An alumnus of IIT, Kharagpur, Namit Arora spent almost two decades in Silicon Valley as an Internet technology professional. In 2013, he quit his job and returned to India and, almost for two years, he volunteered with the Delhi government to find innovative solutions to civic problems; he led the drafting of Delhi’s solar energy policy and a task force on air pollution. In between, he published two books, The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities, a non-fiction, and Love and Loathing in Silicon Valley, a novel set in Silicon Valley.
Arora’s third book is about Indian civilization, titled Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization. He spoke to Scroll.in about his journey from tech professional to author, his latest book, and how he looks at the idea of Indianness. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us something about your journey from a career in internet technology to becoming a published author of two non-fiction books and a novel. What inspired Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization?
I was herded into the “safe” engineering profession by the great forces of the Indian middle-class. Not that I desired something else in my teens. It was actually good for me in many ways. It took me from IIT Kharagpur to California. Earnings from my career funded my wanderlust and evening education in the humanities. But I did see it mostly as a day job that paid the bills.
In the early years, as with most aspiring writers, I too faced my share of rejections in the publishing world, but I lived and learned, and built a nest egg. In due course, I quit the job, returned to India, and persevered until, fortunately, things worked out. Ironically, it was my unloved tech career that financed my new life of full-time reading, writing, travelling and the sporadic volunteer project like drafting the solar energy policy for Delhi – not to mention my labour of love, Indians.
My interest in history really began after leaving India, when life in the US raised for me various questions of culture and identity. In my mid-twenties, backpacking through Mexico in the early 1990s, I was blown away by the ruins of the Mayan and Aztec civilisations. That got me hooked on “lost cities”, or historical sites that were entirely lost to living memory and were dug out by archaeologists. I’ve since visited scores of lost cities around the world.
In the mid-2000s, my partner and I took a break from work to travel in India for two years. That was an amazing experience. We visited over a hundred sites in 20 states, including all of the lost cities I write about in Indians. Each of them raised new questions for me whose answers I could not easily find.
For instance, I wondered what life was like in the city of Dholavira, and what of the Harappan ethos is still with us. What urban milieu produced a great thinker like Nagarjuna? What was a day in the life of a student at Nalanda? What religious worldview promoted erotica on Khajuraho’s temple walls, and why did it disappear? How did the city of Vijayanagar become so rich? Can scoundrels also gain moksha after death in Varanasi? Questions like these.
So I started digging for answers, from which emerged the idea for a book like Indians. I read early travellers and literary-philosophical works, academic histories and monographs, Bahujan and feminist scholars, and Hindu nationalists. I visited site museums and read archaeologists’ reports. I wrote book reviews, essays and travelogues. As I connected the dots, the scope of the project evolved.
What was the transition to the history of Indian civilisation after writing a novel, Love and Loathing in Silicon Valley?
It wasn’t difficult. Though the novel and the history book were published within eighteen months of each other, both books had gestated for over a decade. They proceeded in parallel and became two different modes through which I explored questions of culture and identity, with the hope of gaining a better understanding of my world and my place in it.
The dust jacket of your new book says ‘Indian civilisation is an idea, a reality, an enigma.’ Can you elaborate on this statement?
I think the statement tries to capture the varied, mutating quality of Indian civilisation. Its reality is, of course, borne out by any academic definition of “civilisation”, even as its form and content have never been stagnant or singular. Indeed, Indian civilisation has been a journey of profound and continuous change – from the Harappans who built the first cities with indoor toilets and the most egalitarian civilisation of the ancient world, through the dramatic reshaping of the subcontinent’s culture by the Aryan migrants with new languages, religious ideas and the varna system, the rise and fall of Buddhism and Tantrism, the advent of feudalism and Bhakti, and the Turko-Persians bringing Islam and giving rise to a new syncretic culture, to India’s momentous encounter with European colonialism and western modernity.
Not surprisingly, then, Indian civilisation has been different things to different people. For instance, there is no historical evidence that Brahmins and outcastes, or urbanites and Adivasis, or priests and Carvakas, or sultans and peasants, or Tamils and Mizos, took pride in a common idea of Indian civilisation – and is there a good reason to privilege one over the other? Can it not contain many such ideas? With so many coexisting social realities, Indian civilisation is also an enigma that has produced various, often conflicting, appraisals of its central features and qualities. People joke that India frequently confounds academic social science. To adapt Whitman, Indian civilisation is large, it contains multitudes. So it’s all of these at once: idea, reality, enigma.
Different sets of people describe and define ‘Indianness’ in different ways. How do you look at the idea of Indian identity? What according to you are the basic qualifications for being an Indian?
As I see it, anyone who considers herself an Indian is Indian. Period. There should be no further litmus tests, no additional qualifications. “Indianness”, or “Indian identity”, which transcends the citizenship of the modern state, ought to be expansive enough to accommodate all those who consider themselves Indian in whatever ways they see fit, wherever they live. No one person or group gets to limit what it means to be Indian, at least not without a fight. As the poet Rahat Indori memorably said, “Kisi Ke Baap Ka Hindustan Thodi Hai”.
