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Visiting Scholar Creates a Passage to India

David A. Washbrook

By Jennifer L. Mnookin

You've read "A Passage to India" and "The Jewel in the Crown." You've seen the movie "Gandhi" twice. You have Indian tapestries on your walls, and your roommates complain about the pervasive scent of incense. You love samosas, lamb curry, and tandoori chicken. And now, you've finally decided that you'd better take some courses on India.

Until recently, Harvard wouldn't have been much help.

While Harvard does offer courses in Indian languages, literature and religions, it has almost completely ignored South Asian history, politics and economics.

But for the next couple of years, fans of Indian history are in luck, as one of the foremost India scholars is visiting. David A. Washbrook, of the University of Warwick in England, is at Harvard this year, and may remain here for up to two more years.

In addition to teaching History 1810, "South Asia from 1700 to 1947," this semester, Washbrook will teach a Core Curriculum course on modern India in the spring. Historical Studies A-32, "The Making of Modern India," will count for both Foreign Cultures and Historical Studies A. Washbrook is also involved with a comparative seminar on China and India at the Fairbank Center.

"I think that as a major teaching and research university, Harvard does have a duty to cover all parts of the world," says the British professor. "India is quite large. It has a substantial population, and through its history, it has had a great many dealings with the west. It shouldn't be quite so neglected as it is."

"For Harvard not to cover one of the great continuing civilizations of the globe seems to me to be an enormous gap," says government professor Roderick MacFarquhar, a China expert who was instrumental in creating the comparative Fairbank seminar.

While MacFarquhar says he started the seminar in large part to offer Sinologists a new perspective, he also hoped the seminar would generate additional interest in South Asia. "One of the reasons for starting the seminar was to see whether or not there is substantial interest in Indian studies, and whether Harvard should do something about its failure to provide courses in the subject."

Government Professor James G. Manor from the University of Leicester in England is another India specialist visiting partly for the comparative Fairbank seminar. While Manor and Washbrook were appointed through their respective departments, their visits are being financed by grants through the Fairbank Center, MacFarquhar says.

"We very much hope that this will generate intellectual and fiscal enthusiasm in Indian studies," says History Professor Simon Schama. "I'm delighted with Washbrook. He's an extremely gifted, subtle, and powerful historian."

Washbrook, who received all his degrees from Trinity College in Cambridge, England, has spent about three years in India doing research.

The India specialist says his current interest is in the social history of Indian capitalism, especially the 18th century merchant trade economies. "I started out being interested in 20th century history, and I've been tracking back. Now I'm in the 18th," he says.

Beyond Imperialism

Scholarship on India today is beginning to look beyond the effects of British imperialism, Washbrook says. "There is increasingly a generation gap among Indian scholars. The older ones, both Indian and British, sees the issue as nationalism versus imperialism. The younger generation, of which I am a part, sees the questions more in terms of class, capitalism, and social change," says the 38-year-old scholar.

"It's a very good thing we have a person of his distinction here. Washbrook is a first-rate scholar," says John L. Clive, Kenan Professor of History and Literature.

Students in Washbrook's class are also appreciative of his expertise. "He doesn't make broad generalizations; he tries to characterize things very precisely. You know that what he's saying is important." says Saul Weiner '88, a student in History 1810. "He doesn't tell jokes--he's not a funny sort of guy. He doesn't try to sell the course. He just gets up there and goes right to it."

Weiner says the course especially focuses on the misconceptions of the British role in India. "One of the major functions of history is to create a cultural identity. The modern Indian identity in large part comes out of the freedom struggle," Washbrook explains.

The Doorway to India

Students didn't bang on the door saying, 'Why aren't there more courses on Indian history?''' recalls Schama, a former head tutor of the history department. "But," he adds, "India did seem to be the one area that was obviously missing."

Although Schama discounts outside pressure, most students agree that the absence of South Asia courses is the result of a significant oversight in Harvard's curriculum. "I was really surprised at the lack of any real offerings in Indian studies, especially history and politcs," says Anupam Chander `89, an Economics concentrator who is minoring in government.

Harish Kavirajan '89, who is planning to take Washbrook's class next semester, says, "Most Indian studies courses at Harvard are literature and language, with a few in religion. The history of India doesn't really exist here, and there is a definite need for the historical perspective."

"South Asia seems quite genuinely neglected at Harvard. There isn't anyone permanent in politics, and as far as I know, there's no one in economics," Washbrook says, adding that while Harvard has committees on Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, it has no equivalent for India.

MacFarquhar says that he is especially surprised by Harvard's lack of India coverage for two reasons. "First of all, India is a genuine experiment in democracy as we understand it. It's one of the few countries in the developing world in which democracy has actually worked." says the Government professor. "Second, India is a much more open country, and is much easier to study than many other societies in the developing world."

"In a way," Washbrook explains, "Americans' neglect of India is understandable-the South Asian community in the United States is substantially smaller than other Asian communities."

Schama says he feels that courses on South Asia are more natural in the English university curriculum because of England's imperialist connections with that area of the world.

Livelier Than Kings and Queens

"I got interested in India in large part because of a particular teacher I had at Cambridge. He seemed to be the only person studying something that was truly alive," Washbrook explains. "I was very bored with European kings and queens and all that stuff."

"One of the advantages of being in England is that the best historical archive of material on India is in London," says Washbrook. "But Widener has done remarkably well in keeping up, especially given that Harvard hasn't been teaching much on India."

Washbrook added, though, that he was not at Harvard to do research so much as to teach. In fact, he says he plans to take on an even heavier teaching load. "I'm quite keen to teach another, more specialized course next year. Otherwise, it would be rather a letdown if you did happen to get interested in this stuff, and there were only introductory courses available.

But Washbrook admits that his enthusiasm for teaching Harvard students might be tempered before next fall. "Harvard students seem excellent. It may be that I see the best of it, because only those who are sincerely interested in the subject are taking my course this semester. Maybe after the experience of teaching a core course, my views will be very different."

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