23 December 2011

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra on remembering and translating

Arvind K. Mehrotra is characteristically acerbic and thought-provoking in an interview in the Times of India today where he discusses his essays in Partial Recall and his original, brilliant translations of Kabir's poetry. Read the interview here.

21 December 2011


Monika Mehta
Censorship and Sexuality 
in Bombay Cinema

India produces an impressive number of films each year in a variety of languages. Here, Monika Mehta breaks new ground by analyzing Hindi films and exploring the censorship of gender and heterosexuality in Bombay cinema.

She studies how film censorship on various levels makes the female body and female sexuality pivotal in constructing national identity, not just through the films themselves but also through the heated debates that occur in newspapers and other periodicals. The standard claim is that the state dictates censorship and various prohibitions, but Mehta explores how relationships among the state, the film industry, and the public illuminate censorship’s role in identity formation, while also examining how desire, profits, and corruption are generated through the act of censoring.

Committed to extending a feminist critique of mass culture in the global south, Mehta situates the story of censorship in a broad social context and traces the intriguing ways in which the heated debates on sexuality in Bombay cinema actually produce the very forms of sexuality they claim to regulate. She imagines afresh the theoretical field of censorship by combining textual analysis, archival research, and qualitative fieldwork. Her analysis reveals how central concepts of film studies, such as stardom, spectacle, genre, and sound, are employed and (re)configured within the ambit of state censorship, thereby expanding the scope of their application and impact.

MONIKA MEHTA is Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University, SUNY. Her research and teaching interests include postcolonial literature and film; globalization, diaspora, and cultural production; gender and sexuality; cinema in South Asia; and the state and the entertainment industry.

Hardback / 318pp / Rs 750 /  ISBN 81-7824-345-8 / South Asia rights / 2012
Copublished with the University of Texas Press

05 December 2011


A.R. Venkatachalapathy
The Province of the Book
Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu

A.R. Venkatachalapathy, though still a young scholar by Indian standards, has been hailed as a savant of sorts for his knowledge of the culture, politics, and history of Tamilnadu. Of his wide and varied reading there is no lack of evidence within his new monograph just published by Permanent Black. This work, which focuses on the history and culture of books, book publishing, and book reading in Tamilnadu from the time of parchment to the time of Pagemaker, is interesting from the word go: it starts with four satirical epigraphs, three of which run as follows:

In this age, when printing machines have become legion and the business in paper has expanded, novels have started to proliferate like termites.—review in Lakshmi (1924)

Brother, listen to me. Take up some other occupation: never pursue this wretched profession of writing. Show me one person [in Tamilnadu] who has grown rich writing books and essays. How does it matter to us that Shaw and Chesterton have become millionaires by writing?—Kalki (1931)

Two books sell the most in our society: one, the almanac; the other, the railway timetable.—C.N. Annadurai (1950)

Sumit Sarkar and Ramachandra Guha have this to say about Venkatachalapathy and his book:

This is a pioneering work of a kind of social history that has been all but non-existent in our country, and [A.R. Venkatachalapathy] has brought to it a combination of scholarly diligence, command over extremely diverse kind of sources, a perceptive and analytical mind, and considerable awareness of international trends in history-writing.Sumit Sarkar

In this superb work, A.R. Venkatachalapathy explores the diverse but interlinked worlds of  the printing, publishing, patronage, and reading of books. These worlds are treated with attention and care, as well as located within a wider social history of the Tamil country. Not least among the book’s many pleasures is its skilful decentring of Indian historiography away from the over-studied province of Bengal and towards other regions that are as interesting.  This model work of scholarship will confirm Venkatachalapathy’s standing as the most accomplished historian of his generation. —Ramachandra Guha

To coincide with the appearance of this book, which is utterly absorbing and seems certain to be recognized as a classic contribution to Indian cultural history, we asked Paula Richman, renowned Tamil scholar and Danforth Professor at Oberlin College, to converse briefly with Venkatachalapathy. Their conversation appears below.

