I was recently tagged by a friend on Twitter, and asked to list seven books I love, one a day for a week. The idea was appealing, but the format suggested was not so congenial. It went: “#7booksIlove Day 1…7/7. No reviews, No explanations. 1 book/day for 7 days. With each post nominate someone else to take up the challenge. Today I nominate X or Y.” Below the tweet was a photo of the cover of the book recommended by that person on that day.
As a Luddite I am hopeless at uploading images, while as an argumentative Indian I absolutely must offer my explanations. So I am accepting my friend’s challenge, not on Twitter but by way of this essay, where I shall name seven works I admire, with a line or two in praise of each.
The first books on my list are by two scholars I venerated when I was young. EP Thompson was a pioneer of “history from below”, who wished to rescue peasants, labourers, artisans, and women from what he called the “enormous condescension of posterity”. A writer of flair and originality, he had also paid his dues in the archives. He is best known as the author of The Making of the English Working Class, but my own particular favourite amongst his books is Whigs and Hunters, a shorter, more elegantly written work on conflicts between villagers and the state in the forests of 18th century England.
EP Thompson I met twice, in his home just outside Worcester. March Bloch died long before I was born, shot by the Nazis in 1944 for the part he played in the French Resistance. With his great compatriot Lucien Febvre he founded the Annales School, which allied history, until then seen as a branch of literature, more strongly with the social sciences. Annales historians sought as much to explain as to document, to interpret rather than merely narrate.
Bloch’s most famous work is his two volume study Feudal Society. But I myself prefer his French Rural History, that draws as much on his travels through the countryside as on hours spent in the archives. (Bloch believed that historians needed stout boots as well as thick notebooks.) This book blends environmental with social history, in exploring the linkages between human uses of the cultivated field, the forest, and pasture land.
Nationalism is arguably the most important historical phenomenon in the modern world. The third book on my list is therefore Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation, whose relevance extends far beyond the region it deals with. Colley shows how, over the 18th and 19th centuries, political forces sought to flatten out the linguistic and religious diversities of the British Isles, in order to create a sense of citizenship defined by a single religion, a shared language, and a common enemy. The template forged in Britain was later adapted in countries as far removed as Israel and Pakistan.
To these three books set in the West, let me juxtapose three books set closer home. The first is Thomas Trautmann’s Elephants and Kings, that explores the environmental and political significance of the subcontinent’s largest animal. The book ranges widely in time and space; from the world of Kautilya’s Arthashastra to the pressures on elephant forests in India today, from the use of these animals in warfare to their images and representations in culture and folklore.
Trautmann is one of my two favourite foreign historians of India. The other is Richard Eaton, whose best known work is A Social History of the Deccan, which uses eight individual biographies to illuminate the social and political world of medieval India. This is a superb book; even better, however, is The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, for which Eaton had to learn Bangla in addition to the Urdu and Persian he was already a master of. The book asks the question; why did the most successful mass conversions to Islam take place so far away from the epicentre of Mughal/Muslim power in North India? For a full answer read the book; suffice it to say here that agricultural colonisation and Sufi preachers both had major roles to play in the process.
The third book I nominate on South Asia is by a compatriot and contemporary. This is Harjot Oberoi’s The Construction of Religious Boundaries. Set in the undivided Punjab of the 19th century, this study subtly explores the evolution of a corporate identity within the Sikhs, whose ideologues sought to more explicitly demarcate their faith from that of Hindus and Muslims. Deeply empirical as well as sharply analytical, Oberoi’s work blends the best of the British and French intellectual traditions. It is also thoroughly Indian, drawing on the author’s own rich immersion in the culture and language of his native province.
I have thus far recommended historical studies that are rigorously researched as well as finely written. These books have stimulated and educated me, while deepening my understanding of the craft of history. I read little fiction myself, and do not have enough confidence in my judgement to press any novels on my readers. Still, for my seventh choice I shall indulge myself and nominate a book on sports.
The easy way out would be to choose CLR James’s Beyond a Boundary, a book I myself have read more-or-less every year since I bought a (now much dog-eared) copy in 1978, at the second World Book Fair held in New Delhi. Cricket, however, is not a truly global sport in the manner that football is. So let me instead urge upon you the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow – aka Football in Sun and Shadow – a delightfully idiosyncratic work that blends history, memory, fact, and fiction, in telling the story of the evolution of modern football.
I am grateful to the friend who asked me to nominate a book a day for a week. I don’t think he’ll be displeased that I have instead nominated all at one go, and in a more expansive manner than the medium of Twitter allows. I have lived a rather bookish life, a life of and with books, and it gives me great pleasure to share (with explanations) this list of seven books I have loved. They can all be purchased online; several are available in bookstores. I hope some readers are persuaded enough to go out and get some of them.