- Windows into the Past: Life Histories and the Historian of South Asia
Based on a series of lectures given at Notre Dame University, this slim volume endeavors to show how “varieties of life histories” can illuminate “key analytical themes” in the larger history of modern South Asia (3, 57). With this objective in view, Brown successively examines an Oxford college, the changing lives of several Indian families during the last century, and the lives—both “public” and “inner”—of two famous individuals, Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Of these accounts, all accessibly written, only the first, on Balliol, Brown’s own college, provides fresh material for the historian. Through an examination of the college registers, Brown demonstrates the overwhelming importance of Balliol for the working of the Raj. After 1853, Balliol supplied more graduates than any other educational institution for service in the Empire, including 273 members of the famed Indian Civil Service. Brown carefully delineates the enduring family connections and interlocking marriages that resulted, and how these “dynasties” sustained the values that underpinned the Empire (29).
In her second chapter, Brown argues that the “longitudinal” study of families can open a window into the lives of ordinary people as they responded to the social changes of their times. Much has been written in recent years about intergenerational change in Indian families, alike in India and among overseas migrants. In addition to the well-known story of the Nehru family, Brown cites the experiences of two of her female graduate students’ families. On the basis of this evidence, she suggests that women born near the end of World War I were of “critical significance” in establishing patterns for girls’ education and the career patterns of subsequent generations (47).
Chapters 3 and 4 move onto much more familiar ground. The life stories of Gandhi and of Nehru have been told endless times, not least by Brown herself. It is incontestable that, as she argues, through the life histories of these two men, “we can study the contentious business of creating a national identity and a nationalist movement” (71). Though it is helpful to have the careers of Gandhi and of Nehru set side by side, the scholarly reader learns nothing that he or she did not already know. But [End Page 500] Brown clearly has a different agenda and a different set of readers in view. She insists that professional historians must find a way to “speak to people of other disciplines and people outside academia.” In her view, the “inclusive genre” of life histories, as compared with “self-enclosed” scholarly writing or the narrative telling of a single life, may be an effective way of providing “serious historical analysis” to “a larger and historically hungry public” (5, 54). Whether the publication of lectures such as hers is able to advance this goal can be questioned. But surely a style of interdisciplinary history much needed is that which bridges the popular and the professional. [End Page 501]