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India: A History

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  3,053 ratings  ·  219 reviews
John Keay's India: A History is a probing and provocative chronicle of five thousand years of South Asian history, from the first Harrapan settlements on the banks of the Indus River to the recent nuclear-arms race. In a tour de force of narrative history, Keay blends together insights from a variety of scholarly fields and weaves them together to chart the evolution of th ...more
Paperback, 608 pages
Published 2000 by Grove Press
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Randol Hooper
Dec 25, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: my-books
I purchased this book looking for a good survey of Indian history. I have a degree in history and I am perfectly familiar with the heavy, ratkilling monograph. I am in no way intimidated by them and sat down to tackle Keay's work like I would any other such book.

The book wouldn't let me.

One comes to expect certain things of a historical survey. That is what this book purports to be. I expect to see chronology, events follow in sequence as best as possible. I don't expect, for example, to be read
...more
Tom Nixon
Jul 27, 2011 rated it liked it
How do you boil down thousands of years of civilization, empires, kingdoms and conquests too numerous to mention here into one book? I haven't the faintest idea how he manages to pull it off, but in India, A History John Keay does exactly that- and more to the point, does it extremely well.

This book represents the best one volume answer to everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. Starting with the earliest civilizations (the Harrapans of the Indus Valley) and wendi
...more
Scott Ray
Aug 05, 2011 rated it it was ok
Ok....so it has been on my wall for a year and I still have only read 1/2. I am officially giving up. I will probably continue to read parts on and off but this book is too encompassing.

India is far to eclectic to try and cover it's thousands of years of history for all parts into one book. The south and the north have very different histories. The rise and fall of kingdoms to be covered in one book comes across very rushed and hard to follow.

I would find it much more beneficial to pick an area
...more
Katia N
Oct 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Without particular prior knowledge, I wanted to get an overview of the history of India. And this book was very effective for my purposes. It encompasses around 5000 years of Indian history and it does not focus more on the later periods, which was an asset for me. Obviously, it is not comprehensive, but it is cohesive and contains a lot of interesting nuggets of information, especially about the older periods where there was no written evidence per se. In the later periods, I would prefer more ...more
Dmitri
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: india
John Keay points out in his introduction that given the lack of source materials and specialist nature of recent discoveries, a current overview is needed for Indian history prior to the 13th century. If a generalist approach is needed, Keay is a most likely writer to provide it. His study of India over the past fifty years and eloquent writing style add a shine to this work that other more academic renderings have failed to achieve. Despite concerns about the survey format, I found it was a goo ...more
Manas Gupta
Apr 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Keay's India: A History is an insightful book. Insight into the past of the vast Indian subcontinent. To pack 5000 years of diffusive and tumultous history into 650 pages seems unattainable but Keay manages to do it, and impressively.

Keay's meticulousness and resourcefulness are quite evident in the book. Referenced from many excellent sources - old and new; western and indian - it is extremely informative and fluent. It's like an old wise man sitting beside you and recounting what all he ha
...more
Sean McKenna
Feb 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
Going into my first visit to India, I realized that I had almost no knowledge of its history, so I was seeking a readable single volume that would bring me somewhat up to speed. I had followed a similar approach with Leonard Thompson's "A History of South Africa" and very much enjoyed it. While I enjoyed Keay's book as well, it became clear pretty early on that it would be a bit more of a slog.

The fundamental difference, of course, is that while South Africa and India have both been inhabited fo
...more
bkwurm
Oct 07, 2010 rated it it was ok
The main problem with this book is its scope. Purportedly a book about India's history, it is quickly apparent that there is hardly any available data on which a plausible history for the three thousand plus years BCE. While this is no fault of the author, it does disappoint a little to find that instead of an actual history, what is provided is founded largely on myth.

Where facts were available, the book suffered from the fact that it was extremely difficult to relate what was happening in Nort
...more
Andrew Fish
Jun 21, 2014 rated it it was ok
The history of a subcontinent is bound to be a complex affair. The more people, the more going on, and the more needs to be simplified and cut down to make a manageable volume. Most historians look for trends: if you're writing a history of Europe, for example, then the Black Death, the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment are all pan-continental developments which can be discussed either in broad terms or through the prism of one country's experience.