Many books have been written about the history of Indian civilisation by Indians as well as foreigners. How is your book different from them?
I think each reader will see my book as different (or not) in her own way. That said, let me offer a few provisional thoughts of my own. I’d say that Indians is rare in combining narrative history with archaeological travel writing. It’s a non-traditional history. It aims for an engaging, human portrait of our lost cities, in which the traveller (me) is part of the narrative.
It also draws new insights from early travellers’ accounts that speak to our 21st century concerns and sensibilities. In short, it tries to bring alive our forgotten pasts in rich and evocative detail, combining quirky stories with the big picture of Indian civilisation and its evolution. It strives to include non-elite perspectives – the view from below – rare in histories written by non-Indians and upper-caste Indians. Nor do I shrink from controversial topics or avoid calling a spade a spade. It also incorporates significant new research from archaeology and genetics.
According to American historian Hayden White, ‘history is no less a form of fiction than the novel is a form of historical representation’. How do you interpret this statement?
What I hear White saying is that, as narrative forms, history and fiction have more in common than meets the eye. This is a compelling view, though it can be easily misunderstood. I mean, one might object and point out that the historical narrative is built on facts and verifiable events, while the fictional narrative requires nothing more than subjective human experience and imagination, and so these are two very different kinds of endeavours.
But facts are one thing, their interpretation another. Facts alone do not necessarily make the narrative of history more truthful than the narrative of fiction. Indeed, fiction can often reveal our past and present more truthfully and vividly than what facts alone can convey. This is because both types of narratives must also employ significant interpretation – ie, subjective moral and aesthetic choices and judgments – which is what makes them similar forms.
A corollary is that a great historian has much in common with a literary master. Both must attempt to enter the society they reference, to see the world as its members saw it, and understand, to the extent possible, what it was like to live in it. Both require ample sensitivity, imagination, depth of perception, the right distance, and the ability to synthesise vast bits of social knowledge. Both must examine the psychology, morals, aspirations, and assumptions of ordinary people. Neither can claim to be an impartial or omniscient narrator, and so both history and fiction are subjective, value-laden enterprises sharing a family resemblance.
You present insights in your book from the accounts of the Persian traveller, Alberuni, and the French traveller, François Bernier. Both spent more than a decade in India and wrote extensively about their experiences. How do you compare their views about India?
Alberuni visited India between 1017 and 1030, when Mahmud of Ghazni was raiding wealthy temples. Bernier stayed from 1658-69, during Aurangzeb’s first decade as emperor in Delhi. They are two of the most fascinating and perceptive observers of medieval north Indian society. Both espoused a scientific temper and a humanistic ethos. Both admired many things Indian but also criticised other things. They each wrote near the eve of a major incursion from outside the subcontinent – Turko-Persian and European, respectively. Like any observer, they too had their biases and blind spots (which I discuss), but they’re still very informative about two different moments in Indian society.
Alberuni, a veritable polymath, had emerged from a great flowering of science and cosmopolitan culture centred in Persia. He despised Mahmud and condemned his raids. He learned Sanskrit in India, studied the major Indian religious, philosophical and scientific texts, translated some into Arabic, and sought out learned Brahmins to clarify his doubts. He praised earlier Indian achievements in mathematics and science, but noted the dismal state of science in contemporary India (for instance, unlike Aryabhata half a millennium earlier, leading Indian astronomers now held that the earth did not rotate on its axis but was at rest).
Caste made a powerful impression on Alberuni. He saw that such birth-based inequalities and segregated living, sustained by both religious scriptures and temporal laws, prevented social solidarity and a sense of common cause. He called it the chief difference between Indians and his own people. He hated the caste mindset of the elites. It bothered him that learned Indians did not mingle with foreigners like him – refusing to sit, eat, and drink with him – for fear of being “polluted”. He saw this as a kind of “fanaticism”, and called them more “narrow-minded” than their ancestors.
Alberuni’s extensive account confirms that on the eve of the Turko-Persian invasions, Indian society wasn’t exactly the picture of intellectual and moral vigour that many now fondly imagine it to have been. India’s intellectual culture had declined in the preceding centuries; it had fallen behind in science. Buddhism and Tantrism were in terminal decline, Bhakti and Brahminical orthodoxy were ascendant. Indians had grown more insular, conservative, superstitious, caste-bound, puritanical and patriarchal (I explore this change and its causes in the book).
Such “is the state of things in India”, Alberuni lamented, that Brahmins attempt to combine ideas of purity and pollution with the pursuit of science. He also described and analysed Indian texts, marital and funerary customs, taxation and inheritance, laws and punishments, etc – which frequently differed based on one’s varna status. His portrait of north India is so thoughtful and persuasive that he deserves to be called the “first Indologist”.
As for Bernier, he was a physician-philosopher who identified with the emerging Enlightenment thought in Europe. He greatly admired the fine architecture of Delhi and Agra. Employed by one of Aurangzeb’s noblemen, he observed the pomp and glitter of the Mughal court, “the base and disgusting adulation which is invariably witnessed there” and “the vice of flattery [that] pervades all ranks”.
