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Sunil Kumar: In Memoriam

SUVIR KAUL Yes, I know that Sunil did a great deal to change the way in with the period of early Islamic rule in North India is understood: he thought of authority in terms of processes and flows, not as singular and unchanging; he did not think of the imposition of Muslim rule over a Hindu land, but demonstrated the multiple motivations that guided local rulers to consolidate their power, including their attempts to define themselves against the confessional, juridical, and philosophical ideas they had inherited; he believed in reading archives creatively and fully, rather than mining them selectively for evidence to buttress prior, and inevitably, partisan, ideas. But there is so much more before all that: There is the walk on the roof of the dining hall at St. Stephen’s College, where both of us, dressed in black trousers and white kurtas, acted as the minor guards bringing up the rear when Hamlet and Horatio see the ghost of Hamlet’s father (we cowered most effectively, we thou
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Four Recollections of Sunil Kumar (1956–2021)

    by Muzaffar Alam, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Nayanjot Lahiri, Rukun Advani WATCH: Sunil Kumar speaking on Delhi   RUKUN ADVANI   Fourteen years ago, Sunil Kumar held a copy of his first big book in his hands: The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate (Permanent Black, 2007). He hadn’t bothered trying to publish it with any of the big American or British university presses, though they’d all have taken it like a shot. It had been very long since anything substantially new and eye-opening had been written on the Delhi Sultanate, and Sunil, reckoned a dilatory perfectionist whose motto was much too fervently “Better Never Than Now”, was known to have been writing it for more than a decade. He could have had his pick of publisher. Some years later, he emailed saying he’d had enough of being a Reader at SOAS. He could have been in London forever, or moved on from there to the redder-leaved pastures of the Ivy League. By this time his book had brought him recognition as a s

Premchand and a bunch of keys

The new year is off to a good start with two great reviews of The Book of Indian Essays by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: "The names here are very good, and their work is delightful. The subjects dealt with are varied..." C. P. Surendran in Hindustan Times "You find within the purview of the anthology the sparkle of academic intellect alongside humour, personal opinions and reflections that engage both the critical eye as well as a non-academic audience" Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury in Scroll The book is like a jar of sweets with many different flavours. If you put your hand in, you pull out something delightful and different each time. Here is an extract from Sara Rai's ON NOT WRITING in which she writes -- with great eloquence -- about finding a voice, language, and subject. About this essay, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra says: "Coming, on her mother’s side, from a feudal Shia Muslim background, similar to Hosain’s, Sara Rai’s Hindi is laced with Urdu words, bu

A foretaste of HARJOT OBEROI's second book, WHEN DOES HISTORY BEGIN?

THERE AREN'T TOO MANY HISTORIANS who write such a fine first book that the recovery time needed to write the second is twenty-five or more years. Harjot Oberoi's The Construction of Religious Boundaries (1993), won the Best First Book Prize of the American Academy of Religion and the Killam Prize, the highest research prize of the University of British Columbia. His book was widely recognised as pathbreaking for Sikh Studies in the way that, a generation earlier, Hew McLeod's pioneering work had been. Thereafter, however, Oberoi was (as is well known) besieged by problems: the orthodox did not merely disagree with the argument of his book -- that modern Sikhism had been constructed from a fluid variety of identities in the Punjab region by the Khalsa Panth over a relatively short period in the eighteenth century -- they also threatened to silence him for marshalling the evidence for such an argument. And they sought actively to terminate his professorship at the Universit


“The definitive history of the Chipko Movement” RAMACHANDRA GUHA   In India, modern environmentalism was inaugurated by the Chipko Movement, which began in 1973. Because it was led by Gandhians, included women participants, occurred in “spiritual” Himalayan regions, and used innovatively non-violent techniques of protest, it attracted international attention. It also led to a major debate on Indian forest policy and the destructive consequences of commercialisation. Because of Chipko, clear-felling was stopped and India began to pay attention to the needs of an ecological balance which sustained forests and the communities within them. In academic and policy-making circles it fuelled a wider debate on sustainable development – on whether India could afford to imitate the West’s resource-intensive and capital-intensive ways of life. Chipko’s historians have hitherto focused on its two major leaders, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna. The voices of “subalterns” – ordinary men