Maybe for India these developments don't
...more
Sandeepan Mondal
Jun 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
John Keay has done a wonderful job in condensing the varied and diverse history of India in a 600 page book. The description of various major and minor periods of Indian history have been dealt with good hands but the flow of narration is a little difficult to get hold of sometimes. Also, the reader who is totally unaware of Indian history (this being the first instance he has laid his hands upon an INDIAN HISTORY book) would be a little disappointed since the author, going by his writing style ...more
Sarah
Jan 21, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Alright. I give up. Here's my most-of-the-way (and slow-going) review.

The author knows what he's talking about. He has taken centuries and centuries of data and compiled it into a logical timeline, showing the rise and fall of the dynasties throughout Indian history. He takes events that seem isolated and unimportant and places them in a historical context - a valuable skills for any historian.

The problem is that while the author clearly has a fine grip on the facts (or at least the evidence an
...more
Frank
Sep 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
In order to truly understand a country's history, one must also understand the country's language and culture. While I am still far from where I'd like to be in terms of understanding India, this book provided a great introduction on the key events throughout this country and its neighboring areas from c1900 BC to today. Throughout this journey, I experienced many emotions: amazement by the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which were canonized during the Gupta Empire during the Golden Age; shocked by t ...more
Luke
This book is kinda terrible. The beginning was ok, and the end was decent, but everything after Harappa and before the Mughals was absolutely brutal to read. This makes some sense given that India has never been a unified state until independence, although it did come close under the Mughals and the British Raj. Because of India's disunity, it is difficult to write a historical narrative (especially when earlier documents are scattered, if extant at all). But, surely there would have been some b ...more
Sunil
Mar 05, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics-history
A fascinating subject was unfortunately rendered extremely dull. John Keay’s prose is akin to a stream of conscious. This might suite a novel but it does not suit a history book at all. I want to know who the important people and events were and a bit about them. I thus feel very let down by this. Keay likes to introduce people with little background build up and then get rid of them just as quickly. He likes to drop in Nehru and Gandhi when talking about civilisation 2000 years before their tim ...more
Gisselle
Aug 21, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A fantastic introduction to Indian history. Not just a play by play account of who did what, Keay manages to write about issues in the historiography of India and interpretative changes clearly, and events are often written in a compelling (and sometimes humorous) way. I am in no way a scholar of South Asian history, so perhaps for someone who knows more it wouldn't help as much, but as someone who has read plenty of history books (academic and pop) this one is one of the better ones.
Ernesto Alaniz
Oct 03, 2009 rated it it was ok
The history seems to be conjecture until we get to Alexander the Great. It is hard to construe a narrative out of next to nothing. Once we enter recorded history, the book actually becomes interesting.
Samuel Peck
Have read my fair share of 1000-paged history texts, and have also read John Keay's lesser-known China: A History - so am no stranger to the genre.

But perhaps because India's history (especially pre-Mughal) is so fragmented and chaotic and undocumented - the bulk of this book meant wading through a confusing maelstrom of names, places, dynasties, Sanskrit terms and conjectures without being anchored to any clear historical trend. One can finish entire chapters and still have only a very vague n
...more
Abhaga
Jan 31, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I started reading this book last February, I had hoped to get done in about a month. Taking copious notes, stopping to read Wikipedia in between, I soon realized something.

At 600 pages, I had assumed that the book would be really comprehensive. So it had to be read slowly, with a lot of deliberation, fact checking. But as we progressed from prehistory, to Vedic age and then to Gupta period, it became clear that 600 pages were not only insufficient but paltry. As we approached more recent t
...more
Hrishikesh
This tome attempts something very ambitious - to summarize the history of India from pre-historic times to "the boom of the 21st century" (sic). In the end, it ends up being precisely that - a summary. A good book as an introduction to Indian history, but not recommended for an attempt to dig deeper.

The biggest negative of this book is that its approach is far too top-down. There is a virtual absence of subaltern history; particularly as the time-line tends towards Modern India; there is a decen
...more
Virag Padalkar
Jan 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I would have thought it would be impossible to compress a history of the Indian subcontinent into so few pages. But John Keay has done that with a certain degree of success. From the Harappan civilization in 3000BC to modern-day India at the end of the 20th century, Keay has done a remarkable job in presenting a coherent flow to an otherwise mad-cap tale.

