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John Keay's India: A History is a probing and provocative chronicle of five thousand years of South Asian history, from the first Harrapan settlements on the banks of the Indus River to the recent nuclear-arms race. In a tour de force of narrative history, Keay blends together insights from a variety of scholarly fields and weaves them together to chart the evolution of th John Keay's India: A History is a probing and provocative chronicle of five thousand years of South Asian history, from the first Harrapan settlements on the banks of the Indus River to the recent nuclear-arms race. In a tour de force of narrative history, Keay blends together insights from a variety of scholarly fields and weaves them together to chart the evolution of the rich tapestry of cultures, religions, and peoples that makes up the modern nations of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Authoritative and eminently readable, India: A History is a compelling epic portrait of one of the world's oldest and most richly diverse civilizations.


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John Keay's India: A History is a probing and provocative chronicle of five thousand years of South Asian history, from the first Harrapan settlements on the banks of the Indus River to the recent nuclear-arms race. In a tour de force of narrative history, Keay blends together insights from a variety of scholarly fields and weaves them together to chart the evolution of th John Keay's India: A History is a probing and provocative chronicle of five thousand years of South Asian history, from the first Harrapan settlements on the banks of the Indus River to the recent nuclear-arms race. In a tour de force of narrative history, Keay blends together insights from a variety of scholarly fields and weaves them together to chart the evolution of the rich tapestry of cultures, religions, and peoples that makes up the modern nations of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Authoritative and eminently readable, India: A History is a compelling epic portrait of one of the world's oldest and most richly diverse civilizations.

30 review for India: A History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    “If time is the locomotion of history, place could be the gradient against which it is pitted. Dynamic, the one hurtles forward; inert, the other holds it back. Not for nothing are unspoilt landscapes invariably billed as ‘timeless.’ Boarding at random an overnight train, and awakening twelve hours later to a cup of sweet brown tea and a dawn of dun-grey fields, the traveler – even the Indian traveler – may have difficulty in immediately identifying his whereabouts. India’s countryside is surpri “If time is the locomotion of history, place could be the gradient against which it is pitted. Dynamic, the one hurtles forward; inert, the other holds it back. Not for nothing are unspoilt landscapes invariably billed as ‘timeless.’ Boarding at random an overnight train, and awakening twelve hours later to a cup of sweet brown tea and a dawn of dun-grey fields, the traveler – even the Indian traveler – may have difficulty in immediately identifying his whereabouts. India’s countryside is surprisingly uniform. It is also mostly flat. A distant hill serves only to emphasize its flatness. Distinctive features are lacking; the same mauve-flowered convolvulus straggles shamelessly on trackside wasteland and the same sleek drongos – long-tailed blackbirds – festoon the telegraph wires like a musical annotation. It could be Bihar or it could be Karnataka, equally it could be Bengal or Gujarat. Major continental gradations, like west Africa’s strata of Sahara, sahel and forest or the North American progression from plains to deserts to mountain divide, do not apply…There are, of course, exceptions; in India there are always exceptions, mostly big ones. The Himalayas, the most prominent feature on the face of the earth, grandly shield the subcontinent from the rest of Asia; likewise the Western Ghats form a long and craggy rampart against the Arabian Sea. Both are very much part of India, the Himalayas as the abode of its gods, the Ghats as the homeland of the martial Marathas, and both as the source of most of India’s rivers…” - John Keay, India: A History In choosing to write a single volume about the whole of India, John Keay certainly cannot be faulted for lack of ambition. The scope of India: A History, is breathtaking, covering a five-thousand year span in the existence of a massive landmass full of diverse peoples, cultures, and religions, controlled by various competing and overlapping rulers, and which today comprises three separate nations. The challenge Keay faced is enormous and his task is – in a way – impossible to execute perfectly. Any single chapter could itself be a long and complex book. Even though Keay exerts a great deal of selectivity in his coverage of individual topics, there are still moments when India is overwhelming, and I found myself lost in the weeds of unfamiliar dynasties in unfamiliar regions, and just trying to hold on as he bounces briskly around the subcontinent. For the most part, though, Keay does an exceptional job of presenting an overview of not only India, but Pakistan and Bangladesh as well. In this he is aided by a solid structure, strong writing, and a multitude of maps, charts, and tables, that keep you spatially oriented and up-to-date on the lineal succession of various dynasties. *** India is presented chronologically, beginning three-thousand years before the common era. There are no thematic cutaways, meaning – for instance – no independent chapters covering religion or art or literature. Instead, each chapter is devoted to a discrete period, with the dates helpfully provided at the top of each page. It’s a simple thing, but doing this provides a nice little roadmap. In the early going – as he teases out the mysteries of the Harappan Civilization, or discusses the spread of the Vedic religion – Keay spends much of his time sifting through the available evidence, and providing a synthesis of the work of other historians. While he would have been forgiven for spending the bulk of this work on more recent years, he does not stint on the age of antiquity. To the contrary, Keay really seems to enjoy it. There is a lot of analysis given to the smallest clues that shed pinpoints of light on the ancient past. Looking back so far requires a lot of speculation, and the projection of meaning onto incomplete data. As a person who connects with history most immediately through other lives, these initial chapters were sometimes a bit of a slog, since there is no character around which to build a narrative. Instead, Keay resorts to architectural remains, fragments of surviving literature, and close scrutiny of really old coins. As we move along the timeline, however, names and personalities begin to emerge, and the story becomes more engaging on a human level. The pace really picks up around the time of the Mughal invasion, and in Keay’s account of the great emperors who held dominion until the arrival of the British. *** As India progresses, and as the spring of sources really begins to flow, Keay tightens his focus. Whereas earlier in the book he discussed monuments and temples, economics, religion, and culture, he eventually devotes most of his coverage to politics. This is a concession to the reality that it would be impossible to merely list all the subtopics and themes connected to his subject, much less give them their due. Unfortunately, this means that potentially fruitful avenues of inquiry are ignored. I had numerous questions going into this book, and many of them did not get answered. For example, I never really got a good sense of the arc of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims, a relationship that turned decidedly sour at the time of the Partition. Additionally, Keay takes such a broad view that critical moments – such as the Indian Rebellion of 1857 – are discussed abstractedly, rather than presented as a linear set piece. Again, I don’t hold this against Keay. To open this book is to accept the inherent limitations of a single volume history. *** A note on the most current edition: When it was first published in 2000, India ended at the turn of the twenty-first century. In the revised and expanded edition I read, though, Keay has added three new chapters, while reworking two others, all of which brings the tale to 2010. While obviously not up-to-the-minute, it provides supplementary context for a vital and ever-changing section of the world. *** Not surprisingly – and despite the elisions – trying to summarize five busy millennia requires a big book. Specifically, it requires just over 600 pages of text. Thankfully, India is made more digestible by Keay’s style. He is not simply here to dump information, or to put events into sequence, but to relay it artfully, in prose that is by turns descriptive, incisive, and generally graceful. Keay takes pains to maintain an objective balance, and look at things from different perspectives, which is important, because from the Raj to Partition to today, there are a lot of competing voices. *** There are no shortage of reasons to study India. At the most basic level, there is endless drama to be found in its thousands of years of existence, in its glories and tragedies, its setbacks and triumphs, from wars and famines and colonization to independence and nationhood. At a more immediate level, the Republic of India occupies a critical geopolitical position. It is the second most populous nation in the world, is armed with nuclear weapons, and is a democracy. As the twenty-first century bends towards totalitarian regimes, it will be interesting to see what kind of moral force it will exert.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Randol Hooper

