On the Spot: Srinath Raghavan

‘History doesn’t teach any lessons – only historians do.’

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Wiki Commons.

Why are you a historian of modern South Asia?

Because South Asia provides an extraordinary window on the making of the modern world.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?

That history doesn’t teach any lessons – only historians do. 

Which history book has had greatest influence on you?

Paul W. Schroeder’s The Transformation of European Politics

What book in your field should everyone read?

Neeladri Bhattacharya’s The Great Agrarian Conquest.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

1 August 1971, Madison Square Garden, New York to attend the Concert for Bangladesh.

Which historians have had the greatest influence on you?

Sir Michael Howard. As a doctoral student, I catalogued his extensive papers and learnt much about the craft of history in conversations with him.

Which person in history would you most like to have met? 

B.R. Ambedkar.

How many languages do you have?

I am fluent in Tamil and Hindi, speak Telugu and Bengali, read Sanskrit, Russian and German. I am learning Spanish with my daughter.

What is the most common misconception about your field?

That British colonialism was the only external relationship that shaped the history of modern South Asia.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

The origins of the First World War. It was inevitable.  

Which genre of history do you like least?

The popular military histories that bloat the shelves in bookstores. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

The new global history of capitalism that combines economic and geopolitical, material and intellectual histories.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

Far too many.

What’s your favourite archive?

Nehru Memorial Museum & Library.

What’s the best museum?

The Art Institute of Chicago.

What technology has changed the world the most?


The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?

Indian Ocean.

Historical drama or documentary?


The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

Our complacency about the unfolding ecological crisis. 


Srinath Raghavan is Professor of International Relations and History at Ashoka University, India. His most recent book is Fierce Enigmas: A History of the United States in South Asia (Basic Books, 2018).