India Uncut

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Sunday, February 27, 2005

The marriage of style and substance

I had linked earlier to a piece by Ramachandra Guha in which he lamented that Indian historians did not try hard enough to write for an audience broader than an academic one. (Guha modestly did not name himself as an exception, but he clearly is one.) Well, Rudrangshee Mukherjee weighs in on the subject in the Telegraph. He writes:
There is history-writing that is good and enjoyable to read; this appeals to anyone who cares to read and has interest in history. There is the other kind which is good history-writing because it is based on facts and their analysis but is boring to read. The latter kind puts off non-historians and is read by only those historians who have a specialists’ interest in the subject. Most Indian historians have contributed to the second category.

One reason for this is that most Indian historians write with a contempt for style. Style is supposed to demean analysis and take away from the scientific nature of the analysis. Books get written in a prose that is devoid of any style or literary quality. Overlaid on this is the temptation to fall back on jargon and cliché. In the days when economic history held sway, nothing could be written without reference to the “mode of production” leaving readers unfamiliar with the Marxist lexicon utterly bewildered. Mode of production was soon to be dethroned by hegemony. The influence of post-modernism has brought in the current favourites like discourse, trope, power and so on. These terms, convenient shorthand for complex ideas, are understood (or claimed to be understood!) by the cognoscenti but for the ordinary reader, not interested in history, they only serve to stop access by hindering comprehension. They are alienating devices.

Ramachandra Guha makes the suggestion that Indian historians are too timid and worry about the fact that their works, if available to a wider audience, might provoke sectarian violence. I would like to argue that the failure lies not in an absence of courage but in an inadequate appreciation of the role style and good prose play in making history-writing attractive and persuasive.

Mukherjee concludes: "Good prose is an aid, not a hindrance, to good analysis." Right on – or as a blogger should perhaps say, write on.
amit varma, 12:34 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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