Towards the end of Book I of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Padma is very angry with the narrator Saleem, who is telling the story of his life to her. Fed up of listening to his long backstory, involving the lives of his grandparents and parents, she demands to know when he will be born, when his story will start. Saleem is unfazed (... till the last chapter of Book I), for he firmly believes that “To know one life, you have to swallow the world”.
This philosophy, articulated in a path-breaking magic realist novel, can well be applied to a work of narrative history. Sudeep Chakravarti’s Plassey: The Battle that Changed the Course of Indian History is a case in point. Only, the backstory here is deliciously engaging.
The story of this sham of a battle for a few hours in a mango orchard in 1757 between a handful of British soldiers led by a wily company officer and the much larger (though compromised) forces of a hated Bengal nawab is well known. To whoever knows even a bit of India’s colonial history, that is. And, of course, to every Bengali, dead and alive, irrespective of whether they are, or ever were, interested in the subject.
What happened in those few hours on 23 June 1757 is grist for the military historian. But what followed as a result of that battle has had immense significance for both India and Britain. And that part has been amply recorded and analysed by generations of historians. What did not receive sufficient, or as much, attention was the backstory. That is where Plassey, the book, wins.
Any book that starts with a colourful cast of characters is bound to be dramatic. And Plassey is undeniably so. It’s a drama in three acts, if you will: Act I (or “Book I: The Background”) is the “Exposition”, giving us all the stakeholders in the unfolding drama; Act II (or “Book II: The Build-up”) steps up the tension in Bengal to a veritable “Climax”; and Act III (or “Book III: The Battle”), dealing with the battle itself, is the “Denouement”. The Battle of Plassey was, after all, lost even before it was fought.
The slow build-up of the drama, amounting to two-thirds of the book, is what is really unique about it. And it is to Chakravarti’s credit that he sustains the interest of the reader right through by laying bare the politics of the time that brought about Plassey – the fraught scenario in Bengal after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 up until the reign of Alivardi Khan; the competing European mercantile corporations (especially the English and French) whose rivalry in Europe was extended to the Indian subcontinent, in the Carnatic and in Bengal, where they were constantly looking to expand their trade base; the enormously influential banking family of the Jagat Seths who had the power to make or break empires; and a young haughty Siraj, who, as Alivardi’s successor, not only made an enemy of Clive and the British but was also surrounded by treacherous characters in his own circle (a jealous aunt, a weak general) who were too eager either to put him down or to replace him.
The historical sources for the book are many (duly listed in the “Acknowledgements”, of course), but the works by what Charavarti terms the “Plassey trinity” – Hill, Long, Orme – are the ones he cites the most: Samuel Charles Hill’s Bengal in 1756-1757 and Three Frenchmen in Bengal, Reverend James Long’s Unpublished Records, and Robert Orme’s Military Transactions. The other frequent source is the Siyar (or Siyar-ul-Mutaqherin), an eighteenth century work on Plassey by Ghulam Hussain Khan Tabatabayi
In most chapters, the sources are quoted generously – sometimes briefly, often at length. While it serves to establish the meticulousness of the research, at times it sounds more like a compendium of existing sources, rather than just quotes to substantiate a point in an unfolding argument. I liked the chapters where the narrative quotient is higher, less encumbered by historical evidence; and the ones which bring in other sources to bolster the historical analysis – like the snippet from the epic poem Polashir Juddho (1875) by Nabinchandra Sen, in the first chapter of Book III, “Clive Before Plassey”.
The 38 plates between pages 184 and 185 – ranging from well-known historical portraits to rare paintings, illustrations and maps to photographs taken by the author himself – greatly add to the value of the book.
One of the most admirable aspects of Plassey is the scrupulousness with which Chakravarti has tried giving a balanced and detached version of the history he set out to write. From the portrayal of Siraj’s controversial character to delving into the truth behind the Black Hole tragedy, he does not hesitate to give all the contesting accounts and leaves it to the reader to decide which version he’d like to believe in or is more convinced by.
He also does not hesitate to expose biases: Thus, one of the most revered sons of Bengal – the scholar and reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar – is not spared for denying Raja Krishnachandra’s role as a conspirator in his Banglar Itihash (History of Bengal, 1848).
It also goes to Chakravarti’s credit that he does not forget to give the Bangladeshi perspective on Polashi. He rightly points out that while Indian nationalist writing “focusses on the imposition of colonialism as a direct result of Plassey”, which would finally end in 1947, this is not the case with Bangladeshi historians. For them, “colonial rule didn’t end in 1947” but in 1971, when they broke free from Pakistan. Quoting the historian Willem van Schendel in A History of Bangladesh, Chakravarti thus reminds us that “What ended at the battle of Polashi, then…was not indigenous rule in the Bengal Delta but the ancient regime of the Mughal state.”
Chakravarti is passionate about history, and has written both about India’s fractured present (Red Sun, Highway 39) and past. In his previous book, The Bengalis, there was much scope for humor and imaginative playfulness, even as the author ambitiously tackled the history of an entire community; and the dovetailing of the personal-anecdotal with the historical made for very interesting reading.
Given the subject matter of Plassey, this was not possible. This book is undoubtedly accessible history for an informed audience – but it speaks more eloquently to the history enthusiasts among them.
Plassey: The Battle That Changed the Course of Indian History, Sudeep Chakravarti, Aleph Book Company.