To write an epic tale of India today is to wade into troubled waters. One of the first actions of the Bharatiya Janata Party government on coming to power was systematically to start replacing the left-leaning academics who had guided the writing of the subcontinent's history with its own sympathisers. They have, in the context of India's vibrant intellectual milieu, met with much resistance to their attempts to tell their story of a Hindu nation pillaged and oppressed by Muslim invaders. But the ease with which BJP histories have found an eager audience has revealed to Indian academics their failure to communicate to the general public.
John Keay has written an agnostic, if conventional, volume full of the riches of a complex past that cannot easily be categorised into the divisions of a Hindu Raj and a Pakistani Muslim state, or one perceived as an exotic mystery.
Keay reminds us of the subcontinent's cosmopolitan history. Perhaps the most fascinating example of this is the period from about 200BC to 300AD, during which Bactrian kings of Greek origin ruled in the Punjab and memorialised themselves as worshippers of Vasudeva, a Hindu god. In the south, the Chola and Pandya kingdoms drank Tuscan wine traded from Rome in return for the spices of Kerala. They regularly sent ambassadors to Augustus, and Kaundinya, a Brahmin, travelled from the Malay Peninsula to the mouth of the Mekong. There he founded the Indic kingdom of Funan, which survived for five centuries. Indian kingdoms and south-east Asian traders were part of a world system that linked the Mediterranean basin to Han China. The Sangam literature of the Pandya court, recited in public performances, celebrated the thriving markets, overflowing warehouses and the foreigners with which they traded. In the north, a trade route across the Himalayas spread Buddhism to China.
It is easy to forget these links and intermingled traditions in the contemporary partitions of the world. These wide-ranging connections did not become invisible until the East India Company and the Raj placed tight controls on trade and wrote histories to match their vision of the world.
Keay's broad brush takes in all of these flourishing moments of intellectual and commercial interchange that cannot be contained in our more shallow understandings gleaned from the present. He dispels, too, the exotic aura that often surrounds India by showing that it has long been a place of realpolitik. From the second century AD text the Arthasastra to the 16th-century Ain-I-Akbari, there are strong currents of skilled statecraft to rival any Machiavelli.
Keay underlines the importance of Vedic horse sacrifices in legitimising the authority of kings, the expansionist practical ideology of kingship of the Ramayana and the building of temples as attempts to claim authority. But he seldom extends his acute understanding of politics beyond the ruling elites. He seems transfixed by the Boy's Own glamour of the great battles of Indian history, the intrigues of royal houses and prominent leaders. The politically subversive religious movements of Bhakti and Tantric Buddhism receive short shrift. Likewise, the rebellions of peasants and adivasis against Mughal rule appear just as problems of consolidating control, rather than interesting sources for Indian ideas of justice. Away from the battlefield, the social history of the quiet life of trading communities such as 12th-century Mangalore, where Jewish traders from the Middle East settled and married Indian women (brought to life in Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land), are not part of Keay's epic story. Even if his book cuts through the atmosphere of religious mysticism that shrouds the subcontinent, he leaves out the details of everyday life and resistance. Ultimately, this is a somewhat conventional story of a victorious elite, which is odd as the past 20 years of scholarship have revealed so much about the social history and popular egalitarian traditions of India.
This limited view of politics becomes particularly problematic as the book moves into the 19th and 20th centuries. British rule in India was not, as he suggests, merely a matter of battles and politicians jockeying for power. It was also a story of quotidian oppressions and of bureaucracies that intervened wholesale into the lives of the Indian population. The focus on viceroys and Congress negotiations makes it difficult to explain the constant resistance to British rule that rose from the grass roots. The peasants who took part in the 1857 rebellion, and the industrial workers who paralysed the Empire with strikes in the 1920s, were acting on their own sense of injustice. Similarly, post-independence movements - such as that of Dalit liberation, separatism or even the new caste-based parties of the 1980s and '90s - cannot be understood just from the top down, or in terms of competing for votes in an eclectic democracy.
Keay describes how the historian travelling through the centuries is like a first-class passenger in a railway carriage, watching the scenes unfold before him with an objective, distanced eye. Once he reaches the rush of contemporary events, he is forced, against his will, to climb down among the crowd of a third-class compartment. Keay is cautious about not playing into the hands of zealous nationalists or partisan Raj historians; but his dislike of entering the present fray means that he adopts an elite perspective. Joining him on his journey through the Indian past, we enjoy his breadth of vision, but we may not always want to join him in the first-class carriage.
Laura Roychowdhury is the author of The Jadu House: intimate histories of Anglo-India (Doubleday, £12.99)