PR: Tell us about your experiences as librarian-cum-steward of books at the Maraimalai Atikal Library in Chennai (1987-1990).  What made the library special to you?
ARV: In 1987, I had finished college, and was looking to do an M.A. in history. Given the state of social sciences in Tamilnadu institutions I’d no intention of studying in any of them. My idea was to take a distance education degree and then try to get into JNU.
I had first visited Maraimalai Adigal Library in 1982. Maraimalai Adigal (1876–1950) played a pivotal role in the Tamil ‘renaissance’, and was an astounding scholar, and ran his own printing press and journal. After his death – and some litigation – his fabulous collection of books passed on the publishing house Saiva Siddhanta Kazhagam, which has a central place in Tamil publishing history. V. Subbiah Pillai and his heir apparent R. Muthukumaraswamy had built this library over the years as the place for Tamil imprints, a status it has sadly lost now. For a library run by staunch Saivites the library itself is amazingly non-sectarian.
I first went to this library looking for primary source material on V.O. Chidambaram Pillai (1872–1936) – whose biography I’ve been writing for the last 30 years! – and was amazed to locate his letters and a journal he had edited, apart from many first editions of his books. In 1984 I edited and published a volume of his letters, and R. Muthukumaraswamy kindly gave me permission to reproduce the letters in the library’s holdings. I remember meeting him on a rainy day dressed in a mud-spattered school uniform of khaki trousers and white shirt! It’s still a mystery to me that he should permit a school student to make copies and publish rare historical material.
The assistant librarian was in-charge of the library as R. Muthukumaraswamy, the librarian and secretary, managed the Saiva Siddhanta Kazhagam. This position was usually vacant as it was poorly paid, and incumbents used this as a stepping stone to better positions. I resolved to spend the years of my distance education study to work at the library. When I sounded Muthukumaraswamy through my mentor Tha. Kovendhan, he gladly agreed. The three years at the library were the single most important education of my life.

PR: How did your work at the library influence your decision to write a monograph on Tamil print culture? 
ARV: Apart from being the storehouse of resources – early imprints, rare collections, back volumes of journals, private papers ­– the library attracted scholars from far and wide. It gave a ringside view of the world of Tamil scholarship. There was a time when no serious work on any aspect of Tamil society could be written without acknowledging the library. One afternoon the Chicago scholar Norman Cutler dropped in. The bulk of Sumathi Ramaswamy’s Passions of the Tongue was researched in this library at this time. I made friends with many scholars who researched there. I met my friend and collaborator P. Athiyaman dressed in bellbottom pants and a shirt with huge bow collars and oily hair on my first day at the library.
            The library was open from 9 to 7 with a two-hour lunch break. As my home was at some distance I would spend the whole day there devouring books. The library was the equivalent of chocolate mountains and treacle streams.
            When I went to the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, for my PhD I was not inclined to continue with my earlier research on early nationalism or the history of the Dravidian movement. I wanted to start on something fresh so that I could get a proper training in the theory and practice of history. As I’d always been fascinated by print – quite incomprehensible in this age of desktop printers – I decided to work on its history.

PR: What were a couple of the Tamil books most influential to you when you worked there and why?  And which books while you were doing your research for this book and why?
ARV: For a historian, sitting in the midst of a library embodying the history of Tamil literary culture – the library was then housed in Mannady the centre of Tamil publishing from the time of World War II until the 1980s, and it was in that very building that the great poet and seer Vallalar Ramalinga Adigal, in the early 1830s had given his first public discourse at the age of 9 – it’d have been surprising if he did not think of writing on print culture. Reading a compilation of the editorial prefaces of the great nineteenth-century scholar-editor C.W. Damodaram Pillai, the copious biographical and autobiographical work of the outstanding scholar-editor U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, and the Tamil University’s chronological edition of Bharati’s poems – perhaps acted as the immediate trigger.
            At the beginning of my JNU years, Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre was the academic rage. I loved that book, and was green with envy at his access to police records on writers in revolutionary France. But somewhat unfashionably, the inspirational books for me were his ‘biography’ of the French Encylopaedia, The Business of Enlightenment, as well as his collection of exciting essays, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. (As a fellow at Harvard in 2010 I wanted to pay homage to Darnton in person, but he did not have the time to even reply to my mail seeking an appointment.)
            Now, the Indian archive has no equivalent of the archive of the Societe Typographique de Neuchatel – the Naval Kishore Press records that Ulrike Starke hit upon pales before this. I had to make do with tantalizing bits of information gleaned from book wrappers, blurbs, advertisements, review, prefaces and forewords, biographies and autobiographies, and the like. It gave me immense delight when Sumit Sarkar as the [PhD] examiner, and now Rukun Advani as the publisher, noticed this.
PR: Tamil was the first language to be printed in Indic characters and the world's first language to appear in non-roman characters.  Why do you think that these two "firsts" are not more widely known to historians of the book?
ARV: Perhaps, this is because it’s one of those ‘false dawns’ that Graham Shaw, the distinguished bibliographer of the British Library, refers to. It’s a question that early modern historians, with a grounding in the European languages of the time, should explore.

