Rajmohan Gandhi is arguably India’s most underrated popular historian. After an intrepid career as journalist, especially during the Emergency, he has been a prolific writer over the last few decades. Apart from biographies of his two grandfathers, Mohandas Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari and Valabhbhai Patel and the frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, his attempt to understand the Muslim mind through the lives of eight Muslim personalities of colonial India remains valuable. His study of two revolts — 1857 in India rebellion and the American Civil War — as refracted through the British journalist William Howard Russell is structurally brilliant. Following a history of undivided Punjab, he has now tried his hand at a synthetic and accessible history of modern South India.
Apart from bazaar books meant to be crammed for university examinations, there have been a few attempts to write such a history. The great KA Nilakanta Sastri published, in 1955, a history up to Vijayanagara times. If it has neither been really revised, nor the story taken up from the advent of the European powers to the attainment of independence and after, it has not been for want of reader demand or publisher interest but a historian capable of pulling it off. Rajmohan Gandhi has taken up the challenge.
1955 itself is now history. Much has changed since. South Indian historiography was innocent of the new wind of social history sweeping at that time. Narrative of kings and wars in chronological sequence passed for history then. A chapter on geography at the beginning and a few chapters on art, literature and temples thrown in at the end completed the picture. The general reader, not to speak of the student, was understandably bored. A real pity — even if history taught no lessons shouldn’t it at least give pleasure?
Over the last few decades, even as new archives for reconstructing the past are being unearthed, scholarly writing is burgeoning. Specialist monographs and articles in professional journals constitute an embarrassment of riches. Sub-disciplines focusing on the environment, agrarian order, maritime trade, labour, gender, culture, etc. have flourished. New theoretical perspectives that challenge received and regnant approaches have proliferated making history an exciting and contested field — not to mention the political use and abuse to which its writing has been subjected. There is, therefore, a crying need to synthesise all this literature into one or more narratives. One expected at least a popular, if preliminary, narrative in this book. Rajmohan has disappointed.
Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times takes a straightforward chronological approach. Starting with the arrival of European powers around the end of the 15th century, in 15 chapters, the book narrates a jerky story. The first half reads the best. From a description of the complicated military campaigns that finally brought the southern country under the Union Jack, the narrative describes Pax Britannica, the nationalist challenge to colonial rule, the attainment of independence, and the vicissitudes of post-Independence politics. The focus is largely on politics — Nilakanta Sastri would have approved — with occasional observations on society and culture. However, this is the first book to weave Carnatic music into the story. The focus is on events — of the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’. With no overarching argument, there is little attempt to see what underpins the momentous political processes described in the book.
The author employs an annoying mix of sources: memoirs, published reports, government documents, newspaper articles, interviews and personal memories but standard scholarly literature is routinely neglected. A major shortcoming is the absence of any reference to writings in the south Indian languages.
As is to be expected, Rajmohan writes clearly and well, and the first section is the most engaging as the British go about pacifying the hinterland. The chapters on Hyder and Tipu are gripping, and the author is successful in conveying the ambivalent historical judgement on the latter. The last part on the 20th century is the weakest as the narrative gets reduced to a grandfather’s tale, quite literally.
A pervasive indifference and neglect characterises north Indian public attitude to the South and its history. On the other hand, one unintended legacy of the linguistic reorganisation of states has been the intellectual barriers between the various states. An informed history that details parallel and intertwined development is, therefore, more than welcome. The general reader is sure to find the book useful and readable even if incomplete. Moreover, it is unlikely to be replaced by a better narrative any time soon.