Vishnu's Crowded Temple, by Maria Misra

India beyond the clichés

Chandak Sengoopta
Friday 24 August 2007 00:00 BST

Born in the carnage of partition and having struggled through a whole galaxy of troubles, the Republic of India has completed its sixth decade in a state of unexpected prosperity. Journalists have been waxing eloquent on this transformation for some time and hard-nosed trade publishers now bring out weighty tomes on Indian culture, history and society. Over the last

year or so, we have had books on modern India by (among others) Pavan Varma, Amartya Sen, Edward Luce, Ramachandra Guha and Martha Nussbaum. Now comes Oxford academic Maria Misra's Vishnu's Crowded Temple, a long but sprightly and idiosyncratic survey of India's history since the Mutiny of 1857.

The Mutiny killed off the East India Company, bringing India under direct control of the British Crown. The Raj, for all its pomp and pomposity, lasted a mere 90 years and its story, one might think, has been told far too often to justify another retelling. Misra's chapters on British India, however, are fascinating for their focus on topics ignored by the Raj industry. Building on recent specialist research, she shows how the British passion to classify and analyse Indian society led to the formulation of rigid concepts of caste, often on the basis of pretty dodgy information. Once set in stone, the different castes turned into interest groups that the British – and later, the democratic politicians of independent India – could manipulate. This is not the kind of legacy the champions of the Raj tend to talk about and Misra's debunking analysis comes like a breath of fresh air.

This refusal to tell a predictable story characterises the whole book. Although broadly chronological, the narrative is not organised around the conventional landmarks of political history. There is little on the Pakistan and China wars, the Kashmir problem, or tensions with tribal peoples. Misra makes up for it by ranging widely over culture and society, returning repeatedly to religion and religiously-tinged forms of hierarchy. Democracy in India, she argues forcefully, is always combined with different degrees of allegiance to tradition: "Identities of caste, religion, community and region often overpower broader-based loyalties to the nation state".

This is a good way of thinking about India's many contradictions and a prophylactic against the common assumption that most Indians share the liberal, secular principles enshrined in the nation's constitution. It's not the cosmopolitan, liberal and honest Jawaharlal Nehru who symbolises modern India for Misra but the entertaining and sometimes impressively efficient politician Laloo Prasad Yadav. Laloo may be regarded as a crooked buffoon by urban intellectuals but he is a hero to his caste and, increasingly, an exemplar of business skills to those US management schools that the children of Laloo's sophisticated critics would give an arm and a leg to get into.

Misra, however, generalises a bit too hastily. Perhaps Laloo does represent the future of Indian politics but the country is too diverse not to throw up other, very different kinds of politician. One interesting trend is the turn towards free enterprise by Marxists like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, chief minister of the once-moribund state of West Bengal. Formerly a valiant fighter for the proletarian revolution, he is now a champion of industrialisation and information technology. He even sends in policemen to shoot peasants protesting against their land being sold off to industrialists. You can't grasp the polymorphous perversity of Indian politics unless you contrast the Laloos with Comrade Bhattacharjee and other secular "reformers".

Also problematic is Misra's tendency to equate religion with Hinduism. True, it is the majority faith, but the Muslims of India, on whose pre-partition politics Misra writes quite splendidly, are still politically significant. Recent Muslim politics does not receive much attention from her.

Misra, however, is very good indeed on some cultural issues historians rarely deal with. Her passages on Indian English are masterly. With the growth of call centres and other ways of making money through the global language, more and more Indians are seeking to learn English. Most do so at unregulated private academies which teach "a mangled hybrid-tongue" which "will not help India in its long-term competition with China, the Philippines and much of South East Asia". This is spot on, but Misra does not contrast it with the vigorous and increasingly widespread cultivation of English literary writing in India and the resulting decline of the vernacular literatures.

The modern, liberal face of India, in short, simply does not interest Misra as much as it ought. Only a fool would deny the importance of religion in Indian life but the strength of secular and liberal trends should not be underestimated. The temples (and mosques) might remain crowded, but the computer labs, libraries, universities and research institutes are also filling up impressively. The coming years are likely to witness powerful contests between the two sides not only for political power, but for the very soul of the nation.

Misra could have done more to explain such divisions to her readers. Within its limits, however, Vishnu's Crowded Temple is a very readable work, packed with information, engagingly written and often bracingly maverick in its interpretations. It is not only worth reading, but worth arguing with. Just don't make it the only book you read on Indian history.

Chandak Sengoopta teaches history at Birkbeck College, London; he is writing a book on Satyajit Ray

Allen Lane £25 (536pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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