Rarely can a single volume fundamentally change one's view of a major part of the planet and its complex history, but this epic account of the hundreds of states and thousands of colorful leaders who have figured in 5,000 years of turmoil and achievement on the Indian subcontinent is that invaluable exception. Not one educated, concerned, intelligent American reader in 10,000 knows a tenth of the information packed into this zesty history. That's a safe bet, and so is this: Despite the very occasional thin passage, when the historical record is bare or a succession of patricidal nawabs becomes repetitive, John Keay grabs the reader by the throat on virtually every page with another vivid portrait of an unforgettable warrior or thinker, luminous evocation of art or bejeweled pageantry, or charge of elephant troops across a blasted plain.
In short, India: A History is seductive storytelling that reveals unexpected worlds of information, beginning with fairly recent discoveries about the Harappans, who may have invented writing and the wheel well before any other culture, and continuing through a myriad of Hindu, Greek, Mongol, Moslem, and other rulers through the British Raj down to the creaky but functioning federalism of today's Indian Republic. Taking his story from Himalayas to Indian Ocean, as cultures rise and fall or destroy one another all over the subcontinent, Keay brilliantly renders tangled history into lucid narrative. Still, the 39 maps keyed to his story will be of great benefit to any reader.
Perhaps India: A History is most surprising in its introduction to Western readers of numerous personalities who clearly bestrode their times like colossi, such as the great lawgiver Ashoka of the third century or the admirable sultan Ala-ud-din a thousand years later.
Throughout his lengthy but never overlong story, Keay also illuminates religious differences, political movements and the eternal push-pull between Indian nationalism and regional aspirations. India: A History is a novelistic saga that provides Westerners with millennia of new experiences.
Charles Flowers, who lives in Purdys, New York, is writing a book about the fall of the Aztec empire.