One way to get some insight into the way things are in the present is to imagine how things would have turned out had some key historical issue been resolved differently. What if the Germans had won WW2? What if Apple had licensed the Mac interface in 1986? What if Los Angeles hadn't torn up miles of streetcar lines to build highways? And so forth. The imagined outcome doesn't have to be better than the present situation, of course, or even entirely plausible. But thinking about historical contingencies can be a good way of seeing otherwise subtle connections between events, ideas, and people.
Historians call these "counterfactuals;" science-fiction writers call them "alternate histories." Most people just think of them as "what if..." stories, which is just what OutlookIndia calls them in its special issue of essays about how India -- and, sometimes, the world -- would be different today had various historical events turned out differently. Even for those of us not steeped in the details of South Asian history, the essays make for fascinating reading; not only do the stories provide insights into how present-day India actually came about, they reveal the concerns that modern Indian historians (and amateur historians) have about India's place in the world.
A list of some of the What If... stories should get most of you clicking over (the alternate history buffs hit the link quite awhile ago):
...and so forth. Some of the stories require some knowledge of Indian history, but most can be appreciated even if you don't know your Patel from your Jinnah.
Cool! I'm really into alternate histories. But I prefer divergences going further back, especially imagining that the "good guys" won at critical turning points in the early modern period.
For example, imagine if the Levellers had succeeded in turning England into a decentralized republic, a loose federation of shires and hundreds, torn down the enclosures of the previous century, and guaranteed the property rights of copyholders and other customary tenants. No Navigation Acts, no mercantilism, no Empire. The English industrial revolution would have taken place without a propertyless class of wage-laborers forced to sell themselves in a buyers' market, and without the Combination Act. With the bargaining power of labor increased, industrialization might have taken a much more cooperativist turn.
In India, in the meantime, the native textile industry would have survived, and would probably have adopted steam power independently.
And of course, no corporate "system of world order" with the U.S. as "hegemonic power," as Sam Huntington put it. No permanently militarized economy, no national security state...
Imagine: a world owned and managed by the people who actually do the world's work. The difference between our world and that one is the difference between night and day.
Personal favorite alternate history story: Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. The story takes place after WWII in a world where the Germans and Japanese won the war - the nice twist is the focus on a mysterious underground book that ponders: what if the Americans had won WWII?
Kevin, you read Kim Stanley Campbell's "The Years of Rice and Salt" yet?