17 May 2007
TWO GREAT WORKS OF NARRATIVE HISTORY
If Indian historians have generally seemed wary of writing contemporary (post-1947) history, they have seemed even more sceptical about writing narrative history with a distinct story line that makes their work accessible and attractive to serious lay readers outside academia. Permanent Black has therefore been exceptionally fortunate in having published perhaps the two most outstanding recent works in this genre. Partha Chatterjee’s landmark history—and, by any measure, stupendously gripping account—of the strange case of the ‘Bhawal Sannyasi’ who returned from the dead (a la Natalie Zemon Davis’s ‘Martin Guerre’) to reclaim his ancestral property is entitled A Princely Impostor? The Kumar of Bhawal and the Secret History of Indian Nationalism; now in paperback and strongly recommended to anyone who thinks Indian history has no connection with great murder mysteries.
Nayanjot Lahiri has made the dead come to life as well, in her brilliantly recounted history of how the Indus Valley civilization was unearthed and its puzzles pieced together by John Marshall, Daya Ram Sahni, Rakhaldas Banerjee, and other pioneering officers of the Archaeological Survey of India. Her book, Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilization was Discovered, has been enormously well-received.
Curiously, both these books centre themselves around almost the same time period: the first three decades of the twentieth century.