Book Review: “India: A History” by John Keay

(HarperCollins – 576 pages)

Reviewer – Luke Brown

India: a history, by John Keay, attempts to chart the course of the history of India from around 3000 BC to the end of the century just passed, in one volume. It was always going to be a tough task. 5,000 years contains an immense amount of characters, events and stories that shaped the development of the region of India (including its former areas of Pakistan and Bangladesh) that need to be included in any history. And importantly, any resulting text would have to be compelling enough for the reader to get through. In lesser hands, the former may have been possible while still failing in respect of the latter. Fortunately, John Keay has sure hands. Sorting through a myriad of sources, containing much legend, hype and partisan emphasis, this history manages, as much as possible, to be as fair and impartial to the players contained within its pages. Relating past actions can leave one open to charges of attempted romanticisation or slander. Keay reveals no axe to grind; he merely has a passion for India. And his best weapon is his dry wit. A lot of necessary detail must be slain to gain some kind of coherence from the myriad events; it is essential that an account is consistently readable and to a certain extent entertaining. Keay’s work is extremely adept in this respect:

“Meanwhile Aurangzeb [Mughal emperor of India] had had himself crowned emperor twice – once in a perfunctory ceremony in 1658 while chasing Dara, and then at a grand assembly in the Delhi Diwan-i-Am in 1659. On both occasions he adopted the title Alamgir, a name by which Muslim historians generally refer to him. It means ‘Universe-Conqueror’, and was obviously an improvement on mere jehangir (‘world-conqueror’), although rather more onerous in terms of anticipated conquests. In addition to the Assam affair and several galling but eventually satisfactory campaigns against the tribes of the north-west frontier, in 1666, it was announced that the ‘Universe Conqueror’ had secured the submission of ‘Tibet’. To the Mughal agents who were sent there from Kashmir it may indeed have seemed like another planet, although it was probably only Ladakh, the western extremity of the Tibetan plateua.”

A detailed, authoritative and compelling work, highly recommended for the India outsider.

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