53 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2000
This book is by far the best general history of India which I have found(I can only speak of English texts). Keay covers the full sweep of Indian history without spending two thirds of the book on the last two hundred years. Most other Indian historis focus too much on the colonial era. Moreover, when they describe pre-colonial times they mainly talk about the great "highpoints" such as the the Mauryan empire, the Gupta empire and the Great Moguls. Yet these highpoints only lasted for a small portion of the timeline of Indian history and usually left large portions of the subcontinent outside their way. The book has a superb graph which illustrates this point.
Keay explicits states that he wants to avoid the common practice of treating Indian history as different. Most other histories deemphasize chronology and emphasize religion and society (especially the caste system). They almost treat India as timeless. While religion and society are very important topics, I found it very refreshing to read Keay's book with its greater emphasis on chronology. I strongly feel that he found a much better balance than I read in other popular histories of India.
Keay expertly strings together the various threads of India's history. This is no easy task given what at times is a plethora of dynasties and rulers. He was able to strike a good balance in giving a lot of information, without making the text tedious. "India: A History" is a book of which I have already reread portions, and I am sure I will consult it many times in the future.
90 of 96 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2003
India has five thousand years of history that we have enough evidence to write about. Any book that can simply be coherent and readable while covering so much ground is an achievement. John Keay's "India: A History" is more than that, though; it is superbly-written and powerfully narrated.
Keay notes in the introduction that he has deliberately avoided focusing more on recent history than on ancient: "a history which reserves half its narrative for the 19th and 20th centuries may seem more relevant, but it can scarcely do justice to India's extraordinary antiquity." Naturally the availability of more historical sources does increase the attention paid to recent events, but still the Raj does not appear till nearly three quarters of the way through, and the 20th century and the real start of the struggle for independence is close to the end of the book. The result is a long, thoughtful and detailed telling of many of the dynasties and civilization that flourished in India -- though, as Keay also says in the introduction, only the highlights are mentioned, since "with perhaps 20 to 40 dynasties co-existing within the subcontinent at any one time, it would be [. . .] sado-masochism [to include them all]". So even at this extra level of detail there has been substantial editing. And there could have been more; the book's only fault is that Keay mentions just too many of the endless dynastic dramas. The essence of a one-volume history is selective editing, and the book could have been shorter and a little less dry in places.
However, the picture of India that emerges is deep, complex and fascinating, from the earliest Harappan archaeological relics through to the Gandhis. The Raj is of course particularly interesting: although technologically and industrially the British clearly surpassed them greatly at the time of the Raj, some of the diplomatic exchanges that Keay retails show the Indians as being more sophisticated, more civilized, and in many ways just smarter than the British. It was inevitable that the yoke would be thrown off; the only question was what India would be able to do with its independence.
Keay's prose is also a great pleasure; he has a wonderfully dry sense of humour, and he conveys exciting events with panache but also with precision and clarity.
41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2000
India is one of the world's oldest civilizations. John Keay focuses on the centuries after the arrival of the Europeans and British and the social effects of foreign influence.
He begins the book in 3000 B.C., then parallels the Aryan invasion and moves through Indian history and sweeps through British rule with critical accounts of British government that are deeply moving and revealing. This book is definitely no apology for British rule. He demonstrates industrial deforestation of India by the British and the social consequences of this and other enviromental and economic actions.
He continues on through Ghandi into the modern period and the difficulties of government and leadership in the post-Ghandi period.
The books is written with great scholarship, although Mr. Keay's opinions dominate throughout. This books is definitely seen through the author's eyes and is perhaps, less objective than this reader desires, yet the thrilling perspective and colorful sequence of Indian history race through the reader's mind, with clear and beautifully written prose.
Highly recommended for general reading. If someone desires greater scholarship, one must go to more specific references, however this is the finest general history of India that I have yet read. In fact, I cannot put the book down.
70 of 80 people found the following review helpful
Before I commence with my review I feel I should state that my knowledge of the history of the Indian sub-continent was limited, at best, prior the reading this book. However, I am well versed in history in general, and I believe that my readings on other topics have provided me with a valuable frame of reference for my review of Keay's "India: A History".
Without a doubt, Keay set himself a daunting task; "India" the nation-state is the end result of colonial policy and modern politics and does not in and of itself represent the extent of Indian culture or the breadth of its geography. In effect, Keay undertook a task equivalent to writing a history of pre-European North America in one volume. One item that will stay with me from this work is just how fractured and variegated the Indian Sub-Continent's people are. Unfortunately, even after acknowledging the difficulty of the task he set for himself, I am afraid that the author fell short.
