A history: From the earliest civilisations to the boom of the twenty-first century.
First published 2000. This edition 2010, Harper Press.
Well written, readable, apparently unbiased history. In broad outline, the narrative does not change very much from previous histories I've read - Romila Thapar, Nehru, Percival Spear, A.L. Basham, Ramachandra Guha, etc. There are of course differences. Differences of narrative, differences of emphasis, and differences of interpretation. But not too much. Keay does try to balance the tales of kings and emperors with some descriptions and tales of anonymous lives, and these efforts, though sporadic, are well integrated into the main narrative. In matters of emphasis Keay takes off on a slightly different path from the other histories. The British Raj is treated rather less harshly, and the Muslim 'period' somewhat more so, than in the other books. South India, as usual, is not given too much attention, except for a couple of the Chola kings. Nothing about the Pandyas, who apparently, co-existed with the Mauryas. But the book does not really seem to be tendentious of any particular view.
First, a timeline - Indus Valley; vedic period; the epic age; some of kingdoms of the Gangetic plains; Buddha; the Mauryas; Ashoka (about whom Keay positively gushes - calls him the first King and administrator to actually codify decent and ethical principles - what about Hammurabi?); the Shatvahanas and the Kushans, Kanishka; Guptas; Rudradaman, Harshavaradana; Chalukyas and Pallavas; the Arabs (Sind), the Rashtrakutas (Deccan), the Palas (Bengal), and the Gurjara-Prathiharas (Rajasthan, Gujarat); Ghanzi; Cholas; Prithiviraj Chauhan, Rajputs, Allaudin Khilji, Malik Kafur; Tughlaq; the Mughals, Bhamani Sultans, Shivaji and Marathas; British Raj; Independence. All these are standard Indian History regulars. As with all such histories, and due the nature and quantity of the knowledge available, the narrative becomes more and more detailed as we approach recent times. Thus time moves in millennia in the first few chapters, then a few centuries at a time, then in centuries, and finally in decades. This again is standard. There are however some matters of emphasis on which Keay differs from others, and which were new for me.
Keay makes a point of trying to establish and analyse the fact that between about 3500 BC and about 500 BC two civilisations apparently overlapped in time and space - the Indus valley civilisation about which there is a lot of archaeological evidence, but no narrative, written or otherwise; and the Vedic civilisation, about which the reverse is true, plenty of narrative, but no archaeology. And no cross reference of one civilisation to the other, i.e. nothing in the Harrappan archaeology about the Vedic and nothing in the Vedic narrative about Harrappa. The maximum parsimony inference would be that these two civilisations are about the same, that one gave rise to the other. But that is probably shot down by the fact that horses, so important in Vedic times, are completely absent in the Harrappan artefacts, and also that the Indus valley seals are clearly not Sanskrit or anything similar, at least not according to research so far. Keay considers an origin for the Vedic people ('Aryans') in the Indo-Gangetic plains, but there is simply not enough evidence to support that. Most of the available evidence, including some recent stuff not explicitly considered by Keay, such as language, and genetic, points to a Western, roughly Central Asian origin for the Vedic people. Keay does not subscribe to an 'Aryan invasion' but neither, of course, do any of the serious historians I have read. The mystery remains. Perhaps careful genetic and linguistic analysis will actually tell us more, and maybe more archaeology in remote places or those currently urban and built up. Maybe, but I don't think so. I think the mystery will continue.
There are other interesting things in Keay I learnt with a sense of learning something for the first time - the existence and significance of Rudradaman; the importance and antiquity of the excursions of Malik Kafur as far south as Madurai; the highly likely lack of religious motivations in many Kings, Emperors and conquerors (such as Shivaji, and many Rajputs); the interesting character of the British in early times, as just another set of 'Kings'; the mandala theory of politics, where enemies and allies spread out in alternate concentric 'circles' from every kingdom, which was current up to about the 18th century; the fact that when the Sultans came in or again when the British came in, India was not a 'highly developed country in an advanced state of decay' (as described by Shashi Tharoor in 'The Great Indian Novel'); and some recent history of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which I know, some of it, from the newspapers, but not as a 'history'.
Keay, writes well, some times almost flippantly. An example is his repeated quotation of a copper plate charter from the sixth century which describes the charter-giver as a king who 'cleft the temples of the rutting elephants of his foes' and whose 'toenails emitted rays as dazzling as the jewels'. Another is his characterisation of British Raj as never really 'pax Britannica' (there was always some war or the other going on) but more 'tax Britannica' and later 'axe Britannica' (for cutting down so much of the forests). He occasionally does slip in some specious interpretation unobstrusively through the book, but is more blatant about it when he describes recent (1980s to 2010) political events in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Also the fact of his being 'balanced and unbiased' is suspect now and then. But I guess no history can ever be uninformed by the prejudices and predilections of the historian. See for example Kurosowa's 'Roshomon'.
However, all in all, a good book, well worth another couple of reads.