Rajeev is currently planning a course on South Asia History 1600-present [!] and pdcs is planning 5 courses as well. Inevitably, the conversations are on what texts to assign and to what purpose. This happens every spring as we all sit down to plan Fall courses. I asked for suggestions for an Intro on Islamic history and got some recommendations before which proved quite helpful. So, in the interest of gathering some more knowledge into the pool [incidentally, the ultimate pool will be the Initiative once I actually start working on it], I thought to open the discussion on what general intro South Asia texts would you recommend? Any favs? Any hatez? What has good narrative? nice maps? glossary? Any contenders out of left field? Anyone pay attention to Pakistan or Bangladesh or Nepal?

A list of possibilties:

I have taught the Metcalf and Jalal to varied results. The chapter/essay approach leaves a bit to be desired in my head. Haven’t seen Markovits but Ludden’s is quite good, I think. What say ye?

32 thoughts on “Introduction to South Asia

  1. Sepoy: btw, since I wrote the comment on the Jaffrelot Pakistan book, I’ve had a chance to go through it: “random” and “clunky” are well-chosen indeed. Quite disappointing.

  2. I think Nehru’s “Discovery…” is a great idea, though I certainly agree it should be used in conjunction with something else (Khilnani is a good juxtaposition).

    someone else: certainly at a popular level the stereotype persists, but I find that in academia we have a reverse– not stereotype certainly but almost a reflex by now– narrative of partition populated by a misunderstood Jinnah and overwhelming Congress responsibility.

  3. Oh, and I’m a big fan of bose and jalal’s national, democracy, and development. especially the essays “nation as mother” and amartya sen’s essay on history.

  4. I vote for Sumit Sarkar and the first few chapters of Discovery of India. History of Modern India was one of the best books on India I’ve ever read.

    I also didn’t like Wolpert, which my undergrad professor used. I can’t put a finger on why.

    Also, for partition, it might be interesting to use Joya Chatterji’s book on the partition of Bengal to counter the conventional narrative that Muslims were responsible for Partition and to focus some attention on the Partition in the East.

  5. I loved using Nehru – esp. in conjunction w/ Khilnani :) The students, tho, were a tad confused by the whole thing.
    No doubt about the well-written aspect.

  6. hey folks, my first peep in to the blog in a long time: anyone still following this thread? In the quaint sentimental favorite category (a la pdcs’s shout-out to Barney Cohn’s book): who else besides me gives it up for Nehru’s The Discovery of India? Dated, sure; straight-up nationalist, what else did you expect? But it’s still the most beautifully written overview ever, and for classroom purposes, its weaknesses are its strengths. Matter of fact, I hearby _swear_ that I’ll write a lengthy intro cum commentary on it for the Wiki, once it gets going.

  7. Antimonies of Islam (can’t find the ref but that was the title of an article published i nresearch journal)

    Lewis, Bernard, “The Revolt of Islam,‚Äù New Yorker, Nov. 19, 2001.

    Beinin, Joel and Joe Stork. “On Modernity, Historical Specificity, and International Context of Political Islam.” In Political Islam. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

    Halliday, Fred. “The Middle East and International Politics”. In Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East. London; New York: tauris, 1995.

  8. wow, that’s quite an endorsement of the books, eh? am looking forward to taking a look at it this summer.

  9. folks, please read this oped in the Hindu by Sumit Sarkar:


  10. the metcalf book barely touches on pre-british india (like 1 set up chapter), how would you use that for the first part of the course? keay goes back all the way. keay is far more entertaining to read, although metcalf really isnt bad either.

  11. R.C Majumdar, Dutta and Roychowdhary. Somewhat old but comprehensive.

  12. Modern Pak history Stephen Cohens the idea of Pakistan, a journey into disillsionment by Sher Mazari. Personal reads..Olaf Caroes the Pathans, Philip Hitti’s the Arabs is useful with regard to the basic Islamic history from 7th century to 11th..stuff on the Ottomans is hard to find. There is a new book on Sher Shah Suri I would like to read..I can’t remember it’s name but he is an interesting character. Any fans of Dalrymple? There is this mythologising of British rule over India now which should be taken with a pinch of salt.

  13. Sam: no more/less than the many European countries for which books like “Europe: A History” are written…

  14. Looking at the South Asian history, I guess you might say that the countries have a common history but is this true even after 1947?

  15. …actually don’t think there’s much of use in the Cohen book, REGARDLESS of whether one is an intro student or not… :-)

  16. I doubt there’d be much of use in the Cohen book as far as intro. students are concerned…

    I did note that the Jaffrelot edited book might be random, but there isn’t much else out there…Talbot has a tiresome writing style (at least if “Khizr Tiwana” is any indication)…


  17. Wow, I am glad I have been reading this blog and thread. I have learned a great deal and enjoyed the discussion. Special thanks for the advice on Wolpert — like dacoit Wolpert was the first survey I read for my India courses in grad school for a minor field. Looking back, I see how his political narrative fit with how my professor taught and wrote history. So, with his foundation it is now time to broaden my understanding.