It certainly wasn't for lack of effort or detailed historical research. Quite the contrary, in fact; the reader is pummeled page after page with a barrage of dynasties and kingdoms, that to the non-expert seem to blur into one. While politics are undeniably critical to any history, Keay all to often ignored cultural and religious developments while examining political ones in excruciating detail. Of particular note was the scant attention he paid to the evolution of Hinduism. I realize that this is supposed to be a broad overview, but considering the role Hinduism has played in India's development, I feel an examination of it would have been worth a chapter, at least.
The one area where I felt Keay got things right was the Indian drive for independence from the British. From about 1850 on, he seems to develop a real passion for the material and injects some vibrancy into what had been a very dry narrative to that point. While some reviewers have complained of a pro-British bias, I found the writing to be very well balanced, and if anything, nominally pro-Indian.
Unfortunately, even in the modern era, the writing continues to be uneven. For example, he examines the rise of the Congress Party in great depth, but offers almost no detail on the Indo-Pak wars. Furthermore, after going to great lengths to discuss India the Sub-Continent (as opposed to the country) Keay has almost nothing to say about Pakistan in the post-partition era.
In the end, this isn't a terrible history, but it is terribly uneven, and incredibly dry. I definitely took away a greater knowledge of India and a better understanding of its history, but I was left wanting more. Perhaps that's the nature of any one-volume history, but I think it owes more to Keay's dry delivery and under appreciation of the sub-continent's cultures and religions. If you're new to Indian history, this probably isn't a bad place to start, but it is by no means a definitive work.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2002
Readers who peruse this book should combine the 30,000 foot perspective that Keay provides in this book with the 'in the trenches' view of societies one gets - for example, by reading V.S.Naipaul's essays on his travels through ancient societies. I think both views are necessary and complementary to get a good grasp of why certain civilizations are as they are today.
A micro-level perspective cannot do justice to interplay of the plethora of ethnic subcultures that exist in India today which are offsprings of dynasties and kingdoms of yore. The macro-level perspective of Keay enables one to gain insights into this interplay. One understands for example why there is a pre-dominance of vegetarianism in Karnataka today as opposed to the other South Indian states of Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. One could attribute it to the influence of Jainism in Karnataka which can be traced to Chandragupta Maurya who converted to the Jain faith and settled down with his followers at Sravanabelagola in Karnataka.
I find insights to this ethnic interplay very fascinating since my own childhood was a story of constant relocation from one part of India to the other and being constantly exposed to new sights and sounds and tastes of various parts of India. Keay's treatise adds new dimension to my childhood experiences in that it enables me to connect historical events of India's past to my memories of India and her people.
I would heartily recommend this to Indians as well since this panaromic view would put into perspective the little snippets of Indian history learnt during the school years to meet the demands of an examination based curriculum. If read with genuine intellectual curiosity to learn about the past of their country, it will leave the reader eminently literate about their own heritage.
I think Keay's effort goes a long way in being objective and dispassionate and amazingly free of any cultural bias. Its like listening to the BBC. It is a Eurocentric view but thankully not as self-absorbed like the American media.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2007
I bought this book to read a single volume, unbiased account of Indian history. On most parameters I got what I wanted from this book. It is no easy task to describe the 5000+ year history of the Indian subcontinent in a single book of around 500 pages. But John Keay's work is an admirable attempt. The book is very readable and should be enjoyed by anyone who loves reading about history. Instead of just reeling off incidents, places and dates, Keay also talks about how some historical incidents were reconstructed by using inscriptions, coins and other relics that have survived till the modern age.
The book starts off from the Harappan civilization and the entry of Aryans into the Indian subcontinent. This period is also the most difficult to analyze due to the dearth of conclusive historical evidence. Keay is also careful to avoid mixing the many myths of this era with what may have actually transpired. Once civilization took root in India, the book describes the rule of ancient dynasties like the Mauryas, Guptas and later the Vardhanas. It becomes evident that India was never an integral entity but ruled by a large number of smaller states that continuously vied with each other. South Indian history is well represented with descriptions from the Chalukya, Pallava and Chola times. There are quite a few maps and illustrations that nicely complement the prose.