    I purchased this book looking for a good survey of Indian history. I have a degree in history and I am perfectly familiar with the heavy, ratkilling monograph. I am in no way intimidated by them and sat down to tackle Keay's work like I would any other such book. The book wouldn't let me. One comes to expect certain things of a historical survey. That is what this book purports to be. I expect to see chronology, events follow in sequence as best as possible. I don't expect, for example, to be read I purchased this book looking for a good survey of Indian history. I have a degree in history and I am perfectly familiar with the heavy, ratkilling monograph. I am in no way intimidated by them and sat down to tackle Keay's work like I would any other such book. The book wouldn't let me. One comes to expect certain things of a historical survey. That is what this book purports to be. I expect to see chronology, events follow in sequence as best as possible. I don't expect, for example, to be reading about Chandragupta and get treated three pages of stories about 18th century orientalists followed by a paragraph about Chandragupta followed by another two pages about some 20th century historian wandering around Pune with a stick. In the introduction Keay states that he is not a historian. I believe him wholeheartedly. He does not respect chronology. He speculates without explaining his line of reasoning. His writing is stream of consciousness and he makes no effort to restrain himself from banging out on a keyboard whatever is popping into his head. PIck a page out of a chapter heading and there's about a 50-50 chance that what's on that page has something to do with the subject it's filed under. The writing is also stilted. It doesn't flow naturally. I get the impression Keay is trying to impress us with his mastery of the written language but all he does is take 30 words to write something that could be written in 10. I've done some more digging now that I've dumped this book off at Goodwill to be inflicted on some poor unsuspecting soul. If you want a decent survey of India's vast history look at college syllabi on the subject. I scavenged a few used copies of books that were required reading in college level history classes and they are all much, much better than what I found from Keay. I can recommend so far A History of India by Kulke and Rothermund, the identically titled A History of India by Stein, A New History of India by Stanley Wolpert or A Concise History of Modern India by Barbara Metcalf. Either of these books are a far better survey of the subject than Keay's Book. Now that I think about it, Cartoon History of the Universe II, Vol. 8-13: From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome does a better job of discussing India's early history that Keay did.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    Before reading this book, if somebody had asked me how much I knew about the history of India, I would have responded “very little.” Now I know that even that answer would have been optimistic. Though I normally like to consider myself an informed, educated, well-rounded person, the reality was that one of the largest and most populous countries in the world—a place with a deep history and a rich culture—was virtually unknown to me, aside from a few common clichés. It is amazing how ignorant one Before reading this book, if somebody had asked me how much I knew about the history of India, I would have responded “very little.” Now I know that even that answer would have been optimistic. Though I normally like to consider myself an informed, educated, well-rounded person, the reality was that one of the largest and most populous countries in the world—a place with a deep history and a rich culture—was virtually unknown to me, aside from a few common clichés. It is amazing how ignorant one can be without ever suspecting it. That I can now at least tell Nehru from Chandragupta is thanks to this book. I must extend my deepest gratitude, then, to John Keay for helping me out of the pit of darkness. Even so, I am afraid that much of what I have to say about this book is negative. Keay notes in the introduction that histories of India have suffered from an overemphasis on culture, art, philosophy, or religion, rather than a chronological history of political events. This may have been true, but for my part Keay’s treatment is an overcorrection. This book is almost exclusively focused on who ruled when, how much territory, for how many years, and how he (most are men) came to power (or lost it). This makes for some fairly dry reading. In a book of this modest length, the result is a parade of names who briefly strut across the stage, and then are heard no more. I would also argue that such a treatment is neither more accurate nor more insightful than the approaches he decries. What justification is there, for example, to cover dozens of fairly minor rulers without once mentioning Aryabhata, the pioneering Indian mathematician and astronomer? After all, Isaac Newton has had a more decisive effect on history than William of Orange. Keay’s writing also leaves a lot to be desired. Not that he is inarticulate. Indeed, his style can be quite enjoyable. What he lacks is the ability to weave his sentences into a satisfying whole. One might even say that he writes badly in good prose. Perhaps because Keay knows his subject too well, he always seems to be narrating in medias res, plunging into a flurry of names and places without giving the reader a larger context to latch onto. Admittedly my own ignorance added to the confusion; but I do not see the value in a single-volume history of India if it presumes familiarity with the subject. Where is the student to start? As evidence, I submit this entirely typical passage: From Ghazni the Ghorid had first turned his attention to Sind, routing the restored Ismaili ruler of Multan and eventually pushing down the Indus to Mansurah and Debal. He had thence attempted to attack the Solankis of Gujarat by crossing the Thar desert in imitation of Mahmud’s raid on Somnath. If this section came after a careful setup, perhaps it would be enjoyable; but when every page is written this way, then the neophyte is hopelessly lost. Keay does deserve our sympathy, as any single-volume history of virtually any country will fall short. There is simply too much to cover. Nevertheless, I think Keay’s chronological approach, and his near-exclusive focus on political history, does not do any favors for the curious outsider. I spent a good deal of time on internet searches, and even decided to supplement this book with Michael Wood’s BBC series on India. Still I was frequently lost. But at the very least, I can now truthfully say I know “very little” about the history of India. That is progress.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Tom Nixon

