There was a time—all of the 19th century—when the educated read history books and the slightly less educated read historical novels. This trend petered out sometime around the mid-20th century, under the impact of decolonization (which exposed much of “history” as Eurocentric), the rise and defeat of fascism (which exposed some of “history” as racist) and later, feminism and postmodernism (which, in different ways, revealed “history” to be often “his story”).
Lately, however, there has been a revival—both of popular histories (as in the “Mughal” books by William Dalrymple) and of historical fiction (as in Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace or Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winner from last year, Wolf Hall).
Jonathan Phillips’ Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades and Ira Berlin’s The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations are sterling examples of good history books written, once again, for a large readership and not just for scholars.
A crusade against Christians? Calls for jihad against Muslims? Sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? But Phillips, who occupies the unusual position of a “professor of crusading history” at the University of London, has such and other fascinating facts to narrate in his book.
Promise: Koshy’s an author to watch.
Berlin’s The Making of African America does not simply trace the history of black America from slavery to Obama—for this has been done in recent times—but, more significantly, reads this history in the light of the demand for labour and, particularly, immigrant labour (including slaves) in America. In this sense, perhaps, we are also coming to a welcome return in mainstream Western discourse: If “labour” was obscured under the colours of “immigration” in the second half of the 20th century, now immigrants are again beginning to be increasingly read as necessary and often exploited “labour”.
Short and simple
The first story in Mridula Koshy’s debut book of fiction, If it is Sweet, begins with this sentence: “At the end of her tenure as mother, she leaves Manchester for her parents’ home in Dehra Dun to enact what she doubts they will recognise as a pilgrimage.” Notice not just the subtle irony and the lack of throat-clearing that this line indicates, but also its suppleness of thought and narrative. Here is a sentence that appears to have survived the advent of screen-reading: A line that can move without having to lean on a full stop after every clause.
Koshy writes well. She can use short, simple (or simply compound) sentences, which are so much the vogue these days, or longer flowing sentences. She writes mostly about the professional, urban middle classes, but her characters and themes rise—like middle-class colonies in Delhi—against a larger and more disparate background. An author to watch.
Yet another prize
The prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (best book, South Asia and Europe section) for 2009 went to Rana Dasgupta’s Solo. With novels by Keki N. Daruwalla, Aamer Hussein and Amit Chaudhuri shortlisted along with Solo, it was a strong field to run this year, and strongly dominated by South Asians. The Pakistan-based author Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders won the best “first novel” award in the category.
More good news for South Asians: Here comes a new prize! The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature celebrates the rich literature from, and connected to, the subcontinent. Starting from 2011, the prize will award $50,000 (around Rs22.45 lakh) to the winner. The award promises to “recognize writers of any ethnicity writing about South Asia and its diasporas. The books competing for the prize must be an original work of fiction published during 1 April 2009 and 31 March 2010, written in English or translated into English.”
Tabish Khair is the Denmark-based author of Filming. Write to him at email@example.com