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The lowercase history of ordinary Indians

August 14, 2012

Writer: Richa Govil

After seeing my book lying around the kitchen, the dining table and the sofa, my mother, who was visiting me, finally gave in to her curiosity and asked me what the book was about.  I told her that the book is about a thousand mile, 20 feet high hedge which was grown by the British to collect the salt tax in India between 1840s and 1879.  The salt tax was one of the most significant contributors to the empire’s revenue from India.  At its peak, the hedge ran from the Indus river in Pakistan, through Delhi, Agra, Jhansi, down across Narmada and then turned eastward into Orissa.  The hedge took years to grow and had required continual upkeep.  The salt tax was so high that a typical peasant would have to spend two months of his income to buy the amount of tax his family required.

Photo courtesy: Udaipur Blog

My mothers’ first reaction was, I don’t remember being taught this in school!

When we are taught Indian History (History with the big ‘H’) in our schools, we are taught about the big Dates and Events — the dates of the Gupta dynasty, the battle of Plassey, the First War of Independence, the Dandi March.  What we miss in all of this is the context in which the historical events took place.   Why was salt (and not sugar, or rice) so important that Gandhi used it as a platform for his objectives? 

While growing up, it was never clear to me why the British finally left India. And that too without that much of a bloody war. Why would they wake up one day and decide that “well, we might as well give these Indians their independence.  That Gandhi is becoming too troublesome to deal with anyway.”  It just didn’t make sense, until many years later I finally read about the financial burden (debt) that war-time Britain incurred towards the Indian colony during World War II – for Indian materials and services provided towards the war effort. A heart-wrenching version of this is covered in painful details by Madhusree Mukerjee in “Churchill’s Secret War”, just as the salt tax and its thousand mile hedge is described by Roy Moxham in “The Great Hedge of India”.

History, devoid of context, is a meaningless rendition of facts and dates.  It is inert — unable to answer the whys of the past, powerless to explain why things are the way they are, incapable of guiding our decisions in the future.

As a kid, I didn’t like history.  It was the school subject I came closest to hating “social science”, whatever that meant. It is only as an adult that I discovered history.  And since then, much of the non-fiction I read is around some historical context. Recently I embarked on a journey to discover why are things the way they are in rural India.  Why are the majority of farmers poor? Were they always poor? Even during colonial times? During Mughal times? During Mauryan times?

This led me to a broader question: What was the life of ordinary Indians like 200 years ago, 2000 years ago? What was the Indian economy like? What trades were practiced?

In the process I realized that what I was seeking was not a History (with a big ‘H’) of Kings and Emperors and their genealogy and escapades, but a history (with the small ‘h’) of ordinary Indians.

A great deal of searching the internet and library catalogues led me to books that I devoured over the period of a year and half.  The books I read ranged from those targeted at the general population to academia, from books that were written as books to those that are a compendium of academic articles published in different journals.  One book was a Ph.D. thesis; another was written in 1640.  Some were easily readable, while others required a determination to get through to the end.

It was tough plowing through these, but it was rewarding in the end.  The historical context that I gained (though I remember only a tiny fraction of what I read) was hugely illuminating. For those interested in embarking on a similar exploration, I am suggesting a handful of books below. But beware: This is not a “Top 10” list, nor a book of “must reads by every Indian”. It is simply a list for those interested in getting a deeper perspective on what we think we know about Indian history.

My reading has just about gotten to just around to Indian independence.  So perhaps this makes a good list for Independence Day.  I have rated the books’ reading difficulty in terms of being “an easy read” to something that requires close reading.  I hope you pick up at least one of these.

Rethinking India’s Past, by R. S. Sharma

Time period: 2000BC to 1200AD

The history chapters start around page 132. Some interesting things I learnt about were about taxation, revenue collection and land-rights, and how they varied over the centuries. 

Reading difficulty: Medium-Hard.

The Economy of the Mughal Empire c. 1595 – A Statiscal Study, by Shireen Moosvi

Time period: 1600AD

In the process of constructing an income and expense account for Akbar’s empire, the author gives a vivid account of the economic life of ordinary (and not so ordinary) populations in Akbar’s time.

Reading difficulty: Easy-Medium.

The Corporation that Changed the World, by Nick Robins

Time period: 1650s to 1860s

This book is about the East India Company, its ups and downs as a corporation, its stock and finances, its profit repatriation to Britain and its impact on the Indian economy. 

Reading difficulty: Easy-Medium. A short book.

The Great Hedge of India, by Roy Moxham

Time period: 1840s to 1880s

About a 20 feet high impenetrable hedge that ran from Indus to Narmada grown by the British for collecting the salt tax from 1840s to 1879.

Reading difficulty: Easy and short book

Fractured Modernity: Making of a Middle Class in Northern North India, by Sanjay Joshi

Time period: 1870s to 1930s

Describes the evolution of modern North Indian middle-class and its social norms in the political and cultural context of the times.

Reading difficulty: Medium, though a bit wordy

 Churchill’s Secret War, byMadhushree Mukerjee

Time period: World War II

A scathing account of the war contributions of India and British administration’s outlook towards India during WW-II.

Reading difficulty: Easy-Medium, but a thick book to get through

In Freedom’s Shade, by Anis Kidwai

Time period: 1945- 1950s

A diary of a woman involved in rehabilitation efforts after Partition riots in and around Delhi.

Reading difficulty: The language is simple, but the book/diary covers depressing events in a lot of detail so it is very difficult to get through.

 And finally, to lighten the mood, a quirky autobiography full of self-deprecating humour:

Ardhakathanak, translated by Rohini Chowdhury

Time period: 1600s

The book is a short biography written in the form of Hindi chaupais and dohas.  It is apparently the very first autobiography written in India and covers the life of a business family in UP in 1600s.  The book has one side Hindi, one side English translation.

Reading difficulty: Easy. Short book.

[Richa writes about her exploration and findings about the rural economy and social enterprises on her blog Stirring the Pyramid at]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. fayaz permalink
    August 15, 2012 6:50 am

    “While growing up, it was never clear to me why the British finally left India. And that too without that much of a bloody war.”

    —- The Partition was a bloody war. The separation and division of the Country was a bloody war. It did not require the Brits to declare a war and field their army. They ignited it.

  2. chandresh permalink
    September 1, 2012 4:01 am

    Its a very interesting article, but it was well narrated story. I appreciate the sensitivity and keen observation “but a history of ordinary Indians.”, last days of British raj in India, viewing from a socio – economic angle only then we sense the gravity of the history and cause for the present condition. thanks for sharing your ideas.

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