  18. Ian Talbot’s writing, I just couldnt get into it… plus, I know that doom-and-gloom is paramount in any narrative of Pakistan but … still. Let’s just go with the working hypothesis that it functions for now and into the near future [i will leave aside my aside on how every book on pakistan must feature a bearded soldier/mullah/crowds of soldiers/mullahs on their cover and ‘failure’ on the title page since this one actually doesnt!].

    Hmmm… maybe Rushdie’s Shame could be used :)

  19. I also haven’t seen the new NCERT history books; I did try to get them but they weren’t available. May be i should try to get them this summer and write a detailed review. Satish Chandra’s medieval India is probably my favorite and Bipan too has some good chapters on European traders, colonialism and freedom movement, which are all accessible, even if they are ideological to a certain extent. that’s the key.

    I like Khilnani’s Idea of India, have used it to good results but it would be appropriate for a course on the 20th century India. If we can have one or possibly two reference works which provide the history of the subcontinent, then course packet can do the trick. But it is imperative to have that one book, which students can refer to get their dates, chronology, geography and general context. John Keay is good for this purpose.

  20. prithvi, i actually haven’t seen the old NCERT texts for a long time! but then i haven’t thought of bipan chandra in a long time either. i’m eager to go and look at some of the new books they have brought out after the whole saffron fracas over ncert books. there was some initiative to include local histories and projects into the school syllabi..

    sepoy, you don’t like the talbot modern history of pakistan, then? i had quite liked its chapters on the 60s, the bangladesh movement and the zia period.

  21. To the most excellent list already that has most magically appeared here, let me add my other quaint favorite, Bernard Cohn’s most excellent ‘India: An Anthropology of a Civilization’. Written almost four decades ago, this short book is a very good introduction and I like the way old Barney thinks about Indian history. I notice none of you commented on my other fav, the NCERT text books. Don’t blame you. If you had had a JNU education (Prachi is an exception here) and if you had envisioned being part of Indian civil service, you would have read these books closely and learnt to appreciate the usefulness.

    Sepoy, the wikitext is appealing but i wouldn’t mind also producing a text that brings some cash too. collective projects will rock.

  22. Has any historian NOT used Khilnani!? I used it twice but at the insistence of Inden and constantly having to get the polisci jinn back in the bottle [progresssssss].

    As for Pakistan. Nope. Nada. The Jaffrelot Qalandar mentions is again a collection by random [at least to me] french & pakistani authors who are ‘collectively’ writing the chapter. c.l.u.n.k.y. Cohen has a Idea of Pakistan out that I refuse to read – though perhaps I should.

  23. What a fun discussion!

    I haven’t looked at Markovits. Wolpert is terrible. Peter Robb also came out with a Modern India book recently. And I use sections of Sumit Sarkar too. Cynthia Talbot, incidentally, has co-authored with Catherine Asher the art historian and the book seems to have great stuff on mughal miniature paintings, temple architecture, etc. I used some sections from Kulke-Rothermund, but the language was way too dense and clunky. Also some very startling moments, such as their insistence that Partition/Pakistan was ultimately the making of one man alone, Jinnah.

    I accept the problems associated with textbook teaching but at a basic survey level class it is also important to emphasize basic historical developments and get students to know and familiarize themselves with them (go ahead, call me a positivist!:)). Most supplementary readings in journals or edited chapters are written for peers and assume a great deal of prior knowledge of the context, and students get lost, or outright miss the point. When these articles are discussed in class, I end up using my own time filling in this context, which is frustrating.

    Re. Khilnani, I have used it twice for 20th c. south asia survey and I agree, if I can get over the oh-so-elegant prose it focuses concepts really well. But it’s difficult finding non-polisci articles or a book that gives students some information and historical background about the contexts that produced the khalistan movement, the emergency, the bangladesh language movement, naxalbari, nehruvian socialism ..but for Pakistan, I found some chapters of Ian Talbot’s “Pakisan: A Modern History” useful and so did my students; would appreciate other comments on it. Accha, he also has a “India & Pakistan” survey that I have productively used some chapters from.

    Ultimately, so much of this choosing of articles has also depended on how large the course packet can get to remain affordable.

  24. dacoit: i really enjoyed the use of A Very Short Introduction to ..” series in my Islam class. I used Koran, Muhammad and Islam. For a South Asia class, there isn’t much except Gandhi, Hinduism and Nationalism. Though, looks like “The Raj” is forthcoming. Which, I would applause except I am NOT the one writing it. Haterz.

