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Cambridge Concise Histories

A Concise History of Modern India

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In a second edition of their successful Concise History of Modern India, Barbara Metcalf and Thomas Metcalf explore India's modern history afresh and update the events of the last decade. These include the takeover of Congress from the seemingly entrenched Hindu nationalist party in 2004, India's huge advances in technology and the country's new role as a major player in world affairs. From the days of the Mughals, through the British Empire, and into Independence, the country has been transformed by its institutional structures. It is these institutions which have helped bring about the social, cultural and economic changes that have taken place over the last half century and paved the way for the modern success story. Despite these advances, poverty, social inequality and religious division still fester. In response to these dilemmas, the book grapples with questions of caste and religious identity, and the nature of the Indian nation.

337 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 2001

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About the author

Barbara D. Metcalf

9 books12 followers
Barbara Daly Metcalf is a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Davis. She is a specialist in the history of South Asia, especially the colonial period, and the history of the Muslim population of India and Pakistan. She previously served as the Dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of California, Davis, and as the Alice Freeman Palmer Professor of History at the University of Michigan (2003-2009). She was the president of the Association for Asian Studies in 1994 and the president of the American Historical Association in 2010-11.

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5 stars
83 (20%)
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160 (39%)
3 stars
128 (31%)
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26 (6%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 34 reviews
Profile Image for Senthil Kumaran.
164 reviews16 followers
May 18, 2020
I found this book totally captivating. I have followed Indian history through books, and have been witnessed incidents taking shape, like Babri Masjid Demolition, Killing of Rajiv Gandhi, Curfew, Coalition Government, Gujarat Violence and burning of the train, the rise of Cyberabad, etc.

The details provided in this book still captured my attention. The authors do a wonderful job of providing a "concise history of modern India", and trying to present the facts as they are.

If we come across any review that either accuses the book of having some prejudice by labeling it with terms like "British authors", "leftist" or "does not capture greatness" or "congress" etc, we can safely assume that the review-writer was standing in front of the mirror rather than in front of text and words.

Reading history, I often realize that Truth can be stranger than Fiction. This book share ample anecdotes along those fronts.

The first thing I realized was - British East India Company had a much difficult time establishing trade relations in the subcontinent than French or Portuguese who had arrived earlier because India under Mughal had some resistance going on. They established pure trade relations, incurring a loss, buying cows from India, and facing criticism from Britain. The company did not want to give up on the business opportunity with India and incurred losses for decades.

Then we notice how Britain captured the whole of India. Robert Clive and Mir Jafir, a name that has become eponymous with a traitor start the conquer from South to Nawabs of Bengal. The loot and wealth of India were too tempting for the British to give up or lose control to locals.

I came to know through this book that for administering India, British setup "Indian Civil Services", the highest administrative body in India, which trains qualified candidates in both Britain and India through rigorous exams. The motivation was for that administrative body to report directly to the British state. The "Indian Civil Services" served the system very well, continued after Independence, and reporting structure replaced to the democratically elected official instead of the British state.

The book is a whirlwind, each capture captures multiple events in a century or decades.

I came to know that Mohammed Ali Jinnah, had requested Pakistan to be consisting of multiple divergent states in India which had Muslim Majority (like Hyderabad, Kashmir, parts of Punjab, Bengal, etc). He very well knew that having a separate country with interspersed states was never going to be practical, he wanted to use that demand as negotiation tactic. However, Nehru and congress never gave into it. They receded two states of Pakistan on religious identity. Nehru declared during Independence that India was not built on religious identity and is not a religious state, thus keeping the plan for India with all the states in order.

It seems like India had decided that after independence they will have some money for nation-building purposes. Since India got partition, I came to know that, it was Gandhi who, in his just tendencies, requested for 40 million pounds to be given to Pakistan as it's share.

I had known about the factors leading to Independence a little, but I didn't realize that the British were spending roughly 1000 million pounds per year on India after the war (like supporting Indian soldiers, infrastructure), which had proven economically very costly to hold on.

The book also deals with more recent events, and particularly things that struck me was

a. Keezhaldi massacre and how no one was ever brought to justice.
b. No one was brought to justice for the Gujarath train massacre. The chief minister, Modi was let go by the then government in power, BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

It is often that case that being in political majority determined the outcome of the punishable act, and humanitarian qualities like justice didn't have a say against power.

As an aside, I could relate to the above statement even in the 2020 Delhi Riots. BJP government did not bring anyone to justice. The same argument holds worldwide too wherein, in the USA, cronyism is so prevalent in republican led administration, and bringing someone to justice for the wrongdoing seems also non-applicable if the person has power.
Profile Image for Priscilla.
56 reviews
February 9, 2015
A great resource for South Asian history, which is quite a feat! India has a very complex history and it was very hard for me to crack into it. However, the book provides a great reference point and overview to refer back to. The only setback of this book was the dry writing style.
Profile Image for Ameya Krishna B.
9 reviews9 followers
June 3, 2022
Eloquently biased. Misleading and politically prejudiced. Not worth the time spent reading this.

