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A history of histories (.hindu )

The past is not one singular thing, but an interpretation that has a history of its own

Before 1498, when Vasco da Gama made landfall on the beaches near Kozhikode, India was a bestiary of impossible truths to the European mind. Women with beards, gold-eating ants, and mythical Christian kings were supposedly to be found in India. After the 1770s, when the British colonialism had inexorably acquired a life force of its own, India had been traduced into something less fantastical. It had become a site of plunder, commerce, and opportunities for enrichment. Between these two shifts of imagination is a period not just of great political turmoil — loosely, from the first coronation of Humayun to impeachment of Warren Hastings — but also an age of gradual reassessment of India in Western (and global) imagination which is the subject of historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s new book Europe’s India. Out of this age’s expanding intellectual horizons — from which emerged the European mind’s impressions, justifications and ultimately the raison d’être of the colonial project — was also born the self-knowledge of many Indians about themselves which informs our social intuitions to this day.

India of the European imagination
The key marker of this era was the production of knowledge regarding that primordial question of social anthropology which often animated European discussions for centuries: what is India? Not just an India which is a quadrilateral patch of geography ensconced between the shadows of the Himalayas and surf of the oceans, but the India which was an idea, a category of description, a spur for imagination. The answers to this and allied questions weren’t self-consciously sought.

Yet, the answers came to the Europeans of the 16th century thanks to tackling practical hurdles that awaited them: the diversity of languages, lives cut short due to disease, perilous journeys, unrecognisable geographies. Upon arrival, there were still epistemological and structural knots to disentangle: the inscrutability of political power, the incomprehensibility of traditional mores and ultimately, and more personally, the ever-present nostalgia for homes in Europe that led to reflection-filled and reactionary responses.

These findings of the 16th and 17th century produced knowledge in an agglutinative manner: facts collected over generations stuck together to help antiquarians, map makers, geographers, courtiers, shipping brokers sitting in Amsterdam, Paris, Lisbon, or London to imagine many Indias. Thus the early Europeans became collectors of facts, interpreters of experience and history in their own writings. But they also became advisers and tacticians in strategic image-building exercises about themselves and India itself. In parts, this dissimulation was occasioned because the Europeans were acutely aware of competition amongst themselves for receiving exclusive trading licences and for the need to burnish their individual roles in ‘opening up the East’. To the increasingly literate audiences Europe, their stories about the pagodas of ‘Tremel’ (Tirumala) or riches of Agra, became a narcotic, no different than the newly popular plant from the Americas: tobacco. For their part, the early European arrivals knew— not unlike Indian authors writing for the international press today — that he who could tell a more exciting story about India could earn himself not just royalties and sinecures, but also a seat amidst power.

These stories aside, the real challenge for European epistemology was subtler: how to map an Indian experience onto European vocabulary. This mapping exercise itself, as Subrahmanyam shows, evolves. Thus, for example, we have early European travellers struggling to contextualise the vivid diversity of religious practices that they observe in opposition to recognisably homogenous “Moorish” (Muslim) rituals. For a century or more, non-Muslims of India were classified as fellow Gentiles. Thereafter, by early 1700s, a social category called ‘Hinduism’ itself acquires administrative and legal force. Further, any knowledge about India could only be explained to fellow Europeans via analogy, which in turn meant form-fitting the experience of India onto theories of European knowledge. Thus, the importance of a Varadaraja Perumal temple at Kanchipuram could only be understood in the evocative terms reserved for the burial site of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain. Even the term ‘Indian’ was a taxonomical category that straddled race, geography, religions, much as Europeans described themselves: an assemblage of complementary identities.

By the 18th century, a circulating print economy actively showcased India via art, painting, and anthropological curiosities that were often reinterpretations of an earlier generation of European experiences. As the European political conquest expanded, we begin to intuit the early stirrings of racialist theories of 19th century colonialism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Europeans begin to venerate a constructed Indian past, marked by great glory (however, a grandeur only comparable to Rome and Greece), while they are contemptuous of the contemporaneous realities of the Indian present.

Reading Subrahmanyam’s work that distils a lifetime of his learning is a welcome antidote to the glib and often self-righteous liberal readings of the Indian past as an argumentative proto-democracy, as well as a reminder that the ‘sons of the soil’ who form trenchant theories of India’s history ironically rely on the hard-earned knowledge and prejudices of foreigners. The past, we realise, is not even a thing, but a kaleidoscope of competing interpretations with histories of their own.

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