Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, by Ramachandra Guha

I was reading this book for a Very Long Time -- since September 2020, to be exact -- and finally finished it a week or so ago. This is a unique case; I don’t believe I’ve ever spent nine months reading one book before. And it really was about nine months of reading one book, not "I read it for a week and put it down for a few months and then picked it up again, repeat until complete.” I put it aside for a few weeks to read Shadeslinger, and for a few days here and there to read a few other books. But for the most part, I read a few pages of India After Gandhi every day from September 2020 through May 2021.

So it’s not a book that pulled me along, where I felt compelled to keep reading and find out what happens next. But despite this (or maybe because of it), I love this book. It is fascinating and informative and packed full of interesting details.

I purchased it due to a confluence of factors:

  • It was on sale through Bookbub, for $1.99 -- a particularly deep discount for an ebook that normally retails at $14.99 (and is well worth $14.99, I might add)
  • It is a history of a non-Western country
  • Written by a native of that country
  • In English
  • With serious attention to scholarly detail
  • Intended for popular consumption

It is incredibly rare to stumble across a book that combines all of those last five features. I’m not saying they aren’t out there, but when I’ve looked for stuff like this, I’ve never found it before. So that was exciting.

The volume has citations for everything, and much of it is primary sources -- eg, “the author went to archives and read the original, unpublished correspondence of various historical figures.” It's this attention to detail that justifies the sticker price; it's a book that required years of research and diligent fact-checking. And it’s written in plain English rather than designed to impress other scholars, so it’s easy to understand. It’s thorough about the period that it covers, 1948-2016 (plus some background from 1947 and earlier), covering political, economic, military, and communal issues. So much of it is stuff I had no idea about. Like Indira Gandhi declared “The Emergency” in 1975 -- effectively martial law, where she cancelled elections -- and then actually ended it in 1977 to return India to democracy.

Much of it feels remarkably similar to American history in certain respects. India is a nation committed to religious freedom, and struggling with that commitment. Minority religious groups suffer from oppression and outbreaks of violence (on both sides, but the minorities get the worst of it.) India has indigenous populations that want to be self-governing, while India is determined to keep the nation united. India’s political dynasties are more obvious and powerful than America’s (the Indian National Congress has been headed by a member of the Nehru family pretty much since inception) -- but America has the Kennedys and the Bushes and the Clintons; it all feels familiar.

Other aspects are so foreign to my experience that I can’t help wondering why they’re so different. The Indian National Congress went from holding over 75% of seats in 1984 to holding under 30% in 1996. In the USA, we fight rabidly over a few percentage points one way or another. It’s all but impossible to imagine either of those majorities or minorities in my country -- much less for one party to go from one extreme to the other in just twelve years! I realize that some of it is because the USA’s particular electoral policies virtually guarantee a two-party system. But even so, the USA’s politics are so team-based that it’s hard to imagine us having 40%+ of the population that’s willing to switch to a new team. (I will be honest, I envy this fluidity).

Anyway, despite the length of time it took me to finish this book, I never wanted to quit. It is a fascinating glimpse into a part of the world I don’t know much about. I am glad that I read it, and a little sorry that I’ve finished it. Guha has written several other history books; I might just pick up another one.

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Tags: book review, books

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