The Story of India by Michael Wood

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The Story of India by Michael Wood

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Category: History
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Written to accompany the BBC television series of the same name, Michael Wood's book takes us from the first human settlements on the subcontinent up to partition and the post-war economic development of the country which is home to a fifth of the world's population.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: July 2008
Publisher: BBC Books
ISBN: 978-1846074608

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I somehow managed to miss Michael Wood's television series on The Story of India. Even more unforgivably, given the prominent BBC Books logo on the cover, I failed to realise that this book was published to accompany the series.

If neither of those things were true, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it much more than I did. Coming to it as purely as a stand-alone book, I found that it really didn't engage me anywhere near as much as I'd hoped and anticipated.

The blurb describes it as a mixture of history and travelogue, and an unforgettable portrait of India…and that, for me, was the problem. It never seemed to be sure which of the three it was trying to be. The best travel writing is unavoidably redolent with the history of places encountered along the way, but the focus remains resolutely upon the journey rather than the encounters.

The concept does not work well in reverse. Focussing on the history and trying to weave in the personal experiences simply jars at best – and at worst ends up sounding pretentious or vain: it puts the author too centre-stage (an effect simply underlined by the cover pictures). I will admit that I am assuming that it is the fault of the structure, and not purely the possible fact that Michael Wood – however good a historian – is not made to be a travel writer.

I have to admit that he did not set himself an easy task. Trying to cover the vast sweep of Indian history in under 300 pages is an endeavour almost doomed to superficiality. Wood is not known for being superficial, however, and so he does try to delve. Unfortunately, he can only do so episodically, with the result that he must then cram a dynasty or two into a couple of pages.

Even more unfortunately, he has three habits which I had never picked up from watching his earlier television work, but which really began to irritate by the end of this book.

Firstly, his insistence on underlining the unreliability of the source material. Anyone with an interest in history knows that much is dependent upon speculation and interpretation. The repeated could it be? and what if presumably employed to engender some of the excitement of discovery, served only to eventually prompt the response I don't know – I'm reading this to find out. I don't want my historians to sit on the fence. I want them to come to a conclusion and give me the evidence. Of course I might then question the interpretation, but that's by way of debate. You cannot base a debate on a case of maybe yes, maybe not.

Secondly, the unnecessary insertion of as our guide reveals, the head of the temple tells me and similar attributions. These people are not explored in their own right. On the screen they may add personality and character, but as ciphers in the written work they intrude on the flow of the real story, rather than adding any idea of context. It forces the 'travel' aspect of the work into depiction of the country, without actually adding much illumination.

Thirdly, the modern comparison. Again, I appreciate that this is a fundamental of historical analysis – the drawing of parallels between what happened thousands of years ago and what happens now; the linking of lost opportunities to subsequent unintended consequences – but Wood tends to do it at every turn and with no subtlety. He leaves the reader no space in which to ponder their own connections. In places the effect was a little like reading a mystery story with the word [CLUE!] interspersed at regular intervals, just in case you missed it.

On the purely technical level, the red-pen was insufficiently used to pick up changes in line length with a resultant over-generous scattering of misplaced hyphens and unnecessarily broken words. A detail, its true, but annoying all-the-same.

So what did I like?

Those passages where the author managed to forget himself, and draw us into the stories. Some sections make wonderful reading. In retelling the legends and stories of Rama, of the Mahabharata, of the Guptas, the rise & fall of Buddhism, Shah Jahan, Wood can literally take you across the world and back in time.

I love the detail. Take the linguistic links – that pater in Greek and Latin is linked to pitar in Sanskrit is no surprise, but to find that the word for horse (asva) is the same in Sanskrit and Lithuanian is a delight.

The interplay of the main religions and sects down the centuries, depicted in the true melange of acceptance, tolerance, resistance and aggression.

The historical record from outside: reading the Roman, Greek and Chinese travellers perspectives on the India of their time.

A decent bibliography is provided, and a solid index, both of which ensure its use as a reference work.

Something of a curate's egg then. If I had to encapsulate my overall response it would be interesting rather than entertaining; quite useful but not one I'm likely to sit and read again.

This may be too harsh an assessment but I am fascinated by India and expected to love this book. I was surprised to find it quite hard-going. This is not to say that The Story of India is a 'poor' book, or even a 'poorly written' one. It isn't – but it would have benefited from a more ruthless edit.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For more unashamedly travelogue views of India try Martin Buckley's Indian Odyssey or the Magic Bus by Rory McLean.

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