Prof. Sumit Sarkar is not keeping well for last many months, I hear.
He published his latest book Modern Times a couple of years ago. It was initially supposed to be just an update over his 1983 classic Modern India but he felt that the original book is ‘thoroughly dated’ and thus couldn’t be updated. He instead is bringing out a two-volume set titled Modern Times. The first was published in around 2015 and the second one is awaited.
Reading both the books (1983 and the latest one), it seems that his writing is still as terse as it was then, but has lost that bit of sharpness. It was unforgettable when he called Gen. Dyer as ‘the butcher of Jallianwallah’, and Churchill as ‘pigheaded’ or Gandhi in 1942 being ‘in uniquely militant mood’. Although very prose, it has a kind of embedded liveliness into it. The new book is still dense but the sharpness seems to have matured now.
Significantly, it’s a difficult read because he seems to have a specific reader in mind who is fairly familiar with the debates on-going in the discipline. Back in 1983, he was enamoured by the subaltern school, which was relatively new. Back then, there was not much debate on ideology and Foucauldian analysis was not in vogue. Saidian methods were yet to touch modern Indian history. Modernity was still modern, so to say. Today, the subaltern group doesn’t exist, it’s splintered and its members went into different directions. Sumit Sarkar himself later seems to have decried demise of the subaltern in subaltern. Prof. Sarkar also quips the random and loose usage of post-modern and critical theories in the latest book.
One important development is the theoretical awareness of the narrative. The olden times, the narrative books were different and the books dealing with references and methods were written separately for a select few. Now the situation is changed for there is an awakening that the narrative can’t be separated from theory. Prof. Sarkar has done good justice to it. It’s a rare skill to find a powerful narrative which is theoretically informed and yet not boring.
In between the two books (the intervening ~30 years), there were many developments in the field of history. New Cambridge series appeared. Sociology became much more sophisticated and active into history. Gender and caste studies exploded. Apart from peasants, tribals and workers, many other sections, aspect, regions and era started receiving due attention. Many history departments in India either became defunct or substandard. Except in few cases, the American academia became extremely active and powerful in not only doing latest research but also setting the tone. There were some other indigenous developments too.
The 1980s was the time when environmental history started as an academic discipline in India – thanks to the pioneering work of people like Ram Guha and Madhav Gadgil. That has been largely incorporated into the mainstream of modern India now. Back then there was scanty research available on North East India. It hardly existed in the books. Now that some substantial body of work has evolved due to labours of some hardworking individuals, it’s poised to be integrated into the mainstream narrative. Same is the case with legal history – which was back then studied either by law fraternity or only for the sake of understanding the evolution of administration, a dab topic considered back then. Sociologists have done immense work on the legal aspect of modern India and that work is now well integrated into the main narrative, which is getting amply reflected into Sarkar’s new book.
Also, the correlation between what was happening in Europe or the world over and in India is better brought into the narrative. Back then, it was mostly about London politics or European wars but the horizons are expanded today. Many more connected points between global happening and Indian developments are suggested.
Culture, back then, was thought as either bourgeoisie phenomenon or reflection of production relationships. Marxist historians thus gave very less importance to those aspects compared to the politics and state which were considered as the central issues of interest. (It’s surprising not least because Marxist activists were the ones at the forefront of the folk theatre with IPTA) That issue has been gladly resolved now that copious amount of work is done on music, architecture, dance, painting, drama, novels etc. Prof. Sarkar has also attempted to include those aspects. His chapters on print culture, Hindustani classical music and urbanisation are superbly written. This shift in the focus away from state and politics is well summed up in the change of title itself – from Modern India to Modern Times.
Also, the old had sharp dates – 1885 to 1947. Today it’s realised that both the events – the formation of Congress (1885) and freedom with partition (1947) don’t really represent as sharp breaks as were thought of earlier. Significance doesn’t mean discontinuities, especially in history. The new book thus talks about a period from the 1880s to 1950s.
Sarkar is a historians’ historian and thus the book is totally unreadable for a layman (as was the previous one). Although it’s full of jargon and requires some time to comprehend, if one has read the earlier book, it becomes easy. It’s a highly dense book, with huge data habitually compressed into a few lines. Also, at many places, instead of enunciating his arguments separately, he brings forth those forth through the facts. Getting used to his style takes some time as well as efforts.
His influence has been immense. He never flinches from taking sides, his words are precise. If we notice the two important interventions in modern Indian history textbook writing in the last decade, these are undoubtedly by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Ishita Banerjee-Dubey. Both confessedly give a huge credit to Prof. Sarkar.
I am not a Marxist by a far shot (and there indeed are some places where I do disagree with his conclusions). Yet, Prof Sarkar’s is one of the most rigorous books I have ever read. I also prefer him over some other historians like late Bipan Chandra whose books are not as good or deep but are (unfortunately) famous I suspect primarily because of simple (or rather simplistic) writing.
The second volume is still awaited. I hope Durga Maa gives him enough power and life to complete it soon.