  25. I agree on the badness of Wolpert: it’s bo-ring. I’m more of a lit than a history person myself, not as familiar with the other texts you mention, so I’m finding this discussion very informative. The 1st chapter of Mill’s “History of British India” might be fun to throw out there if you want your students to reflect on how the historiography of South Asia has, uh, developed.

  26. I agree for the most part with desiknitter’s points on Ludden, Bost/Jalal and Stein, and am also quite keen to see what Talbot has put together (it looks like the last few chapters will even work for Rajeev’s post-1600 course). Though Wolpert was the first survey I read, I cannot imagine actually teaching from it (straight up, profoundly bland political chronology for chapters at a time). When I next design a South Asia survey, I will definitely have a look at the old NCERT texts that the good Doctor Professor of Limeland suggests, and would add that parts of Sumit Sarkar’s Modern India text could also work quite well alongside other materials. I think Kulke/Rothermund is actually quite good on pre-modern South Asia, but undergrads tend to find the book excessively dense. Have only paged through it, but Peter Robb’s textbook is definitely something else to put in the mix.

    It seems like most everyone who has taught a South Asia survey is coming out with their own textbook these days, and ultimately the best thing to do might be to take the slimmest possible survey and supplement with articles and the odd chapter from the wide array of textbooks out there. I used this method when teaching Islamic history last year and it worked very well. Personally, I have some pedagogical problems with the premise of a single textbook with full coverage in the first place – it is rather like the everythign-under-one-roof Walmart philosophy applied to the wild and diverse world of history. Students, especially weaker ones, tend to use whatever survey text they have as a framework into which to insert whatever other materials get covered in the course without bothering to question the ordering of the textbook in the first place. I prefer to disabuse them of such crutches and try to encourage an understanding of the complity of historical developments, and the contingency of explanatory narratives (call me a postmodernist). Certainly some students (especially the more scientific minded among them) will feel a bit confused and rudderless for a while, but most seem to come around eventually and develop the ability to navigate for themselves.

    The wiki Sourcebook Initiative is going to be an excellent thing, so let’s get it rooollllllin’.

  27. PS– finding books on Pakistan and Bangladesh is a real problem; I mean one can find texts on discrete areas, but “overview” books are few and far between. My brother pointed me to “A History of Pakistan and its Origins” (ed. Christophe Jaffrelot) which appears to have been published fairly recently; I haven’t read it though, and would be interested in hearing what people think about it.

  28. It’s not really a “historical overview” sort of book, but I think Sunil Khilnani’s “The Idea of India” would be a useful book to assign as a supplementary text to some of the ones you’ve listed…I think its sections on the colonial city, on the politics of identity, on political centralization would be particularly useful to students…

    I really dislike the Wolpert book, it’s quite banal. Keay seems promising; what about the Kulke/Rothermund book? (I haven’t read it)…

  29. vausey: Wolpert is a complete turn-off for me for reasons aplenty. Did you enjoy it?
    pdcs: yeah, we must write our own wiki-text.
    desiknitter: i agree w. all of your assessments esp. on the jalal/bose reading which, i kept imagining the narrator constantly scolding me. I liked the metcalfs b.c they actually used some visual culture which, well, let’s say hasn’t quite made it into south asia textbooks just yet. Will check out C. Talbot. Any word on the Markovits?

    And the Intiative comes soooooon.

  30. i have used ludden, which i love, and my students uniformly dislike. too dull and plodding, they say as i gnash my teeth. but it is quite dense, and the overlapping chronology confuses them. bose/jalal is not really a textbook and students are either confused or left cold by the polemic. plus it follows the lecture format too closely. metcalf is a good intro text for a grad seminar, not an undergrad text for a survey course, not enough detail. i have used burton stein because it is a good textbook in terms of its coverage, chronology and narrative and it covers south india which none of the others (except for ludden) really do, but it has some awkward and somewhat quaint moments that make me think i’ll drop it next year. need to look at Keay. check out Cynthia Talbot’s new book, “India Before Europe,” which I just bought and leafed through and it looks great. Need to go through it properly before fully deciding though. I think it would work well with another book for the post-1700 period.

    Would really like to discuss these in detail at the Initiative, once it gets going.

  31. I think Keay is best of the lot, well written and accessible to students; made relevaant with references to the present and a book of an ideal length. precisely for these reasons, an Ustad of ours doesn’t like it. Burton Stein is not either. But my vote actually is for the old NCERT text books for class 11 and 12. R S Sharma (ancient), Satish Chandra (medieval) and Bipan Chandra wrote three good text books of appropriate length for an introductory class, with the right amount of details. as the planner of five courses (as per the mandate of my new chair), i am seriously thinking about writing my own introductory book, if Sepoy and Rajeev were to cooperate!

  32. Any thoughts on Wolpert’s A New History of India? I had that in gradschool and was considering using it for a South Asia 1200-present course. My husband is a big fan of Keay.

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