    How do you boil down thousands of years of civilization, empires, kingdoms and conquests too numerous to mention here into one book? I haven't the faintest idea how he manages to pull it off, but in India, A History John Keay does exactly that- and more to the point, does it extremely well. This book represents the best one volume answer to everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. Starting with the earliest civilizations (the Harrapans of the Indus Valley) and wendi How do you boil down thousands of years of civilization, empires, kingdoms and conquests too numerous to mention here into one book? I haven't the faintest idea how he manages to pull it off, but in India, A History John Keay does exactly that- and more to the point, does it extremely well. This book represents the best one volume answer to everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. Starting with the earliest civilizations (the Harrapans of the Indus Valley) and wending and winding its way through to the present day, Keay takes the reader by the hand and does his best not to put you into a coma, though he doesn't necessarily succeed at that for the entire book. So yeah, as a history book, this wasn't bad. I've read, seen and heard about plenty worse- dry, dusty and academic to the point of putting the reader into catatonia, but this, thankfully isn't one of those books. Keay is sufficiently engaged and enthusiastic about his subject matter that his enthusiasm is translated to the reader and you actually want to get to more juicy bits when you're stuck between empires. I guess the obvious question to ask when reading volumes of history is a simple one: did you learn anything? Happily, I can report that with this volume, I learned- a lot. There's a lot more to India than Bollywood movies, curry and catching 'Gandhi' on AMC's Oscar month- much, much more and Keay's real strength lies not in illuminating or saying new things about the Mughal Period or the British Conquest, but filling in the wide gaps of well, my general knowledge about what came before. Empires like the Mauryans, the Cholas (who spread into the SE Asia) and the Guptas with their gold- or even more recent Empires like Vijayanagar in the South were all completely unknown to me, so I learned more than I could possibly want to know- all in one volume. If Keay does have a fault, well, it's that this book is 500 pages long. Comprehensive, yes, but difficult to read all at once- in fact, I can say that about the next three books I've been reading (including this one)- which is why it's taken me so long to read them. I just couldn't concentrate on this book for an extended period of time and read it all at once- I'd just slip into a coma if I tried. But, slowly but surely- with the right amount of breaks in between, you can get through this book, be entertained, be informed and learn a heckuva lot. Another fault for Keay: the closer it gets to the present, the less detail Keay offers. To be totally fair, he is trying his best to put the entire history of India into one volume- not an easy feat, so you're probably going to lose something along the way, but the fight for independence and certainly the disaster of Partition and the ramifications of that throughout the past century weren't given the analysis they truly deserve- especially given the magnitude of the disaster of Partition, it's hard to think of another disaster, man-made or otherwise that has impacted the sub-continent so much, even after thousands of years of civilization and history. Overall: Believe it or not, Keay manages to credibly achieve the near impossible and put the history of this magnificent country into a single volume. If you need to learn about India, rest assured that Keay provides a remarkably clear-eyed view (as free as you can be of Western, colonialist or culturalist biases) of the incredible complexity and succession of kingdoms, empires and civilization that have risen and fallen throughout the history of India and the rest of South Asia.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Brian Griffith

    Keay's history is incredibly detailed, with so much that was new to me that I felt like a complete ignoramus. It's also a very disciplined, focused history. Keay shuns speculative reflection, sticks to the available evidence, orders things chronologically, and focuses on matters of governance far more than on culture or ecology. This means he has fairly little to say concerning the epic pre-Maurya past, but gives massive detail on the political life of all major historic administrations. Althoug Keay's history is incredibly detailed, with so much that was new to me that I felt like a complete ignoramus. It's also a very disciplined, focused history. Keay shuns speculative reflection, sticks to the available evidence, orders things chronologically, and focuses on matters of governance far more than on culture or ecology. This means he has fairly little to say concerning the epic pre-Maurya past, but gives massive detail on the political life of all major historic administrations. Although the writing often shows a masterful touch of dry wit, it can be so fact-oriented as to be literalistic, as in the explanation that the difference between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhists was that the Hinayana sect regarded the Buddha as a teacher, while the Mahayana sect deified him as a god. In treating the history of post-independence India, Keay gives a more wide-ranging, reflective series of essays. Also, the book does not narrow it's focus with partition to India alone. Instead, the post-partition states of Pakistan and Bangladesh share equivalent attention. Save for the omission of Sri Lanka, the book could easily be called "South Asia: A History." Concerning the modern rise of ethnic exclusivity and cultural supremacism, Keay waxes deeply pessimistic. He documents the horrors of this trend unstintingly, and only pulls up for a hopeful ending in the last few pages.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Dmitri

