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How some rare history books help reconstruct our past

We live in good times and for this we must be grateful.

I am constantly reminded of this as I look for books that were first printed in the centuries before us. I was reading through the Mughal histories some time ago. Now fortunately India has a few publishers who reprint the primary texts of ancient, medieval and early modern India. And so there was access to the Babarnama, the biography of Humayun by his sister Gulbadan, the Tuzuk of Jahangir and the Maasir e Alamgiri of Aurangzeb.

Most of these from Low Price Publishers who reprint books out of copyright. They have in four fat volumes Abul Fazl's volumes on Akbar, and in two the record of the Mughal nobility, the Maasir ul Umara.

Representational image. AFP.

Representational image. AFP.

What I couldn't find was the secret biography of Akbar by Badauni, part of his Muntakhab al Tawarikh. It is a text that offers the conservative's view of the heretical king's reign as opposed to Abul Fazl's flattering, liberal one.

The book is out of print and not available anywhere, though I imagine a few universities will have it. I found it on the website of the Packard Humanities Institute, set up by one of Hewlett-Packard's founders.

Badauni's writing is funny and, if you are able to look at it dispassionately, as interesting as Abul Fazl's. Between these two writers we get a full picture of Akbar and the way in which he was viewed at the time.

Unfortunately, this isn't true of Shah Jahan, a most secretive man on whom there isn't as much published. Perhaps this was deliberate, given the bloody fashion in which he came to power, with the slaughter of all his brothers, and the grief he came to in the end under his son who in turn butchered all of his brothers. But it is a shame.

Aurangzeb has been biographed by Sir Jadunath Sarkar but this four volume work is not in print. Nor, to my knowledge, is it available on the Internet. There is a concise single volume that is on the market, but it probably doesn't have all the anecdotes. Who could have imagined that a young Aurangzeb fell so hard for a girl who was plucking mangoes that she could tempt him to drink? After Aurangzeb, the decline of the Mughals is well-documented by Irvine's two volumes, Sir Jadunath's fine four-volume history, and by Grant-Duff's volumes on the Marathas and James Tod's three volumes on the Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. All of these are available through cheap reprints.

Low Price Publishers (a good, honest name) also put out Max Mueller's 50-volume Sacred Books of the East series and if one is interested in the primary texts of Theravada Buddhism and Jainism, it is a good source. The Theravada texts are also available online and in print elsewhere, of course, given the deep interest in Sri Lanka.

Then there are some great works which are only available online. For instance the seven volume history of Christianity in the Roman period by Ernest Renan, which begins with his magnificent biography of Jesus. Many of his works are available for free on Amazon's Kindle store.

Renan is prejudiced against the Orient, against women and against Jews in particular but he is a wonderful writer and should be read, because his sort of work is not written any longer. The reason is that few people write broad histories these days. The modern scholar is a creature of deep but narrow interest. The summation of a period no longer interests most serious historians.

Another writer whom we are fortunate to have available for free on the net is Theodor Mommsen, who wrote the five volume history of Rome, which is no longer in print, at least in English.

Some of the finest work done in reissuing books that were printed long ago is by Penguin Black Classics, to my mind the best imprint in the world. From Homer and Herodotus to the Romans, the ancient Indians and the ancient Chinese, there are very few classic works that have not been reissued in this distinct black-spined series. In India there is the additional benefit of having most of Penguin's Black Classics series discounted. Books are as low as Rs 250, though now with the Rupee sinking that might change.

But even if you have no budget at all, as long as you have access to the web and an idea of what and where to look for, you can educated yourself very well in these times, and for that, as I said, we must be grateful.

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