University of Arizona historian Richard Eaton made the Cundill History Prize's shortlist for his book India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765 (Penguin/University of California Press, 2019).
Eaton, who is widely regarded as one of the world’s top authorities on pre-modern India, has been a professor in the UArizona Department of History for almost 50 years. He is also an affiliate faculty member in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
Created in 2008 and administered by McGill University, the Cundill History Prize recognizes the best history writing in English and is awarded annually to a book that embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal. The shortlist includes 10 books, narrowed down from 400. The shortlisted books and their authors are described at https://www.cundillprize.com/2020shortlist.
Awarding $75,000 to the winner and $10,000 to the two runners up, the Cundill History Prize is the largest purse for a book of non-fiction in English. It is open to books from anywhere in the world, as well as works translated into English.
Peter Frankopan, chair of the jury, wrote: “2020 has been a year of profound change – in so many ways, not just the pandemic — and studying and reading about the past helps us remember the people, the places, the times, for good and for bad, when history has changed, in individual countries, in regions, in continents, and globally. There is a real resonance in the books that we have chosen.”
Eaton admits he hadn’t heard of the Cundill Prize before he was notified of his book being selected, which he attributes to the divides that often exist between academic and more mainstream book awards. Once he learned about the Cundill Prize, he was thrilled by the honor.
He notes that book prizes in his field are usually given out by academic associations, such as the American Historical Association, and are parceled out into subdisciplines, such as best book on 20th century American history or best book on South Asian history, for example.
“The point is that there is no single prize given by the leading professional academic institution for history,” Eaton said.
Eaton was also pleased to learn that the prize considers the literary merit and accessibility of the book. For a long time, Eaton says, he’s been on a “crusade” against academic jargon.
“Unfortunately, it is my sad duty to report that academics have a habit of writing in dense jargon, which is incomprehensible to ordinary human beings,” Eaton said. “And this is a real problem, because it means that many of us are perched up in our ivory towers incapable of communicating with the vast mass of people out there who really have an interest in the historical past.”
An Obsession with India
India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765 is a culmination of much of Eaton’s academic research on India, which has its origins in the summer of 1963.
At the time, Eaton was a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Iran. He had the summer off, so he and two fellow volunteers traveled – via trains, buses, and lorries – to India. He fell in love with the country.
“People are either attracted by the sheer power of Indian culture and the richness and diversity of the history and society, or they are repulsed by the dirt, the heat, the poverty,” Eaton said. “You either respond by being attracted to the place and it becomes an obsession for the rest of your life, or you need to get the next airplane out. I was completely blown away.”
Because he visited India after spending time In Iran, he immediately recognized the “influence of not just Persian culture but also Islamic culture and religion on India.” He wanted to know more.
“That one month in India really set the agenda for the rest of my life,” Eaton said.
Creating the Book
India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765 explores the long-term interaction between the Persianate and Sanskritic worlds, between the Iranian Plateau and South Asia, and between Islam and Indian religious traditions.
“Really, the title says it all because the book really is an attempt to rewrite 800 years of Indian history. Instead of seeing it through the rather dreary and inaccurate lens of Hindu-Muslim conflict, it sees it through the lens of Persian culture,” Eaton said.
Eaton finished the manuscript in the summer of 2018 after working on it at his sister’s 200-acre farm in southern Ohio. He flew to London to hand-deliver the physical manuscript to Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin Press, whom he met for a “fancy lunch in downtown London.” “It was all very old school,” Eaton said.
“And Penguin did an absolutely bang-up job with editing and illustrations,” Eaton said. “I mean they let me have 21 color images in the book. And they still managed to sell the paperback for only $18, which is astonishing.”
The book received rave reviews, not to mention a 4.8 rating on Amazon (with 82 reviews).
“India in the Persianate Age is Eaton’s mature masterpiece,” wrote Katherine Schofield of King’s College London for History Today. “It will, undoubtedly, become the authoritative account of this most politically controversial period of South Asia’s long history.”
Historian William Dalrymple, writing for The Spectator, said of the book: “Remarkable...this brilliant book stands as an important monument to an almost forgotten world.”
Wildcat for Life
Eaton has been a professor at the University of Arizona since 1972, and, while other universities have tried to lure him away, he has stayed faithful to the University of Arizona.
“I love the Southwest. I love the University of Arizona,” Eaton said.
He adds that the university has a wonderful library, and he appreciates that he’s had the freedom to expand the global history curriculum in the history department, spearheading the Ph.D. minor in World/Comparative History.