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BW Businessworld

The Missing Colours

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Tirthankar Roy was a student of Ashok Rudra, one of the most interesting men I have known. Both Rudra and I were teaching for a time in Bombay University. I was a bachelor, his wife had left him because of an indiscretion of his. So we used to wander the streets of Bombay in his Standard Herald, trying to avoid stray dogs. He was very upset when, once, a dog refused to recognise his right of way, collided with the car and complained about it. We used to drop in for a good debate on Sachin Chaudhuri, founder of Economic Weekly, and write in his publication — anything that came to us, regardless of whether it was left, right or centre. Later on, Rudra moved to Santiniketan, built a little house, and planted seven Ashoka trees in a circle to make a little bower for himself, but died before they grew to their full height. Roy too is a free soul like Rudra. That got him into trouble when lefties captured leading positions in Indian economic institutions in the 1980s. So he left. Now he teaches in London School of Economics.

There are two types of written history. There are textbooks, and then there are books and articles on some small bit of history. University students are expected to be able to read all scholastic material; their teacher would give them a reading list at the beginning of the course. There are few textbooks on Indian economic history; students have to refer to more advanced material. It is not an important enough subject in universities abroad; but as India gains in importance, Indian economic history is also beginning to enter courses abroad as part of general economic history. The students who take such courses are capable of independent study, but do not have much time to give India. Roy has written this book for such students in a hurry, and adopted modern devices to make the history more accessible. For instance, boxes to summarise conclusions on important topics, 19th century photographs, and reading lists scattered across the text for students who want to pursue a particular topic. On the cover, for example, is an 1858 picture of a "steam train" — an enormously long, narrow steamship which also has four sails to take advantage of the wind if it is blowing in the right direction — sailing past some low hills, presumably of Assam.

What distinguishes this history is that Roy has read the previous versions and got past them. For many historians, history is what a Bollywood film is to the common Indian: it is an engaging panoramic story. Just as we take sides of different characters in a film, a historian also tends to take sides. Historians are supposed to be objective and neutral; but metrics of objectivity are themselves subjective. And a story with heroes and villains engages readers and sells better. So histories of India fall into certain genres — imperialist, Weberian, nationalist, and Marxist. They try to contest one another; and in doing so, they have all narrowed down the questions they ask: they are all centred on India as a failure. The result is that many things that happened have been ignored, many patterns gone unnoticed, much regional variation homogenised. Roy would like to bring in these missing colours; that is what his history is about.

Although the book claims to be about 1857-1947, Roy has a chapter about 1707-1857 and another about 1950-2010. The pre-1857 chapter is mostly about British experiments with government as they found it in India — about the foundations of the Raj as they were being built. I found this chapter one of the most interesting; I wished it had been longer. The post-1950 chapter is a summary of what we know more or less. Roy divides the period into three: the period up to 1965 when the new government was laying new foundations, the next 20 years when the system it built ran into crises, and the period since 1985, for which Roy chooses the more neutral word, transition, instead of the conventional one, reforms. This is deliberate. India has undergone two periods of opening up to the world economy. The first lasted from the 1860s till World War I; that is when India developed exports of jute goods and tea, attracted foreign investment, built up a textile industry, and financed Britain's payments surpluses. The second began with the IT revolution in the 1980s; that is when India liberalised, developed an industrial class, and reached unprecedented growth. It is not clear that this period has ended; hence transition. But one thing has remained constant throughout the 300 years, namely rural poverty. That is Roy's last word.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 28-05-2012)