Narendra Luther. Hyderabad: A Biography. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012. Illustrations. xi + 433 pp. n.p. (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-809027-4.
Reviewed by Samantha Christiansen (Marywood University)
Hyderabad across Five Centuries: The Evolution of a City and Its Rulers
The tale Narendra Luther weaves in Hyderabad: A Biography is captivating and complex. Tracing the city of Hyderabad from its origins as a small village in the mid-sixteenth century to its modern role as one of India’s major economic urban centers, Luther provides a story of a city rich with fascinating characters set within a beautifully and romantically described landscape. The work conveys, with no doubt, a love of the region and a deep relationship with the city itself. Yet, for all the skill that Luther demonstrates as a wordsmith, and despite the sheer joy of reading his work, the question of the depth of value of the book as an academic urban history is less easily answered. Any urban historian, by nature of an interest in cities, would likely enjoy reading the book, but in terms of academic rigor (regarding citations, argument, and analysis, for example), the book is less easy to accept so wholeheartedly. Certainly, it sits within a category of its own. The book vacillates between historical fiction and narrative history and is far more successful in the historical fiction realm than in the historical argument.
Overall, Luther’s work is hard to place in a number of ways, which may well be part of its appeal. It is not an urban history monograph in the traditional, analytic, or argumentative sense. There is an artistic achievement in the pages though that cannot go unappreciated by those who feel passionate about cities and urban history. Yet there is a longing for more, and for more engagement with the scholarly debates and literature that Luther would be well positioned to inform. Other shortcomings include the large absence of nonelite and nonpolitical figures, as well as analysis of the spatial aspect of the city’s development that an urban historian will crave. Thus, the book for urban historians, particularly of South Asia, is one that will be immensely fascinating and, possibly, equally frustrating. Perhaps the key to such a work is to set aside academic expectations and just enjoy the stunning landscape of a city developing from a small, remote village to an urban powerhouse as Luther describes it.
- Luther cites Narendra Luther, “On the Historicity of Bhagmati,” Research Journal of the Salar Jung Museum 29-30 (1992-93), on page 395.