On “The Story of India” and Family History

Last night we watched the final episode of “The Story of India”.  The fifth episode was all about the Muslim invasions and the mingling of Muslim and Hindu culture.  The sixth episode was about the British and the Independence struggle.  For both episodes, Michael Wood glossed over many of the atrocities.  He did not say much or anything about temples being defaced by Muslims or about how Hindus tried to bury some of their temples in sand to protect the temples from destruction.  He didn’t mention how the British impoverished India and even in some cases changed the culture for the worse-creating more landless peasants or putting more of an emphasis on the birth of boys because they would not recognize female rulers.  The series was beautifully photographed. In its defense, how could you compress 6,000+ years of history into 6 hours? Sometimes Michael Wood made huge leaps and he seemed much more comfortable in Pakistan and Northern India than anywhere else.  Overall, we rated the series a 6/10. 


The series did make us reflect on his family’s history.  Both sides of Satya’s family have been shaped by the Muslims and the British.  His dad’s family comes from far Northern Karnataka.  It used to be part of the Nizam state of Hyderabad.  His grandfather spoke both Urdu and Kannada and in fact was an Urdu teacher and farmer.  In his spare time he used to write Urdu poetry on cigarette wrappers.  On the outside he represented a nice mingling of Muslim and Hindu culture.  On the other hand, why did he do these things?  Survival.  He had to blend in as much with the Muslims as possible in order to avoid being killed.  He did not wear the linga, had a goatee, and basically dressed like a Muslim farmer.  After Hyderabad became part of India, there were massacres of Muslims too so that whole region suffered a lot of violence in the not so far past.  To this day, his father’s village is very poor.  Poverty meant his father had to leave his home village at the age of 12 taking his younger brother with him to further his education.


His family on his mother’s side has a different story.  They were middle-class farmers.  Unlike his father’s family, his mother’s family has a man who has memorized their family’s history and who keeps their written family history for them.   He visits every so often to update the family history and Satya says that the family history is written on copper plates.  His grandfather on this side of the family was able to go to a university.  He was a dreamer who loved theater and Shakespeare.  He loved to put on plays and discuss them with his friends.  For all that, he did have a very tough choice during the Freedom Struggle.  He was offered a job with the British civil service but turned it down.  He did have friends who were very active in the Freedom Struggle, but he seems to have tried to stay neutral. 

The most surprising thing to me is his family’s lack of bitterness.  Satya has prayed in mosques a few times with his father.  Satya speaks proudly of a tomb of a Sufi saint that is near his home in India.  His father firmly believes that religion is on the inside of a person and should be left up to the individual.  Satya did not undergo a Lingayat initiation and says that his dad’s family doesn’t know many of the traditions because they couldn’t safely practice many of them.  In some ways, you could say that the persecution his dad’s family suffered made his family more open.  The cost was high, though.

There also have been many posts in the blogosphere about Indian identity.  What makes India special?  What do Indians have in common with each other if not religion, or language?  We’ve also spoken with each other about this.  The best we can come up with is what others have said before…it is the ability to absorb the best from other cultures and make it their own and to look forward to the future while remembering the past.  What do you think being Indian means?


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Gori Girl
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 20:36:53

    I caught the last bit of the 6th episode this morning, but overall we were disenchanted enough with the series from the first episode to not follow the rest of it. From your review, it looks like it wasn’t worth our free time…

    Oh, and I’m not at all “pro-colonialism” or anything like that, but “He didn’t mention how the British impoverished India and even changed the culture for the worse.” needs to be qualified to make it a true statement. British rule certainly wasn’t the best thing ever for India, but it did leave some valuable legacies for India today. The education system, gov’t, railroad, English language, cricket… I’m sure the British, for the most part, weren’t interested in helping the Indians for the Indians’ sake, but some of what they did ended up being useful. That’s partially why India and the U.K. today have a decent political relationship. Of course, there was certainly plenty of bad to go along with the good…

    Hmm, I’m not sure I’d call cricket a valuable legacy. A beloved legacy perhaps, but worth the lives disrupted or cut short?? I was just thinking that when the British arrived, India was one of the wealthiest countries in the world and when they left one of the poorest.

    One of the Indians on the series said that the British helped make India a united country. He said that was Britain’s greatest legacy to India. Did they really? I’m not sure.

    For his family, true I haven’t heard of any awful stories of what happened to them by the British.


  2. Jessica
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 22:10:21

    “What do you think being Indian means?”

    Great question to ponder. Should make for interesting conversation material with K this week.

    I caught a few minutes of the “Story of India” and was not at all impressed with what little I saw.

    Let me know what answer K comes up with! I’m very curious.


  3. Gori Girl
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 22:20:59

    The cricket bit was a joke, I’ ll give you that. But this bit: “I was just thinking that when the British arrived, India was one of the wealthiest countries in the world and when they left one of the poorest” is, frankly, just a misunderstanding of economics and economic history on your part.

    First off, any statistic you see about India’s share of wealth in the world pre-WWII is a questionable statistic. Heck, any statistic you see about any economy pre 1870 or so could likely be off by a magnitude or more – and comparing across countries at that time period is nearly impossible to do. The data just isn’t there.