As a person familiar with Indian history through several similar books from notable authors, I can clearly see that a "foreign hand" unfamiliar with India and its culture has written the book. Clearly a product of incomplete research. At some point, I could see a political bias too.

I'm surprised to realize how incomplete the research of these "highly qualified" authors while writing this book has been. Several baseless assumptions have been made regarding the character and actions of Subhas Chandra Bose and MK Gandhi, and an unnecessary love towards a certain political organization can be clearly observed. Also, there are clear misunderstandings and incomplete definitions of Indian terms (mostly of Sanskrit), which can evidently be seen in the Glossary.

Disappointed, to say the least.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Tarun Gupta.
9 reviews7 followers
April 4, 2012
D. Metcalf has tried well to present the Indian history in a very small book. be concise and sense of completeness is very hard to accomplish. This book is base for awareness building about India.
Profile Image for Sanchit Mall.
4 reviews1 follower
December 29, 2021
Not sure if I'd call it a neutral POV but it's pretty comprehensive nonetheless.
Profile Image for আহমেদ আবরার.
578 reviews12 followers
July 24, 2020
I have read only thirty-plus pages (1940s), that is exiguous obviously to rate this three hundred-plus book. But I had to read it under a nonmajor course, and discovered Barbara Metcalf's one an easy-going prose. Keen to cover her less acclaimed books on South Asia.
Profile Image for Bilal Shakir.
22 reviews
September 3, 2019
This book fell short of its already low expectations. The Metcalf's don't even attempt to couch their pandering to Indian intelligentsia in their framing of historical issues and debates. Far from possessing even a semblance of what might be some version of a definitive history of modern India, the book is not much more than a "take-one" for the uninitiated during events or receptions hosted by the Dehli diaspora or at literature festivals hosted within India. Admittedly, this is precisely the function this book was written to serve.
Profile Image for Athul.
Author 2 books6 followers
February 15, 2016
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Deekshita Kacham.
23 reviews1 follower
July 26, 2022
This book delivered exactly what was promised, in an engaging, story-telling manner: a concise history of modern India. As an Indian born and educated in the United States, I was searching for book that not only provided a general overview of my homeland's history, of which I was deprived of for so long in the states, but to also shed light on current political phenomena, most notably the precipitation of the BJP and Narendra Modi's reign. Upon finishing this book, I believe that India functions best as a plurality, embracing the diverse identities that make up its population. The esteemed leader Akbar, of the Mughal Empire, embraced this theory wholeheartedly, and sustained years of peace and effervescence. When the British Raj eventually ruled over the subcontinent, they failed to thoroughly understand and meet the needs of Indians, and were thus hated deeply by most of the population and created fissures in the subcontinent's plurality. Gandhi, while far from perfect, especially in denouncing the oppressed status of "untouchables" and Muslims, seemed to also value the diversity of the country, and his successor, Jawaharlal Nehru, attempted to bring this vision to life as the first prime minister. However, the Congress party, of which Nehru and Gandhi were part of, failed to meet the needs of the ever-changing population in the following years, which was one of many factors that lead to the modern supremacy of the BJP. I hope that one day, our country can again tap into the strength of its diversity, sustaining a better quality of life for its increasing population.
11 reviews
May 27, 2020
Book is easy to read and having enough information for a starter. Babur's, East India Company, Britain colonial policies, foundation of Pakistan, demolition of the Babri Masjid, Kashmir-Aksai Chin problem, Sikh People, Congress Party, Nehru family, RSS are some of the interesting points from the book.

Profile Image for Remy.
350 reviews32 followers
March 11, 2018
Informative, but a lot of information for someone with almost zero prior knowledge about India. I suggest for those who want an introduction to India, to read something else first, perhaps even just a quick Wiki scan.
Profile Image for Grant.
976 reviews4 followers
November 17, 2020
This is, as promised, a concise history. It is a useful overview, either for those with a limited interest in the subject or in preparation for more detailed study. The authors' decision to start their text with the Mughals, moving them from "medieval" to "early modern," is useful.
February 14, 2022
Insightful look at the history of India and the greater area (Pakistan, Bangladesh). It was great that the author weaved the history into a story manner. Highly recommended book if you want to start reading about Indic history.
Profile Image for Steven.
696 reviews6 followers
November 8, 2022
Pretty concise history of India and how it has come to its present configuration. Still sometimes the writing was dry here and there, but overall it helped send me in the directions to learn certain parts more confidently.
Profile Image for Andrew Clough.
174 reviews7 followers
February 25, 2020
Went a little far out of its way to be charitable to the Mughals but I was looking for a book to put 19th and 20th century India in context and it did a fine job at that.
Profile Image for Jason.
1,079 reviews8 followers
December 8, 2020
Insightful in a lot of places - spends a lot of time on the dilemmas of post-Independence India (and the other countries in the Indian subcontinent).
13 reviews
April 16, 2021
It's a concise history like the title says. The book gives an outside-in perspective of the country's historic accounts untinged by the usual nationalist narrations that is typical of conventional school text books.
4 reviews4 followers
September 2, 2014
I think it's an extremely hard task to write a book retelling history - you never know how close to reality or 'truth' what you are about to say is.

