Populist history

Encounters that Changed the World by Rodney Castleden; Futura; Price: Rs.891; 512 pp

The great historian Thomas Carlyle (1785-1881) who wrote the most definitive history of the French Revolution (1789-1792) perceptively remarked that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”. That penetrating insight could perhaps be reinforced by the observation that history is made when great men/women parley, argue, dispute and clash on battlefields, when irresistible force meets immoveable object.

This sentiment is evidently shared by UK-based author, historian, geographer and archaelogist, Rodney Castleden who has written over 30 popular books including Atlantis Destroyed, The Attack on Troy, People who Changed the World, Inventions which Changed the World, and Conflicts which Changed the World to name a few. In his latest popular history Encounters that Changed the World, Castleden recounts spiritual, extra-terrestrial, friendly, hostile, loving, chance and creative encounters between the good, bad and the ugly — iconic figures of ancient and modern history — and the monumental outcomes of these interfaces which changed the direction and destinies of societies and nations.

Given the vast number of leaders, heroes and villains who have shaped the history of the world since the first syllable of recorded time, Castleden’s choice of character actors is obviously eclectic and subjective. For example the great personality and philosophical clash between Winston Churchill, the first champion of the British Empire and Mahatma Gandhi who led the first non-violent struggle for national freedom in world history, and its fatal consequences for an empire whose famous boast was that the sun never set on its far-flung territorial possessions, is not included in this collection of great encounters. Neither is the tumultuous engagement between two of the most cruel personalities of the 20th century — Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin — which surely changed the course of world history.

However the purpose of highlighting some weighty encounters and ideological/ philosophical clashes not included in this collection is not a criticism; it is to illustrate the inevitable subjectivity of a literary enterprise such as Encounters that Changed the World (ECW). Once the reader accepts that, it transforms into a uniquely informative and absorbing collection of personal profiles of iconic figures whose acts of commission, omission, love, friendship, betrayal and creativity have shaped the contemporary world as we know it.

The relative unpopularity of history as a subject of study is the consequence of the manner in which this fascinating subject is taught in education institutions. Usually, it is taught with excessive focus — in isolation from history being simultaneously made and shaped in other countries and societies. For instance, there is little awareness that the golden age of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) was mirrored in India by the equally glorious ascendancy of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) and God knows who in China, France and Russia, the other great powers of that time. For a broader sweep of history, it would be interesting and instructive to learn whether the great rulers of the time interacted with each other, and if so to what extent. To some extent this eminently readable collection whose focus is interaction between great contemporaries who have left their impress on the history of the western world, fills this lacuna.

The narratives included in ecw are intelligently grouped into nine sections — Encounters with God (including the histories of Moses, the Buddha, the resurrection of Jesus and revelation of the Quran to Prophet Mohammed); Encounters with Aliens (The Roswell incident (1947), the Crop Circles mystery (1970s)); Great Friendships (the relationships inter se of philosophers Plato and Socrates, Hume and Rousseau, Goethe and Schiller, psychologists Freud and Jung, writers C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and music composer Michael Tippett and poet T.S. Eliot among others); Encounters with Love (Anthony and Cleopatra, poet Dante and Beatrice, Napoleon and Josephine, poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson and poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes among others).

Also included in this ingeniously conceived collection are Encounters by Chance (including Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, poet Wordsworth and the French Revolution, the Titanic and the killer iceberg); Political Encounters (notably Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill at Yalta (1945), Kennedy and Nixon, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown); Hostile Encounters (Caesar and Brutus, Issac Newton and Gottfried Lebniz; George Washington and Lord Cornwallis (1781) and Napoleon and Tsar Alexander (1812)); Creative Encounters from Antiquity to 1900 (Michaelangelo and Tomasso Cavalieri, poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, writer Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, artists Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin et al); and Creative Encounters of the 20th Century (musicians Rodgers and Hammerstein, John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Rice and Webber, Microsoft promoters Bill Gates and Paul Allen among others).

