In the 19th century, following the expansion of the Company across India, English gradually replaced Persian, and south Asia was drawn into a third transnational world: the westernising Anglosphere. Mastering English now became the route to advancement, and Indians who wished to get ahead had to abandon, or at least sublimate, much of their own culture, both Sanskrit and Persian, becoming instead English-speaking ‘brown sahibs’, or what V.S. Naipaul called ‘Mimic Men’. Literacy in Persian has now been lost to most Indians. Richard Eaton’s brilliant book stands as an important monument to this almost forgotten world.
Eaton, who teaches at Arizona University, has mastered the facts, but he isn’t an instinctive narrative historian. This is the epic period in which India was invented. The Hindi language, the biryani and to some extent Hinduism (a Persian word) all come from this Persianate age, but Eaton says less on these subjects than on the growth of arable land. Still, his book is a fine tribute to India. Those who conquer it are always, in the end, conquered by it.