This little book traces Indian history from the start of the Mughal dynasty till present day 0 keeping an audience engaged through the tales of the times, and to know exactly what events to emphasise and which to eliminate is a difficult task. I found it really interesting because it covers all of the history that I studied in school and sort of refreshed my memory. It also brought to light some little things that my history text book didn't tell me. Also, my history textbook stopped at independence. I was happy to read contemporary history through this book.

I especially liked the authors' references to literature, music, cinema and pop culture of the times. The movement of these allied arts through history is rarely traced in a standard history book - and for the authors to do it with the limited content they put together was commendable.

But, if you are looking for a detailed explanation of the events that took place in our past, then this is not the book you should turn to. Very often they speak of an event without elaborating on the reasons of why it took place or its specific impact.

Written by two independent authors, there are many instances we feel that their narration is biased to a held perception - and this would be with any author of history. Everytime you read of an event, it would sound different based on the author's belief. For my part, there were some parts that I agreed with, as well as areas where I didn't agree with the view point offered.

I'm not sure if I learnt a great deal of new things, and I don't know if someone completely unaware of Indian history would be able to put the pieces together of the story in the book. So, read with caution!
Profile Image for Scott Strand.
2 reviews
November 11, 2016
It's exactly as advertised: concise (very), historical (in the academic sense of the term), and focused on Modern India (with regrettably little exploration of the profound depths of political and religious history that led to modern events).

The Metcalfs deserve applause for condensing 450 years of history - in a region better classified as a continent than a country - into 362 pages. More than a year a page! Seriously, wow! They cover the highlights, the major figures (their sketch of Nehru's rise, political style, and psychological motivations is particularly nice, and a nice counterpoint to popular culture's intensive focus on Gandhi as the champion of Indian independence), and the key social and political fault lines well. Yet there is remarkably shallow exploration of the many political colors and character in each of India's regions, and India's post-independence dialogue between Hindus and Muslims is distilled down -mostly - to a too-simplistic narrative of Muslims=persecuted, Hindus=persecutors.

I picked this book up for my flight to India as an introduction to the country. It did not disappoint. I'm now conversant in Indian history and politics. That said, when I finished the book I left unsatisfied and a bit bored. I wished it were twice as long and written with more grace and color, with more exploration of pre-Mughal political and military history on the continent, and greater depth on the dialogue between Hindus and Muslims...ideally, from the point of view of the Muslim community itself. That would have satisfied.
Profile Image for Colin.
210 reviews8 followers
September 21, 2014
India is a really fascinating country. Unfortunately, this is possibly too concise to really do it justice. There is little time to cover many things in great detail, which leads to it being rather difficult to get in to. Additionally, I wasn't too impressed by the quality of the prose. There are several sentences that are very heavy on subclauses, with some that could do with being left to the end of sentences or cut out entirely. Nevertheless, in a short page limit Metcalf seems to do a good job of giving an overview of one of the undoubted superpowers of the future. The chapters on 20th century India are particularly interesting.
80 reviews
October 2, 2011
This is not a recommendation to pick this up unless you have an assigned interest in the subject, but for what it is, it's probably the best survey available. Indian history is very challenging and ridiculously diverse - probably the most difficult history I've ever tried to wrap my brain around. A good survey is useful to have on hand.
Profile Image for Neelroop.
18 reviews9 followers
January 1, 2010
Read it on my trip to India, it's extremely well written and surprisingly engaging. The authors depict India's history from an academic perspective and put events in a global context, enabling the reader to understand the nation and its current sociopolitical environment.
Profile Image for Xianglong Yu.
5 reviews
June 22, 2014
From pre-colonial India, the East India Comapny Raj, to the Nehru's speech, this book presents the ups and downs of the modern India society, triumph and tradedy, shinning or others. That is a good story 'with clear and friendly eyes'.
9 reviews1 follower
April 8, 2016
This book was very difficult to read, it was similar to a textbook. However it was interesting and covered every detail of Indian history. It was organized in a way that you could skip directly to the part of history you want to learn about.
Profile Image for Deb.
17 reviews1 follower
Want to read
November 17, 2007
I won't have even started this, I think, till after I return from Hyderabad. Ah well. A gift from Chris' parents, I'm sure it's a good primer on Indian history.
65 reviews1 follower
Want to read
June 27, 2015
This is informative, fairly short (i.e. fits my attention span), and interesting! I read it chapter by chapter for a class, but I'd like to think I would have read it on my own.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 34 reviews

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