Indian readers are certain to discern the western bias of ECW. Quite patently these snapshot histories of illustrious personalities who profoundly influenced, if not changed world history, have been written for British and American audiences. Yet ECW not only provides fascinating insights into people and forces that shaped and developed western civilization, it also serves as a template for Indian historians to write popular narratives of iconic personalities who shaped the rich cultures of the nations of  South Asia and beyond. True, eminent historians may bridle at the prospect of writing popular vignettes of the ECW genre. But presenting  history in interesting formats would serve the socially beneficial purpose of connecting the world’s largest population of multi-tasking children and youth with their country’s rich and educational heritage. For it’s a self-evident truism that to build the future, youth must learn from the past.

Dilip Thakore

Madrasa myths and realities

Reading with Allah by Nilanjana Gupta; Routledge; Price: Rs.595; 192 pp

In a society in which there is severe shortage of intelligible treatises on education, there’s even less published scholarship on a fearful subject which looms large in the collective public mind: India’s estimated 40,000 madrasas or Islamic seminaries. And such literature as is to be found on the subject mainly focuses on madrasa education in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which are projected as countrywide representations. Consequently, information on patterns and changing trends in madrasa education is scanty, if accessible at all.

Therefore this in-depth study of the madrasa education system in West Bengal (pop. 80 million) where 30 percent of the population is Muslim, by Nilanjana Gupta, professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, is a welcome addition to the barren library on the subject. Despite their formidable numbers and the fact that the ‘progressive’ Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)-led Left Front government has been in power in West Bengal for over three decades, the majority of Muslims in the state lag way behind other communities — including even the scheduled castes — economically, educationally and socially.

The book’s intrinsic interest lies in the salient findings of empirical research undertaken by the author in madrasas in three selected districts of West Bengal hosting sizeable Muslim communities — South 24 Parganas, Murshidabad and Howrah. As in the rest of the state, there are three distinguishable types of madrasas in these districts: High and Senior madrasas, both affiliated with the government’s West Bengal Board of Madrasa Education, and khariji (also known as qaumi or azad) or unaffiliated schools.

The first two types of madrasas are administered and funded by the state government, which appoints teachers, pays their salaries, and prescribes their syllabuses. Over the years, Gupta points out, the High madrasas, which currently number over 500, have morphed into near-twins of state government higher secondary schools. They follow the same syllabus, except they offer Arabic as a third language.

Senior madrasas specialise in Islamic studies while also claiming to provide a basic ‘modern’ education simultaneously. They number almost 200, and are generally in pathetic condition. Classes are irregular, teachers lack commitment, and students are competent in neither Islam nor ‘modern’ subjects. Student enrolment in these madrasas is very low, and the pass rate in the final fazil degree examination is woeful.  “The education offered is therefore useless for the community,” writes Gupta.

The third type of madrasas in West Bengal, the khariji schools, are run by private individuals or Muslim organisations. Gupta observes that there has been a rapid growth in recent decades of these institutions which frame their own syllabuses and appoint their own teachers. Most of them are residential schools specialising in Islamic studies, training their students to become ulema (priests). While several of them solely provide religious education, a growing number of these schools have introduced ‘modern’ subjects, following the government-approved curriculum, in some cases till class VIII.

However most khariji madrasas propagate a literal understanding of Islam and tend to inculcate an insular mentality in students, acknowledges Gupta. But the author stresses that this tendency towards orthodoxy is “not at all connected with religious terror or even religious militancy”. She stridently counters the oft-made charge that madrasas, particularly those situated along the West Bengal-Bangladesh border, are being lavishly funded by Arab donors. Gupta also dismisses as hollow the contention made, among others, by the West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, that some of these madrasas are engaged in anti-national activities. Her study, she argues, “found no evidence of large funds being injected into the madrasa system”. Nor did she “find any reason at all to substantiate the claim that madrasas were being used as centres for training terrorists”.

The book’s concluding chapter acknowledges the ongoing debate about reform in Muslim education in West Bengal. According to the author, Muslims in West Bengal, indeed, the rest of India, are not averse to contemporary secular education. Often, she says, Muslim parents send their children to madrasas simply because they have no affordable alternative. It’s a consequence of the state’s failure to provide affordable schools in Muslim areas.

Reading with Allah is a welcome addition to the growing literature on madrasas in India which will prove to be of great use to educational planners, Muslim NGOs and, indeed, to all those interested in the subject of minority education.

Yoginder Sikand