    Second, I do know that there are economic history studies that suggest that India’s share of the world wealth shrunk during roughly the same time period as the colonial rule – for instance, wikipedia says that, “[a]n estimate by Cambridge University historian Angus Maddison reveals that India’s share of the world income fell from 22.6% in 1700, comparable to Europe’s share of 23.3%, to a low of 3.8% in 1952.” Leaving aside questionable data (and it’s a big problem), this stat ignores the fact that economics isn’t a zero-sum game. Just because India doesn’t have as large a share of the world’s GDP as it previously did doesn’t mean that it’s worse off, or that it has somehow “lost” an economic race due to hobbling by the British. Pre-1700s all of the world was pre-industrial, post-Indian independence the western world was firmly industrialized, and India, well, wasn’t. Of course an agriculturally-based economy is going to have a smaller share of the world’s wealth than an industrial country – that’s why countries like to industrialize. While I’m sure the British didn’t help India to industrialize during that time period, it’s not like after they left India jumped full-throttle into a capitalistic system. Instead they went socialist, and, well, there’s plenty written about the economic changes in 1990 & 1991 to show why that was an idiotic move. As soon as the Indian government let up on some of the regulatory shackles they had put on themselves, things started moving much, much quicker.

    Finally, on a quality of life issue, I think it’d be very, very difficult to make the case that people in India – like almost all of the rest of the world – haven’t been enjoying steadily climbing living standards throughout the past century or so. While it’s possible to make the case that India’s economy would have been better off without the British Raj, it’s quite difficult to make the case that the British ruined the Indian economy. At worst they kept the economy stagnant, which put India behind relative to the parts of the world which were becoming industrialized.

    I wouldn’t disagree with you that living standards have risen in the past century. Also, going back to Satya’s family you can argue that the part of his family under British rule fared better than family members under the Nizam who was born on the subcontinent.

    I do disagree that the British did not systematically seek to weaken the Indian economy. Why else did the British force India to import British cloth? Here is a link to a Time article I think the article hits on an important point–India was not always a Third World Country and is in fact returning to the place it has been historically.


  4. Elizabeth
    Jan 21, 2009 @ 02:57:57

    I think I may be the only person who is enjoying the series. 🙂 I’ve seen 2 of the episodes online – but then again, I’m a newbie to India’s history & I’m a sucker for purty images…

    I’m glad you liked the series! It did succeed in making me want to visit India even more.


  5. Gori Girl
    Jan 21, 2009 @ 22:13:06

    The Times article actually doesn’t prove anything against my point: the fact that the relative share of India’s wealth in the world has gone down doesn’t prove anything in regards to India’s historical economic growth or lack thereof. That’s because the colonial era and industrialization happened at roughly the same period.

    If one country’s GDP grows at 2% per year, while another’s grows at 5% per year, then the first country will see its wealth relative to the second country go down. Britain & the US are good examples of this – America’s economy has eclipsed the UK’s, but that doesn’t immediately suggest that the UK is somehow less well off than it was earlier.

    Oh, and prior to the industrial revolution, every country was as poor as a third-world nation today – or worse.

    As far as the importation of cloth is concerned, I’m not arguing that the British didn’t do anything that hurt the Indian economy – that would be a stupid thing to argue. But one case – or even many – don’t actually prove that the UK actively destroyed the Indian economy.

    First off, thank you for reminding me to write with more precision and for this discussion–it has made me look at the topic more deeply. I do need to edit the original post to increase its precision.

    I still disagree…

    What is the goal of colonialization? Money. The British did not go to India and go through all the bother of killing Indian rulers, all the bother of sending British troops to die for no reason. They did it so they could control India meaning India’s resources.

    Here is a quote from Gandhi’s salt tax protest

    We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life, so that they may have full opportunities of growth. We believe also that if any government deprives a people of these rights and oppresses them the people have a further right to alter it or abolish it. The British government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom but has based itself on the exploitation of the masses, and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally and spiritually. We believe therefore, that India must sever the British connection and attain Purna Swaraj or complete independence.

    The salt tax meant that the British absolutely controlled the manufacture of salt in India. How is that not ruining an economy? It certainly made life tougher for ordinary Indians who consumed salt, Indians who manufactured it, and Indians who sold it.

    This is one example among many. These examples illustrate the British through their policies were out to control and weaken the Indian economy. Another example is the famines throughout India during the Raj. What do you think of the argument that there are not any famines where there are functioning democracies?

    Yes, true it is impossible to know how India’s economy would have developed if the British remained only equal trading partners with India, not its colonial oppressor.

    I do think it is still fair to say that the British significantly altered, and weakened the Indian economy during colonialization.


  6. Solilo
    Jan 22, 2009 @ 06:31:15

    “What makes India special? What do Indians have in common with each other if not religion, or language? ”

    Our quality to blend in with any culture. Also we let every culture thrive by itself and never overstep.

    Thanks for commenting! I like your response and think you make a great point.

    The “never overstepping” part seems to trip up a lot of other cultures.


  7. Gori Girl
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 14:34:02

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said regarding colonialism, nor how the British did actual harm to the Indian economy; my only point was that the original statement that you made was inaccurate, and then the data used to back up your original point – and the data that the Times article uses – doesn’t actually progress the argument. It may seem like an esoteric point to make, but economic statistics are misused so often (especially in journalistic world!!) that it’s a major sore point with us economists. If there’s one thing that grad school taught me, it’s that you have to be very very very careful in how you interpret data – and that most of the macro-level data coming out of third-world nations is bunk.


  8. Vikram
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 17:14:31

    MmeetsK, did the series discuss the full brutality of the caste system ?

    For most Indians, being Indian means trying to break free or being suppressed of a 2500 year legacy of total suppression.

    In my opinion no. Perhaps someone has a different opinion?

    My sense of the series was that he was just doing the barest outline of Indian history and showing a lot of gorgeous scenery. He played everything very safe. The full brutality of anything was mostly glossed over-caste, the Muslims, the British, the Portugese, brutal Hindu rulers, etc.

    The most brutal parts shown/discussed were Ashoka’s attacks in Orissa and a scene from the Gandhi movie where the British opened fire on a group of penned in peaceful protesters. Oh, and how one Muslim ruler killed his brother and his brother’s son.


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