Despite the received wisdom that almost any observation about India is as true as it is false, the pile of books attempting to ‘explain’ the country grows ever higher. But if generalisations about India are too big and specifics too small, what is left for a writer to write?
In Makers of Modern India, historian Ramachandra Guha has chosen to represent the country through a composite thought-map, taking quotations from eminent Indians on a variety of key issues, such as language, economics, gender relations, religious tolerance and civil governance. This does not tell us what India is currently like, but it does make clear what her finest minds wanted her to be. Guha maintains that great political thoughts appear at the birth of nations, at times of national crisis, and when political systems change. India has experienced all three of these epochal moments relatively recently, and the book records the effects they have had on nineteen writers, mostly politicians, who lived through them.
Guha has only supplied about a fifth of the text himself, much of it in the form of biographical notes, and he makes little attempt to analyse, criticise or expand the selected passages. His chosen authors are left