How to Write Like an Historian
(Note: The philosopher Denis Dutton (1944-2010) was a founder of the website Arts & Letters Daily but a part of his fame, or notoriety, was attached to his stewardship of the Bad Writing Contest. Dutton declared that his interest was in finding the “most egregious examples of awkward, jargon-clogged academic prose.” The Contest awarded its “prize” to such writers as Fredric Jameson, Homi Bhabha, and Judith Butler. There is much to complain about academic writing but there is also a great deal of anti-intellectual angst directed at such prose, especially if such prose is deemed “theoretical.” My task here is neither to praise Dutton, nor to bury him, but to bring to attention academic writing that is difficult to categorize, or is challenging in a new way, or is noteworthy for its inventiveness.)
Here is a partial list of sentences that open the chapters in a new book, Mumbai Fables:
It is just before two o’clock in the afternoon in April, the hottest month of the year.
Bombay is now officially Mumbai. The colonial era is abolished, dismissed as history.
Marine Drive is no ordinary place.
On October 9, 1947, a young Muslim woman committed suicide in Bombay.
It was April 27, 1959. As the day wore on, the oppressive humidity hung like a pall over the city.
On the night of Friday, June 5, 1979, Krishna Desai was stabbed to death.
A jeep careens recklessly through Bombay’s streets. It is filled with ruthless goons of the notorious Panther gang.
“Haay Haay Haay Haay…” On the pavement by the sea, a dark thin man is smacking his blood-spattered naked back with a whip made of rags.
Mumbai Fables is the work of Gyan Prakash, who teaches at Princeton and has long been a member of the Subaltern Group of historians. These chapter openings are drawn from the following sources: a novel in English and another in Hindi, a now-defunct tabloid, a book of history, also one from urban studies, and an ordinary news-report. This eclectic range of materials is one indication of the nature of history-writing that Prakash is doing, but these openings also convey a point about form. They tell the reader right away that the author is interested both in story and in history.
This is a split discourse. The chapter pushes into the narrative waters with sentences like “It is just before two o’clock in the afternoon in April, the hottest month of the year” and sooner rather than later the engine is churning through a different order of turbulence: “Urban theorists contend that capitalist globalization has also overwhelmed the modernist city of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prototypical political movements and ideologies nursed in the heyday of modernist cities have lost their appeal, and new informational networks and ‘pirate modernity’ have marginalized older urban solidarities. As globalization produces different kinds of legal regimes and citizens, new hierarchies of cities and urban dwellers, it poses a new set of questions for citizenship, identity, and politics.” When I asked him about it, Prakash wrote to me in an e-mail that he had been interested in doing two opposed things: tracking and explaining what was found on the street and was situational, but also in examining the archive and analyzing how the historical document had been produced by historical forces. He added, “In one sense, the difference is that between the account of the everyday that one encounters in a novel, and the picture of broad forces and institutions that social sciences draw. I wanted to be able to do both, that is, read one in the other. For this reason, I did both kinds of research.”
How does this method work?
While writing about Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar (Thieves’ Market), Prakash recounts the story told by a shopkeeper about the way in which the market acquired its name: “‘You see, the name goes back to the time when the Gateway of India was built, when Queen Victoria visited Bombay.’ He continued with a tale about a theft. ‘When her ship docked, she discovered that her violin was missing.’ It was the queen who ordered that the market be rechristened Chor Bazaar after the stolen violin was found on sale on Mutton Street. ‘This is how the place got its name.’”
Having presented this story, the historian steps in. “Of course, Queen Victoria never set foot in Bombay. The Gateway was built to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1911 and was completed only in 1924.” (I love the historian’s “Of course” almost as much as I love the “stolen violin” in the shopkeeper’s story.) But Prakash quickly insists that he didn’t correct the shopkeeper’s inaccuracies. “To be sure, the story is apocryphal, and yet it contains a representation of the past, one that is very different from that which appears in the archives. Like the bazaar, which exists on the margins of the mainstream markets, this historical representation lurks outside the shadows of disciplinary history. There are no documentary records or commemorative plaques to substantiate this expression of the past; instead, it survives precariously in recycled stories as a faint impression, imperfect and obscure.”
This is writing that reveals history itself to be a fable. In such lyrical passages, you notice the historian’s achievement of high style. However, let’s be clear about what is happening here: Academic writing is shown to be less of a storytelling, and more of a poetic exercise in offering interpretation. I’d even go further and say that the journey from one to the other is neither seamless nor always desirable. But that is where we are located in the contemporary academic moment: we have been freed to tell stories, but we are labor under the imperative to fix the stories in authoritative interpretation. Fables are fine, but they are trumped by disciplinary history.
Scholars and analysts have their particular approach to storytelling. Who are Prakash’s models? The cover of the U.S. edition of Mumbai Fables shows a painting by Atul Dodiya, “Bombay Buccaneer.” The artist has painted a self-portrait relying on fragments and radical reinvention. Dodiya has used the poster from the Hindi film “Baazigar” (1993) as his inspiration. The poster had shown the film’s two female protagonists reflected in the antihero’s sunglasses. In “Bombay Buccaneer,” those women are replaced by the artists David Hockney and Bhupen Khakhar. When I looked at Dodiya’s painting, I thought a similar picture could be painted of Prakash. In this new painting, Hockney and Khakhar would be replaced by Walter Benjamin and Sigmund Freud. Like Benjamin, Prakash is committed to recording the subjective experience of the urban dweller; and like Freud, he is invested in investigating the dream-life of his subject, trying to find out what has been repressed, disguised, and displaced.
Uncannily, as in the case of “Bombay Buccaneer,” the inspiration behind Mumbai Fables is Hindi cinema. The book’s energy comes not from the author’s wide-ranging erudition and research; rather, it lies in the book’s ambition, at times faltering and at other times successful, to stay close to films. (After all, Mumbai is the film-making capital of India.) I asked Prakash about it and he sent me the following response: “Hindi films enter your sensibility. At least, they have entered mine. Cinematic imagination influences your writing. For example, when I was writing the chapter on Krishna Desai's murder and the rise of Shiv Sena, I couldn't help but view it also as a cinematic narrative, one that moved through powerful visual images. So, I tried to write it that way. Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘Angry young man’ helped me make sense of Bal Thackeray in the 1960s,
although, as I say in the book, it was the Sena chief who carved out the role that Bachchan made famous on the screen. In general, I found the directness and economy of cinematic representations very useful in disciplining my writing, in sticking to the essential and the most important.”
I recommend you read Mumbai Fables. And then, crack a beer and watch a Hindi film. Maybe, a film like “Satya.”
Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. He teaches English at Vassar College.