IS SANJAY SUBRAHMANYAM FOR REAL?
He's won the Infosys Prize for History for 2012, so he probably is.
Academics write mainly two kinds of books: monographs addressed to their peers, and textbooks for students. The scholar who can entirely switch modes and provide entertaining English for the serious lay reader is a rarity everywhere. In India, Ramachandra Guha, Nayanjot Lahiri, Sunil Khilnani, and Mukul Kesavan are some of the better-known exceptions—teachers and scholars who’re well regarded for their journalism and magazine essays.
You would not think of Sanjay Subrahmanyam in connection with this bunch. A formidable economist who grew into a formidable historian and linguist—estimates of the languages in which he’s fluent remain inexact and it would take a supercomputer to tot up his publications—he’s usually associated with social science intellection at rarefied levels, including trade and maritime history, the social and economic aspects of early modern times, wanderers and savants who’ve traversed cultures and oceans, world history and the working of empires—in short, the sorts of elevated subjects that have non-specialist readers running for cover.
But, in fact, Subrahmanyam’s trajectory since the early 1990s shows what in the world of Hindi movies used to be called a ‘double role’: the ability to switch identities, become another character. Subrahmanyam’s transformation from academic prose writer to essayist-for-the-masses is as amazing as, and in keeping with, his language skills. He has been writing reviews and long essays that are not only wholly accessible to the general public, they’re also extremely entertaining, being leavened with a dry humour that can be excoriating.
Part of the reason Subrahmanyam has remained a hidden treasure on this count in India is that these prose pieces have been locally unavailable: they appeared in prestigious overseas places such as the London Review of Books. In part it is because visibility and stardom in the world outside the university campus now depend a lot on either winning prizes or writing fiction or both. Subrahmanyam must have won more than a prize or two but, as he charmingly puts it, ‘Unlike a large number of my contemporaries in Delhi University, I have never been tempted to write a novel or even publish a short story. Still, I do love literature, but am certain that—as in the best Hindi films, like Muqaddar ka Sikandar—this is unrequited love.’
Permanent Black will, early next year, publish a collection which showcases this unsuspected aspect of Subrahmanyam.
The book will take its title from its first essay, Is ‘Indian Civilization’ a Myth?, in which Subrahmanyam tears into ‘golden age hallucinations’ among those in his profession, specially those with links to the Hindu Right. Later, in an essay titled ‘Secularism and the Happy Indian Village’, he more or less eats up Ashis Nandy and those who argue that ‘secularism’ is a European idea alien to India. Subrahmanyam provides examples from Spanish and other European histories (among Indian academics he is almost uniquely equipped to do this) to show that in fact ‘secularism’ is a rather indigenously Indian term with very little purchase in the West.
The book comprises twenty long essays over which Subrahmanyam tells us ordinary folk, with much intellectual exuberance and caustic elan, many of the things that he’s already expounded to the learned. It’s a book that normal human beings will want to look out for because it is so breathtakingly and unexpectedly wonderful to read.
Why? Largely because its mix of wit and scholarship makes Subrahmanyam’s English prose in this book quite exceptional. Here is one example from an essay titled ‘What, Exactly, is an Empire?’ which includes a discussion of the work of a historian of empire, John Darwin:
Empire has been at the heart of his research and publishing career, as indeed of his teaching ... The work under review here departs markedly, however, from the earlier ones in three ways: in terms of its conception as a popular work, in its far larger (even global) geographical scope, and in its embrace of both the early modern and the modern periods. In his preface Darwin suggests that there are sound English, even Oxbridge, precedents for his work: he notes that his ‘first introduction to the fascination of viewing world history as a connected whole came as a pupil of the late Jack Gallagher, whose historical imagination was boundless.’ Elsewhere in the same prefatory text he relates his work to earlier literature on the rise of the West and European expansion, while acknowledging his debt to ‘the huge volume of new writing in the last twenty years (…) on global history.’ He adds thereafter that ‘it is not only recently that historians have insisted on a global view of the past: that tradition, after all, goes back to Herodotus.’ Did Herodotus ever speak or even reflect on a ‘global view of the past’ when he was presumably not aware of the earth as a globe? I rather doubt it. This may be a little generous, but probably not as generous as the reference to Gallagher, whose vision remained entirely confined so far as anyone can see to the later British empire of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and its vicissitudes. This version of boundless imagination is possibly, like that of the placid dreams of the Empress of Blandings, based on the exuberant semiosis of a few enigmatic grunts.
The deployment of Wodehouse and his pig to give us the lowdown on the sometimes limited vision of Cambridge historians is sublimely more than one can expect from any academic.
Sanjay Subrahmanyam may, however, disagree with this notion of there being an absolute distinction between his academic and popular prose. And if he does, there may be some truth to his opinion; it is, at least, a matter worth debating. One way of finding out is to read the essays he has co-authored with Muzaffar Alam in Writing the Mughal World, for those essays occasionally include the sorts of satirical gems that will be found in greater abundance once Is 'Indian Civilization' a Myth? is published. Here's a hilarious example on cannibal practices from a chapter titled 'The Mughals Look Beyond the Winds', in the Alam and Subrahmanyam book:
The cannibals' villages were scattered, but despite this it turned out that they were all related to one another. If one of them fell ill, they let time pass; and when the illness had advanced they killed the person and distributed the body parts amongst different families, with the chief (kalāntar) getting the head. These parts were then hung in houses, so that every major house had a few heads hanging in it as a sign of status. The more heads you had hanging in your house, the greater the signification of your power and importance. But matters did not stop with the traffic in body parts. When these cannibals gambled, they offered their own hands and feet as wagers in the game, and if they lost, their hands and feet were cut off and miscellaneous other pieces of flesh taken away in proportion to the loss. The other cannibals ate this flesh without hesitation; nor did the people whose task it was to carve up their fellows hesitate for a moment, or even think to discuss the matter afterwards. (A small parenthesis adds that they also ate pān leaves, or betel, in the area, as if to suggest that the cannibals were not entirely beyond the pale in the things they consumed.) Returning to the main thread of his discussion, Tahir continues: if you promised a part of your body in a game and then refused to give it up when you lost, it was considered a sign of great humiliation not just for the poor loser, but for his whole group (qabīla). Besides all this, there was also an annual day when the ruler of the cannibals and his people got together and ate human flesh (gosht-i ādam). On this particular occasion, a chosen man was rendered unconscious by placing a hand over his mouth. Occasionally, if he pleaded, they let him go and caught another, it being inauspicious to consume one who had expressed such a marked distaste at the prospect of being eaten. Then, the selected person’s body parts were cooked alongside other dishes, and if any in the group felt a lack of appetite facing such a choice repast, they lost status and were made to feel insufficiently cannibal.
IN SUM, Subrahmanyam is one of our most accomplished writers of English prose, and this should not remain only a suspicion. Writing the Mughal World and Is ‘Indian Civilization’ a Myth? are both, in a sense, weighty books that you can also read simply for the pleasure of reading elegant English prose.