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Reading Literature To Understand History

Kanad Sinha

Chhanda Chatterjee
Primus Books, New Delhi, 2014, Pg x 176, 595

VOLUME XLI NUMBER 2 February 2017

Atitle like Literature as History: From Early to Contemporary Times promises a lot. Even if we assume that the context is Indian and not global, the various methodological possibilities of engagement between literature and history, as well as the vast range of the proposed timeframe would definitely raise the curiosity of a reader. However, the reader is likely to be disappointed by what s/he will find in the volume Chhanda Chatterjee has edited. For instance, the title opens up various ways through which the volume can be approached. Is it going to tell us how literature can serve as a source of history or how literature itself can be read as historical document in its own right or how history writing is actually a branch of literature or how we can study the history of literature as a component of the historical mainstream? The volume does not provide a clear answer to these questions, and the methodological standpoint of the book remains extremely vague. In the Preface, Chatterjee writes, ‘this is a book which hopes to illustrate that the literature of a particular period of time can also be read to understand its history’ which indicates that there is an intention to study the literary text as historical. However, in the ‘Introduction’, she criticizes the colonial legacy in Positivist historiography, and points out that the true purpose of literature is its ability to mirror society. Hence, she refers to Ashin Dasgupta’s view that while journalists and historians can merely narrate an event, literature reserves the right to enter into the heart of an event. Does it, then, mean that the volume would try to focus on the importance of literature as a source of history? At least the first essay in the volume by Ganapathy Subbiah indicates so. Pointing out the relatively less attention paid to literature in the study of ancient Indian history, while privileging the epigraphic records, Subbiah discusses the classical Tamil text, the Pattupattu, thoroughly to demonstrate how it can be an invaluable source for studying the voices of these poets who sang the achievements of ten heroes/kings of the Cera family, and also notes a different historical voice in the patikam—the biographical details of the poet and the patron—added by later authors.Subbiah’s article is an i n t e r e s t i n g one. However, the ...

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