National chauvinism does not go very far – even where it goes it only acts as a delusive will-o’-the wisp. Historian T.C.A Raghavan excels in telling story, or rather stories, of history writing in a fascinating account of three historians who shared much in common about their single-minded passion for details in reconstructing the historical past. Coming together of a knighted professor in Jadunath Sarkar, a committed civil servant in G.S. Sardesai, and an unassuming prince in Raghubir Sinh produced volumes on the intricate interface of history that had fading Mughals, rising Marathas and struggling Rajputs at the centre of an immense political flux in the country. History Men captures the intensity of their relationships, often at intellectual variance with each other, in producing history free from its ideological biases.
Sarkar’s multi-volume research on Aurangzeb, Sardesai’s authoritative study on Marathas, and Sinh’s insights on tussle between Marathas and Rajputs are significant historical outputs, but it was the extraordinary fellowship between the three that created a benchmark for scholarship in history writing. All three had a voracious appetite for unearthing facts of history and a near obsession with establishing factually chronology through primary sources. As historians they sought to speak the truth at a time, during early 19th century, when history was under the threat of being appropriated to further the pursuit of nationalism. The discipline of history continues to be confronted by such reality even today.
Through a commentary on trio’s published research and reflections on their unpublished exchanges, Raghavan examines the challenge of history writing both as a discipline as well as a piece of heritage. They had their share of disapproval and criticism for judging the historical characters as they did, but remained firm in their historian resolve of seeking truth, understanding truth, and accepting truth. That has been the enduring legacy of these three medievalists. Towards the end of his life, Sarkar had reiterated that ‘national chauvinism does not go very far – even where it goes it only acts as a delusive will-o’-the wisp.’
Constructing history by mounting joint exercises and expeditions contributed a distinct flavour to history writing, by which the three could infect each other to connect geography and topography of the place(s) with characters’ ambitions, achievements and regrets. Such an approach helped history vibrate with life and vigour born of the personal acquaintance with the site of important historical event. For instance, without a visit to Afzalpura, near Bijapur, it would not have come to light that a premonition of his coming end had impelled Afzal Khan to kill and bury all his 63 wives. The tombs of the same shape, size and age close to each other bear testimony to it.
Historical events in the Mughal-Maratha-Rajput interface interested all three historians in exploring every possible nuance in drawing both the minutiae and larger generalizations. While the killing of Afzal Khan continues to be the wildest exultation among the Marathas but for historians the question worth exploring was to ascertain if his slaying was a treacherous murder or an act of self-defence on the part of Shivaji? Regardless of antagonism and alienation from their own fraternity, the spirit of inquiry and endeavour in research remained foremost in the minds of these historians. Had Rana Sangha not invited Babur from Kabul to destroy Ibrahim Lodi, the medieval period would have been a different history?
As much a tribute to the incredible contribution of Sarkar, Sardesai and Sinh to the art and science of history writing in the country, History Men makes for an engaging and compelling reading. That the three historians were committed to the Rankean approach to the practice of history is an essential take home for those interested in pursuing the discipline of history.
by T C A Raghavan
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 427, Price: Rs. 799.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)
(First published in The Hindu, issue dated July 5, 2020.)