The influence of Islam on Indian history has been significant. It started with the invasions of Muslims from the North West and peaked with the rule of the mighty Mughals. You can read about the Islamic invaders such as Ghazni, Timur and Nadir Shah who were responsible for the destruction of countless Hindu lives and temples. On the flip side, Islamic style has given India some of the world's most beautiful architectural wonders such as the Taj Mahal.
I was a little disappointed with the later chapters on modern Indian history. Keay belittles the Indian freedom movement and his tone of writing seems to indicate that the British left India because they were weakened by the two world wars and grew sick of running India in general. Keay is quick to point out the pros of British rule such as the unification of India and investment in infrastructure (such as the railways). But he never mentions the dark side - the British were in India for their own interests and had little interest in improving the lot of the people they were ruling. Little was done during the times of famine. Despite being once blessed with abundant natural resources, India and Pakistan have always been economically backward since independence in 1947. Keay also never mentions the fact that Jinnah, the man responsible for the creation of Pakistan, was an elitist and selfish ruler who never cared about the plight of Muslims. Keay rightly points out that the Indian army has abused human rights in Kashmir, but what about the cross border terrorism that emanates from Pakistan?
The book ends on a pessimistic note saying that India has not seen the end of religious or ethnic secession movements. While that may be true, the fact is that India, commonly referred to as the sub-continent, is made up of a population diverse in ethnicity, race, language and religion. India is a secular country that tries to maintain communal harmony but minor problems are always bound to crop up.
Keay also points out the irony that although India takes pride in its ancient civilization, most of those sites lie in present day Pakistan. On the other hand Pakistan, which glorifies the Mughal rule, finds that the best examples of Mughal art and architecture are left in India. On the whole this book was informative and enjoyable, but the last few pages did not go down well with me.
30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2004
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This is a great book for a very specific audience. If you are looking for a book that will give a detailed account of which dynasties ruled which parts of India during which times, this is a wonderful and thorough history.
However, if you are a reader looking for a rich history of India and her people, this is a dry and empty read. Keay has a tendency to simply march through dynasties, giving the reader little clue as to what distinguished one from another, except the area of the subcontinent from which they hailed. One example is his rather frustrating habit of referring obliquely to amusing yet apocryphal tales, and then not telling the actual story. These stories must be told, even if their veracity is uncertain. This is what would make the rest of the history worth reading to a person not deeply involved with pre-modern South Asian history.
Keay's prose is competent, but not particularly engaging. I suspect his style is more appealing to Britons than American readers.
The bottom line: There is a great need for a thorough, rich, and readable history of India. This book does not fill that void.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2004
Having read all the editorials and customer reviews of this obviously popular book, I realise that there is a great danger of letting one's personal view of history get in the way of an objective analysis of the contents of a books such as this. So let me say up front that I have no firm views on the provenance of Inidan civilisation, other than to say that I am attracted to the theory that the Indus civilisation is the forerunner of the later Indian civilisations. But holding that view doesn't necessarily make it so!
My interest in history goes back to my college days, and I now have the time to read as much as history I can take. I have usually tended to concentrate on the Ancient Near East and Europe and those dark eras (such as Western Europe in 5th - 6th centuries AD, Ancient Near East in Late Bronze Age times, and the early civilisations prior to that) where documentary evidence is either sparse, contradictory, confusing, or downright incorrect. But I have never been totally satisfied with the explanations of how the early civilisations developed, and the impact of India on these early civilisations was an unkown to me
One of the problems I have in understanding these complex civilisations is how many of the theories are based on so few facts. I have read many books where the author has built hypothesis upon hypothesis to come up with conclusions which I, along with many others, find very hard to accept. These books are often very selective in their use of the facts and tend ro focus only on those which support their theories. This calls into question their objectivity, and so I usually suspend my judgement on their findings until I have searched out more hard data. Even so, they have usually served a useful function in forcing me to widen my search "for the truth"
I accept the fact that there are historians and that there are scholars and that they have a different focus. For me a successful and respected historian (like John Keay) is best if he concentrates on a survey of what is known, what the various competing theories are, and how the available data has been interpreted to support these theories. For scholars it is different, because they are trying to discover and interpret more facts, and for that they must have some view or theory as to what happened. This is why I, as an amateur, must be ever watchful for the use of selective arguments, and the danger of theories developed on the basis of hypotheses built on other hypotheses. For me, the completeness and the correct interpretation of available data is very important.
