How India's Men of History Made History Themselves

T.C.A. Raghavan's book is an empathetic account of the friendship that Jadunath Sarkar developed with S.G. Sardesai and Raghubir Sinh.

The fear of the Japanese blitzkrieg through south-east Asia reaching Indian shores lead to widespread panic on our eastern seaboard.

In historian Indivar Kamtekar’s felicitous  phrase, ‘The Shiver of 1942′ – this Great Fear – had gripped sahibs and Indians alike. The Raj was literally on the run. 

Governor Sir Arthur Hope of Madras Presidency shifted the seat of power further inland, leading to a housing shortage in Mysore  to the discomfort of R.K. Narayan, then living in rented accommodation in the garden city; in a drastic measure the inmates of the Madras zoo were killed, lest the aerial bombing frighten them into running amok in the city; the books of Madras University library got shifted temporarily inland.  

T.C.A Raghavan, ‘History Men: Jadunath Sarkar, G.S. Sardesai, Raghubir Singh and their Quest for India’s Past’, Harper Collins, Delhi, 2020.

December ‘42 saw the Japanese dropping some bombs and leaflets on Calcutta, causing a similar panic.

Amidst all the perturbation, Jadunath Sarkar (Sir Jadunath) – the 70-plus grand old man of Indian history – elected to stay back, ‘clinging’ to his library in south Calcutta, lest a move to his summer house in Darjeeling ‘enforce idleness on me’.

Packed with thousands of books and Marathi and Farsi and manuscripts, Sarkar’s library at 10, Lake Terrace, was both magnificent and unique.

It also housed hundreds of letters exchanged between him and two other historians of the Marathas and the Malwa region, whom he tutored on the craft of history as well on the finer points of English grammar and prose.

 T.C.A. Raghavan’s History Men is an empathetic account of the friendship that Sarkar developed with S.G. Sardesai, a former functionary of the Baroda state and Raghubir Sinh from Middle India. 

Scion of the raja of Sitamau in present day Madhya Pradesh, Rajkumar Raghubir turned amateur historian and went on to establish a formidable library. His manuscript collection is an historian’s delight. 

After a brilliant career at Calcutta University, Jadunath Sarkar entered the Provincial Educational Service in 1898, and in 1913 became a Professor of History in Patna. Sarkar laid his claim to a full Professorship on the basis of his first two volumes of the monumental History of Aurangzeb (1912).

In this early work, Raghavan discerns, Sarkar developing into a ‘mature historian’, proffering a ‘comprehensive treatment of the chosen subject…marshalling every fact, mining every possible source and putting in enormous  effort to establish the integrity of sources used’. Sarkar went on to become one of India’s truly great historians in the traditional empiricist mode: ‘not a lawyer simply marshalling arguments or facts in his favour but a judge, dispassionately viewing all evidence and then pronouncing judgment’. (Raghavan).

Based on unerring fidelity to sources, such judgmental history-writing – Sarkar’s forte – would lead him into giving firm but often anachronous verdicts on the past. That said, the joy of following Raghavan’s account is not to assess the merits or demerits of Sarkar’s monumental work. Rather, it is the unfolding of his life, and its entanglement with that of his two acolytes whom he drilled into measuring up to his stern historic practice, that is the core of History Men.

‘Dates, place names, authenticity of documents’, avers Raghavan, ‘are some near-constant features’ of his correspondence with his two understudy. Admonitions, usually in staccato mode, about historical sources as well elementary lessons on writing in a language other than one’s own was the preferred mode of mentor Jadunath. 

Here is Sardesai, already an established historian of  Marathas, writing to Sarkar about the difficulty he was facing in switching from his native Marathi to English:

I wonder if you can suggest…a kind of guide…in expanding  one’s vocabulary of English, some model of the type of Roget’s Thesaurus. That is probably too old now. I am writing my English chapters [of the multi-volume Marathi Riyasat] and  find myself much hampered by the difficulty of choosing the right word. 

Sarkar’s  response was  both helpful and patrician:

…[R]he surest means of acquiring a good style (1) is to read aloud the best English prose —  avoiding ornate authors, such Dr Johnson and Macaulay – for half an hour every morning, (2) to avoid trashy authors, except when it is necessary to pick facts out of them [sic!], and (3) to pause and revise frequently in the course of our writing. [emphasis mine.] 

