I used to wonder sometimes why the history books in school always stopped at the independence of India, as if that was the ultimate achievement, and nothing remarkable happened after that. This autumn gave me an opportunity to fill that gap in my mental model, and this is a short account of what it was like.
TL;DR: Read India After Gandhi. You won’t regret it.
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Back in July, as I sat in the backseat of my friend’s car, I noticed a thick hard-bound book with a black cover and an inviting title in white lying beside me — India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha. As the three of us headed out for a boys’ night of fun and conversations, I spent my time flipping through the pages of that heavy piece of literature, eventually ending up reading the entire Prologue before we stepped out into the cool moonlit night.
It didn’t take me long to buy a paperback version of the book. I had wanted to read about the history of my country since some time, especially the part concerning the times after independence, and this seemed like the perfect book to get into. But before I dive into it, let’s take a step back.
Why did I want to read about Indian history?
At the time when I asked this question, I had two reasons for this, one arising out of a fundamental question of identity and the other nurtured through a growing desire to understand the nation’s politics. As it turns out, these two reasons are more interlinked than I had initially thought them to be.
- What does it mean to be an Indian?
This question had been doing the rounds in my mind ever since the cry about anti-nationalism became a mainstay of the national media. Once asked, it is hard to ignore this question. A simple answer of being born within a geographical boundary never seemed good enough to me, so I was hungry for explanations.
- How does one make sense of India’s political atmosphere?
This question is more pertinent to the current climate, and more so since I was pondering what sort of a government I would like to see in power in my home state and at the center.
While an exact answer to either of these questions is a non-trivial task (and depending on your definitions, could be borderline impossible), I did learn a lot from my excursions into India’s post independence history in the past few months, especially against the backdrop of my first absence from the country for a considerable period of time.
Growing up in a largely peaceful time in Bhopal, I barely ever realized the amount of pains it has taken for the early torchbearers of India to establish a unified democratic nation state, and how hard it still is to maintain that status in certain parts of the country. More importantly, I got a glimpse of an understanding of why that might not be in the best interests of all parties involved.
I think I have emerged slightly more understanding of the Indian society than when I started reading the book. The motivations behind the actions of various communities, be it based on caste, class, religion or gender, now make more sense to me, and this makes me feel a bit more empathetic towards the vast multitudes of groups that make up the country than when I began this journey of discovery.
This exercise has sparked my interest in various areas which didn’t seem so interesting just a few months ago — economic policy, international relations, psychology of the masses, what shapes and alters political ideology and how that relates to actions and mass interpretation. I hope this would give more context to any subsequent readings that readers of this book undertake.
Mr Guha is a splendid author, who managed to make this remarkable work of well researched history into a multi-protagonist thriller of epic proportions.
For those of you who are wondering if you should consider reading 800 pages of this book, I would recommend that you should, and even more so if you are burning with questions about the country and are willing to invest some time before bed every night to find answers to them. This has without a doubt been a book which scores highly on my all time scales of reading for learning as well as that for entertainment.
I have also been helped through this journey by a 1 unit course on Indian history offered this autumn at Stanford (thanks to Prof. Ryan Perkins), and by this set of recordings by BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05rptbv/episodes/downloads (Incarnations: India in 50 lives)
I have finished reading the book, but I have just started learning about India. I welcome any insightful resources about the history, economy, polity or society of India, as well as that of any particular states, that might be accessible to a non-academic like me. I look forward to learning more about the country, and understand my fellow countrymen better.