On the Spot: Sanjay Subrahmanyam
‘History has taught me to be sceptical of facile explanations based on prejudice.’
Why are you a historian of the early modern world?
It’s distant, yet close enough; familiar, yet not overly so.
What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
To be sceptical of facile explanations based on prejudice or sanctimony.
Which history book has had greatest influence on you?
Ashin Das Gupta’s Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat.
What book in your field should everyone read?
Carlo Ginzburg’s The Night Battles.
Which moment would you most like to go back to?
To hear Miles Davis live, with Coltrane and Cannonball, in 1958-59.
Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
I’ll pick three: my teacher Dharma Kumar, Ashin Das Gupta and Jean Aubin.
Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Wes Montgomery; further back, the Mughal poet Faizi.
How many languages do you have?
Tamil and Hindi (and Urdu); French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish; some German; and reading competence in Persian and Dutch.
What is the most common misconception about your field?
That it can be mastered without a lot of hard yards.
What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
The importance and utility of microhistory.
Which genre of history do you like least?
Popular histories driven by the greed of publishers that deliberately mislead the public with sensationalist claims.
What’s the most exciting field in history today?
Is there an important historical text you have not read?
I’ve never read the Quran from beginning to end.
What’s your favourite archive?
The next one, whichever one is waiting.
What’s the best museum?
The Museo Egizio in Turin.
What technology has changed the world the most?
The internal combustion engine.
The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?
For a holiday, Malta not the Maldives.
Historical drama or documentary?
The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu. I haven’t been there yet.
What will future generations judge us most harshly for?
Our belated and lukewarm acknowledgement of environmental issues.
Sanjay Subrahmanyam is Distinguished Professor of History and Irving & Jean Stone Chair in Social Sciences at UCLA. His latest book is Connected History: Essays and Arguments (Verso, 2022).