To say that a book is great is to implicitly compare it to others in its ilk, and pass judgment - that in ways that matter, the book in hand deals with the subject better. If you were to follow that narrow reasoning, you might be pardoned for not calling India After Gandhi a great book. Because, you see, there is nothing else quite like it.
This is one of those wonderfully rare things in the published world - a book about a tremendously significant subject that somehow no one has written much about. This is, in my mind, the first comprehensive history of modern, post-independence India. 'For Indian children', writes Guha with the refreshing clarity evident throughout the book, 'history comes to an end with independence and partition ... the past is defined as a single immovable date: 15 August, 1947. Thus, when the clock struck midnight and India became independent, history ended, and political science and sociology began.' India After Gandhi gets the grand story of India's history moving again.
The book starts around Independence, though it studiously avoids the trappings of indulging in stories of post-independence euphoria that have been talked about at length elsewhere. Don't expect to come across the Tryst with Destiny speech here for example. Instead, the reader is taken on a factual ride through the horrors of partition, the refugee camps, the parricide. And a pattern starts to develop: Guha does not stop at the regular tourist traps of the India story. Events are described sans melodrama. The killing of the Gandhis (the Mahatma, and Indira), the Chinese invasion, are all described in terms of the factual history around them. No beating of the chest, no attempt to look for conspiracy theories, or even 'reasons' why. You come out of India After Gandhi armed with the facts, but without a false sense that all of it somehow 'makes sense' and falls into a logical storyline.
I found India After Gandhi enriching in more ways than I can possibly cover here:
There were the issues I just did not know as much about as I thought, or I had never really thought about. For instance, why did India end up having states organized along linguistic lines? What were the key arguments for and against this approach?
Then there were the issues that I had a reasonable understanding of, and India After Gandhi filled out the blanks, and changed some of my existing perceptions. For instance, what truly was the series of events in Kashmir that led to the current impasse in the beautiful valley?
And then there were blasts from the past - names, places, phrases that brought back a flood of memories. Jarnail Singh Bhindaranwale and Sant Longowal, Charan Singh, Rajiv Goswami ... names that evoked so much passion at one time ... now only vague memories.
But most of all, the book left me with an appreciation of how, brick by brick, the independent nation of India was built, is being built. And for that alone, I tip my hat off to Ramchandra Guha. Thank you, sir, for writing this book.