The Shortest History of India by John Zubrzycki

ByLamat R Hasan
Sep 24, 2022 02:18 PM IST

Australian writer John Zubrzycki’s attempt to condense 5,000 years of India’s tense history into less than 300 pages, without compromising on information or missing out on the nuances of its complex social makeup, is astounding

Australian writer John Zubrzycki’s attempt to condense 5,000 years of India’s tense history into less than 300 pages, without compromising on information or missing out on the nuances of its complex social makeup, is astounding. With remarkable ease, Zubrzycki presents tedious historical facts of this “mystical and magical land”, making this book a compelling and delightful read for all age groups.

An engraved illustration of Indian snake charmers in an edition of Le Magasin Pittoresque, 1875. (Shutterstock)
An engraved illustration of Indian snake charmers in an edition of Le Magasin Pittoresque, 1875. (Shutterstock)

Zubrzycki’s intelligently laid out crash course in Indian history has an intense visual appeal. He effortlessly brings to life ancient civilisations and famed dynasties, taking readers on a roller-coaster ride spanning five millennia. He tackles all the relevant questions: Who were the earliest Indians? How has religion shaped Indian history? What were India’s major empires? And, most importantly, what is the future of India’s democracy?

277pp, ₹455; Pan Macmillan
277pp, ₹455; Pan Macmillan

In his introduction to the book, he quotes from Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India to convey the idea of India and how difficult it was for Zubrzycki to present this land of contradictions: “She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.”

The first “mythical” description of India by a foreign traveller was beyond bizarre. Megasthenes (C 350-290 BCE), who was sent by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, absorbed and presented earlier legends - such as men without mouths who could survive on nothing but the smell of roasted meat and the perfume of fruit and flowers, and had ears so large they could wrap themselves in them.

Even as late as 1833, much after the British had colonised India, it was peddled as a land of snake charmers. Zubrzycki includes a photograph in this book, originally published in an English magazine, to bust the stigmatisation of India as a land of “superstitious heathens”.

Although India still hasn’t entirely shed its snake-charmer image, it has come a long way at least from how Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, described it. Zubrzycki quotes from the Baburnama: “There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry. There are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, musk-melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or cooked food in the bazaars, no hot-baths, no colleges, no candles, torches or candlesticks.”

Zubrzycki dedicates a section to the earliest Indians, who they were and where they came from. He points out that DNA testing of ancient burial sites has confirmed that Indians did not hail from a single Aryan invasion, and, therefore, there is no pure group or race to which they can stake a claim. There were waves of migrations, bringing diverse indigenous cultures into the Aryan fold.

Hindu nationalist historians see this as heretical, he writes: “For many in the right-wing the idea that they came to India from elsewhere is unacceptable because it would dethrone Sanskrit and the Vedas as the singular and fundamental source of Indian culture, as it would mean that the mighty Harappan civilisation that has left an indelible impression on Indian history and culture would have preceded their arrival.”

He also underlines the fact that the aim of Muslim invaders was to seize treasures and undermine the political authority of local rulers – rather than destroy temples per se. Muslim rulers were presented as destructive and despotic by the British to justify their own violent corporate coup and to present themselves as benevolent rulers.

It was the governor of Bombay, Mountstuart Elphinstone, “who pressed for reforms declaring Divide et impure”, which led to the divide and rule policy and the eventual partition of the subcontinent.

After being given the cold shoulder by the earlier Mughal rulers, it was Emperor Jahangir who gave in to the tempting offer of the East India Company of making him the “lord of the seas”. Muslim pilgrims travelling to Mecca for Haj had to earlier rely on the Portuguese, who issued them passports, and stamped it with idolatrous images. If Jahangir gave them the permit, this would change, he was promised.

What the readers will find especially fascinating are the asides, the little-known historical facts, which are usually omitted in conventional history books. These include the story of the invention of chess in the Gupta period. A four-player war game called chaturanga, a Sanskrit word meaning “four limbs”, had evolved, by the seventh century, into a two-player game recognisable as today’s chess. The Kohinoor diamond, when it was gifted to Queen Victoria, was worth two-and-a-half days of food for the whole world. The East India Company, which shut down in 1874, was relaunched in 2010 as a luxury foodstuff brand in London. The French physician Francois Bernier upon seeing the Taj Mahal in 1648 was adamant that it was much more deserving to be counted as one of the wonders of the world than the pyramids of Egypt.

Author John Zubrzycki (Courtesy the publisher)
Author John Zubrzycki (Courtesy the publisher)

Zubrzycki specialises in South Asia, in particular India, and his grasp of the country’s current political landscape is on the mark. In the last chapter, he sums up the BJP’s intentions of righting the wrongs of the past - histories and school curriculums are being rewritten, and critics of the party, both domestic and foreign, are firmly in its sights.

He is candid in his critique of India, once touted as a role model for the world. Its political, social, and religious tensions are, he believes, now damaging its reputation of being a secular and democratic country.

Yet, he is hopeful. “If India’s billion-plus citizens are given the chance to achieve their full potential, its greatest moments are yet to come,” he offers.

Zubrzycki is best known for The House of Jaipur: The Inside Story of India’s Most Glamorous Royal Family, Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic, Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India, and The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback.

The Shortest History of India has been published in India, the UK, and the US with translations into multiple languages. I recommend it highly to anyone trying to understand India’s colossal and chaotic history, its linguistic and cultural frameworks, its extremes of wealth and poverty, and its clutter of religions and rituals.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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