Saturday, March 04, 2017

History online

Beyond the Call of Duty
V Raghunathan and Veena Prasad

Harper Collins India, 2015
pp.224. Price Rs.299.

Raghunathan has been writing books on diverse issues – about locks, a popular book on game theory, one on paradoxes, a book on rationality and also on Duryodhana – a character from Mahabharata. His latest offering (with Veena Prasad) is a book on Britons who made a positive difference to India - a positive spin on the colonisers. While the idea itself is very interesting, there is a certain laziness in the approach. Let me elaborate:

Look at the essay on Mark Tully – a name that would easily resonate in contemporary India: Writing about Tully the authors say “Google Mark Tully and you find no less than 8.5 million results. He is all over the web space. And yet, try finding some intimate details about how well he did in school, or when and where he met his wife, or exactly when and where he got married, and when and where his children were born, or what their names are, and so forth, you find he is not such a public persona after all. (p.201)”

So, they claim, it is difficult to fill in the details in the essay about Tully. That is because of what the authors admit: they restricted their research to what was available on-line. The book is to be examined with this disclaimer in place. Having considered the limitation, then next test would be what is “in” the book. With any selection of personalities and some details about them, critics could quibble about what is excluded, an argument that can be made with the best of the selections. But what should be the criteria for including a personality and classifying all the scattered information about such a personality on the net to weave a coherent story?

Given that this is not a piece of historical research, neither is the book having a common underlying theme (apart from the positive contributions made by the subjects) one would think that there would be some relevance to the current times through the historical significance of the contribution. If we apply this test, the chapter on Sleeman, who chased thugs in his spare time would possibly fail. What is the point?

Similarly one does not figure out why Sir Mark Tully has made it to the book. Certainly being a journalist and being interested in India (mostly post-independence) would make him a person doing his duty, rather than going beyond the call of duty. While the rest of the personalities discussed in the book were born in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century (the latest being Ronald Ross born in 1857), the authors go out of the way - almost jump a century - to bring in Tully – somebody so contemporary – in a historical book.

These exceptions notwithstanding the book is interesting. Of particular interest would be the chapter on Arthur Thomas Cotton, who was singularly responsible for Andhra Pradesh’s agrarian prosperity. We have the hindsight of time to look at what irrigation did to an entire region, quite detached from the “here-and-now” issues of rehabilitation, resettlement and issues of human rights. It is not that those issues are not important, but a detachment from time gives a better perspective.

The important chapter titled “Getting India on Track” talks about the investments made in the railway network and the benefits that we continue to reap from the backbone laid by Stephenson and Chapman.

The detailed chapter on Ronald Ross and his contribution to the discovery of the fact that malaria spread through the anopheles’ mosquito gives us a perspective on the state of medical research and how frustrating it was for Ross to find a needle in the haystack of research.

While one can quibble with the research based on material available on-line, it does not discount the fact that to put these disparate pieces of information together, in reading and understanding material, and sifting the mundane and the trivia with the substantial is not easy. The book is also written in an easy style.

The personalities featured in the book were born between 1746 and 1857 (except for Tully). This in itself is important because evaluating the contribution of these persons after almost a century and a half would mean that these contributions – as they continue to be relevant to this day – were never trivial. It is therefore important to flag these events and the commitment of these gentlemen (there is not a single lady featured in the list) and evaluate their contribution and its impact.

The book should be welcomed as it brings back into the focus, the large impact made by these dogged and persistent personalities not only on the Indian space, but the contribution to the lives of citizens across the universe. The language and style has positively contributed to the authors’ agenda. The book is a contribution to the extent that it reminds us of all the important positive contributions that were made in the Raj era.

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