where to begin: Indian history
September 29, 2017 2:11 PM   Subscribe

I have the standard American liberal arts education. I have come to realize that it is pretty lacking in certain areas. I'd like to read more history, specifically of India. Where do I start?
posted by Shohobohaum Za to Society & Culture (5 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I will not say it's in any way, shape or form definitive, but my grandmother was a medical missionary there and wrote about her experiences in a book called Richer by India. I can send you a PDF of it if you'd like; my e-mail's in my profile, send me yours. Also, my mother, who went to school there as a child (read probably circa early 1950s), recently recommended this video to me as bringing back to her much of how it was then. I'll also point out this thread to her and ask her for any recommendations, but I know she's away from home for a bit.
posted by WCityMike at 2:52 PM on September 29

I'm not very familiar with more than the broad strokes of Indian history - the Indian education system made me run screaming, unfortunately - but here are some recommendations written by actual Indian people.

One of the gold standards is A Discovery of India, by Jawahrlal Nehru, our first prime minister. It's got its biases - what doesn't? - but it's a wonderfully written, very approachable book, despite its size. Bonus: it's in the form of letters he wrote to his daughter from prison, and the format is really rather charming.

Shashi Tharoor's Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India is a good antidote to all the arrant nonsense about colonialism being a good thing that gets trotted out every now and again. As is this speech at Oxford about whether Britain owes reparations. (Short answer: yes.)

For something smaller, I like Land of the Seven Rivers by Sanjeev Sanyal - the geographical basis makes for a different, and interesting, point of view.

If you want post-colonial history, I recommend Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. It's a fascinating look at an incredibly neglected timeframe. Guha in general is fantastic - he's written a bunch of books about Indian history, of which I think you might like A Corner of a Foreign Field (the history of cricket in the subcontinent, which turns out to have some pretty fascinating sociopolitical dimensions as well) and Makers of Modern India (what it says on the tin). India Unbound by Gurcharan Das, while not my favourite, is a pretty comprehensive look at the country's economic history.

I love, love, love The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen. It's less a straight-up history book than the rest, but it's a fascinating look at a very complicated country by one of the smartest people on the planet.

As for non-Indians writing about India, there are only two books I feel comfortable recommending: Wendy Doniger's The Hindus, and Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods. The latter especially is a delightful look, by a former FT (I think) correspondent, at my incredible and sometimes baffling country.

Please feel free to MeMail if you want more recs!
posted by Tamanna at 3:15 PM on September 29 [12 favorites]

See my previous question What should I read before travelling to India?

I tried reading Keay's India, a History and failed pretty hard. I read a third of it and concluded "Too much detail, not enough story." The India reading I got the most out of was William Dalrymple's books. They aren't overview histories, but if any of the specific stories he writes about interest you they are fantastic.
posted by Nelson at 1:44 AM on September 30

Oh, whoops, I misremembered, Nehru's letters to his daughter are collected in 'Letters From A Father to His Daughter.' I still stand by my Discovery of India rec, though, it is a fantastic introduction.
posted by Tamanna at 1:51 AM on September 30

Seconding Tamanna's recommendation for Guha's India After Gandhi and for Tharoor. (I will check out everything else Tamanna has recommended as well.)

By the way, it's worth noting one's comfort with non-Indians writing about India; it's an important consideration that can be easy to overlook.

While not a book, perhaps for a 20th century political culture perspective, I recommend checking out Homai Vyarawalla's photojournalism. She was India's first female photojournalist. I haven't read it yet but there is a biography about her: India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla by Sabeena Gadihoke.
posted by mayurasana at 11:39 AM on October 10

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