This anthology presents short biographies of one hundred persons who lived during the last two hundred years and who are no more. It is difficult to assess the greatness of a living person; his fame could be ephemeral. Hence, the omission. A great variety of persons are portrayed: politicians, statesmen, freedom fighters, writers, philosophers, scientists, painters, dancers, social workers and reformers, religious leaders and Indologists (Indian and also Britishers who lived part of their lives in India). Thus, in a way, this anthology is different from most others, which lay more emphasis or cover exclusively leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Rajagopalachari, Subhas Bose, Jinnah and Maulana Azad. Of course, they have been included, but there are several others who are lesser known and seldom written about but are 'great' in their own way because they gave their entire lives for a cause. There is Khuda Bakhsh, who spent his life collecting rare manuscripts, spending a fortune and built one of the finest libraries in the country almost single-handedly. Today, the Khuda Bakhsh Library (Patna) is a public library. There is Zorawar Singh, one of the greatest military generals, whom any country would be proud of.
He annexed Ladakh from the Chinese in the nineteenth century and even invaded Tibet, where he died fighting in extremely inhospitable climate near Kailash Mansarover. Bhagat Puran Singh devoted every single day of his adult life helping the crippled and 'discards' of the society and built an institution called Pingalwada (home of the crippled) in Punjab. There are several others who deserve homage from the society they served, but have been unjustly forgotten and pushed into oblivion. The book is an attempt to remind people about those great souls.
Individuals do matter in history but the sum total of their lives cannot replace systematically written history, for history is not a game of personalities but constitutes the interplay of several divergent forces. However, this book may throw light on some of the fringes of history, which a history book ignores.
Indians are notorious for writing hagiographies rather than biographies. They do not want to reveal failures and unpleasant facts about a person. They relish in presenting a person as an ion and a demigod. Such biographies, according to critics, are invariably colourless and dull, besides presenting untruth. This book has followed Voltaire's advice: "One owes respect to the living; to the dead one owes nothing but truth". We have tried to the living; to the dead one owes nothing but truth". We have tried to avoid hearsay and have mainly depended on documented source material. This applies, especially to political personages. In the process, if long held myths about some persons come tumbling down, facts and truth have to be blamed.
I believe that three things are necessary in a biography: it should tell enough about a person; it should throw some light on the times when a person lived and finally, it should be readable. Towards this end, I have tried.
I am indebted to so many persons who helped me in various ways during the three years, which it took me to write the book, that it will not be possible to thank them all. A few of them, however, stand out. Most of the research work was done in the Banaras Hindu University Library. B.N. Singh, the acting librarian, and my erstwhile colleague, was most helpful and without his help, it would have been extremely difficult to complete the book. The other library staff, including people who carried the heavy volumes, were also very helpful. Dr. Mohd. Ziauldin Ansari, director, Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna, was prompt in sending me the literature about its founder and providing me details about the latest developments in the library. R. K. Singh, chairman, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati Research Centre, Varanasi, threw much light on the life and work of the Swami. To all these persons, my grateful thanks. My unassuming research assistant, S. P. Mukherjee a retired professional librarian himself, was of great help in my search for biographical material. I have to thank my two typists, Bimlendu Bhattacharya and Onkar Nath Sharma, who had to type each of the seven hundred odd pages at least three time without losing patience. I must thank my publisher for suggesting the title and for waiting three long years for me to complete the book. Lastly I am indebted to the editors Sugeetha Roy Choudhury, Disha Mullick for painstakingly going through the manuscript and for giving extremely useful suggestions which saved me for committing many smaller and some major errors.
From the Book
This is a well-documented set of a hundred short biographies of people who have left their footprints on the sands of Indian history, in different ways. The figures included lived in the last two hundred years, but are no longer alive. Included are persons from almost every field of activity-writers, artists, scientists, social reformers, educationalists, politicians and freedom fighters. Several Britishers who spent a major part of their adult lives in India and contributed in a major way to the country are also included.
This is a unique volume for all those interested in the larger-than-life figures in India's turbulent history over the past two centuries.
H. D. Sharma was educated in the Universities of Punjab, Delhi and Michigan. He was the recipient of the prestigious Fulbright scholarship twice. He has worked as a librarian and taught library science in universities in India and abroad. He has also authored and edited a number of books.
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