Sudeep Chakravarti lives in Goa, and is an award-winning author of bestselling works of narrative non-fiction as well as several works of fiction. Sudeep read history at St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. An extensively published columnist, he has over three decades of experience in media. He has worked with major global and Indian media organizations including the Asian Wall Street Journal, where he began his career and held leadership positions at Sunday, the India Today Group and HT Media. His book The Bengalis: A Portrait of Community was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2018 and Tata Literature Live! Award 2018. His recent book Plassey: The Battle that Changed the Course of Indian History has been described as “impeccably researched and brilliantly told”, and “the best account yet of one of the turning points in Indian history”.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with him for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about his latest book, the book’s research process that involved multilingual sources, and how few works acknowledge just how much the French were a factor in the run up to Plassey.
What prompted you to write “Plassey: The Battle that Changed the Course of Indian History”?
The Battle of Plassey is mostly mentioned as an event in terms of wrong and right, black and white, martyrdom and betrayal, but quite a lot of it is pure pamphleteering for either the British or the Subcontinental cause. Hapless Siraj, Crafty Clive and Treacherous Mir Jafar — this is usually the cant for Indians (and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis). Many British tellings valorise Clive and the British East India Company and dismiss Indians as a bunch of snivelling, conspiring lowlifes. Both are incomplete. These are emotional, not clinical, tellings. Several Indian textbooks are also challenged when it comes to Plassey; they give it a hyper-nationalistic spin. All this is a travesty for the study of such a landmark event which actually started a chain of events that led to modern-day India.
There is a need for corrective history. There is a need to peel away layers to expose the truths and lies, the myths, and the nuances: the greys between the black and white absolutes. The descriptions of Hapless Siraj, Crafty Clive and Treacherous Mir Jafar cannot be the only absolutes, because they are not. Moreover, the back story of Plassey, which is a mix of aggressive mercantilism married to geopolitics, is often diminished. For instance, few works acknowledge just how much the French were a factor in the run up to Plassey. There is also the immensely interesting cast of characters—dramatis personae—in and around Plassey. Plassey: The Battle that Changed the Course of Indian History was a story waiting to be retold.
How has your background as a journalist and columnist helped you in writing non-fiction?
My background as a journalist has helped me tremendously as a storyteller. Plassey is my fifth work of non-fiction, a work of history. My other non-fiction books have dealt with community biographies and a mix of ethnography, sociology and history; the intersection of business and human rights; and conflict and conflict resolution that has overtones of political economy and politics. I also cover this wide arc as a columnist. My work is based on research, which is the lifeblood of a journalist—or, at least, it should be! The rigour of my training as a journalist, to see, hear, read, travel, feel has directly fed my avatar as an author and columnist. Indeed, this rigour applies even to some of my fiction writing, in which I’m very particular about details, about time and place. And, although I have mostly been identified as an author and literary person over these past fifteen years, in my heart I remain a journalist, a storyteller.
The book has been impeccably researched using multilingual sources. How did you go about researching for this book?
Thank you for your kind words. Indeed, Plassey, like all my books, required intensive and extensive research—and also much travel. I need to see, feel, hear, sense. The battle of Plassey is really a living history in the way we are affected by it, in the manner the event and people involved with it are remembered. To me this required a mix of library research, searching for books, reading monographs and articles, and reportage—flavours gathered while visiting the various places related to Plassey, such as Kolkata, Murshidabad, towns and villages up and down the Hugli-Bhagirathi river, places in Bangladesh and Jharkhand. And, of course, Plassey itself. Equally, for me it was important to go beyond sources in English and Persian to include sources in Bengali, to go beyond works and thoughts in India and Great Britain to also read and include works and thoughts in France, the Netherlands and Bangladesh—once part of greater Bengal. It was also necessary for me to go beyond books and look at poetry, theatre, folk theatre and cinema, to see how Plassey is portrayed, and why. Only then could Plassey come alive in a comprehensive manner.
While researching the book, what was the most interesting or intriguing fact about the Battle of Plassey and The East India Company’s dealings in India that you discovered?
Well, quite a few. Very quickly (and I hope your readers will engage with Plassey for greater detail!), here are a couple of examples. The French Connection, as I call it, was one. People don’t realize just how much influence the French had in the decades that led to Plassey. Indeed, French artillerymen even fought for Siraj at Plassey. We might very well have had this interaction in French instead of English—that’s how close the battle of Plassey was. This directly brings us to the second startling fact: even with Mir Jafar and two other generals standing neutral, Robert Clive, who led East India Company forces at Plassey had no guarantee these generals wouldn’t swing back to Siraj if they saw the battle going Siraj’s way. Clive, who is valorised as the lion of Bengal, Clive of India and Clive, Baron Plassey, was a nervous wreck for days before the battle. My book details correspondence that shows how desperate Clive was. And few realise how, in six months after taking over as nawab, how completely Siraj dominated his enemies, potential usurpers, and the British. Plassey and nearly everything connected with it is replete with such interesting facts and often-overlooked histories.
