Kachchh,  if properly explored, might have yielded dozens of great stories relating to the trade with Mocha, Muscat and Mombasa, and this could have saved the book from utter forgettability, but these exploits are barely mentioned.

A few weeks ago, I had taken the side of macro-history, or the history of broad trends, against the history of events, personalities and coincidences. I believe that the inferences drawn and explanations offered by the former are closer to the truth. But micro-history has readability and human interest drama on its side; it can hold and move its audience, and this is a powerful consideration, for no historian wants to author an unreadable book of unimpeachable truth.

A valid middle ground is certainly achievable, and this is local history, the history of a small, well-defined group or community, incorporating an analysis of the political, social, economical and other factors as pertaining to the group under consideration. This is macro-history in microcosm, and on this scale, it is possible to enjoy the best of both worlds – to get the full benefits of the explanatory powers of macro-history, while retaining the emotional power of narrative history.

In this case, unfortunately, the narrative is not particularly captivating. But having studied the histories of Kachchh and its surrounding areas, of Nizami Hyderabad, of the lands of the Marathas and the Rajput chiefs, I feel I am closer to understanding the exact process by which the British colonized India, bit by bit, treaty by treaty, clause by clause, to the utter bemusement of the ingenuous locals. By comparing these histories to the history of medieval Europe, I think I can derive a general theory of political evolution and eventual demise of feudal structures, how the King and the barons lived in uneasy equilibrium for centuries until the escalating sophistication of capital markets and transportation technology made it impossibly complex to administer the kingdom, bringing about the need for professional, non-hereditary legislators and bureaucrats, drawn largely from the bourgouisie. The kings began to share power with this professional administrator class, to the detriment of that of the landed baronetcy. Here, the narratives diverge: in Europe, this eventually led to the democritization of government, while in India, the British took advantage of the fluid situation and seized control of the administration. Either way, the landed aristocracy was, um, history, and royalty itself was not too far behind.

In the nineties, my wife was a credit rating analyst in Mumbai, and her job involved travel to strange and unfashionable parts of the country. One of these journeys took her to Bhuj, once the capital of the kingdom of Kutch but by then a dusty industrial township of secondary importance, and it was here that she acquired Rushbrook Williams’ book. It languished invisibly on our bookshelves or in cardboard boxes, for 15 years, while we moved house 11 times across three continents, and then I finally decided to read it. In many ways, the history of my copy of the book seems consistent with that of the place it describes.

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