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Reviewed in THE TELEGRAPH, Kolkata, on 10 May 2013


(at this point we've run out of 'Re' titles so beloved of Indian historians, so why don't you just read on below while we think up some more)

The rare exception apart, the dead Indian historian is a forgotten Indian historian. Paradigms shift. Footnotes follow the new fashions: very soon not even Foucault will feature in them, never mind Subaltern Studies. So, Sarvepalli Gopal is dismissed all the more easily for inhabiting a framework that went out of fashion when Gramscian and feminist and Foucauldian perspectives became the new hegemonies. Can one still read a biographer of individuals and elites, viceroys and viceregal tenures? Ha ha ho ho, you must be joking! The very interest in Ripon, Irwin, Nehru, Radhakrishnan, and suchlike betrays the gatekeeper of a Jurassic Park, a Jadunathian thinly decked up as a liberal.

The bathwater thrown out, someone happens to notice there was also a baby. Sifting through bulrushes, he pulls out something that still looks good. This is what Srinath Raghavan, the author of War and Peace in Modern India, has just done. The result of his substantial ferreting in archives and the S. Gopal papers is the book shown above.
Is the resurrection worthwhile? Why should we read S. Gopal today? Here are some reasons offered by Ramachandra Guha and Sunil Khilnani:

In several respects, Sarvepalli Gopal stood out among the historians of his generation. First, by his industry. With rare exception, professors of history in our universities—even the most influential, the kind who become President of the Indian History Congress—do not publish more than one or two serious books each over the course of their professional career. Gopal published as many as seven: three on Nehru, one on his father, a book on British imperial policy, and separate studies of the viceroyalties of Ripon and Irwin. All were based on solid research into primary materials. Aside from these, Gopal initiated and was the first editor of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, a multi-volume project indispensable for an understanding of twentieth-century India. He also engaged in public debate, particularly in later life, and in the 1990s edited a book of essays on the Ayodhya controversy.
            Second, the English prose of most Indian academics is wooden. Gopal, who had immersed himself in the literature of the language, was by contrast a stylist with a wry turn of phrase. Though his mother tongue was Telugu and he spoke Tamil fairly well—as well as an Oxford-educated Brahmin could—he wrote almost entirely in English, crafting his sentences fastidiously and never doubting the continuing value of this imperial import in free India.
            Third, Gopal’s natural historical lens was the individual life, not impersonal structures and processes. Biography is a genre Indian writers by and large avoid, one reason being that it is exceptionally demanding and requires very hard work. Another is that the story of a life is just that—a story. Gopal relished long hours among old manuscripts in the archives and could write with flair: both traits essential for the biographer.
            Fourth, Gopal showed a willingness to learn from his own errors, an ability altogether rare among scholars of any nationality. His Nehru trilogy, majestic though it is, had two flaws. It was somewhat unfair to Nehru’s colleagues and opponents (most especially C. Rajagopalachari), and it was excessively discreet about his personal life. Edwina Mountbatten got all of one sentence, Padmaja Naidu not even that. Yet when he came later to write the life of his father, Gopal was completely candid about his subject’s extra-marital affairs: ‘I have shirked nothing’ was how he put it. Perhaps more important, the son was fair to Radhakrishnan’s intellectual adversaries. These included a Bengali who had accused the philosopher of plagiarism, and an English writer who had dismissed him as a windbag. 

Backing up the reasons above, some choice samples of Gopal's writing appear below. They are meant to make you salivate.
On Lord Mountbatten as a prize ass
The shortcomings of the admiralty and the loss of a toothbrush were to him of equal importance.’

From Gopal's essay titled ‘Gandhi: An Irrepressible Optimist’
The white American singer, Joan Baez, in her autobiography published in 1966, reports a dialogue between her husband and their daughter aged 11:

‘Did Gandhi have a penis?’ she asked.
‘Yes’, he answered.
‘Did he have a vagina too?’
‘No,’ said Ira. ‘He was a man, and men just have a penis.’
‘Well’, she said, pausing in the doorway, ‘it’s just that he was so nice … I thought he might have had both.’

