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‘I’m not a post-colonial imperialist’

The old India hand on what draws him here. Amitava Sanyal writes.

books Updated: Jan 22, 2012 19:21 IST
Amitava Sanyal, Hindustan Times, amitava.sanyal@hi

It’s not everyday that you see a distinguished-looking gentleman walk in with a bottle of beer in one hand and a bidi in the other. Ignoring the style becomes even harder when the person is John Keay, the 70-year-old Scottish history writer whose books on the English East India Company (The Honourable Company) and the Trigonometric Survey of India (The Great Arc) are as popular in this part of the world as at his home. “I go to bidi wholesalers whenever I am in India,” says Keay, whose love affair with India started in 1966 when he came for a bout of trout-fishing in Kashmir. “I buy several bundles and deepfreeze them for later… It’s also about support for a dying industry,” he adds.

Most of Keay’s dozen-plus books are about the Indian subcontinent. He left his correspondent’s job to write his first, Into India. His next, scheduled for publication in 2013, is going to be about a modern history of South Asia starting from the Cabinet Mission of 1946 and centering around the events of 1947.

How has he seen the people’s attitude towards the State change in the subcontinent over his four-decade-long travels to the region? “When your football team is doing well, you wouldn’t mind buying even a £ 500 (about R40,000) season ticket. You would support your manager. But when it isn’t doing so well, as is happening in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal, you tend to be more critical of the State, which by itself is behaving in a cavalier way.”

How has such an attitude evolved near the Line of Control in Kashmir? “Thirty-forty years ago, the people in Azad Kashmir were generally very happy with the government in Islamabad. Now they are not so enamoured,” says the author of The Gilgit Game: The Explorers of the Western Himalayas, 1865-95.

Given that several of his books have dealt at length on the very colonial projects of mapping India, surveying its archeology, history and its ethnicities, has his interests have moved mostly within the British empire? “I am certainly not a post-colonial imperialist. Yes, some later historians have seen a sense of imperial acquisitiveness in such efforts. But such surveys were also a hangover from 18th century Enlightenment, which inspired studies about men and his surroundings."

What keeps his coming back to the region? “Someone recently asked me about love. For me, my love for India defines it. What else can explain why I keep coming back?”

First Published: Jan 22, 2012 19:21 IST