Books

Cover of book: The Shortest History of India

John Zubrzycki
The Shortest History of India

How does a writer condense 5000 years of Indian history into a single short book without losing themselves in what they’re omitting? India is a fluid tessellation of ethnicities and languages that shift through the blooming of religions, the clash of empires and the sweep of invasions. Even the geography is hard to define, with edges that have grown and shrunk. Borders with three neighbours are still in dispute.

John Zubrzycki has boldly taken this task on in The Shortest History of India. The secret to his economy is a focus on individual personalities. He has an abundance of colourful personas to work with, from Alexander the Great tentatively crossing the Indus, to the internecine plotting of Mughal emperors, to English colonisers such as Mountbatten with their clubs and potted peas. This theme continues through to Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, ending with Modi’s India, where we see the world’s largest democracy teetering towards Hindu nationalism.   

Zubrzycki is even-handed in his treatment of early India and scans the bloodletting for seeds of tolerance. This is important because it counteracts the bias of histories, which give less space to a century of peace than to a single terrible battle. The truth was that precolonial India was more enlightened than brutal. In times of invasion or upheaval, such as under the Tughluq or “Muhammad the Bloody” (1290-1351), death was as ubiquitous as it was in mediaeval Europe, but these moments of conflict punctuated protracted periods of peace, learning, tolerance and stability. From these times came Buddhism, chess and the concept of zero.

When we reach the East India Company in the 1600s, Zubrzycki makes space to peel back the propaganda of empire from reality, questioning persistent stories such as the Black Hole of Calcutta or the Battle of Plassey. The author’s willingness to engage in historical debate is crucial because it means shortness doesn’t equate to shallowness.

Drawing closer to the present, the available material explodes. Debates about Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy or whether Partition spurred or prevented interreligious bloodshed still haven’t reached a historical consensus. Zubrzycki doggedly navigates a steady course through these complexities. By the final page we understand that India’s historical richness, which resists lazy characterisation, is an asset in danger of being lost. Today, the country’s lurch towards Hindu nationalism is a pact with populism that promises immense material prosperity. Yet this comes at the price of mortgaging its biggest strength: the participation of and tolerance for its religious minorities. 

Black Inc, 288pp, $26.99

Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "The Shortest History of India, John Zubrzycki ".

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Kurt Johnson is an environmental journalist who works in international aid in the Asia-Pacific.

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