Books

Book Review: I Read This New Book On Sir Jadunath Sarkar And It Leaves Me With As Many Questions As It Seeks To Answer

Book cover of The Calling of History by Dipesh Chakrabarty.
Snapshot
  • Dipesh Chakrabarty declares that he has not written a biography of Sarkar. Instead, he tells us, his is an attempt to demonstrate how the ‘cloistered’, or academic life of history, was shaped by its ‘public’ life.

    On account of the unavailability of primary sources and institutional training, says Chakrabarty, Indian historians learned to write history from colonial scholar-administrators; that is, British officials with a passion for Indian history.

The Calling of History. Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth. Dipesh Chakrabarty. Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University, 2015. 320 pp, Hardcover Rs 710.

Several years ago, as a PhD candidate at the Center for Historical Studies (CHS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, I visited Kolkata twice. The purpose was to consult sources at the Asiatic Society Library and Bangiya Sahitya Parishad.

Being a student, I could, of course, afford only the cheapest accommodation, especially since both my trips lasted a fortnight. So, I stayed in this guest house run by the Center for the Study of Social Sciences (CSSS); it bears the address 10 Lake Terrace, Kolkata 29 and the name ‘Jadunath Sarkar Bhawan’.

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It charged me very nominally and was comfortable to boot. This place, as I learnt, was originally Prof Jadunath Sarkar’s private residence; he had spent the last, nearly twenty, years of his life (1870-1958) in it.

After he died, it was purchased by the Indian Council of Social Science Research to establish and house the CSSS. Later, when the CSSS moved to a new address, this building was turned into a guest house.

When I stayed there, there were not many traces of Sarkar in it though; only a few photographs of him hanging on a wall. The people running the place did not seem to care for Jadunath Sarkar either.

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In short, there was nothing about it that might enlighten a young student on Jadunath Sarkar, the person, and his life’s work. This was unfortunate, since, as a twenty-something researcher, I knew precious little about him.

I was aware of his status as a preeminent Indian historian in the 1930s and 40s and that he had authored these hefty tomes on Shivaji and the fall of the Mughal Empire. But I knew nothing of his life and had read none of the books that he had authored.

What he had written, for me, in those days of rebellious youth, was old-fashioned narrative history focusing on heroes and rulers. That stuff did not attract me then.

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CHS had bred in me a contempt for ‘mere’ narrative and groomed me to respect only the historiography that delves into the social and economic ‘causes’ or processes apparently animate in historical situations.

It has been a while since I earned my PhD; I teach history now. Along with my youth, I have lost the rebelliousness and irreverence that characterized it. I no more have contempt for ‘mere’ narrative, I am aware that it is, to get a little colloquial, freaking hard to write.

Besides a storytelling ability, rare in this age in which people communicate with emojis and in two hundred and eighty characters, it requires one to engage in empiricism, gathering and verifying facts, on a massive scale.

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I now have a lot of respect for the likes of Jadunath Sarkar, R C Majumdar, Arnold Toynbee and G M Trevelyan – Indian and English masters of the narrative.

However, I will be honest, I have still read nothing by Sarkar, and could understand his work and its relevance to late colonial India better.

Hence, when I saw that Dipesh Chakrabarty, of all people, has come up with a book on Sarkar – The Calling of History. Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth (Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University, 2015) – I was naturally curious.

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I read this work recently and would attempt to review it in the remainder of this piece.

Early in the book, at a point in the Introduction, Chakrabarty declares that he has not written a biography of Sarkar. Instead, he tells us, his is an attempt to demonstrate how the ‘cloistered’, or academic life of history, was shaped by its ‘public’ life.

By the latter, he means the sundry debates and discussions in the public domain on matters concerning history writing. Throughout the book, the interactions between the two lives of history, as identified by Chakrabarty, serve as the context for whatever he tells us about Sarkar.

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We are given an account of the public endeavors, narratives and controversies that Sarkar responded to or was caught in, the biases and narrative preferences that the (in my understanding, the very ‘public’) colonial context invested him with, and how all that shaped him and the histories he wrote.

