Origins of the Present, Legacies of the Past
Devika Sethi
A HISTORY OF MODERN INDIA by Ishita Bannerjee-Dube Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2015, 486 pp., 495
April 2015, volume 39, No 4

One does not envy the lot of an academic taking on the task of writing a comprehensive history of Modern India, balancing both events and interpretations. First, there is the question of the audience. Is the book geared towards a casual, general reader looking for an informed but flowing narrative? Is it going to serve the needs of the ‘average’ undergraduate student? Or is it a go-to book for researchers and teachers? The second problem (depending on successful negotiation of the first) is for the author of such a book to decide how much prior knowledge can be assumed on the part of the reader. The third challenge is to sufficiently distinguish one’s own book from other comprehensive histories, in a field as fertile (and therefore high yielding in its harvest of academic works) as India. The fourth dilemma is whether one merely recapitulates the historiography of contentious issues (such as the relationship of Indian capital to the national movement, just to cite one example), or comments on it and reveals one’s own opinions on the matter. In other words, should—or can, for that matter—the writer of such a book be a sutradhar, or narrator, alone?

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