Book Review

India: A History

John Keay
Grove Press, 2000, 576 pages


M uch of the early history of India has been reconstructed from archaeological evidence and guesswork; so much so that the first half of India: A History could well have been titled "India: A Prehistory". The author is an engaging and tireless storyteller, and when the historical record falters, as it often does for the period before the slow-motion Muslim holocaust of the Mughal empire, he keeps the reader entertained with narrative bedtime stories, albeit incredibly complex and detailed ones, full of baroque and occasionally extraneous detail.

The narrative style of this book describes events in more or less chronological order, eliminating the necessity for carats and meandering arrows in one's notes. The book also has a number of maps and color plates illustrating some of the many beautiful Indian landmarks. The British author, although adding a few extra vowels, is mostly impartial in treating the extensive involvement of British exploits in the region, even touching on their disastrous events of 1857 and the first British invasion of Afghanistan, with neither excessive moralizing nor apologetics.

The historical substrata of this vast, flat and mystical subcontinent consist of layers of tales like that of the conversion of Ashoka who, filled with remorse after killing 100,000 people in battles of conquest, turned to Buddhism and pacifism and filled the landscape with inscribed pillars advocating the philosophy of dharma. These pacifist and at times defeatist values did not serve India well against the many Arab and Mongol invaders, but did serve as inspiration for later rather less unsaintly chaps.

Another book, A History of India, published by Barnes and Noble Press, although more concise, uses a blurry, unattractive, and difficult to read typeface, but has more detailed maps that illustrate both historical sites and modern features such as India's nuclear testing areas. Unfortunately, the book is so badly typeset that these maps are mostly illegible. India: a History, while a little confused about India's nuclear devices, is not only legible but a highly readable introduction to a complex story.

November 25, 2001 Back