How to Write Like an Historian

069114284X.01.MZZZZZZZ Amitava Kumar in Bookslut:

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?