PR: Recently, Ulrike Stark published a history of the Naval Kishore Press in Lucknow.  Does any Tamil institution wield the same influence as that in the Tamil world?  Perhaps the South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society?  Or, if there is no equivalent, can you tell us why you think the situation is so different?
ARV: Fortunately not. There’ve been many divergent streams in Tamil publishing and that explains its vibrancy. Especially at this time, when there’s a boom. Even though the Saiva Siddhanta Kazhagam was a major player with a unique corporate identity, its focus was on the Tamil classics and Saiva religious literature, with some nice pickings from textbook publishing. It had, for instance, no truck with modern expressive writing that was flowering at that time. Paula, you’ll remember the great modern writer Pudumaippithan’s ridiculing of Kazhagam that I unearthed from his contemporary journalistic writings.

PR: You devote half a chapter to Subramania Barathi’s writings and their print career, then part of another chapter to the intense surveillance he encountered, yet still argue that British control was fairly limited.  So tell us what made Barathi such an exception and why?
ARV: Bharati is an exception because he’s Bharati! Though it might be academically unfashionable to say so. Historical context alone cannot explain genius fully. There are few parallels to Bharati in colonial India – here I’m not quite unaware of Tagore; Bharati can hardly match Tagore’s range of artistic achievements, but in terms of poetic intensity it’s a different matter altogether … Bharati’s life was short. The prime ten odd years of his adult life were spent holed up in a small town under quite taxing surveillance. If he had lived longer and written in the Gandhian era of mass, non-dangerous politics, it could have been a different story.

PR: Many scholars of the history of the book do not take into account the way that print in India is central to British print history.  For example, Gauri Viswanathan's work has shown that the British literary canon came into being at least partly because English literature was required reading for Indians studying in institutions of higher education in colonies.  How do you think your book can broaden the thinking of European historians of the book or suggest new questions that they need to ask?
ARV: It’s striking, and distressing, that European historians show so little interest in the history of the book in India. Darnton is once again an exception. His two essays on book history themes in India are impressively competent considering how weak historians usually are outside their geographical specialty. But even then these essays do not talk to his main concerns in Enlightenment Europe. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s analysis of the characteristics of print culture would have been so much richer if only she had looked at India with its rich history of orality and literacy, surfeit of manuscripts, transmission of knowledge mediated by caste, etc. The work of Priya Joshi and Rimi B. Chatterjee is important in this respect. Priya Joshi shows how India was rather important to the circuit of English popular novels. Rimi shows how OUP’s India operations impacted on the mother firm.
            The central lesson I’d say is that there’s no one triumphant template of print’s success. The history of the book in India – in its many languages – is a great laboratory to understand the power of print.

PR: Could you give a short list of 5-6 books, outside your areas of academic interest, that have meant a lot to you or influenced your life. 
ARV: Scouting for Boys by Baden-Powell
Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
Neruda: Selected Poems (Penguin edition)
Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Pudumaippithan Varalaru (Biography of Pudumaippithan) by
J.J. Sila Kurippugal by Sundara Ramaswamy


The first Indian language book ever to be printed was in Tamil, in 1577. After many fits and starts and some spectacular achievements, print and the culture of book publishing became well-recognized facets of Tamil society during the late colonial period. The Province of the Book explores the wonderful world of scholarly and subaltern publishing—especially popular fiction and street literature—in its heyday.

The basis of Tamil book publishing was, to begin with, the patronage of writers by the local nobility and affluent Hindu monastic orders. Such patronage was eroded by the socio-economic transformations which came with colonialism. During the period of transition which resulted, attempts were made to create a market for Tamil books, with local writers not knowing where to turn for a living. It was only with the rise of the novel and a reading middle class—including young women and housewives—which finally broke the stranglehold of patronage, allowing Tamil publishing to grow into the market venture that it is today.