    John Keay points out in his introduction that given the lack of early source materials and the specialist nature of recent discoveries a current overview is needed for Indian history prior to the 13th century. If a generalist approach is needed Keay is a very likely writer to provide it. His study of India over the past fifty years and an eloquent writing style add a shine to this work that other more academic renderings have failed to achieve. Despite concerns about the survey format it is a wo John Keay points out in his introduction that given the lack of early source materials and the specialist nature of recent discoveries a current overview is needed for Indian history prior to the 13th century. If a generalist approach is needed Keay is a very likely writer to provide it. His study of India over the past fifty years and an eloquent writing style add a shine to this work that other more academic renderings have failed to achieve. Despite concerns about the survey format it is a worthwhile place to start. Many prior histories of ancient India have emphasized culture and religion due to the absence of primary sources for early political and military events. Keay amalgamates a narrative from the disciplines of archaeology, architecture, art, numismatics and philology. Rather than a reconstruction based only on written material he uses India's monuments as a portal to the past. The book has an added dimension in its account of the discovery process of Indian history that began in the past several centuries. For the most part Keay is successful in his goals. He delivers a straight forward chronological account with much topical material integrated into the story line. The ancient through classical part of the book spans half of the 500 page text. I would probably look elsewhere for the later history of India. For the medieval era through the Mughals there are other choices but they are not great. In the modern period Jon Wilson and Ramachandra Guha may suffice. This is a good choice as an introduction to the early history. In the first ten chapters Keay covers the Harappa, Aryan, Maurya, Gupta, Chalukya, Chola, Pallava and Pandyan periods up to the Islamic conquest of 1206. He weighs the various theories of invasions, migrations and miscegenation debated since Sir William Jones found common roots in Sanskrit and English. Undaunted by fraught origin topics he views Aryans as nomadic migrants who owed much to the settled locals. Europe's medieval city-states yield a useful comparison with later Deccan dynasties. The next five chapters deal with the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire. Keay traverses the historical minefields of Muslim invasions and temple destruction emerging mostly unscathed. Five more chapters cover East India Company rule, the Raj and onward towards the Partition, another political third rail. A lot of Keay's writings focuse on the colonial period but they do not reveal him to be particularly anglocentric. He finishes five millennia standing on two feet, sustained by an abiding love for India.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Scott Ray

    Ok....so it has been on my wall for a year and I still have only read 1/2. I am officially giving up. I will probably continue to read parts on and off but this book is too encompassing. India is far to eclectic to try and cover it's thousands of years of history for all parts into one book. The south and the north have very different histories. The rise and fall of kingdoms to be covered in one book comes across very rushed and hard to follow. I would find it much more beneficial to pick an area Ok....so it has been on my wall for a year and I still have only read 1/2. I am officially giving up. I will probably continue to read parts on and off but this book is too encompassing. India is far to eclectic to try and cover it's thousands of years of history for all parts into one book. The south and the north have very different histories. The rise and fall of kingdoms to be covered in one book comes across very rushed and hard to follow. I would find it much more beneficial to pick an area and to pick a time period and then read on that so that you understand it better. For example reading about the British Raj and the Freedom movement that followed or the Moghul Rulers. Otherwise it feels like you will never grasp it. It does give you a glimpse at the country as a whole and makes you understand many of the issues that are still around today.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Katia N

    Without particular prior knowledge, I wanted to get an overview of the history of India. And this book was very effective for my purposes. It encompasses around 5000 years of Indian history and it does not focus more on the later periods, which was an asset for me. Obviously, it is not comprehensive, but it is cohesive and contains a lot of interesting nuggets of information, especially about the older periods where there was no written evidence per se. In the later periods, I would prefer more Without particular prior knowledge, I wanted to get an overview of the history of India. And this book was very effective for my purposes. It encompasses around 5000 years of Indian history and it does not focus more on the later periods, which was an asset for me. Obviously, it is not comprehensive, but it is cohesive and contains a lot of interesting nuggets of information, especially about the older periods where there was no written evidence per se. In the later periods, I would prefer more cultural history rather than the focus on politics with numerous names of leaders and the wars. But any book of such scope would have potential limitations. I've learned a lot about the interactions between the Muslims who has started to arrive in significant quantities in the 11th century and the people who lived on the subcontinent before that. At that time, the book claims, more of the Muslims arrived as refugees than the conquerors. They also brought paper and probably the spinning will into India. The period of British colonisation would probably be controversial whatever a writer does. I felt in some parts (not always) slightly like the Indian people colonised themselves. And East Indian company just appeared to be there and did not have a choice in the matter but to start to govern the region. Which i seriously doubt. However, I've read some reviews, and they are angry with the author for underplaying the positive role of British Empire and mentioning only negatives. So here we go. Overall, I think the book at least tried to be balanced. However, if someone is interested in this particular period, I would search for a different book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Manas Gupta

    Keay's India: A History is an insightful book. Insight into the past of the vast Indian subcontinent. To pack 5000 years of diffusive and tumultous history into 650 pages seems unattainable but Keay manages to do it, and impressively. Keay's meticulousness and resourcefulness are quite evident in the book. Referenced from many excellent sources - old and new; western and indian - it is extremely informative and fluent. It's like an old wise man sitting beside you and recounting what all he ha Keay's India: A History is an insightful book. Insight into the past of the vast Indian subcontinent. To pack 5000 years of diffusive and tumultous history into 650 pages seems unattainable but Keay manages to do it, and impressively. Keay's meticulousness and resourcefulness are quite evident in the book. Referenced from many excellent sources - old and new; western and indian - it is extremely informative and fluent. It's like an old wise man sitting beside you and recounting what all he has seen through his eyes and heard through his ears since the last 5000 years. And you want to thank this man for such an impartial account of history. Keay has tried to give an honest interpretation, it seems, of the historical events which had betrayal and submission; battles and alliances; extravangaza and indigence; valiance and cowardice; development and destruction; death and resurrection; conquest and loss. Maps, charts and timelines helped me get a better understanding of the battle sites, the area of the empires and all the other ssignificant sites in the ancient, medieval and modern history. Since I've read a more detailed account of India after 1947, the last chapters in Keay's book were a mere formality for me but for someone who is not familiar and has not read anything about modern Indian History, this presents itself as a formidable source of information and enlightenment.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ozymandias