He derided harmful superstitions, the practice of Sati fuelled by “merciless Brahmens” but discouraged by Mughal governors, and noted the primitive state of Indian medicine. Indians “understand nothing of anatomy,” he wrote. “They never open the body either of man or beast,” so do not know of the circulation of blood (working with bodily fluids was “polluting”). According to Bernier, Hindu scholastic education in its customary guru-shishya format, which he observed in Varanasi, was limited to mostly Brahmin men of “an indolent disposition”. He proclaimed that ‘”profound and universal ignorance is the natural consequence of such a state of society”.
Bernier’s account reveals a powerful, extractive bureaucracy concentrating riches at the top, funding a huge army and the luxuries of Indian aristocrats and the seraglio. This malady went beyond the Mughal realm. He reports extreme disparities and that “most towns in Hindoustan are made up of earth, mud, and other wretched materials”, and are poorer “than those of many other parts of the globe” (then too, India’s per capita GDP was below the global average).
Bernier analysed the causes of the dismal economic state of common folk in pre-colonial India – worse than in Europe, and a far cry from popular history’s boosterish metaphor, sone ki chidiya. As in Alberuni’s time, Bernier’s account shows Indians, especially Hindus, as creatively weak, ritualistic, mired in regressive cultural habits – and, in hindsight, entirely ill-equipped to resist the next big incursion too: a European imperialism powered by modernity, joint-stock mercantilism, the nation-state, science and scholarship (which would also lead them to discover, through the coloniser’s eyes, their own forgotten antiquity).
In his recent book, Early Indians, Tony Joseph, whose work you also quote in your book, argues, ‘We are all migrants. We are all mixed.’ What is your take on this statement?
Tony’s claim is spot on, not only in terms of physical migration and the mixing of genes; it’s also true with the migration and mixing of culture. Whatever the means, cultural diffusion across regions, ethnicities, languages, religions, traders, etc has been a prominent feature of Indian life. Think of what the Aryans from Central Asia added to Indian languages, the Greeks to art, the Persians to architecture, the Sufis to music, the British to politics, and so on.
The Hindu pantheon grew out of extreme cultural appropriation and assimilation of non-Vedic folk deities. Look at how mixed our art, architecture, literature, philosophy, music, dance, cuisine, sports, dress, painting, and crafts are today. And Indians gave much to others too. The depth and complexity of such mixing becomes even more vivid in the long view of history that I take in my book.
Can you talk to us about your visits to Dholavira? How has it contributed to the understanding of Harappan civilisation?
Dholavira (2600-1900 BCE) is the best excavated Harappan city in India. It is a lovely site to wander through, with gateways, streets and homes laid out on a grid-like plan. Astonishingly, one can still find on the ground shards of their painted pottery, bits of stone bangles, and semi-precious stones used to make jewellery. One can see greenish copper slag from the smelting process for purifying the ore, as well as the tiny bones of some of the animals Dholavirans ate: cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep, wild pigs, wild asses, deer, fish, rabbit and chicken.
The onsite museum has evocative game boards carved on stone, children’s toys, figurines, seals, pottery, and more. The village of Dholavira, after which the Harappan city is named, is a short walk away, and the landscape around the island is starkly picturesque.
All Harappan sites have much in common but they spanned a large geography and are also diverse. Unlike the four larger Harappan cities we know of, riverine and rain-blessed, Dholavira was on an arid island in the Arabian Sea (it’s now amidst a salt marsh, the Great Rann of Kutch). Because of this, its inhabitants focused a lot more on capturing water.
They built amazing water harvesting systems, city-wide storm-water drains, and sixteen giant reservoirs, one of which is nine times larger than an Olympic sized swimming pool and a hundred times larger than the Great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro. They surrounded the city centre with reservoirs, which must have made a visually appealing sight.
Most of Dholavira’s structures were built not in mud-brick, the Harappan norm, but in stone, including beautiful multihued stones from a nearby quarry that I visited. Dholavira has turned up what may be the world’s first stadium, with a stand of three rows. Its trade and material culture were more maritime than riverine, and it was likely a leader in Harappan seafaring innovations. Its funerary structures also differ from other Harappan cities in largely being cenotaphs, devoid of human remains, suggesting different cultural beliefs.
Dholavirans had other distinctive cultural attributes, but their major legacy seems to me their incredible creativity, resolve and engineering acumen ,through which they managed their scarce water resources for many centuries. They waged an epic struggle against the elements. Will we, their descendants, be inspired by them and rouse ourselves to tackle climate change?
Are you planning a follow-up to Indians?
No concrete plans yet. I’m just making my way through a pile of books that had built up while I was working on Indians. I also lost my father to Covid this year during the second wave, which has been very unsettling. Perhaps a new book project, for which I have at least a couple of candidates, will emerge in due course.
Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic and banker. His debut novel Patna Blues has been translated into eight languages. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.