This is a brilliant and pioneering work which reconstructs a universe hitherto unknown— the world of the Tamil book. It shows famous and unknown authors at work, the religious literati with its cortège of students, radical nationalist poets such as Subramania Bharati rousing the masses and being crushed in the process, humble scribblers eking out a livelihood writing bazaar pamphlets, successful scribes compiling anthologies for students and astrological wisdom for the credulous, and the ubiquitous English official surrounding them all—censoring, adjudicating, dictating.

The book also looks closely at reading practices, modes of reading, and the nature, numbers, and composition of book readers. Its epilogue traces the broad contours of Tamil publishing from the time of Independence to the present and speculates on the future of the Tamil book.

Monographs on the history of the book in India are seldom as conversant with the international literature on the subject as this one. A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s work dazzles because he is au fait not just with the history and culture of publishing in Tamilnadu but equally in France, Britain, and the USA. The archives he has mined reveal government documents, pamphlets, tracts, periodicals, manuscripts, catalogues, bibliographies, reviews, advertisements, letters, and even account ledgers.

In short, this book will fascinate anyone interested in history, sociology, cultural studies, and the media, and prove indispensable for students of book history and publishing cultures.

A.R. VENKATACHALAPATHY is Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. He has taught at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli; Madras University; and the University of Chicago; and has held research assignments in Paris, Cambridge, London, and Harvard, and served as ICSSR Professor at the National University of Singapore. An accomplished Tamil writer, he has published widely on the social history of Tamilnadu. His publications include In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History; and, as editor, Chennai, Not Madras; In the Tracks of the Mahatma: The Making of a Documentary; and Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry.

Hardback / 320pp / Rs 795 / ISBN 81-7824 - 331-8 / World rights / December 2011

21 November 2011

Environmentalism and the Hindu Right

Mukul Sharma
Green and Saffron
Hindu Nationalism and Indian Environmental Politics

This book examines contemporary environmental issues and movements in independent India on the one hand, and the development of Hindu conservative ideology and politics on the other. It includes the first thorough investigation of Anna Hazare’s movement in Maharashtra.

Mukul Sharma argues that these two social currents—environmental  conservation and Hindu politics—have forged bonds which reveal the hijacking of environmentalism by conservative and retrograde worldviews. This, he says, constitutes a major aspect of hinterland political life which neither academics nor journalists have seriously analysed. Environmentalism and politics cannot be seen as separate from each other, for environmental issues are being defined in new ways by an anti-secular form of Hinduism. In turn, Hindu ideologues are gaining mileage for their ideology by espousing major environmental projects.

Anna Hazare’s impact is studied in detail through a careful field investigation of his environmental initiative in Ralegan Siddhi. Sunderlal Bahuguna’s opposition to the Tehri Dam in the Garhwal Himalaya is outlined with great anthropological subtlety. And the regeneration of Vrindavan’s urban and riverine hygiene by internationally funded NGOs is subjected to a historical scrutiny that includes an examination of how Lord Krishna has been redefined as the great god of conservation.

Sharma discusses Nazi Germany and fascist appropriations of environmentalism in Europe to contextualize Hindu conservative nationalists within a larger universe. By pinpointing the communal and authoritarian discourses within some of the new social movements, his book alters the way in which we look at everyday life in the subcontinent. For, says Sharma, at stake in this intermeshing of environmental Green and Hindu Saffron is nothing less than the way Indians understand their humanity.

Hardback / 324pp / Rs 795 / ISBN 81-7824-340-7 / World rights / December 2011

And below
MUKUL SHARMA in conversation with

Mukul Sharma’s new book, GREEN AND SAFFRON: HINDU NATIONALISM AND INDIAN ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS is the first serious scholarly study of both Anna Hazare in Ralegan Siddhi, as well as the interpenetration of environmental movements with Hindutva. To coincide with the book’s appearance, K. Sivaramakrishnan (Professor of Anthropology at Yale and a major historian of Indian environmentalism) converses with Mukul Sharma. Their conversation, below, contextualizes the book and provides insights into the author’s core interests.