    Deciphering India’s history is a muddle. I’ve read a lor of history about poorly documented places. The Ancient World overall is spotty in documentation and leaves out a lot of everyday things we’d expect in a history. And places like Persia, whose history was mostly written by outsiders, pose particularly interesting challenges. But Persia’s got nothing on India. Indian history is like having six or seven Persias all intertwined with each other with the sources written by distant foreigners who Deciphering India’s history is a muddle. I’ve read a lor of history about poorly documented places. The Ancient World overall is spotty in documentation and leaves out a lot of everyday things we’d expect in a history. And places like Persia, whose history was mostly written by outsiders, pose particularly interesting challenges. But Persia’s got nothing on India. Indian history is like having six or seven Persias all intertwined with each other with the sources written by distant foreigners who aren’t even intending to write history or else by later Indian sources based on centuries of confused and half-remembered oral memory and which can’t state for sure which state or era it’s even talking about. In short: an absolute mess that’s pretty intimidating for the outsider. So it’s a real relief to read this guide by John Keay that lays out Indian history in as clear a manner as it can be. Given the source problems, most historians tend to focus on social, religious, or linguistic matters, which are better documented, but this is a political history seeking to explain how the myriad dynasties scattered across India actually fit into chronological order. This is particularly important in the earlier sections where all is very vague. The maps are a particular standout. There’s about one per chapter and they focus on specific locations of relevance to the discussion. Given all the unfamiliar names and regional variety this is essential to have the faintest clue what’s going on. The book has a string of useful diagrams as well, especially the dynastic lists. Such resources make following along easy. Given the nature of the challenge the book is often unsatisfactory. While it speaks with great clarity towards the better documented end, the early sections often have to admit just how tenuous these historical threads are. At times the narrative focus switches towards the discovery of artifacts that illuminate the era (always an interesting storytelling tool) or else take us on meandering sidestories. At times he can even fall for that old chestnut of throwing unfamiliar names at you as if you should be familiar with them. Particularly locations. It’s rather unfortunate that simplifying a difficult civilization for a popular audience can at times be highly unfulfilling, but there it is. I really enjoyed this book and found it a very useful source of information. It is a highly informative guide where focus on specific periods is never allowed to occlude the big picture. It is not a complete guide: cultural and religious history in particular get short shrift in the grand narrative. But it is a useful introductory book to a large and often confounding topic.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Fish

    The history of a subcontinent is bound to be a complex affair. The more people, the more going on, and the more needs to be simplified and cut down to make a manageable volume. Most historians look for trends: if you're writing a history of Europe, for example, then the Black Death, the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment are all pan-continental developments which can be discussed either in broad terms or through the prism of one country's experience. Maybe for India these developments don't The history of a subcontinent is bound to be a complex affair. The more people, the more going on, and the more needs to be simplified and cut down to make a manageable volume. Most historians look for trends: if you're writing a history of Europe, for example, then the Black Death, the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment are all pan-continental developments which can be discussed either in broad terms or through the prism of one country's experience. Maybe for India these developments don't exist. Certainly Keay's work gives that impression. Once he's got out of prehistory, about half the book is consumed with little more than a series of wars, whether between the various regional leaders, between the natives and the invading forces of Mongols and Turks, or between rulers and their sons, the violence seems endless. The cast of characters is large, with names and places passing by in a blink of history's eye, but none of them ever seem to have substance. Mentions of anything else seem little more than cursory, with the Taj Mahal referred to only in passing and the entire colonial enterprise of Portugal reduced to a couple of paragraphs. Buddha gets a little more than that, but not much so. Until, that is, the British arrive. Keay's view of British India is somewhat confused. During the rise of the East India Company and its transmutation into the Raj, he clearly regards it as little short of evil. Explaining why a country which seems thus far to have done nothing but make war for over a thousand years is made worse by the arrival of Europeans is difficult, but Keay gives it his best shot, often using tortured justifications such as the claim that Indian military escapades never went beyond the "natural borders" of the country (a way of thinking which could equally have been applied to justifying Hitler's annexations) or by playing up the apparent racism of some Brits and more or less ignoring the period in which many ex-pats started adopting Indian dress, customs and even wives. Similarly, when it comes to the uprising of 1857, Keay does his best to gloss over the massacre of women and children by the Rani of Jhansi's troops whilst making political capital from the savagery of British retribution. By sugar-coating one side of the story, Keay turns his two-page account of the struggle into a creation myth to rank alongside the version of the American War of Independence spoonfed to US children. Where the book performs better is in its later stages, when it looks at the rise of the nationalist movement, the road to independence and its aftermath. Although the narrative is still littered with character assassinations of the British political class (mostly, it has to be said, of those on the right), it does at least make it clear that giving autonomy to such a complex land - one which had never been a single nation before - wasn't going to be a simple process. The politics of regions with different ethnic balances, different political cultures and systems, of the competing interests of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, make it clear that Britain was never going to leave India whole and happy. That an attempt at partition had already failed in Bengal is balanced against the point that the Muslims had already been agitating for a separate nation (and had themselves coined the name Pakistan) before the British ever broached the notion. Beyond partition, Keay also becomes more balanced, seeking justifications for the struggles over Kashmir or Indira Ghandi's assumption of absolute authority. Whilst this approach is welcome, it beggars the question of why it was absent throughout the rest of the book. A real analysis of the way in which India's history had shaped its peoples could have made it clearer whether an equitable solution to the problem of independence had ever been possible. The fears of federalism being a Trojan Horse for ongoing British interference may not have been groundless, but could such a scheme have prevented the violence which followed partition? Whilst the Cold War and the Middle East crisis of the 1970s clearly impacted the Indian subcontinent, was it inevitable that these would lead to military dictatorships, fundamentalism and the wary nuclear balance we have today? Was it possible that a federal India might have instead become an example of successful religious pluralism for the wider world? The ultimate impression I received from Keay's book was it was written by a man who didn't want to answer these questions; rather he wanted to grind his axe on the perceived failings of the British Empire. My quest for a more balanced history therefore continues.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sean McKenna

