A big history for a long lockdown

Topics books | BOOK REVIEW | Lockdown

I vividly remember Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya from my university days — a tall, slightly stooped figure. As a historian he was regarded by many as a committed empiricist but in fact he was to engage with the broadest possible questions and encourage his students to do so too. I recall a seminar on Indian economic history that he transformed into a counterfactual discussion on “what if” the British had not succeeded in colonising India.

A massive work that Bhattacharya edited has just appeared. Long lockdowns make for long reads and I was lucky to be able to procure this three volume set — in all almost 3,000 pages — entitled A Comprehensive History of Modern Bengal 1700 – 1950.  Bhattacharya died earlier this year before the volumes appeared but he ensured the completion of the project. His foreword ends: “Faced with intimations of mortality, I leave three volumes as a legacy for future generations of students and scholars alike”. 

The scope of these volumes is staggering — covering of course political and economic history and focussing also on the communal polarisation that steadily accumulated from the early 20th century. Yet alongside are themes that entered history writing in the past half century and now form part of its mainstream — gender relations, literature, art, cinema and music, law, environment and ecology, science, medicine and public health and many others. 

The volumes build on Bengal’s rich past of history writing and especially big history writing and bring to a successful end an ambitious project of the Asiatic Society in Kolkata which has given us this splendid collection. An earlier two-volume history of Bengal was edited in the 1940s by a formidable duo — R C Majumdar and Jadunath Sarkar. Sarkar encountering the editor’s perennial problem of contributors reneging on or delaying submissions ended up writing virtually half of his volume himself. Bhattacharya notes he faced no such difficulty but collected a formidable array of historians to work together in a genuinely multi-disciplinary enterprise.

Bhattacharya’s great ability to be empirically grounded while addressing the grand questions that we can ask of the historical record comes through in the emphasis on ecological and environmental history in this collection.   Our current concerns about ecology, climate change and environment are reflected in the chapters that explore the intimate links between demography, agrarian change and ecological transformations in this deltaic region. In the second half of the 18th century new rivers — and often very violent ones — rose and some existing ones declined leading to a “revolution” in Bengal’s river system. The new rivers — the Tista, the Jamuna, the Jelangi, the Mathabhanga, the Kirtinasa and the Naya Bhangini — remoulded Bengal’s economic history. In the milestones of Bengal history the battle of Plassey (1757) and the award of the Diwani of Bengal by Shah Alam to Robert Clive (1765) after the battle of Buxar naturally figure.  But riverine history is there to remind us that “[b]oth geography and history were remade in Bengal as the eighteenth century drew to a close”.

Inevitably a fair bit of biography comes into many chapters: Thus Rammohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra, Vivekananada and, of course Tagore,  plus many others — talented and gifted individuals situated within a context of a tradition-modernity conflict with all the ambiguities related to the fact that a principal agent for social change was an alien colonial power. What adds depth to the treatment is also that Bengal’s 19th century renaissance has now been studied in India for many decades and current historians introspecting on their and others’ earlier treatments is fascinating. For instance, a 1971 book on the fiery rebel Derozio (1809-1831) called him “the most important left wing leader” of his era!

One cannot but wonder when other states or regions will have similar histories but it is useful to think about what we mean by region and regional identities.  Bhattacharya in his introduction to the collection raises questions that go beyond conventional treatments of regional history. He writes “sometimes a kind of regional chauvinism may lead the layman to assure that they are everlasting, but historians know how history in the long run makes and unmakes regions… regions can arise and disintegrate, expand and contract, and the idea of Bengal is a good example”. 

Alongside is the even larger question of the relationship between region and nation and the role that nationalism played in developing “a discourse of civilization which made the conceptual leap from regional histories to a national history thinkable ….. and the idea that the civilization of India unites diversities, including various regional differences, began to play an important role from about the beginning of the last century”. 

Yet Bhattacharya also ends with a historian’s warning: “We are witnessing in our times the development of regionalism as a political force in a direction that might threaten the integrity and unity of the larger entity of which each region is a part.” 
The writer is a former high commissioner to Pakistan and Singapore. His latest book is History Men—Jadunath Sarkar, G S Sardesai, Raghubir Sinh and their Quest for India’s Past (HarperCollins, 2020).  

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