Like most westerners, my knowledge of India is very limited. Oh yes, I had learned about the Raj from my school days, and realise how British Empire centric it was. In recent years, as I read more about the Ancient Near East, the more I kept on picking up peripheral references to contacts with early India. So a book such as "Search for the Cradle of Civilisation" by Feuerstein, Kak, Frawley would naturally catch my eye, and an interesting and well written book it is too. However, it left me with the problem that I really didn't know enough about the history of India to determine how selective the authors were being in the development of their position that the survivors of the Harrapan (Sarasvati) civilisation were the authors of the Vedas and the founders of the later great civilisations of the Ganges. I feel that they have put forward a convincing case, but my knowledge of that era is so limited that I need to know a lot more in order for me to accept their position as the only right one
So in doing a survey of general books on the history of India, and after reading the various editorials and customer reviews, John Keay's book stood out for me as the most up-to-date one to start with, being one which would help me understand the history of India a little better, knowing full well, of course, that there were many others which could probably have served that purpose just as well..
Did it meet my expectations? Yes it did, although because of my focus, I would have liked to have seen more on ancient history, and less on the modern era. But you take what you've got, and while it was a hard slog at times, I found it to be absorbing, interesting, and helpful. The charts and the maps were excellent and really helped me understand the confusing facts about the various dynasties of the last 2300 years, and in particular, the Moslem conquest, the British Raj, and the period of post independence. The extensive biography assuaged my disappointment in the coverage of the period prior to 320BCE, and I now feel positioned and well motivated to investigate many other promising books which focus on that particular era. I have at least 8 candidates for my next studies which include Shereen Ratnagar, Richard Meadow, Gyan Gupta, Gregory Possehl, Burton Stein, Jane McIntosh and Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Romila Thapar - and that will keep me busy for a while!
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2006
Some subjects are so vast that they are a specialist's delight and a generalist's nightmare. Indian history is such a subject.
There is no shortage of multi-volume histories of India. But for the interested layman, there has been no single-volume history that is both authoritative and readable. John Keay's work fills an important gap on many a book shelf.
In 500-odd pages he succeeds in taking us through 5000 years of Indian history, giving equal importance to all periods and regions. The journey is not a dry recounting of names, places and dates. Keay (a professional writer, not a historian) keeps the reader entertained with his humour and sense of drama.
He also brings much-needed sanity to a subject that has been a battlefield for "Marxist" and "nationalist" historians. He is objective and sticks to facts and mainstream historical opinion. He upholds the widely accepted Aryan migration (not invasion) theory. At the same time, he does not hesitate to mention the temples destroyed by the Islamic invaders - incidents that were conveniently left out of our school history text books.
Towards the end, there are a few sore points as the Britisher in Keay reveals himself. He says the British did not follow a "Divide-and-Rule" policy. He does not approve of the 1961 liberation of Goa, the BJP or the 1998 nuclear tests. Who asked him?
But all in all, an excellent introduction to the subject.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2005
There are enough books on the history of India to fill a small library. That's no joke. Simply go to any online bookstore and search for yourself. Choosing one is hard enough, understanding it is another matter entirely. That being said, Mr. Keay's writing does more than an adequate job of sending the reader through India's past while adding bits of humor and intrigue along the way. Simply put, if you have little knowledge of India's history, you will find this quite informative and interesting.
Keay's formula is simple yet effective. Everything is well laid out and easy to follow. His focus is more on ancient history as opposed to recent events. It is evident that Keay is more interested in such things as the development of the three major religions that stemmed from India, and the Indus River civilization, than touching on subjects of modern Indian government. The reader is brought full scale from the very beginning on to the present, with an emphasis on early events. He does touch on political issues, and at times is quite opinionated. Of course, that is expected when you're discussing events where evidence can vary from source to source.
If you are already well versed in India's history, you might still find this well worth your time. However, some of his statements are questionable in terms of accuracy (especially when countered by more recent evidence), though nothing is fully disprovable. At times he will leave you wanting more information and more intricate details on in-depth matters, but he avoids this to keep the script following and well structured. As I stated earlier, he is opinionated, but not to an unbearable point. The text never bogs down with unwanted tidbits, and I found myself reading for hours without realizing it.
Overall, Keay did a solid job. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in India's history and culture. There are few books out there that can be considered superior to this one, and though it is far from the perfect account, you will find it entertaining and informative.