The first thought that would possibly flash through a person’s mind, after reading Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and his Empire of Truth, is the precision of the title—it effortlessly sums it all up. The book narrates the coming into being of ‘History’ as a discipline in colonial India. This is done beautifully through the character of Jadunath Sarkar – India’s preeminent historian – and his fixation with facts. Spread over a meticulously penned introduction and eight insightful chapters, it is a journey that concerns itself with historical research, and in itself is not a biography of Jadunath Sarkar. But it is based on about 250 private letters, exchanged from 1907 to 1952, between Sarkar and his comrade-in-arms, Govindrao Sakharam Sardesai. The book poignantly recounts the anxieties, struggles and tests of these two historians concerning the craft of historical writing during the initial days of ‘History’ in India. Chakrabarty draws from other archival sources and refers to anecdotes to project a very balanced assessment of Sarkar’s character, which is essential for the purpose of the book. I’m tempted to point out here that, interestingly, in doing so Chakrabarty adopts Sarkar’s technique of constructing characters of historical figures.
While mapping the birth of History, which was undeniably troubled, Chakrabarty draws attention to the interactions between its ‘public’ and ‘cloistered’ lives, and how each patterned the other. Such interactions concerned Sarkar and Sardesai who called for a ‘scientific’ approach based on facts to overcome the limitations of histories emerging from the public domain. They adopted the Rankean model where truth is held sacred and history is to be written without compromising on facts. Chakrabarty identifies this as the most contentious issue between Sarkar, Sardesai et al, on the one hand, and the scholars of the Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal (Indian Historical Records Commission) on the other. There were clashes of ideas, bitter debates, personal condemnations and struggles for control over the Indian Historical Records Commission that, according to Chakrabarty, eventually charted the trajectory of the discipline of History and the institutions associated with it.
In his lifetime, Sarkar’s positivism and dedication to truth made him resolute enough to accurately document the past - even the unpleasant things that could put one to shame. In fact, Chakrabarty observes, Sarkar was against any form of identity politics of nationalism that compromised on truth, leading to many intellectual skirmishes which earned him the wrath of anti-colonial nationalist historians. Chakrabarty rescues Sarkar from this ignominy though and sets forth to bring out the patriot in him. Sarkar was no doubt a patriot, but not an anti-colonial nationalist. Chakrabarty elaborates, if Ranke intended to serve God, Sarkar’s mission was to serve his nation by writing ‘scientific’ history. Sarkar believed such history writing was the first step towards national development. He recognised not only the glories but also the tragedies and unpleasant facts of the past that would facilitate the building of a strong nation. And for this, Sarkar was of the opinion that the historians needed to be of ‘strong character’. Here, Chakrabarty makes an interesting intervention. He identifies ‘strong character’ as a crucial component of Sarkar’s historical method and notes that, undeniably a man of strong character, Sarkar himself was a part of his method.
The last chapter deserves a special mention as it is distinct in style as compared to the rest of the book. It is in the form of an imaginary dialogue between Sarkar and the author. It is an imaginary conversation between two historians of two generations having distinct understandings of History. What Chakrabarty does brilliantly is, by staging a dialogue between the two, he reconstructs the character of Sarkar and clarifies Sarkar’s method of history writing and patriotism. The chapter is masterfully crafted and one feels as if a live interview of Sarkar is being taken by the author. Though the two do not see eye-to-eye during the course of this imagined conversation, one feels that there is an attempt to resurrect Sarkar as a historian, and herein lies the skill of the author.
In the final analysis, it seems, the spirit of Sarkar hovers over Chakrabarty who adopts Sarkar’s method of history writing in this book. Drawing from archival sources and remaining faithful to facts, both pleasant and unpleasant, the author sketches a balanced character of Sarkar to tell a larger story—a technique Sarkar fought for throughout his life. While doing so, the author emphasises that Sarkar was a child of the Empire and many of its abstract ideals shaped his ideas. But one wonders whether it would have been more helpful for the readers to conjure a clearer image of Sarkar and understand his ideas better, if Chakrabarty took recourse to the category of class, delving more into Sarkar’s Bengali middle-class location rather than making a couple of passing references. This absence, intentional or otherwise, strikes one particularly when he recalls Chakrabarty’s use of what he classifies as Bengali middle-class material in his more famous *Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, and when one reads his article ‘Limits of Bourgeois Model?’ in Sanjay Joshi’s *The Middle Class in Colonial India. The point here is not to relate these works of Chakrabarty with the book, but to remind the readers of his authoritative understanding of the Bengali middle-class psyche, as evident from most of his works, and emphasise that they would have benefited more had Chakrabarty elaborated on Jadunath Sarkar’s Bengali middle-class position.
Before concluding this review let us not miss out on something interesting. Two eminent scholars of South Asian origin, namely Dipesh Chakrabarty and Bhikhu Parekh came up with two fascinating books in 2015. Chakrabarty’s book is the one being reviewed here and Bhikhu Parekh’s is Debating India: Essays on Indian Political Discourse, a collection of essays written over a span of twenty years. The two books have undoubtedly different themes yet after reading these, one will be compelled to locate commonalities. Both these books focus on debates from the past taking place in India while strongly reflecting on the idea of truth. Also, Chakrabarty’s work, based primarily on letters exchanged privately between two friends, gives us a glimpse of the nature of their friendship, and Parekh’s book has an exclusive chapter on friendship and its different levels and forms. Furthermore, both have taken recourse to a not so common technique of writing dialogically in a chapter in their respective books—Chakrabarty has a chapter in the form of an interview and Parekh has one in the form of letters. It leaves one wondering whether these two scholars were themselves in conversation with each other while working on their respective books! Even if history may not repeat itself, historians certainly seem to.
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