From the essay ‘History and the Search for Identity’
‘When Descartes said that the most eminent scholars of Roman history knew less about what had happened in Rome than Cicero’s housemaid, his intent was to denigrate the discipline of history as a whole: but in a way he was, without meaning to do so, recognizing the value of contemporary history. He was, one may say, echoing Thucydides, who had held that the historian could write with confidence only about events that he himself had experienced. Descartes was also, and again without deliberation, stressing the importance in historical testimony of such lowly creatures as housemaids. Great men, being prone to emphasise their role in destiny, tend to exaggerate their own importance both in their private papers as well as in their oral record; but ordinary men and women, by just being themselves with no self-deceiving memories, help in the building of social and economic history. Especially in our country, where illiteracy robs us of documentation at this level of society, oral evidence is of added value and provides a dimension to contemporary history which is lacking for the history of other periods; for illiteracy is not inarticulateness.’

In defence of the writing of contemporary history
‘As for the need for objectivity, it is possible, as much in dealing with the recent past as with any other period, to adopt a scientific approach, to collect and collate the evidence systematically, and to assess such evidence by rigorous and recognized methods. To the extent that a historian is aware of and can, in the examination of evidence, subdue his subjective elements, he can do this as much in contemporary as in any other history. Detachment is a mood born of self-discipline and not a matter of remoteness in time. Some of the most partisan historians in India and the world today are those writing of centuries long gone by … The study of history is, by its very nature, an incomplete discipline with ever-fading margins, not just in the shallow sense that new evidence is always coming to light, but that every generation has fresh interests and is putting new questions to the past. It is in this sense that Croce’s oft-quoted epigram, that all history is contemporary history, should be understood. The task of the historian is perpetually to re-examine, and even to re-judge, the past in the changing light of the present. He suggests novel hypotheses, establishes new connections, poses fresh problems. He does not seek an illusory finality but opens the way to further discussions. Acton, it will be remembered, set out to write a definitive history and ended by writing a few articles. On the other hand, because the civil war of the seventeenth century is still being waged in England, research and writing on the subject continue in an unending flow.’

From ‘The Crisis of Secularism in India’
‘It is easy to find instances in the history of ancient and medieval India of the desecration or demolition of institutions of religious significance. But such actions were not the monopoly of the followers of any one particular religion. A Hindu ruler of the eleventh century, Harsha of Kashmir, melted images in Hindu temples, and a Hindu general cut down the Bo-tree in Bodhgaya. Shaivites and Vaishnavites, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, Sunnis and Shias quarrelled and frequently pillaged each others’ shrines. When the Sikhs conquered Sirhind in 1764, they deliberately destroyed all buildings, including the mosques. There is no room for generalizations about bigotry applicable only to Muslims.’

From his review of E.M. Forster’s The Hill of Devi
'Relations between the maharaja and the paramount power were unhappy, and Mr Forster writes with subdued bitterness of the officials of the political department who, he says, were on the whole "an unattractive body of men" lacking courtesy, kindness, and sympathy. The maharaja finally fled to Pondicherry in French India, defied all orders of the Government of India to return, and in 1937 died in self-imposed exile and poverty. Mr Forster, ever a critic of the world of officialdom and power, blames the Government of India. "They were", he says in a magnificent sentence, "impeccably right and absolutely wrong." But it is difficult to see what else the government could have done. … But even if Mr Forster’s estimate of the maharaja cannot be unqualifiedly accepted, The Hill of Devi remains a book of intrinsic worth. It is written—this goes without saying—in prose of gossamer quality. To the social historian it is a valuable study of an India that has now disappeared. An interaction of private and public history, it gives vivid pictures of life in an Indian state, with its servility and intrigue, its backwardness and obscurantism.'

On cricket writing
‘To me, as no doubt to many others, the game and the English language have helped each other to increase the sum total of fascination. I still remember, for example, reading a long time ago a comment of Cardus on Duleepsinhji. “It is one of the delights”, wrote Cardus, “of an English summer afternoon to watch Duleep’s bat flash in the sun.” That sentence, with all that it leaves unsaid, has haunted me through the years.’


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