    Going into my first visit to India, I realized that I had almost no knowledge of its history, so I was seeking a readable single volume that would bring me somewhat up to speed. I had followed a similar approach with Leonard Thompson's "A History of South Africa" and very much enjoyed it. While I enjoyed Keay's book as well, it became clear pretty early on that it would be a bit more of a slog. The fundamental difference, of course, is that while South Africa and India have both been inhabited fo Going into my first visit to India, I realized that I had almost no knowledge of its history, so I was seeking a readable single volume that would bring me somewhat up to speed. I had followed a similar approach with Leonard Thompson's "A History of South Africa" and very much enjoyed it. While I enjoyed Keay's book as well, it became clear pretty early on that it would be a bit more of a slog. The fundamental difference, of course, is that while South Africa and India have both been inhabited for many thousands of years, South Africa's written history is pretty sparse before the arrival of the Europeans. As a result, Thompson's book ended up focusing mostly on the last 400 years or so, which meant a fairly linear narrative of proxy battles between European powers and struggles between the newcomers and the natives. India, by contrast, has a significant written history and was really a set of independent cultures until fairly recently. The result is that the book doesn't build any momentum until about half-way through. A short-lived power will spring up out of nowhere in the south of India and then fade away as quickly as it came, leaving no meaningful impact on the India of today. Meanwhile, something similar will be happening in the north, with neither power having any real interaction with each other. It is really only when the Mughal Empire begins to rise and unite the subcontinent that a more cohesive narrative begins to form. Indeed, Keay makes a comment to this effect when he teases the arrival of the Mughals at the beginning of Chapter 13: "Through the agency of Babur, first of the Great Mughals, the multilateral history of the Indian subcontinent begins to jell into the monolithic history of India". You can almost sense his relief rising off the page and as the reader, you feel much the same way. Of course, I can't really fault the author for this. It wouldn't be appropriate for him to build a linear narrative where none exists. However, the casual reader looking to understand the India of today by learning about its history should be aware that there are several hundred pages of effectively "throwaway" history here, which is to say events and people that didn't have a meaningful impact on what happened later. All that being said, once Keay did make it to Mughals, readability definitely picked up and I enjoyed the remainder of the book significantly more. As a neutral observer, his summary of the lead-up to and execution of partition seemed balanced and I appreciated that he followed through with the post-partition history of Pakistan and Bangladesh - in other words, this is the history of the Indian subcontinent, not just India the country that we know today. Keay's writing style is clear and readable, with choice use of wit thrown in to liven up the history, my favorite example being: "In what the latter often characterized as a doctor-patient relationship, it looked as if India could be retained on a drip-feed of concessions until the sacred cows came home. The First World War changed all that. With the imperial medico coming under severe strain, the Indian patient was co-opted onto the nursing staff. He was fitter, evidently, and the doctor frailer than had been supposed. Doing the rounds, he heard tell of an American panacea called self-determination and of a more revolutionary cure being pioneered in Russia. It was doubtful whether he should be in hospital at all. If the doctor was so obviously fallible, why should the patient be patient?" If you want a thorough, readable single-volume history of India, I can definitely recommend this. Just be prepared for a bunch of false starts through the first half. And if you find yourself struggling through that part of the book, consider skipping ahead to the Mughals and proceeding from there. If your goals for reading the book were like mine, you'll get most of what you're looking for with much less of a slog.

  13. 5 out of 5

    bkwurm

    The main problem with this book is its scope. Purportedly a book about India's history, it is quickly apparent that there is hardly any available data on which a plausible history for the three thousand plus years BCE. While this is no fault of the author, it does disappoint a little to find that instead of an actual history, what is provided is founded largely on myth. Where facts were available, the book suffered from the fact that it was extremely difficult to relate what was happening in Nort The main problem with this book is its scope. Purportedly a book about India's history, it is quickly apparent that there is hardly any available data on which a plausible history for the three thousand plus years BCE. While this is no fault of the author, it does disappoint a little to find that instead of an actual history, what is provided is founded largely on myth. Where facts were available, the book suffered from the fact that it was extremely difficult to relate what was happening in North India with what was taking place in South India. Perhaps this was due to the obscure geography and place names being used or possibly developments in one had no effect on the other but if that was the case, it was not clear. The wars between the French and the British for control of India seemed to have been skimmed over. Ultimately, the book serves to leave the reader looking for more detail.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Alright. I give up. Here's my most-of-the-way (and slow-going) review. The author knows what he's talking about. He has taken centuries and centuries of data and compiled it into a logical timeline, showing the rise and fall of the dynasties throughout Indian history. He takes events that seem isolated and unimportant and places them in a historical context - a valuable skills for any historian. The problem is that while the author clearly has a fine grip on the facts (or at least the evidence an Alright. I give up. Here's my most-of-the-way (and slow-going) review. The author knows what he's talking about. He has taken centuries and centuries of data and compiled it into a logical timeline, showing the rise and fall of the dynasties throughout Indian history. He takes events that seem isolated and unimportant and places them in a historical context - a valuable skills for any historian. The problem is that while the author clearly has a fine grip on the facts (or at least the evidence and the currently held logical conclusions), he doesn't know how to WRITE prose that isn't clunky and overly academic. More than once while reading this I had to stop, restart a sentence or paragraph and read it again. Then again. Then aloud. I'm not a slow reader, nor am I one who has poor reading comprehension. But when I have to repeat - out loud - a sentence multiple times in order to parse the sentence structure, there is something wrong. When I can't immediately tell which verb belongs with which predicate and adverbial phrase, the editor let something slip. There are ways to make this kind of writing easy to understand, and by no means am I suggesting that the vocabulary be simplified or the content "dumbed down" to suit a less intelligent audience. That defeats the purpose. I'm saying that having such a stilted and clumsy prose just distracts from the message and the facts, making your book less meaningful. That said, if you have any interest in a sweeping survey of Indian history, one that focuses on more than just Post-Colonial period, this is an invaluable resource. Keep in mind that there was a new edition recently that includes more modern history, while the first edition pretty much ended with Gandhi's victories.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Luke

