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India: Brief History of a Civilization

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BY THOMAS R. TRAUTMANN

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011

248 PAGES, ISBN:978-0199736324, PAPERBACK

Finding the perfect textbook for a survey course can be daunting. Writing such a book is surely exponentially daunting. Thomas Trautmann, Professor of History and Anthropology at the University of Michigan, understands the first point all too well, and he picks up the challenge of the second point with his unassuming yet impressive new book, India: Brief History of a Civilization, a book that might work well as a text in an introductory or survey course on India at the college level or as supplementary reading in high school courses on India or world history. Regardless of how it might be used in the classroom, India: Brief History of a Civilization would be a useful resource for teachers and professors who would like to learn more about the origins of Indian civilization and the general outlines of Indian history, especially premodern India.

At the beginning of his book, Trautmann writes that most books that strive to succeed as a textbook in a survey course are “too long, too de- tailed, and [have] too many names and terms to master for students new to the subject.” His hope is that India: Brief History of a Civilization is short enough to be read in a few sittings yet comprehensive in coverage and that it “will give newcomers a quick overview of a very long period, so that in a short time they will acquire a mental map of the history of Indian civilization as a whole, a basic stock of names and technical terms, and a rough sense of the chronology.”

Trautmann is refreshingly humble about the challenge of covering so vast a subject as Indian civilization, and at the start of the book, he essentially warns the reader of the pitfalls at hand while he gently, even warmly, invites the reader to proceed with an open mind. The author sensibly approaches the subject with caution, eschewing spurious generalizations and grandiose claims about Indian civilization, instead preferring to emphasize the complexity of Indian civilization. He perhaps wisely avoids altogether the minefield that is Indian historiography. The book also includes a useful bibliography and a section on further reading.

The real strength of this book, however, is its conciseness. India: Brief History of a Civilization covers all that its title implies in just over two hundred pages. Although some will surely criticize the book for not spending enough time on certain things, Trautmann has managed to include a veritable cornucopia of material, all very nicely accompanied by many useful maps and effective drawings of well-known artifacts, buildings, and per- sons. Given Trautmann’s expertise in language, this important and interesting topic seems to get a bit more time than one might expect in a book such as this.

Meanwhile, historical topics such as the Partition and the 1857 Uprising get very little time. Occasionally, this reader was distracted by some unnecessary details, such as how the monsoon works—not just how it works in India but how heat inversions in general work. Sometimes the book is perhaps too dense. At times it is so full of detail that I suspect some readers will find it difficult to absorb the material or distinguish between the critical and the merely interesting. However, Trautmann does get right up to the twenty-first century, even if, as advertised, he prefers to dwell much more on the past, the distant past in particular. Thus, teachers who tend to emphasize more recent Indian civilization and history, say the past five hundred years, will likely want to provide supplementary material. In that sense, India: Brief History of a Civilization would serve very well as a text in an introductory course on Indian civilization, especially one that is more concerned with the origins of Indian civilization rather than the course of modern Indian history. India: Brief History of a Civilization may not be the perfect text for a survey or introductory course on India. But Trautmann is to be applauded for rising to the challenge and producing a worthwhile addition to the field.

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