Coromandel: A Personal History of South India by Charles Allen - review by John Keay

John Keay

Due South

Coromandel: A Personal History of South India


Little, Brown 411pp £25 order from our bookshop

After some twenty books on India, Charles Allen says his latest will be his last. It certainly has a valedictory ring to it, with enough echoes of his earlier works to suggest a summation. In seeking to rehabilitate some scholarly but obscure British officials, Coromandel recalls Allen’s Plain Tales from the Raj (1975), a spin-off from a BBC radio series that may have been the only book on India ever to top the bestseller list. Kipling, the subject of two later books by Allen, also pops up. So does Ashoka, India’s benign ‘first emperor’, of whom Allen has written an impressive biography. All this comes with some settling of old scores. The late Edward Said’s critique of the ‘orientalism’ of Indologists riles Allen almost as much as the current Indian government’s promotion of ‘anti-history’, concocted in the populist dispensaries of Hindu nationalism. But, ever the gentleman, Allen administers reproof in the nicest possible way. ‘At the end of the day, dear reader, it is up to you to judge for yourself whether what I have written is more valid,’ he says.

Subtitled ‘A Personal History of South India’, Coromandel breaks new ground. Most histories of India salute the Sanskrit and Islamic cultures of north India’s Ganges plain, their narratives constructed around the empires – Maurya, Gupta, Mughal and so on – that flourished there. From this perspective, the extremities

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