The indefatigable Subhadra Sen Gupta! All children from eight to eighty (this phrase was made famous by Satyajit Ray) must be her fans. No one has done more to make history accessible and as much fun as her numerous books on the nationalist movement and leaders testify. Her latest grapples with the broad sweep of Indian civilization from Harappa to British rule and it is lucid and a delightful read.
This slim book is divided into four chapters: Early India on Harappans and Indo-Aryans, Ancient India on Mauryas, Guptas, Pallavas and Cholas, Medieval India on the Sultanate and Mughals and British India. By focussing on the broad periods of Indian history that saw significant social and cultural change, the attempt is to draw away from the dreary and repetitive history of dynasties and political intrigues. The message to young readers is clear: there is more to history than memorizing names and dates.
The chapters begin with short accounts of the possible lives of children from the different historical eras. So there is Urpi and her brother Kira, potter children from Harappa—a nice touch, since pottery is something that has survived aplenty from this era, Dhani the Indo-Aryan, who is from a peasant family, Madhura, a child maid employed by Emperor Asoka’s family, Divakar whose father is a craftsman who made bronze images for which the Chola period is famous, Salim whose father was a qawwal at the dargah of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya, Shaheen whose mother made a living by embroidery in Mughal India and Mini during British rule who found her family opposing her admission to a school. The accounts are imaginary—including the names, which are invented, but they help us to enter the pasts of ordinary folk and of children who are wide eyed but curious and inquisitive about their world. It is an imaginative device to invite young readers to inhabit the past and feel at home in history (since most histories focus on adults) and has been done very successfully in the new set of NCERT textbooks also.
Sen Gupta is particularly good at telling us about food and drinks and cuisines from the different eras. She is very funny too, shocking us with amazing facts about food habits—I did not know that Harappans relished gharial (crocodile) meat or that they used a bronze frying pan. Indo-Aryans liked arupa which is barley cooked in ghee and dipped in honey which she likens to a Bengali malpua! The Maurya-Guptas offered panchagavya during religious ceremonies which included not a very palatable mix of milk, curd, ghee, cow urine and dung and they also liked to eat peacocks, hedgehogs, porcupine, iguana and rhinoceros. The well-heeled in Jahangir’s time could saunter into a coffee shop to savour the new imported drink. And then there were the Anglo-Indian transformations of vegetarian Khichri into Kedgeree (with flaked fish and hard boiled eggs) and Molagu Tanni into Mulligatawny. Past food practices give us a peep into a different social order but it also helps us to understand religion. Clearly Indians in the past were far more tolerant and also more adventurous when it came to the palate.
But this book is not just about food and drinks, there are many other themes—education, dress, life in the courts, the status of women etc. Tapas Guha’s illustrations add much to the joy of reading the book. In Guha’s drawings, Indians come across as a slightly dopey and essentially good-natured people. The drawings of veiled women in particular reminded me of Hergé. I particularly relished his illustration (on p. 20) of two sola-topied archaeologists digging in vain for remains of Aryans (with a tiger lurking in the background). This is a delightfully mocking cartoon on the anxieties of modern Hindus and their obsession with connecting everything to the hoary Aryan past.
Talking of anxieties—Sen Gupta too has a few. She repeatedly points out the absence of the veil in the ancient period but here her emphasis is misplaced since one may get the impression that the condition of women somehow deteriorated in the later medieval period. I also found her introduction to the Sultanate period a bit clichéd premised as it is on the difference of Islam. How much more interesting it would have been if this era had been contrasted with the wave of migrations throughout Indian history—Aryans, Greeks, Sakas, Parthians, Yu Chihs (Kusanas), Hunas, Arabs, etc., and later the Turks, Afghans and the British. At the risk of nit-picking, I would like to mention the occasional use of a word in the text which young readers would find difficult to comprehend: ‘diadem’, ‘dewlaps’, ‘madder’ (colour/dye) for instance. Hindu College was set up in 1817 not 1871 (p. 106), but clearly this is a misprint. Material objects like mirrors figure in the text—bronze ones as well as polished surfaces, but Sen Gupta forgets to add when glass mirrors became common. Although there is a short bibliography to encourage mature students to explore further, I wish Om Prakash’s pioneering Food and Drinks in Ancient India had found mention. A.L. Basham is there but his friend and contemporary D.D. Kosambi’s The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline should also have been in the list, not only because he was a Marxist historian famous for his scepticism, but because this book has a wonderful set of photographs, which the author chose very carefully and to which young history students can relate easily, including some by the celebrated photographer Sunil Janah (who passed away recently).
Partho Datta teaches at Zakir Husain Evening College, Delhi.