A serious problem afflicts Indian writing of history. The books are either jingoistic or utter drab collection of references. Often the texture is uneven, usually due to the author’s specific areas of interest in a timeline. Worse, scant attention is paid to presentation and copy-editing by most Indian publishers of books of history.
The Era of Baji Rao, by Dr. Uday Kulkarni, thankfully, is none of the above. (Save for a few typos that could have been easily taken care of and a couple of maps that could have been clearer).
Writing a book on a person like Baji Rao I, given his life and times, is a difficult one to write, without falling in the trap of being in awe of his achievements. The author is aware of that, and says so, in the opening note. Dr. Kulkarni stays true to this submission.
From being a very well-researched book to its balance in presentation, I’d mark this book as ground breaking. Dr. Kulkarni has laid down a framework for writing a biography that does not insult the intelligence of the reader; in fact, the book respects the reader’s intelligence. In a few reviews Dr. Kulkarni was congratulated for not forming conclusions. The conclusions are there; they aren’t however, dumbed down as is usually the practice. They are there; they aren’t obvious. And standing tall on a mountain of such irrefutable, rich, and varied references that Dr. Kulkarni has gathered, there is no reason why an author should not conclude.
Then there is context. If a book were to focus only on the achievements of a historical personality, it tends to become hagiographical. Depending on how you view that personality, it causes unnecessary chest-thumping or extreme suspicion of bias. One of the key highlights of The Era of Baji Rao is that there is rich and relevant context to the life and times of Baji Rao I. It is not written in isolation; on the contrary, the context to the why and how of any of his campaigns, initiatives, or choices is is there for the reader to see. A context to the circumstances in which a choice was made is of more value to the reader than an insipid statement of the choice. This, coupled with a deftly handled insight into Baji Rao I’s character, personality, and emotion makes this one of the better non-fiction biographies.
If you have an interest in the history of India, the Deccan, the Marathas, or Baji Rao I himself, this is a book, you should be reading now!