There are books on history and there are historic books on history. India’s First PM’s tome Glimpses of World History (GWH) clearly falls in the second category. His book on Indian history -Discovery of India became popular thanks to the TV series, But GWH has been broadly ignored by both scholars and TV people alike.
One does not know how to review this book. Such is the impact of the book. Just that wish had read it earlier.
How can one write world history in a series of 196 letters to his daughter? This is the approach of book. Pt. Nehru has written the book sitting in jails all from his memory without any references. The breadth and depth of the research is breathtaking and awe inspiring to say the least. I mean how can one just do such a thing?
The book is a marvellous introduction to history of several things – societies, cultures, formation of countries, key individuals, wars, dynasties, science and so on. Unlike the other history books which are outright boring (especially those written earlier), this one is really exciting. The way the author starts a story and connects the dots keeps one hooked to the pages. You will wonder why this history has been started and then in some brilliant words he connects it to something in the past.
The magic of words is irrestible. As one of the reviewer says, the book should be read not just for history but for its English as well. How quickly and lucidly the author captures some 300-400 years of history in few paras is just sheer brilliance.
We keep reflecting on history due to the ongoing global crisis and several anniversaries which keep being celebrated. This blog in whatever limited way keeps stressing on the importance of reading historical accounts to get better perspective of things. Nothing in economics happens overnight and one has to take a really long term view of how certain event has evolved. Infact, this is how research used to be done earlier. Now a days, one can be called a researcher by just doing some data gaming. Earlier, as both data and computational resources were limited, one had little choice but to take a historical look.
The problem in reading history is you are always sort of stuck. So let’s say you want to read on Indian economic history. You stumble onto following questions:
- Which period should you start from? Should it be ancient. medieval or modern?
- Should it be comparative history or just focused on India? If comparative, then who to compare with? Having made the selection, how can you be sure that things can be connected?
- Should the history be on economic policy? Successes or failures?
And so on.
The key to such problems is having a flavour of world history. It is only when one has a decent idea of how world history has shaped, can one be somewhat certain of current times. It is surprising to read that in a non-twitter-facebook era as well, how global events mattered. What was transpiring in country X is not just due to conditions in X, but in Y,Z and A,B,C as well.
The focus of the book is European and Asian history. As the book was written in 1930s, this was also the attention of most worldly affairs. US was still emerging as the top power and not much attention was on Africa or Latin America. There is an amazing discussion on history of Arab World, Central Asia, China, Japan and Korea. And all this is reviewed keeping the global setting in mind. Nothing is mutually exclusive. As much of history is actually written by scholars from west, there is hardly any coverage of Asia. So this is different from this angle as well. You really get a glimpse of Asian history which very few books deal with.
The book is also important as it helps understand shaping of Nehru’s thinking and his policies for India. As his history moves into 1930s there is little doubt that he is mighty impressed with Russia’s socialism experiment. Why? Well, because followers of capitalism like US and UK are going through really wretched times during those times. Economics is around twon questions – how to produce and how to distribute. Capitalism is great at answering the first question but fails miserably to address the second question. In Capitalism, both prosperity and poverty go hand in hand. It is really extreme.
And not to forget most of these capitalist powers were just yesterday’s imperialist powers. The hatred for imperialism was bound to be there given how much damage it created in India (and Asia). During the time of Nehru’s writing, there were plenty of wars and complete chaos everywhere. Capitalism was seen as just another extension of Imperialism and was equally abhorred.
Then came Russian revolution in 1917 which adopted Socialism which was seen as more equitable. It emerged as an alternative in the treacherous world and initial results looked impressive. As per Nehru, Russia very quickly shaped into a modern country and was not even impacted by Great Depression. Russians were more interested in doing their own thing whereas other capitalist nations were just interested in other’s affairs. This undoubtedly impressed the to be Prime Minister. He also writes how socialism is the natural outcome in the western world as well but somehow the revolutions touch and go. There were times in 1920s when Britain/France etc could have adopted socialism but just escaped. Now we know much was wrong with those ideas as the Russian model just imploded. This is how most ideas eventually end up. Capitalism too has had its serious crisis but has survived. Infact, the real test of capitalism is being faced today as the crisis has hit countries which are citadels of capitalism. And we know it is imploding but just holding up somehow. Infact, reading Nehru’s account of cappitalism is not much different from the accounts we read on 2008 crisis.
The book also gives great insights into India’s history and discusses how British worked around India eventually to dominate it and the world.
If one takes such a broad based look at evolution of our world, one can only be humbled. You realise how things change in 300-400 years. Infact for most part of the world history before and after christ belonged to Asia. Within Asia, it was India and China. How this begins to change as Portugese took to sea routes to throw out Islam from their country and lower Arab dominance of world trade routes. This was also covered exceptionally well in KM Panikkar’s book but he limits it to Indian Ocean. Nehru goes much beyond this.
Overall, this book is highly recommended. It is a testimony to the brilliance of India’s first PM. It is also a testimony to today’s times when most of our leaders can’t write even a letter properly. We could debate and thrash Nehrus’s socialist policies but there was a reason why he (and others) really went in that direction. However, we must also remember he was quite a learned person which is such a rarity in India’s polity today.
Keeping his views aside, one should just try and catch his glimpse of world history. It is much more than just a glimpse.