Drive By Historians

Posted by sepoy on November 19, 2004 · 5 mins read

Nothing better to wrap up my busiest week (how in carnation did I post all week?? I really need to take stock of my priorities) than with South Asian historians fighting it out old skool. South Siiiiide!

Representin' West Side is William Dalrymple - a gora sahib who has published some travelogues on India and a recent history White Mughals. Mr. Dalrymple seems like an affable young man who is always reviewing stuff in the UK and Indian popular presses as well as some tv work. He is also someone quite bold enough to take on Sir Vidia and his BJP-love-in. Some of you may know that I am a huge fan and admirer of anyone who stands up to that cranky apologist Naipaul. So, right there, score one for Dalrymple in my book. Now, more recently, he reviewed Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering in Outlook India. Dalyrmple recommends the book but, for an odd reason, decides to take some shots on diaspora non-fiction writers of South Asia:

In a field still dominated by the St Stephen's mafia and the Doon School diaspora, Mishra is an outsider. He was born in Jhansi and grew up in dusty railway colonies around Uttar Pradesh, before taking a degree in the decaying anarchy of Allahabad University. In contrast to the optimistic platitudes of a diaspora writer like, say, Sunil Khilnani educated abroad and clearly knowing nothing of the grim reality of the boondocks of Bihar, Mishra does not lecture the world about South Asia from the sanitised safety of an East Coast campus. Instead, he writes as a man who really knows, from hard experience, the provincial India he writes about and in which he still lives for most of the year.

Oh Smack! For the record, I have taught Khilnani twice and the guy is a bore of the highest order (in his writing) as well as uniquely fixated on Nehru-bashing. So, score two for Mr. Dalrymple. But still, Indians abroad don't know India....hmm.

Of course, the East Siderz aren't gonna let this gora waltz in and tell 'em what's what. Oh no, it on now. Representin' East Side is the historian Ram Guha who wrote a decent history of cricket. Guha was recently denied entry into the US and may, just may, be kinda pissed at gora peeps. He writes a response to Dalyrmple:

It's a bit rich to be lectured on what constitutes good scholarship by one whose own knowledge of this country is so superficial. [...] To the evidence of print I might be allowed to add a personal anecdote. When I first met Dalrymple, it soon became clear that this 'India expert' did not know who Dr B.R. Ambedkar was. Yet the media allows him to set himself up as the arbiter of literary taste in India. I suppose it is this combination of (their) arrogance and (our) deference that encouraged the British to claim an empire. It seems worth remembering that they also lost one.

Wic-Ked, as Ali G would say. That gora don't know India. What a great comeback. Come on people, you are all grown ups. What's the use of this? There is the seed of a good discussion here - can only Indians understand India? if so, how do we measure "Indian"? How do we know India? Discuss but don't hate! I am reminded of this classic misogynist passage about knowing India by Leopold Roth:

I am a tenured full professor of Indian studies, a Sanskrit scholar, and yet never, never in my life, have I made love to an Indian woman. Is that just, right, or good? While I have had the oral pleasure of eating Indian food and endured the gastrointestinal torment of Indian dysentery, my psycho-sexo-Indological development has been arrested; I yearn to move on to the phallic and then the genital stages of Indology. Some sort of union, an erotic spanning of East and West, had, before I met Lalita, already become a hope. And now aspiration becomes obsession: I must possess Lalita Gupta for the sake of Sanskrit and South Asian studies (not to mention knowledge and truth, let alone pleasure or happiness). My relationship with India has, thus far, been purely voyeuristic--looking at Her, stripped and spread open, from a distance, through a window, with binoculars, only faintly hearing Her sighs and moans. I have smelled Her heady scent, felt Her excruciating heat, but never have I penetrated Her. Lalita is my opportunity to enter India and hold Her in my arms, to be at once outside and inside. India is my text, Lalita will be my data, and love will be my methodology.

update:CM friend Rajeev Kinra does the grown-up treatment of Dalrymple-Guha in Outlook India.


desesperanto | November 19, 2004

There is the seed of a good discussion here - can only Indians understand India? if so, how do we measure “Indian”? How do we know India? is that really the seed of a good discussion? that strikes me as the kind of q that co-eds with their head filled with bright bits of pomo would find profound after a few joints. dalrymple raised the issue of location, and got burnt by it. *shrug* i thought dhondy's smack-down was more fun, and subr.'s more elegant. dalrymple is becoming a bowling pin.

sepoy | November 19, 2004

like i said, seed. now, the notion that dalrymple is becoming a bowling pin, is quite interesting though.

Venturi | November 20, 2004

BOOOOOYAKASHA, You read Shantaram, written by a gangsta Gora? Word. Lots of 'em. Read it homeboy.

Kiddo | November 22, 2004

If having intercourse with an Indian woman is a prerequisite to being 'Indian', I am sad to report that an overwhelming majority of Indian youngsters dont qualify ;) /not saying if I am one of them :p -Kiddo