…[R]emember, [finally] that the elements of a good prose style include not merely the choice of apt phrases, but also the judicious and most effecting marshalling of the facts…

 In another characteristic missive, Sarkar castigated one of  his supervisees, and later collaborator, Raghubir Sinh’s tendency to   write longwinded sentences. His admonition went farther than pulling Singh up for his serpentine  sentences:

“Nothing antagonises examiners, specially of the English race, so much as errors of English grammar and spelling because such defects in a thesis make them doubt whether the writer is scholarly enough for the highest distinction in the gift of a university.” 

But this was not as if  Raghubir Singh had forgotten  his English lessons from that iconic red-covered English grammar book, known  after its authors simply as ‘Wren and Martin’. Written in the late ‘thirties primarily’, the Wiki entry reads: ‘for the children of British officers resident in India’. Wren and Martin had been adopted as the go-to handbook, in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, and remained so at least till the late-sixties.

Jadunath Babu went even further and suggested the name of an ‘M.A. gentleman’ to be paid for by the Maharaja Kumar, for turning his turgid thesis prose into a tolerably readable book. Writes Raghavan impishly:

“That gentleman in question ‘was then a truly unknown Indian… who was then unemployed and in dire straits’.”

“When the scion of a Royal house ‘wanted editorial help, Sir Jadunath Sarkar, our most eminent historian… suggested my name. So I got some money’,” recounted  Nirad C. Chaudhuri 20 years later in his famous Autobiography of an Unknown Indian.

As for Jadunath himself, his forte was poring over the records of past battles and events, very often literally trudging (as with the Panipat battlefield) the same ground, incorporating the topography into his narrative, the alignments and realignments that produced the balance of forces…leading to the final outcome of momentous events. This was specially the case, Raghavan tells us, with his detailed section on the Third Battle of Panipat, 1761, that led to the defeat of the expanding Maratha forces from which they did not quit recover.   

Also read: The Experiences of Indians Who Fought Someone Else’s War

Sarkar’s obsessive search for what could be termed  sheer ‘facticity’ makes Raghavan’s book excessively detailed, even for card-carrying  historians. What it does exceedingly well is to chronicle an important moment in our  historiography, when writing up the past was for some Indians nothing short of a vocation — a ‘calling’, as Dipesh Chakrabarty terms it in another recent work on Sarkar. Excavating the method and the style of  Jadunath Sarkar is only one part of diplomat-academic Raghavan’s commendable effort.

His is also a story of the  contest between Sarkar’s History and an ethnicist appropriation of past as an input in the craving for ‘communitarian’ histories. Our ‘Oppressive Present’, to use the phraseology of the cultural historian Sudhir Chandra, is now witness to a shadowy contest:

‘Well that may be your history, but this is my/Our Past’!

  And that augurs well neither for our History nor for our Past/s. 

Equally, Raghavan plots briefly — for this is not his primary remit – the challenges, academic, professional and institutional —even personal – that Sarkar-style history faced  from within a growing historical profession. Sir Jadunath was nothing if not acerbic in his opinions, and seems to have railed somewhat quixotically against the emerging,  more rounded, social and economic history of India – ‘the processes by which society by its very nature undergoes change’, to cite the great Moroccan historian, Ibn Khaldun. 

Note: The Third Battle of Panipat, the subject of a major Bambaiya flop on the box office,  was soon followed by the little-known but hugely consequential Battle of Patparganj, September 18, 1803 (468-485 dead or injured).

It was here a couple of miles due east from the majestic trans- Yamuna Akshardham Temple  that Lord Lake crushed the Maratha forces. The British, forded the river easily, as the monsoon had receded early (to mimic Sarkar’s prose),   marched onwards to the Red Fort and pensioned -off the Mughal Badshah as the eviscerated ‘King of Delhi’. That, as the saying goes, is History.

Shahid Amin is a historian. His latest book, Conquest and Community: The After-Life of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan was published by Orient BlackSwan in 2015.