    This book is kinda terrible. The beginning was ok, and the end was decent, but everything after Harappa and before the Mughals was absolutely brutal to read. This makes some sense given that India has never been a unified state until independence, although it did come close under the Mughals and the British Raj. Because of India's disunity, it is difficult to write a historical narrative (especially when earlier documents are scattered, if extant at all). But, surely there would have been some b This book is kinda terrible. The beginning was ok, and the end was decent, but everything after Harappa and before the Mughals was absolutely brutal to read. This makes some sense given that India has never been a unified state until independence, although it did come close under the Mughals and the British Raj. Because of India's disunity, it is difficult to write a historical narrative (especially when earlier documents are scattered, if extant at all). But, surely there would have been some better way to frame this book in a way where it has meaning rather than a series of disjointed figures and events only linked together by their Indian-ness. I'll find something else to read to fill in the gaps, and I recommend staying away from this one.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sunil

    A fascinating subject was unfortunately rendered extremely dull. John Keay’s prose is akin to a stream of conscious. This might suite a novel but it does not suit a history book at all. I want to know who the important people and events were and a bit about them. I thus feel very let down by this. Keay likes to introduce people with little background build up and then get rid of them just as quickly. He likes to drop in Nehru and Gandhi when talking about civilisation 2000 years before their tim A fascinating subject was unfortunately rendered extremely dull. John Keay’s prose is akin to a stream of conscious. This might suite a novel but it does not suit a history book at all. I want to know who the important people and events were and a bit about them. I thus feel very let down by this. Keay likes to introduce people with little background build up and then get rid of them just as quickly. He likes to drop in Nehru and Gandhi when talking about civilisation 2000 years before their time. I now have to find another history book of india better suited to actually tell the history of india.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ernesto Alaniz

    The history seems to be conjecture until we get to Alexander the Great. It is hard to construe a narrative out of next to nothing. Once we enter recorded history, the book actually becomes interesting.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sherry

    A history of India from 3000 BC to 1999 AD. A comprehensive account, readable, of course very interesting.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Lucas

    Keay's well-cited history of the sub-continent reads a bit like India itself: big and messy and difficult to quite pin down. In a country, this is an understandable quality; in a book, less so. Despite having read 600 pages of Indian history, I don't feel as I'm much better equipped to understand India (nor Pakistan or Bangladesh, for that matter) than I was at the beginning. I suppose this is a tall order for such an immense subject, but I suppose I'm demanding. Having said that, it really is e Keay's well-cited history of the sub-continent reads a bit like India itself: big and messy and difficult to quite pin down. In a country, this is an understandable quality; in a book, less so. Despite having read 600 pages of Indian history, I don't feel as I'm much better equipped to understand India (nor Pakistan or Bangladesh, for that matter) than I was at the beginning. I suppose this is a tall order for such an immense subject, but I suppose I'm demanding. Having said that, it really is extremely well written; one gets the sense that Keay fancies himself a stylist first and a historian second, for he drafts beautiful phrases throughout with the flourish of a confident Victorian travel writer, sometimes to the neglect of the subject matter. For amateur historians, I suspect there are more readable volumes to mine, though probably not any as confidently poetic.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Frank Peters

    The book covers the entire history of India, from the most ancient times to the near present. As a result, the history tends to be brief and unfortunately dry. Thankfully the book was well written, and was therefore somewhat interesting. I greatly appreciate the effort the author took to outline areas of debate, presenting both sides. I certainly understand modern India more as a result of completing the book.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jim Dudley

    I haven't failed to finish a book for many years but this one is so replete with references to things which I don't know or need to research separately that I can't get through it. Defeated by page 200. It's just not interesting, the chronology is all over the place and the geography and reference material far too obscure for enjoyment. Back to John Julius Norwich for history I think. I haven't failed to finish a book for many years but this one is so replete with references to things which I don't know or need to research separately that I can't get through it. Defeated by page 200. It's just not interesting, the chronology is all over the place and the geography and reference material far too obscure for enjoyment. Back to John Julius Norwich for history I think.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Vik

    It is hard to decouple facts from authors opinion, the later being heavily biased and anti India at times. The book is extremely well written and easy to read in-spite of the complex topic it covers. Good for facts and statistics but not a true understanding of India or Indians.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nick Woodall

    While John Keay is an excellent writer, I found the book thoroughly boring. Unless one understands Indian geography and a timeline of it's kings, it is total jibberish, especially to an American reader. While John Keay is an excellent writer, I found the book thoroughly boring. Unless one understands Indian geography and a timeline of it's kings, it is total jibberish, especially to an American reader.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Summerfire

