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A Rutgers professor is helping retell South Asian history

By centering women, lower caste and local voices, Audrey Truschke is publishing a new kind of Indianama.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Truschke

Audrey Truschke isn’t afraid of ruffling feathers. A professor of South Asian history at Rutgers Newark, Truschke has taken on controversial topics in her work—from caste discrimination to Hindu nationalism.

Now, Truschke is working on a project she dubs her Indianama: a history of South Asia from the Indus Valley civilization up through our present times. India: A History will be published next spring by Princeton University Press and will be a South Asian history book like few before it.

Truschke said her book will center voices that are often left out of the narrative in typical history books. This includes women, people of lower caste and, in the case of British colonization, the perspectives of South Asians rather than the colonizers.

“So often, when we write South Asian history, we fall back on the loudest and most common voices, which are upper-class male voices,” Truschke said in an interview with Central Desi. Here’s what she had to share about the upcoming book and her work educating South Asian students at Rutgers Newark, many of whom know little about their own history until they take a class with her.

Addressing disinformation

Each semester, about half of Truschke's students are of South Asian descent, eager to learn more about their heritage. 

“This is their story, but they were largely or entirely raised in the United States and so they know almost nothing about it. They know what their parents have said, what grandma and grandpa have said, and maybe visiting cousins in India or Pakistan over the summer you learned some stuff, but then never formally studied it,” she said.

She also teaches students who have gone through the Indian education system and moved to the United States more recently.

“Indian schools used to be a lot better at teaching history than they are now. A lot of it really is disinformation and propaganda,” Truschke said. 

The former BJP-led government in India has altered school textbooks to align with Hindutva ideology. For example, they have removed Darwin’s theory of evolution and omitted many sections related to Muslims, including the contributions of Muslim freedom fighters in the fight for independence from British colonial rule.

For the students who are learning this modified history, Truschke believes the challenge lies in developing critical thinking skills to question scholarly arguments based on evidence when they come to her class. Some succeed, while others struggle to reconcile why they are studying South Asian history in New Jersey of all places and what to make of the history they learned before.

Centering new voices

Truschke took deliberate steps to change how comprehensive historical books are written. She relied on primary sources for accuracy, including translated excerpts in each chapter. She also used material evidence throughout the book. 

For instance, although the script of the Indus Valley Civilization remains undeciphered, historians use material evidence to understand it. Truschke applies this method to later civilizations with deciphered scripts like Sanskrit and Pali, combining textual and material evidence.

She also made efforts to include diverse voices, including South Indians.

“So often Indian history is really a North India-centric story,” Truschke explained.

In her chapters on British colonization, she also attempts to highlight South Asian agency, instead of just relying on British names to tell the history.

“[Colonization] can be told as a South Asian story that forefronts the agency of different South Asian individuals and community, some of whom supported British colonial rule in various ways, and some of whom contested it,” Truschke said, “and a whole lot of whom actually did both in various ways.”

Tehsin Pala is the associate editor of Central Desi.

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