Prof Jadunath Sarkar originally taught English literature (on his first teaching assignment at Ripon College, Kolkata). Chakrabarty’s book seems to suggest that Sarkar, the historian, was the outcome of a popular enthusiasm for history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries India.

It produced numerous research collectives and self-taught, amateur historians. Instances of the former are Varendra Anusandhan Samiti and Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal.

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Both were founded in the year 1910, in Rajshahi (now in Bangladesh) and Poona respectively. In fact, Sarkar, we learn, was a member of the Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal all his life.

Thus, it seems, as per Chakrabarty, the first public context to which Sarkar and the histories written by him belonged to were these collective efforts at researching and writing the history of India, or regions thereof.

Then, Chakrabarty appears to argue that Sarkar was vicariously shaped and conditioned by the colonial state denying access to Indian researchers to official records and documents, and the general neglect of Indian history in the British university system.

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On account of the unavailability of primary sources and institutional training, says Chakrabarty, Indian historians learned to write history from colonial scholar-administrators; that is, British officials with a passion for Indian history.

Sarkar, thus, seems to have been mentored by one ICS officer by the name of William Irvine (1840-1911). Chakrabarty writes that the two were “close”. Irvine had worked on the later Mughals and reviewed Sarkar’s first book on Mughal history, India of Aurangzib (published in 1901).

The fact that he learned his craft from an Englishman could have been the reason why, as Chakrabarty claims, Sarkar viewed Europe as the home of scholarship and thought of research as something that the Germans had invented; he greatly admired the German historian Leopold von Ranke.

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Later, in the 1930s, Sarkar appears to have committed himself wholeheartedly to the task of creating proper archives for Indian researchers. We see him and his friend, the Maharashtrian historian Rao Bahadur Govindrao Sakharam Sardesai (1865-1959), embarking on these very public quests for historical documents.

As portrayed by Chakrabarty, the two veritably fetishized them and undertook long, winding travels in their search.

Sarkar, as depicted by Chakrabarty, was a stickler for what he understood to be historical ‘truth’ and thought that an historian’s task is to get as close as possible to the eye witness accounts of history.

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Since he was unflinchingly committed to unearthing the historical truth, Chakrabarty shows Sarkar to be uncomfortable with Indians discovering nationalist heroes at its expense.

We see him very peremptorily dismissing the heroic credentials of the sixteenth century Jessore zamindar Prapapaditya in his History of Bengal – many Bengalis then were trying to build him up as a figure who resisted the Mughal Empire and a source of nationalist inspiration.

Shivaji, the focus of the devotion of so many Maharashtrian nationalists, Sarkar praised only moderately. Thus, Chakrabarty’s account of Sarkar indicates that nationalist histories, and the heroes they created, were a public narrative that elicited responses from Sarkar, the historian, and molded him.

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Also, they embroiled him into public controversies. Non-Brahman historians, for example, termed Sarkar ‘Muslim influenced’ due to his modest appraisal of Shivaji. They were unhappy with Sarkar since they had found in Shivaji a non-Brahman hero.

Sarkar, however, as per Chakrabarty’s description, does not seem to have been completely averse to heroes or the heroic in history.

Chakrabarty claims that Sarkar’s historical and literary sensibilities were closely allied, and that the latter was shaped by Victorian and imperial English literature in which heroism on the battlefield was grandiosely valorized.

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Sarkar, thus, did not desist from celebrating military heroism when, it appears, he thought to have found a true instance of it. He, for example, glowingly wrote of the death of the Maratha general Sadashiv Rao in the third battle of Panipat.

Similarly, according to Chakrabarty, Sarkar identified ‘providence’ and ‘character’ as historical movers under European and English inspiration.

‘Providence’, we learn, is originally a Christian idea while English historical narratives had been assessing royal personages in terms of their ‘character’ since the seventeenth century.