What challenges did you face while writing this book?
The key challenge was gathering material. For an independent writer like me who is not associated with any media house, any organization, and works without grants, to source appropriate material and finance for research and travel and reportage always presents a challenge. A combination of perseverance and improvisation ensured the challenges were overcome. There have been no compromises with research.
In what ways do you think that your work can speak to readers who are not much aware of the specific historical and political realities of the Battle of Plassey and the British conquest of India?
Primarily, because my work seeks to offer a balanced view. This approach is, to my mind, the appropriate way of treating history, especially an event as pivotal to Indian history, in some ways even to British and Asian history, as the Battle of Plassey. Plassey is the root event from which ‘modern Indian history’ emerges. A balanced history is also the crucial need of the times, with so much partisan rewriting of history, so much whitewashing or saffron-washing of history taking place. As a student of history it’s been a real privilege to fully return to my roots, as it were.
Historical fiction has become such a popular genre in recent years. Can the same be said about historical and narrative non-fiction?
Absolutely. Speaking for myself, five of my eight works are historical and narrative non-fiction and all have been well-received. And I’m just a tiny part of the rapidly growing universe of this genre. I would go as far to say that, at least in India at present, historical and narrative non-fiction are generally of higher quality than historical fiction—with very few exceptions. Sales too are picking up although these are generally below pulp historical fiction. So be it. A writer of middling fiction actually went as far as to say that Plassey could have dispensed with necessary ‘historical chaff’ and stick to racy, gossipy bits, even though, as even an amateur historian would tell you, a historical event or denouement is a sum of numerous parts and these parts are necessary for a full, clear, balanced, and engaging picture. Historical and narrative non-fiction fiction is certainly not like evolving historical fiction or mythological works of somewhat ephemeral, gossamer quality that sometimes lasts as long as a short flight. But that’s all right. There’s space for us all.
The lucid and analytical narrative of the Battle of Plassey that you have chronicled in this book is great reading for anyone interested in Indian history. Now let’s talk about your interest in environmental conservation. You are the co-founder of Coastal Impact and have an interest in marine conservation. Can you tell us more about the work of this organization?
Coastal Impact is based in Goa, where I live. Some of us divers, and this includes the key mover and my very good friend, Venkatesh Charloo, co-founded this not-for-profit. It grew from our love of diving and marine habitats in India and, frankly, anywhere in the world. We decided to focus on raising awareness, assisting in marine biodiversity research, and, naturally, helping the environment in any way we could. So, we organize beach clean-ups on and around tourist-heavy islands. We dive to clean up underwater trash and regularly bring up several jute sacks full of trash from some nearby islands we dive at. Coastal Impact evangelizes marine conservation to school and university students. We also began some years ago to assist research in the area of marine biodiversity for several organizations. These include the National Institute of Oceanography, WWF-India and Central Marine Research and Fisheries Institute, among other organizations. We are also very proud to have received a grant from Habitat Trust for protecting marine habitat in and around a couple of Goan islands, mapping that habitat, attempting to seed coral for reviving damaged coral habitats, and several other activities. It’s a wonderful way to mix what we love doing—diving—with what we cherish—our environment.
Which books, both fiction and non-fiction, have you read recently and would like to recommend to our readers?
I read across genres and forms, from so-called children’s books and graphic novels to poetry, plays, fiction, non-fiction and research papers. I’m re-reading Sadakat Kadri’s Heaven on Earth, a terrific, brave discussion on Shari’a Law, alongside an excellent collection of essays published by India International Centre, India-China: Neighbours & Strangers. I just finished binge-reading all of Anthony Horowitz—and am chuckling with recollection as I write this; and a fabulous, comprehensive collection of Satyajit Ray’s art, The Vision of Ray. And, naturally, I’m reading copiously for my planned books, ‘homework’ that includes reading several hundred books of non-fictions and fiction, articles, research papers, and documents. It’s been a busy ‘lockdown’.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
A non-fiction work set in Northeast India, and a history of Delhi. There’s half a dozen or so books to write after that, non-fiction as well as fiction. I’m also writing poetry.
‘Plassey: The Battle That Changed the Course of Indian History’ by Sudeep Chakravarti has been published by Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.
Also Read: An excerpt from the book “Plassey: The Battle That Changed the Course of Indian History”.