For history scholar Kama Maclean — whose book A Revolutionary History of Interwar India has just come out — her first experience of India was far from the ideal. In 1989, she landed in Kolkata.
For history scholar Kama Maclean — whose book A Revolutionary History of Interwar India has just come out — her first experience of India was far from the ideal. In 1989, she landed in Kolkata. It was the first time she had travelled outside her own country, Australia, and she was determined to do things her way. “I had decided that all of the advice tourists were given about not drinking the water was either paranoid, Euro centric, or a ploy to sell bottled water. I drank the water and I fell very ill very quickly. But I was touched by the amount of care that perfect strangers took of me. It opened up a set of friendships that kept me going back. And when I was well again, I decided that I wanted to study India in greater depth.” Eventually, she went on to study Indian history, politics and society under the Canadian history scholar Robin Jeffrey at La Trobe University, Melbourne.
In her book, that gives a fresh perspective to India’s freedom struggle, she talks about the ambitions, ideologies and actions of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA), formed by Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh. She draws on a range of evidence, including recently declassified government files, memoirs and interviews with former revolutionaries while analysing the photography and the visual culture of the period. She even learnt Hindi to improve upon her research on the subject.
Kama was the first one from her family to go to university. “I am a product of a short-lived but visionary policy which made university education in Australia free.”
The history scholar, who is currently professor of South Asian and World History at University of New South Wales, says that she was never an exceptional history student in school. “It was taught by a very uninspired teacher — and so I didn’t even major in history at school. Instead, I focused on art history, which was taught in a much more animated and politically engaging fashion.”
Her reading list as a teenager was not “particularly profound” she says. “I wish I could say that I grew up reading Marc Bloch or the early work of Eric Hobsbawm. But I grew up in the 1970s reading mysteries — Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (in which George was my favourite character), the slightly more insipid Secret Seven, Herge’s Tintin series and the Hardy Boys. I probably spent far too much time re-reading these books over and over.”
Kama says that though she has “graduated to more complex fiction”, she never loved anything more than getting lost in a good story. “I did not set out to be a historian per se, but I managed to get a scholarship for higher study and did a PhD in the 1990s. My research then, as now, has always been spurred by the sense of mystery, of trying to piece together unknown aspects of the past,” she says.
Interestingly, the cult film Rang De Basanti (2006) has a role to play in the genesis of the book. Kama was on a sabbatical in 2007 when she visited Amritsar and she couldn’t help notice the pictures of Bhagat Singh that were put up everywhere across the city. “Rang De Basanti had recently been released, and Bhagat Singh was on my mind; I had shown parts of the film, despite its ahistoricity, to my class.”
An enthusiastic student approached her to write her paper on how the revolutionaries had impacted the nationalist movement. Kama soon realised that there wasn’t enough scholarship to support her thesis. “Of course this had been noticed a few years earlier by Chris Pinney in his engaging book, Photos of the Gods,” she explains.
What followed was a rigorous investigation on the topic, which eventually metamorphosed into the book.
Currently, while juggling a long reading list that includes Jacqueline Rose’s Women In Dark Times and Patrick Wolfe’s Traces of History, Kama is also looking forward to the conclusion of Game of Thrones. “And I also have a copy of Apur Sansar that is waiting patiently to be watched,” she says.
Her repeated visits to India have got her interested in cricket as well. In her early days here, when people found that she was Australian, they would talk extensively about cricket to her. “I resigned myself to taking an interest in the game as a workplace requirement. I now enjoy Test cricket — I will always try to go to the New Year’s Test at the Sidney Cricket Ground, especially if India is playing. But I would not pretend to understand the complexities of the game, and I don’t have the time to follow the shorter formats, which seem to be always playing.”