Charles Allen, author of Ashoka, no more

Updated on Aug 18, 2020 08:10 AM IST
Charles Allen’s association with India went back generations. He was born in Kanpur in 1940, and authored several books, including Plain Tales from the Raj: Images of British India in the Twentieth Century and Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling.
Charles Allen during the making of the 2013 documentary ‘Bones of the Buddha’.(Photo Courtesy: Toby Sinclair)
Charles Allen during the making of the 2013 documentary ‘Bones of the Buddha’.(Photo Courtesy: Toby Sinclair)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByDhamini Ratnam

“I’m very conscious that I’m a writer of history, not a historian,” Charles Allen once said at a literary festival in India in 2015, while talking about his book Ashoka – the Search for India’s Lost Emperor, which had released in 2012. The work was well-received, and Allen travelled with it, speaking at panels, including the Jaipur Literary Festival, marveling often at the number of youngsters who had come to hear him speak about the Mauryan emperor who, over two millennia ago (from 270 to 233 BC), popularised Buddhism and respect for all sects and communities as a reformed ruler.

Allen’s books achieved a good deal of success, not only because they were written skillfully — reviewers across the world spoke highly of his ability to tell a story well — but also because they made history, and particularly history of the British in India, more accessible to readers.

Long-time associate Toby Sinclair, who worked with Allen on the documentary Bones of The Buddha in 2013, which was broadcast by National Geographic Channel said, “Charles talked about the many layers of Indian history and he walked the land he wrote about. Without giving too much prominence to the European rulers, Allen focused on the men or women in the field who studied India, be they local historians or British or European academics, interlinking different bits of information across a wide area of research. It was well written accessible history backed up by rigorous research.”

Nowhere was this more prominent than in the books on Buddha that Allen wrote. In 2002, The Buddha and the Sahibs, Allen wrote of James Princep, an assay master in the Calcutta Mint who helped decrypt the Brahmi Script of the third century BC, and of the legwork of members of the Asiatic Society who studied Ashoka’s edicts inscribed on slabs across the subcontinent. In The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer: An Archeological Scandal, which was published in 2008, Anton Fuhrer, an unscrupulous archeologist who trafficked in forged Buddhist relics, is part of the very title of the book. As a review of the 2012 book on Ashoka in the Guardian read, Allen was adept at putting back together such a vast academic jigsaw for the reader’s benefit.

Allen has been critiqued for not adequately acknowledging the study of the subcontinent’s natural and political history during the British rule as an exercise of colonial aggrandizement — an exercise that was brought into sharp focus with critical theorist Edward Said’s seminal work, Orientalism.

Yet, Allen was not a stranger to these criticisms. After all, in the same 2015 literary festival alluded to above, he went on to say, “We use that word history — we bandy it about too seriously. History is a minefield. It has always been used as propaganda. We have to look at it with an open mind.”

Allen’s association with India went back generations. He was born in Kanpur in 1940, and authored several books, including Plain Tales from the Raj: Images of British India in the Twentieth Century and Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling. He passed away at his home in England on August 16. He is survived by his children and his wife, Elizabeth.

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