The Arvind Krishna Mehrotra interview: First Post

The Arvind Krishna Mehrotra interview | 'There’s a lack of historicity in way we think, talk, write about Indian literature'  by Aditya Mani Jha In The Book of Indian Essays: Two Hundred Years of Indian Prose , Mehrotra collects some of the best Indian essays of all time — including works by old favourites like GV Desani, RK Narayan, Nissim Ezekiel and Shama Futehally, all the way up to contemporary luminaries like Pankaj Mishra and Amitav Ghosh. Your introductory essay ‘When the Gas Cylinder Comes’ talks about Indian ‘little magazines’ with a great deal of affection, acknowledging the role that they played in nurturing literature. During your teens you published one such magazine, damn you, along with your friends Amit Rai and Alok Rai. In the book Partial Recall, you characterise this phase as one of discovery, wherein you were exploring different literary universes, “trying to inhabit each as my native place”. Could you tell us a bit more about what that line meant to you?

The quiet in which thoughts are born has been snatched away

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (Photo: Getty Images) Arvind Krishna Mehrotra tells Nandini Nair about India’s changing relationship with English and the essays that will last and those that will not. Let’s start with the dedication of the book. Why Ram Advani, who had a bookshop in Lucknow and was an institution in the city? A lot of people who are in the anthology—Ruskin Bond, for instance—knew him personally and some of the others would have visited the bookshop. Meena Alexander’s husband David Lelyveld sent me a picture which showed him and Ram Advani standing outside it. It was a picture taken to remember an occasion. This is one reason why the book is dedicated to him. The other reason is that booksellers are an unsung part of the book trade. And now with online buying even less so. Ram Advani would know your interests in much the same way that Amazon does, but he’d even know the latest books in your narrow academic field and drop you a line when they arrived. Scholars who lived and work


We are celebrating at Permanent Black today.  Prachi Deshpande, whose first book CREATIVE PASTS we published years ago, has just won the Infosys Prize. As reported by the New Indian Express : "Winners from six diverse fields -- Engineering and Computer Science, Humanities, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences and Social Sciences -- received a pure gold medal, a citation and a purse of USD 100,000. They were picked from among 257 nominations. The lone woman among the winners this year was Prachi Deshpande from the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS), Kolkata who won the Humanities award for her nuanced and sophisticated treatment of South Asian historiography." You can read our original post on Prachi's book here and an interview with her here . The book is available in paperback.   BUY

Listen: Sumit Guha on History and Collective Memory in South Asia

  In History and Collective Memory in South Asia , Guha brings together sources from a range of languages and regions to provide the first intellectual history of the ways in which socially recognized historical memory has been made across the subcontinent. His thoughtful study contributes to debates beyond the field of history that complicate the understanding of objectivity and documentation in a seemingly post-truth world. You can read more about the book here. In this fine interview Sumit Guha discusses his book with Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., a Jerusalem-based psychologist, Middle East television commentator, and host of the Van Leer Series on Ideas with Renee Garfinkel. BUY THE BOOK  

The Unfamiliarity of the Past

Joya Chatterji's most recent book is PARTITION’S LEGACIES . It was published by Permanent Black in June 2019.  In this wide-ranging conversation about her books and her career as a teacher, she begins with talking about what drew her to history in the first place. She answers questions put to her by Uttara Shahani (a research scholar at Cambridge University) and Sohini Chattopadhyay (a history researcher at Columbia University) 1. Why did you become a historian? Let’s start at the very beginning . . . . . . A very good place to start. But before I launch into my answer, I want to thank you both for such excellent questions. They all force (or encourage) me to reflect on a lifetime of work. From a personal standpoint, this is a great moment for me to think backwards and ask myself: what did it all add up to? So I am grateful for your critical but generous-spirited questions. Why History? Why indeed. My relationship with the subject is best likened to a love affair. I was introduce