Since Goodreads is a forum for readers, I will not let my Indianness bring in a certain bias to my review and shall stick to a review of the bo
...more
Mike Edwards
Aug 10, 2012 rated it liked it
A broad "names and dates" overview of South Asian history, starting from earliest civilization and moving all the way up through the 20th century. Keay does an admirable job of synthesizing a wide variety of historical sources. The book can be a bit dry at times when describing the interplay of the many states and empires, and it could definitely use more maps and dynastic charts when describing the pre-Mughal eras. The author seems most comfortable, and the writing the most fluid, when he break ...more
Lucas
Nov 18, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Keay's well-cited history of the sub-continent reads a bit like India itself: big and messy and difficult to quite pin down. In a country, this is an understandable quality; in a book, less so. Despite having read 600 pages of Indian history, I don't feel as I'm much better equipped to understand India (nor Pakistan or Bangladesh, for that matter) than I was at the beginning. I suppose this is a tall order for such an immense subject, but I suppose I'm demanding.

Having said that, it really is e
...more
Sharang Limaye
May 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Easily the best book one has read across genres in the last few years. History can be boring for some what with the plethora of dates and royal names. But John Keay makes the subject as racy as a Ken Follet thriller. He describes a span of about 5,000 years over 600 pages but never does the reader feel a lack of detail. There are no biases of nationality or faith or ideology. Keay's analyses of factors that shaped the Indian subcontinent are insightful and must have involved back-breaking resear ...more
Frank Peters
The book covers the entire history of India, from the most ancient times to the near present. As a result, the history tends to be brief and unfortunately dry. Thankfully the book was well written, and was therefore somewhat interesting. I greatly appreciate the effort the author took to outline areas of debate, presenting both sides. I certainly understand modern India more as a result of completing the book.
Bharath
Aug 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Spectacular! Spell binding!

This is THE book for all amateur history buffs. History was never so fascinating, John Keay has a knack with words and facts. He chisels them, embellishes them with interesting anecdotes, polishes them and finally leaves it to the reader to paint his own picture on it. Vivid, sprawling, ambitious and worthy of an epic. Truly is a classic and leaves the reader wanting for more.
Gunajit Haloi
Oct 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The most comprehensive, up to date and objective history of India that I have read till date. Any student of Indian history will be enriched by reading this book. A monumental work, yet one that is eminently readable and immensely enjoyable.

Only shortcoming I found was that the narrative felt a bit rushed at times. But that may be unavoidable considering this is a single volume history of a subcontinent spanning 6 millenia and not missing any notable event that. Highly recommended
Nelson Minar
Feb 18, 2015 rated it did not like it
Hate to be so negative, but I only managed a third of the book before I totally lost interest and quit. Bought this to read ahead of a trip to India. It started off strong and I'm glad I read the section on Ashoka. But then it got deep in the weeds of the details of specific princes who are only remembered for one specific thing. Too much detail, not enough story. In retrospect I probably wanted the 200 page history of India, not the 600 page one.
Harini Srinivasan
Oct 31, 2011 rated it did not like it
Maybe I'm not being fair to this book. I confess I've read only the introduction. But it struck me as being so patronizing, I couldn't get through any more. Of late, I've been prejudiced against any book that talks about the Aryan Invasion with a straight face. Come on, who really believes that rubbish any more, and why are we perpetuating it?
Jim Dudley
May 19, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I haven't failed to finish a book for many years but this one is so replete with references to things which I don't know or need to research separately that I can't get through it. Defeated by page 200. It's just not interesting, the chronology is all over the place and the geography and reference material far too obscure for enjoyment. Back to John Julius Norwich for history I think.
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Dr. Afshan Hashmi...: Review of the book about Indian History 1 5 Aug 12, 2014 04:16PM  

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John Keay (born 1941) is an English journalist and author specialising in writing popular histories about India and the Far East, often with a particular focus on their colonisation and exploration by Europeans.

John Keay is the author of about 20 books, all factual, mostly historical, and largely to do with Asia, exploration or Scotland. His first book stayed in print for thirty years; many others
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