This should have been a slimmer book, or two different books. Sugata Bose is a respected historian and academic, now Professor (on leave) from Harvard University. He is the author of several books and papers.
There is no objective truth about history. Perceptions are a function of the subjective prism one uses. That’s the nature of the discipline (as with other social sciences) and historians have differing points of view.
It is possible to appreciate Sugata Bose’s work on agrarian Bengal or trade along the Indian Ocean, without necessarily agreeing with everything. The blurb on the jacket describes Sugata Bose as a historian and an academic.
This book is a motley collection. It has five papers (all published earlier), one lecture (due to be separately published), two newspaper articles, two book reviews and six Lok Sabha speeches. There are books and books. Rarely do academic-style papers mesh well with newspaper columns. Sugata Bose has a coherent view on nationalism, perceptions of the nation as a mother, Aurobindo’s thought, colonial perspectives and so on. Therefore, despite being published earlier, those five papers are scholarly and make for good reading.
A decent book consisting of academic-style papers requires something between 12-15 papers. At best, one can throw in a lecture (the B R Nanda one, on unity and partition and Mahatma Gandhi). Thus, Sugata Bose only had six papers worth publishing in that style of book and I think he should simply have waited until he had accumulated enough.
Professor Bose doesn’t urgently need more books for his resume. Alternatively, newspaper columns can also make for good books, as long as they retain topicality. Unfortunately, there were only two of these. And unless they are review essays, book reviews simply don’t belong. The blurb doesn’t mention that Sugata Bose has been a Trinamool Congress MP since 2014, though the Lok Sabha speeches wouldn’t have figured otherwise.
The Introduction states, “From 2014 to 2017 I have had the rather unusual anthropological experience of being a participant-observer in the maelstroms of India’s democratic politics as a member of the Lok Sabha representing the Jadavpur parliamentary constituency…. Speaking in the Lok Sabha often felt like teaching an MOOC, or a Massive Open Online Course.”
“Anthropological” and “teaching” are expressions that have a touch of supercilious disdain about them. Rarely, there are books consisting of excellent speeches delivered by Parliamentarians. The six Lok Sabha speeches included are not in that class.
In any event, Lok Sabha speeches do not belong in a book that has a different kind of core. What was the rush to bring out this motley collection? Perhaps the Introduction offers a clue. “These efforts to rescue nationalism from the chauvinists and religion from the religious bigots seemed to find some resonance even if it is not clear whether the plea for cultural intimacy among India’s diverse communities will succeed in the current atmosphere of unreason and inhumanity.”
The core of the book is academic and these are an academic’s words and language. Indeed, the language is a bit too academic. But this illustrates why this book falls between two stools. An academic has been hijacked by a political party’s agenda and therefore published a hastily-produced book.
Should you read the book? The answer depends on which face of Janus you possess. The academic will like the first part, though the aware academic will already have read these papers. The Trinamool MP, MLA or supporter will love the second part.
In fairness, I should tell you there is a laudatory quote from Amartya Sen, describing this book as “a wonderful vision for a better and united India based on insightful historical analysis”. And yes, a Bengali will appreciate some of the nuances better.