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As a matter of fact, Chakrabarty goes to the extent of calling Sarkar a “child of the Empire”. Chakrabarty avers that even the values which Sarkar wanted the Mughal Empire to promote in retrospect were the one’s ostensibly upheld by the British Empire – administrative and economic unification, welfare, education and science for all.

Chakrabarty’s narrative closes with a detailed account of the developments that led to Sarkar’s removal from Indian Historical Records Commission. There was, we are told, friction between Sarkar and two of his colleagues there, S N Sen and Datto Vaman Potdar, because he took a very different view of its purpose.

For Sarkar, the Commission was a forum for inculcating an enthusiasm for primary sources among historians, while for Sen and Potdar, its chief purpose was to preserve historical records and documents.

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Eventually, the shenanigans of Sen and Potdar led to the removal of Sarkar from the Commission in the twilight of his life. The book itself does not conclude here though; in the last chapter Chakrabarty inflicts on us the ‘transcript’ (my choice of word) of a conversation that he had with Sarkar in one of his “reveries.”

This shows that an eminent historian such as him can even get his communications with the dead published – pretty regular stuff this is in Indian academia.

How successful is this effort by Chakrabarty? On the face it, within his formulation, the idea that the ‘public’ life of history shapes its ‘cloistered’ one and, by extension, the academic historian, it might seem like he has painted a pretty detailed portrait of Sarkar for us.

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However, as one finishes and shuts the book and reflects on it, quite a handful of questions emerge in one’s mind. Isn’t every historian, more or less, shaped by the ‘public’ life of history?

The Indian Marxist historians, for example, have always struck political postures in public and these have influenced the histories they have written. Does Chakrabarty think that the interaction between the ‘public’ and ‘cloistered’ lives of history was especially important in case of Sarkar? If so, why? We do not get to know.

Further, I will say that even the ‘public’ life of history as it was in late colonial India is only very limitedly described by Chakrabarty. How had it come to be in Bengal when Sarkar was producing his histories?

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What issues and aspects of the histories of Bengal and India were matters of public debates and conversations in Bengal at that time? What was Sarkar’s stance in relation to them?

I am afraid, Chakravarty’s book does not at all tell us, but for the reference to Sarkar’s disapproval of the attempts to eulogize and make a Bengali national hero out of Pratapaditya.

Similarly, we see nothing of Sarkar, the Bengali gentleman, in Chakravarty’s narrative. Sarkar belonged to a class of Bengalis who could nurture a quintessentially Bengali core beneath a carefully cultivated anglicized exterior.

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As I gather, Sarkar seemed to have possessed a similar core because he was, I hear, a very proficient essayist in the Bengali language.

What was Sarkar like in his Bengali avatar? Did he bring his sensibilities, conditioned by Victorian and imperial English literature, to his Bengali language prose as well? Or was he any different when he wrote in Bengali?

Take Nirad C. Chaudhuri, for example, who too was anglicized on the outside while being the quintessential Bengali – he peppered his English prose with classical Latin quotes. His Bengali writings, on the other hand, frequently harkened to the greats of Bengali literature.

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Chaudhuri strode with equal ease the worlds of European and Bengali prose. Alas, Chakravarty’s book does not tell us if Sarkar had the same capacity. Hence, I put it down with this nagging feeling that, perhaps, it provided me only a very partial view of Sarkar’s intellectual make-up.

There is another major bone that I have got to pick with this book – anyone who leads a life of the mind has an intellectual arc, a trajectory of evolution and development; the reader never gets to learn about Sarkar’s.

Chakravarty’s narrative does not inform the reader whether, or how, Sarkar grew and matured as an historian between his first and last works. A glaring lacuna indeed.

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I also wish Chakravarty had dwelt a little more on Sarkar’s idea of nationalism. This is since he mentions at a turn in his account that Sarkar was uncomfortable with Gandhian mass nationalism.

Nevertheless, I conclude thanking Chakravarty for not writing his usually ponderous and rather abstruse academic prose in this book. That makes The Calling of History pretty readable.

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