Open India versus Closed India

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A book of essays that may help us grapple with the idea of being a civilisation
Is Indian Civilization a Myth? | Sanjay Subrahmanyam | Permanent Black | 262 pages | Rs 595
No country has a history as rich as India’s, one often hears. It’s rich in irony for sure—with so many people out to clobber one another over it. Little else, it often seems, can be said without risking at least a partial lie. In the fog of this subcontinent’s past, the only clarity one can really afford is in rejecting what’s evidently false.

Enter History Professor Sanjay Subrahmanyam of University of California at LA, a mythbuster who likes to arm readers with what it takes to bust myths: an agnostic approach to history, free of cultural clip-ons.

The title of his new book of essays, Is Indian Civilization a Myth?, grabbed me not only because we live in a land of tolerance that rarely extends to such audacity, but also—to be frank—because our nuclear button could yet end up under a regime whose idea of being civilised may perplex some of us.

Professor Subrahmanyam’s title essay is about the present as much as the past. It was first published in August 2001, but can still be read afresh as a delightful groan against our crippling lack of choice beyond a stale binary of two conceptions of Indian civilisation: the first derived from an Anglocentric education; and the second, a challenger dyed in saffron, which draws on a few divide-and-rule aspects of the first. ‘The central idea here is of India-as-civilization [perfected in the first millennium],’ he writes of the latter, ‘and it very soon becomes the same as the notion of a closed India.’ What he would have readers consider instead is an entire vignette of reality lost in all the modern myth-making on either side of that false binary. Turns out, proper records exist only of the second millennium; that is, of India’s ‘crossroads’ phase of history.

Since this essay first appeared, the professor has appended ‘some afterthoughts’ on the legacy of the Raj, presumably prompted by Manmohan Singh’s speech at Oxford on 8 July 2005. This addition places in even sharper relief the perils of a past falsified to serve a political project. Sure, alternate histories have always been around, but it’s rather sad how lightly they are taken even by leaders who claim an eclectic grasp of India.

In other words, it could take ages before we achieve a view of our past that we can all share as a reasonable approximation of the truth. Thankfully, the Aam Aadmi appears reluctant to let space for alternatives get squashed out of existence.

Another highly readable essay in Professor Subrahmanyam’s book is his impressive take on The Satanic Verses, which he places in a clash-of- civilisations context. This piece first appeared on Valentine’s Day 2009 in The Guardian and remains relevant to our debate on civil liberty. He offers a review of the novel Salman Rushdie will be remembered far beyond his life for, cites the novelist’s letter to Rajiv Gandhi in protest of India’s ban on it, and then explains what some of his fans may have missed: its broad historical context.

Hmmm. While I was enchanted by Rushdie’s Shalimar and clowned by Enchantress, I am still somewhat befuddled by what motivated him to write Verses. Going by Professor Subrahmanyam’s review of the novel, Rushdie’s influences could well be put to sharp critical scrutiny, perhaps sharper than what he attempts with his ‘desacralisation project’ (as some call it, and charitably at that, given his wanton use of slurs). ‘It is evident...’ writes the professor on page 153 of this volume, ‘[that] Rushdie drew on medieval and early modern European polemics regarding Islam…’

Again, as with this subcontinent’s history, too many motives remain too suspect to make up one’s mind one way or another. It’s fuzzy what Rushdie was actually up to, what he thought he’d achieve by being so offensive to so many, and what he may yet achieve—if anything.

All that’s clear is this: no writer must ever be gagged if any valid idea of ‘civilisation’ must prevail in this part of the world. This is not about some heroic bluster by Voltaire, a man with peeves enough to place him well beyond my liberal pale, but about ensuring space out there for everyone’s thoughts and feelings.

That could mean having to suffer the most uncivil of rabble-rousers; yet, it may also yield a consensus in favour of the truth some day. Luckily, it’s a subcontinent that has been agog with love stories ever since anyone can tell. And that’s a valid reason for optimism.