IN VS Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, a Sikh returns to India having lived many years abroad. When he arrives in Bombay, he sits down among his suitcases and begins to cry. “He had forgotten what Indian poverty was like,” writes Naipaul. “It is an Indian story, in its arrangement of figure and properties, its melodrama, its pathos.”
I have been reminded of this in recent weeks after my Bollywood — A History was published in India by Roli Books. Like the Sikh, I have felt like crying not because I have forgotten Indian poverty but because I had forgotten how very curious Indian critics can be, and how very different from British ones.
In a country whose culture is supposed to be gentle and non-violent, these critics can be vicious and malicious in a way no British critic would ever be. Of course, when you write a book you expect brickbats. That is part of the game and I believe you should not take part in the game if you are not prepared to accept it.
In 30 years of journalism I have written over 20 books, and while some have received rave reviews and even won prizes — my History of Indian Cricket was the first book by an Indian to win the prestigious English Cricket Society Literary Award — others have been panned.
Yet, in Britain there is always a balance. Even critics who do not like a particular book will make sure their criticism is not a rant. In India, there is no halfway house. The review is either a gushing piece or a hateful character assassination.
The reception of my history of Bollywood proves this. In Britain it has got very good reviews and even reviewers who found fault with some aspect of the book had overall praise for it. What is more, they all felt that a proper narrative history of Bollywood was long overdue.
In India, however, while there have been some very good reviews there have also been some exceptionally hostile ones. What makes some of these reviews extraordinary is that they seem to question my very right to pen a history of Bollywood, as if it is some sort of sacrilege and I have invaded some private, exclusive territory.
To me this seems to betray the fact that the Indian mind is still colonised. They cannot accept that Indian subjects may be of immense interest to the outside world.
In the past 30 years I have written five books of history and biography that have a specifically Indian theme. They have all come about as a result of a British publisher approaching me. They include a biography of Subhas Chandra Bose, a history of the Aga Khans, a social study of Indian cricket, Maidan View, a narrative history of Indian cricket, and now this history of Bollywood.
Some of these books have been published in India but their subjects first aroused the curiosity of English publishers, not Indian ones. I wrote the books because an English publisher approached me. The Indian publication is merely the reproduction of the English title.
This shows a curious split in the Indian literary world. Ever since Salman Rushdie’s great breakthrough with Midnight’s Children, Indians can make a fair claim to have colonised English fiction, having produced a stream of writers who dominate the genre. However, when it comes to non-fiction India has not moved on in quite that fashion.
It is an old truism that the first history of India was written by Alberuni, the scholar who accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni’s invading forces. Since then, outsiders have recorded vast areas of Indian life more faithfully than Indians.
I always find it very instructive that the two most popular books that deal with how India won freedom are Freedom at Midnight, written jointly by a Frenchman and an American — Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, and Liberty or Death, by the Englishman Patrick French.
It is as if Indians feel their history is so awful they better turn away and concentrate on a form of higher history, namely fiction.
This gap in non-fiction is now being splendidly filled by a new generation of English writers led by William Dalrymple.
Not that there are no Indian writers writing good non-fiction. Abhraham Eraly’s history of the Mughals is a splendid example. Ramachandra Guha has just written a fascinating history of India since 1947.
And there are many fine particular studies of different aspects of Indian life. But the sort of history common in the West — the broad historical narrative, the biographies of leading personalities — these are not that common. Indeed, Guha in his book complains how his research had to struggle because there were no biographies of many of the leading politicians of the past 60 years. But even when Indians like Guha write non-fiction their approach is very different from that of a Western non-fiction writer.
There are two aspects of Guha’s India After Gandhi that are very revealing. The first is Guha’s reluctance to discuss the personal life of the politicians he is writing about. So he does not say Nehru had an affair with Lady Mountbatten but writes: “With both delicacy and truth, (Lady Mountbatten) can be referred to his closest lady friend.”
I cannot imagine a British historian being so coy. This is all the more significant as this means Guha does not explore the point made by Nirad Chaudhuri that Nehru was much influenced on certain policy matters by the lady’s husband, Lord Mountbatten, in particular over the disastrous policy towards China.
The other very glaring thing about Guha’s book is that while he has done massive research, and unearthed fascinating nuggets of information, it is all based on material from books or archives. He has not carried out any interviews, although many of the figures he writes about are still alive.
Contrast this with Peter Hennessy’s Having It so Good, a history of Britain in the 50s. Hennessy in his acknowledgements writes, “I have benefited from a host of communications, written, visual, sonic and oral, for the decade.” Hennessy may have overdone the interviews but they are essential to his book.
Guha feels you cannot write a proper history of an event unless 30 years have elapsed. This is what many governments do: archives do not release documents until after 30 years. So the final section of his book, which deals with India since the 1990s, is called not history but “historically informed journalism”. Not many British writers would accept such a distinction.
What this indicates is that what may be called popular history — history written by non-historians like me — has not developed in India. In the West this is a thriving business. One of the greatest exponents of this was David Halberstam, the American writer who was tragically killed not long ago in a car accident in California. I was an accountancy student in London when I came across Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, a study of how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations got into the Vietnam war. I consider it one of the finest history books I have read. Halberstam, who had been a New York Times reporter in Vietnam in the 1960s, interviewed the leading personalities associated with the war and produced a masterpiece that stands the test of time.
In India, the wall between academic historians and popular historians — “historically informed journalism”, to borrow Guha’s phrase — seems as strong as the old Hindu divide between the higher castes and untouchables.
Such histories are all the more important because unlike the West there is a dearth of primary source materials here, as I have found when writing about Indian historical subjects, and again with Bollywood. Often the best material on India is to be found in Western libraries. You do need to talk to as many people as possible to discover what exactly happened.
Indian historians have a horror of oral testimony. They need to overcome that if they are to prevent the foreigner, let alone a hated nri like me, to dominate the non-fiction genre.
© Mihir Bose