Author: Romila Thapar, William Dalrymple, Salman Rushdie, Kushwant Singh
"The Book of Indian Kings" | Finding facts in fiction
History, particularly that of great men, is subject to a great deal of supposition and fancy – The Book of Indian Kings presents such stories, attempting to reveal their truth
History and historians are a world to themselves at least to the lay readers. Naturally, Indians have for so long unable to develop any meaningful connect or taste for knowing their history fully and well. This deficit is partially a contribution of the people who have worked in the field and have increasingly isolated the subject “by the few”, “of the few” and “for the few”. History has been a dreadful and boredom inducing subject in our school days. Whatever little was taught it was much less about India and the subcontinental achievements and perhaps more about the wars and the vanquishers.
The pretext that “great writing about India” by a few established names seemed pompous and a bit of forceful assertion, as I picked up the slim book The Book of Indian Kings for a weekend reading.
The peculiar thing about history is that vast majority of readers have to believe what they read and in the scholarship of the historians which of course come with their own not so subtle baggage and ideological moorings, barring few exceptions. The fact that history as a subject is considered as the last resort for people in academics– is a reflection of how the “great” historians have served the country – a civilisation that is perhaps the oldest and longest surviving cultures in the world.
The initial chapters in the book appear to skip worthy. Facts, for instance – Chandra Gupta early coins show him as a large-headed man with thick curly hair, but a later coin shows him as nearly bald. While it appears like a valuable nugget of information, the readers find it hard to imagine whether it is being used for caricaturing effect or to assert some objective conclusions on the reign of the king. If there were coins available why not include them pictorially to enhance the reading experience of the reader. In the same essay on Chandra Gupta, the author suffixes his statement saying “so it is claimed” – appears to be the reasoning against the material evidence and also an act of distancing by the scholar himself from the unearthed artefacts. To a large part, the historical evidence falls under either “so it is claimed” or “so it seems” because we are interpreting ruins and leftovers. The author cautions the reader that the Guptas period “greatness” may have been “generally exaggerated by historians, perhaps for sentimental reasons” and sounds resolutely more objective than the rest of the historians who have chosen to write about the period.
In the end, history is one subject that can build confidence, can restore pride and be an educative guide to chart the future. In case it turns out to be a subject of derision it becomes a colourful fiction by the interpreter. History is incomplete without historical and socio-political context, and if the backdrop is presented if often leads to a distorted and often ungainly understanding of the history. Theft and selective interpretation of one’s own history is a great disservice to the nation.
The chapter on Krishnadeva Raya by Manu S Pillai is a fascinating read. Similarly, other essays including “Shivaji and his times” by Jadunath Sarkar, “Tipu Sultan” by Rajmohan Gandhi make for interesting essays. This compact book has a compilation of twelve contributors including Romila Thapar, William Dalrymple, Salman Rushdie, Kushwant Singh etc. For the readers interested in the rulers and statesmen in the history of India this book can be a quick starting point, although not comprehensive. The publishers could have included any fascinating historical artefacts of each era and make the essays livelier. Overall for a country starved of any good non-academic history books – The Book of Indian Kings could be a good starting point though insubstantial to learn and understand the ancient past and its key protagonists.