    Ho. Ly. Shit. That took forever. Probably a good history if you already have a background, but he name drops so often with so little information I felt like I still didn't know much after reading a chapter. Ho. Ly. Shit. That took forever. Probably a good history if you already have a background, but he name drops so often with so little information I felt like I still didn't know much after reading a chapter.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Martin Willoughby

    Dry and academic, but a worthwhile addition to a historian's shelf or as a reference book. Dry and academic, but a worthwhile addition to a historian's shelf or as a reference book.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Maria Ní Fhlatharta

    "For the Nations of the Indian subcontinent, as for the rest of the colonial world, the 20th century peaked at Independence" Not so much an apology for colonialism but a love letter to it. "For the Nations of the Indian subcontinent, as for the rest of the colonial world, the 20th century peaked at Independence" Not so much an apology for colonialism but a love letter to it.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sandeepan Mondal

    John Keay has done a wonderful job in condensing the varied and diverse history of India in a 600 page book. The description of various major and minor periods of Indian history have been dealt with good hands but the flow of narration is a little difficult to get hold of sometimes. Also, the reader who is totally unaware of Indian history (this being the first instance he has laid his hands upon an INDIAN HISTORY book) would be a little disappointed since the author, going by his writing style John Keay has done a wonderful job in condensing the varied and diverse history of India in a 600 page book. The description of various major and minor periods of Indian history have been dealt with good hands but the flow of narration is a little difficult to get hold of sometimes. Also, the reader who is totally unaware of Indian history (this being the first instance he has laid his hands upon an INDIAN HISTORY book) would be a little disappointed since the author, going by his writing style and tone, assumes that the reader is a bit aware of major happenings. Every major event in Indian history is a complex web of little events and the author has done justice to cover as much as possible in detailing those. In the beginning and throughout the book, the author has tried to accurately date the events (especially in the case of harappan civilization) based on an exhaustive body of literature exisiting out there but finally (and in majority of the cases) settled on the viewpoints/perceptions/beliefs of his western brothers. The reader has to get used to the author's style of writing and once you discontinue reading the unfinished book for sometime, it takes some effort to rejiggle your memory and relate to what the author was trying to convey. And believe me, in no way the whole book (or you can call it a piece of art!) fails to mesmerize you; instead it leaves a lasting impression on the reader's mind, makes him aware of the nitty-gritty of Indian history, and finally loads his brain with a knowledge bank so bulk that he can finally show off to his old school friend who thought that this guy would be the last person on Earth to (forget "read") understand Indian history which in many ways is much more comprehensive than European or American history. John Keay has also touched upon the then contemporary histories of countries somehow related to India and managed to give us a glimpse of South-East Asian, Sri Lankan, English and Afghani histories. In the end, I would only like to say that if you really want to read Indian History in a short span of time, this book is the mother of all such books. After all, it is in India where you can find as much diversity as it exists out there in the world.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Wright

    Few people can be up to the challenge of such a work as this; an area the size of Western Europe, for a time spanning some four thousand years, many of which have seriously sparse historical texts. Keay rises to the challenge magnificently. He complains, in his introduction, of histories which accelerate as they get more and more recent and sources become more numerous. He states his intention to 'fuzz' towards the end to get a more balanced picture. He does not quite succeed in this, devoting s Few people can be up to the challenge of such a work as this; an area the size of Western Europe, for a time spanning some four thousand years, many of which have seriously sparse historical texts. Keay rises to the challenge magnificently. He complains, in his introduction, of histories which accelerate as they get more and more recent and sources become more numerous. He states his intention to 'fuzz' towards the end to get a more balanced picture. He does not quite succeed in this, devoting several chapters to the post-Independence era, but that is no criticism; such a way of doing history is testament to the way culture and economics have changed in the modern era. He would observe, no doubt, that this does not affect the fact that history is always about people at all times, and indeed he laments the fact that there are few accounts of ordinary individuals; until the advent of rolling news, that is, when the tragedies that have afflicted the poor are catalogued in a surfeit of almost microscopic detail. Moreover, the history he chronicles with such judiciously chosen detail (six hundred pages, small type) is important in so far as it teaches us about the trials and challenges of the subcontinent of our own time. And this is something of which we in the West - especially the guilt-ridden post-Imperial British, myself included - cannot afford to be ignorant.

  29. 4 out of 5

    G

    This is a shoddy attempt to write a history of a country and civilization that is probably the oldest in the world. The author clearly writes with a bias throughout the book and hindu "nationalism" or BJP party, etc. is routinely referred to as zealots, extremists, and other such blanket derogatory terms. Just one example of his bias is that he claims the discriminatory jizya tax against Hindus in Mughal era was rarely enforced! He provides no references for such bizarre statements and in genera This is a shoddy attempt to write a history of a country and civilization that is probably the oldest in the world. The author clearly writes with a bias throughout the book and hindu "nationalism" or BJP party, etc. is routinely referred to as zealots, extremists, and other such blanket derogatory terms. Just one example of his bias is that he claims the discriminatory jizya tax against Hindus in Mughal era was rarely enforced! He provides no references for such bizarre statements and in general the book lacks references and sources in general. This book is not worth a penny in terms of true history and non-biased accuracy. I would advise to read other, much better written books on Indian history than this one.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan

    Maybe I'm not being fair to this book. I confess I've read only the introduction. But it struck me as being so patronizing, I couldn't get through any more. Of late, I've been prejudiced against any book that talks about the Aryan Invasion with a straight face. Come on, who really believes that rubbish any more, and why are we perpetuating it? Maybe I'm not being fair to this book. I confess I've read only the introduction. But it struck me as being so patronizing, I couldn't get through any more. Of late, I've been prejudiced against any book that talks about the Aryan Invasion with a straight face. Come on, who really believes that rubbish any more, and why are we perpetuating it?

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