Google Hangouts session on Indian History with Vision India Foundation , IIT D , IIT R students

Some days ago, I was invited for a Google Hangout session by a group of IIT Delhi and IIT Roorkee students, some of them associated with a group named Vision India foundation. It was indeed a privilege and honour for me to interact with them. A big thank you to Shubham Kumar for organizing the whole thing.  A wide variety of topics were discussed, right from what inspired me to write Brahmaputra to why is the general outlook towards Indian history the way it is etc. It was a sort of question answer session. Unfortunately we could not do a video recording, but Ishan Batta very helpfully noted down the questions that were asked during the interaction, so now I can present it in this format. Hope you enjoy reading it.  More like a transcript.
Well so there we are , technology being put to good use here – me sitting in Australia and some of them are  in India, rest of them in the United States. We had to decide not just an appropriate time but appropriate time zone too. Pleasantries get exchanged. A brief intro round follows, participants in the interaction are students, working professionals, students pursuing a PhD etc. After which we try recording the whole thing, but doesn’t work out. Anyways, it is to be a discussion where I answer questions. There are nine – ten of us.  It’s something I am really looking forward too

Q : How did you go about researching for Brahmaputra – The Story of Lachit Barphukan ? 

A : Researching was not very easy, if I have to compare with research for my earlier book, Sahyadris to Hindukush. Reference books are not easy to come by when it comes to Assamese history. But my trip to Guwahati was really helpful, they have this area there called Pan Bazaar which has lots of old well established bookshops. So that’s where I found the best reference books. Also, there is Dept of Historical and Antiquarian Studies near the Guwahati High Court, where I found this awesome book called Tarikh e Ashaam – greatly helped me painting an accurate picture of the times. This was the reading and reference part. I also went to various places in and around Guwahati associated with Lachit Barphukan. So that really helped me in creating an atmosphere in the book that could immerse a person in seventeenth century Assam. And last but not the least, I spoke to Assamese people, both when in Assam and from home. That gave me a good overview of the Tai Ahom customs, culture and most importantly what the name Lachit Barphukan means for the average Assamese person.

Q: We have a narrative for Freedom Struggle . Is there a similar narrative about the counter to Islamic invasions ?

A : Yes, as far back as 736 AD, a grand alliance of Indian kings defeated an Arab invasion which threatened everything from Kashmir to Gujarat. Alliance which included Bappa Rawal , Nagabhatta , Chalukyas of Badami etc. I have written about it in some detail in this DNA Article  . Then we have Raja Suheldev and Battle of Baraich, the efforts of Hemchandra and further in the south we had Vijayanagar Empire , Chhatrapati Shivaji and Maratha empire. Talking of the east we have the Eastern Ganga and Gajapati dynasties of Odisha and ofcourse the Ahoms of Assam. But unfortunately all this is rather ignored.

Q: Why do you think that is the case ?

A : Well , I would say because we have had one particular ideology dominating the discourse for the past sixty – seventy years. The formal study course with regards to history is still centered around Delhi Sultanates etc . I have given talks in schools and colleges, and students are totally ignorant of other facets of  India’s history, even those which affected the whole subcontinent. But fortunately with help of social media , books etc an alternate narrative is slowly forming and becoming popular.

Q: And having a favourable government at centre will definitely help in this.

A : Well let us hope so. So far not much has been done. Anyways, I would concentrate on how can I contribute to building this alternate narrative.

Q: List of books you would suggest for someone wanting to know more about medieval India ? 

A : I have written on Maratha history and Assamese history, so I will limit myself to that.
I found GS Sardesai’s books extremely informative and useful when writing my first book. Also books such as Seir Mutaqherin, and those by Kincaid and Parasnis. On Assamese history , Prof H K Barpujari’s books are quite detailed and extensive. Tarikh e Ashaam, like I mentioned earlier, is also a good contemporary source. S K Bhuyan another name which comes to mind. British authors have also written extensively, on every region in the country and their books are readily accessible today. But, one must be wary of the pro – British slant as also some errors in their work.

Q: Mughal – Assam struggle had nothing to do with Hindu – Muslim. Will that be correct way to put it ? 
A : Actually Ram Singh was leading Mughal armies of essentially Aurangzeb. In the years preceding and following this struggle, he had issued many edicts which were solely aimed at Hindus – such as Jaziya. So Lachit Barphukan, in achieving what he did, definitely protected the Indic way of life and Assamese culture from the depradations of the Mughal empire. He laid the foundations on which kings like Rudra Singha and Rajeshwar Singha could build. So I would say it was a struggle between Assam and Mughals to protect and preserve the age old Indic culture of the North East.

Q : When you started writing , was there an interest in historical fiction which inspired you ?

A : My interest in history, Maratha history, was sparked in large part due to my trekking hobby. I started off wanting to write a story that was entirely fiction, but then as I read more and more on the topic, I realised that a dramatisation of actual events, without playing around with historical facts will appeal more. And thats how I went about writing my first book – Sahyadris to Hindukush.

Q : How do you keep all those facts and references you read together ; and manage to weave it into a book ? 

A : Well, I would say my second book – Brahmaputra – I managed to plan it way I wanted to. Essentially you should be clear about the time period you want the book to fit in, so automatically anything beyond that is not required to be read in detail. Some people follow a set time everyday to write – might work for them, does not work for me . I prefer writing for six – eight hours on one day and then nothing at all for next few days. Helps to note relevant reference books when working on certain chapter. If I felt some part of the story needed more exploring to do reference wise, I would make a note there that more referencing needs to be done and move on. Even my chapters are not written in one order from start  to finish, it all depended on how best my ideas were formed.

Q : Writing as a part time career ? 

A : Well , can’t really say, since I would call mine a “hobby” . But definitely if it is being looked at as a full or part earning source than the question of how much are you capable of earning via your writing and books comes in. It is not easy, since writing a book is just the first step towards earning anything out of it.

Q : Coming back to history, Aneesh do you think Aurangzeb’s motives were religious or purely political ? 

A: I would call it religio – political. Aurangzeb was a pious and devout person. His religious worldview definitely impacted his politics. At a time when people were in general much more religious, it would be hard to separate the two. He passed many religious edicts, which had nothing to do with politics. And he heavily depended on the clergy for his political hold on the far flung empire, passing many laws compliant with the Sharia, but shorn of administrative or political logic.

Many thanks Aneesh, it was a great session interacting with you. Hope we can look forward to more sessions like these and also meeting in person if possible.

Been my pleasure. Thank you.

Aneesh Gokhale’s two books can be purchased at Amazon India

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