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Charles Allen obituary

The Guardian logo The Guardian 21/08/2020 David Loyn

Charles Allen, who has died of cancer aged 80, interviewed the last generation of British administrators of India in 1974 for the BBC radio series Plain Tales from the Raj, which was followed by a bestselling book. While this was his most popular work, his lasting legacy as a historian lies in a series of books about earlier British residents in India, beginning with William Jones in late-18th-century Calcutta (now Kolkata), whose scholarship uncovered the past of the subcontinent, mapped its rivers for the first time, and discovered the common root of Indian and European languages.

Following Plain Tales there were similar broadcasts and books on those who had ruled in Africa and the far east. Charles was concerned that these oral history interviews romanticised the imperialist experience, reinforcing “old colonial attitudes in the 1970s and 1980s”. He went on a process of what he called “relearning” the history of the British encounter with the subcontinent.

A Mountain in Tibet (1982) was the first of 25 books about the philologists, archaeologists and geographers whose work became known as orientalism. This became a negative term when Edward Said wrote a scathing critique in 1978, claiming the British framed the east as a place to be judged, ruled and catalogued as if a zoological collection. “What Professor Said and his many supporters have consistently failed to ask is where we would be without the orientalists,” Charles wrote. “They initiated the recovery of South Asia’s lost past.” In his view the orientalists also challenged the deeply entrenched Indian caste system, “so enabling a newly emergent and increasingly modernising middle class to free itself from the chains of orthodoxy”.

In valuing local culture and by writing about those who uncovered India’s forgotten heritage, Charles stood against major 19th-century figures such as Thomas Macaulay and James Mill, who believed India needed to be Europeanised to be civilised. He wrote several books about Buddhism and about perhaps the most important find of European archaeologists in India – the location of the Bodh Gaya complex in Bihar, now revered as the location where Buddha attained enlightenment.

Charles never hid the dark side of empire, but wanted it fairly represented. He debated with Shashi Tharoor at the Lahore literary festival in London three years ago over claims in Tharoor’s book Inglorious Empire that the British impoverished the state of Kerala. Charles argued that the very reforms Tharoor said recovered Kerala were put in place at the beginning of the 19th century by a British administrator who ended corrupt local feudal rule.

He wrote a series of books with Sahib in the title – the honorific used for British men in India. These included The Buddha and the Sahibs (2002) and Soldier Sahibs (2000) about a group of soldiers and administrators in what was then called the North West Frontier, among them an Allen relative, General John Nicholson. Charles researched on the ground, going into Taliban-controlled eastern Afghanistan. He circumambulated Mount Kailash in Tibet – holy to Buddhists and Hindus, and, as the British discovered, the watershed for the major river systems of the subcontinent, as Charles wrote in A Mountain in Tibet.

After the attacks of 9/11 he wrote God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad (2006), which described the links between Saudi-sponsored fundamentalism today and past Islamist insurgencies in the subcontinent. The location of camps in northern Pakistan where Osama bin Laden’s fighters and Kashmiri militants trained were the same as Islamist training camps in the late-19th century.

Charles was born in Kanpur, the son of Geoffrey Allen, a political officer in north-east India, and his wife, Joan (nee Henry). A member of the sixth generation of his family to be born in India, Charles first came to England aged eight, to stay in his grandparents’ house, where he read Kipling stories in first editions. His great-grandfather, Sir George Allen, had given Kipling his first job as an assistant editor of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, and published his first stories. In his biography Kipling Sahib (2007), Charles wrote with fellow-feeling after being banished to a cold English boarding-school. “India had been the paradise garden of his childhood, his land of lost delight.”

Charles left Canford school, Dorset, with no qualifications, and his only formal education was 18 months at a college in Perugia, Italy. From there he went as a VSO teacher to Nepal, beginning a lifelong fascination with Buddhism – he described himself as “Buddhish”. It was in Kathmandu that he met his future wife, Liz Gould, whom he married in 1972. He was an active supporter of the rights of low-caste Dalits, opposing the injustices he saw as a child and while travelling as an adult.

Charles had a deep sense of irreverence. Parties in the meadow at the Allens’ Somerset house culminated in silly games and the smashing of a line of plaster images of the pope or garden gnomes. In one of his last emails he wrote that he was “cheered to see the statue of that wretched Bristol slaver thrown into the river!!!”

In 2004 Charles was awarded the Sir Percy Sykes gold medal by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs for services to south Asian history. He challenged ignorance and religious orthodoxy to the end. At his death he had completed a book, Aryans, which tells the story of the swastika, drawing together evidence from a number of disciplines, including archaeology and genetic mapping, proving ancient Aryan migration to India – a view of history opposed by the current Hindu nationalist government in Delhi. This will be published next year.

Charles is survived by Liz and their children, Poppy, George and Louise, and four grandchildren.

• Charles Robin Allen, historian, born 2 January 1940; died 16 August 2020

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