Windows into the Past: Life Histories and the Historian of South Asia

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Judith M. Brown, one of the leading historians of South Asia, provides an original and thought-provoking strategy for conducting and presenting historical research in her latest book, Windows into the Past. Brown looks at how varieties of "life history" that focus on the lives of institutions and families, as well as individuals, offer a broad and rich means of studying history. Her distinctively creative approach differs from traditional historical biography in that it explores a variety of "life histories" and shows us how they become invaluable windows into the past.

Following her introduction, "The Practice of History," Brown opens windows on the history of South Asia. She begins with the life history of an educational institution, Balliol College, Oxford, and tracks the interrelationship between Britain and India through the lives of the British and Indian men who were educated there. She then demonstrates the significance of family life history, showing that by observing patterns of family life over several generations, it is possible to gain insight into the experiences of groups of people who rarely left historical documents about themselves, particularly South Asian women. Finally, Brown uses the life history of two prominent individuals, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, to examine questions about the nature of Indian nationalism and the emergent Indian state.

"This book provides an example of the historian's craft at its best. Known throughout the world for her balanced and influential interpretation of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nehru, Judith Brown has excelled herself by opening windows into India's recent past that hitherto have remained closed. The elegance of style adds to the power of the argument. Read it: you will enjoy the experience." —Anthony Parel, University of Calgary

"Once again, Judith Brown has amazed us with something truly remarkable. Her latest book, so exquisitely well crafted, is a gem. It gives us fresh glimpses into facets of India's (or South Asia's) recent past, of things never before seen, or imagined. Reflecting brilliance of imagination and insight, it shows us new ways of 'doing history.' By focusing upon dynastic 'lives' of specific institutions—cohorts and families of Balliol College, as well as individuals in their 'public' and 'private' worlds—this work turns our understandings around. Never again will we look at the Raj, or at Gandhi and Nehru, in quite the same way." —Robert Eric Frykenberg, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"Utilizing Balliol College records, personal photographs, life histories, and more traditional sources such as autobiographies and private papers, Judith Brown incisively explores multiple themes in the history of colonial and independent India. They range from the graduates of Balliol College who formed 'dynasties' within an imperial administration to how the iconic Indian leaders, Gandhi and Nehru, confronted public and private challenges while creating an Indian nation. Her fascinating narrative of family histories will stimulate both professional historians and popular audiences to reconsider how such histories can illuminate broader topics such as imperial dominance, nation-building, and globalization." —Barbara Ramusack, Charles Phelps Taft Professor, University of Cincinnati

"Judith Brown provides an insightful demonstration of the diverse uses historians can make of biography as a means of interrogating the past and of communicating with a wider public outside academia. In taking 'life history' beyond the study of individuals to explore family, group, and institutional trajectories over several generations, Brown's innovative analyses extend from the lives of powerful and well-documented figures central to the evolution of modern India, particularly Gandhi and Nehru, to British family 'dynasties' and educational institutions that decisively shaped the Raj to the lives of ordinary Indian women and men who left few written traces. Her work positions South Asia and its peoples, particularly its imperial and international migrants and diasporas, within a suggestively global framework." —Elizabeth Buettner, University of York

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780268022174
  • Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2009
  • Series: ND Critical Problems in History Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 136
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Judith M. Brown is Beit Professor of Commonwealth History and Professorial Fellow of Balliol College, the University of Oxford. She is the author of a number of books, including Nehru: A Political Life and Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope.

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