How did you come to focus on the connections between religious and environmental values and the associated patterns of political mobilization in environmental movements?
Between 1990 and 2001, I happened to do at least three kinds of fieldwork, in different regions, with diverse agendas, and these led me for the first time to begin asking questions about the emerging interrelationships between religious and environmental values and a certain kind of conservative, nationalistic politics in India.
First, as a member of an environment journalists team, organized by the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, I visited Ralegaon Siddhi village and met Anna Hazare, to write on an ideal green village and an environmental crusader. I published three positive reports on this in the Hindi newspaper Navbharat Times, I was a special correspondent with them at that time. However, uneasy memories, notes, and documents on the use of Bharat Mata, Shivaji, Vande Mataram, army rules, religious symbols, codes and conduct in the village, along with publications by the then prominent leaders of the Rastriya Swamsevak Sangh portraying the village and its leader as a model for the country, continued to haunt me.
Second, I had been covering the anti-Tehri dam movement in Garhwal for long, and in one of my visits to the dam site in the late 1990s, where Sunderlal Bahuguna was sitting on a long fast, I met a group of sadhus distributing pamphlets that anchored the religious and environmental values of Ganga not only as a pivot against the dam, but also against alleged ‘enemy’ symbols and people of the country: i.e. mosques and Muslims.
And third, when in 2000 I began working with the political foundation of the Green Party of Germany and had an opportunity to visit the country a couple of times, I found a troubled past and present regarding the relationship between the environment and certain kinds of political and religious beliefs. I also felt that environmentalists in the Green Party Foundation were reluctant to formally discuss these linkages. These experiences led me to think in a more concrete and focused fashion on the connections between religious and environmental values, and the associated patterns of political mobilization in environmental movements.

How would you respond to the assertion that books on religion and ecology, often by scholars of religion, have focused on the realms of culture and spirituality as they reflect ideas of nature or information on ecological relations in the natural world. Such scholarship takes little interest in the political realm or the politics present in cultural constructions of nature or sacred objects in nature. On the other hand, the social science of environmental politics often lacks insight into the affective and devotional dimensions through which individuals and groups may relate to nature and thereby find affinity to the natural world in the form of a religious experience. If you agree with this formulation, is it your interest to bridge this divide?
Most works on religion and ecology, in the specific context of India and Hinduism, are often banal and unidimensional. They usually explore Vedic and Brahmanic understandings of religion, and apply them to the natural world. Leave aside the political realm, they do not even have space for contesting visions of religion and environment. Let me give an example from my village Vishwaspur, in Bhagalpur district of Bihar, where there is a thakur vadi (place of God), owned and nurtured by us, a few Brahmin families, in the name of the whole village. The religious values and practices associated with this place have a robust conservationist and protectionist streak concerning the ponds, trees, and water bodies in its vicinity. However, this religious place, its fruits and ceremonies, are closed to the Dalits of the village. The ‘sacred’ trees of the complex can only be worshipped and used by the Brahmins and Thakurs. So what kind of religious and spiritual values of the environment are we talking about, and by and for whom? I have also been finding many such instances in the state of Rajasthan—where there has been much hype around religiously and culturally celebrated ponds and water bodies—in the course of my new research on Dalit environmentalism. We need to dissect the various forms and content of religion in the environmental arena so that their regressive and liberatory aspects are understood simultaneously. Howsoever, worthy the religious beliefs and practices of an individual or a group may be for the environmental world, my interest lies in seeing it through the spectrum and cross-section of caste, class, gender, justice, and equity, and not as a stand-alone point of reference. Green and Saffron reflects precisely such a politics of the environment. It explores the cultural, ethnic and sectarian dimensions of green issues in India. This also underscores the intermeshing of identity, power, and nature.

How did your earlier career in journalism and subsequent career in the world of civil society organizations come to influence your research and writing of scholarly work?
As a journalist, I gained experience doing intensive and regular field work on the environment and rural issues at several critical sites in India and abroad. Tags like ‘rural’, ‘environment’ and ‘labour’ journalist came later, invented narrowly by media organizations. Some of the habits and practices developed at that time—going to the field and staying there, spending time listening to a cross-section of people, gathering diverse facts and documents, cross-checking, visiting local libraries, and most critically seeing a particular environmental or rural issue not only from the lens of a subject but also from a cross-cutting of subjects and articulations—have influenced my present work.
After that, my continuing career in the world of civil society organizations made me conscious of the slippery and often shallow nature of research undertaken, and how not to do an academic and serious research work. Also, civil society organizations, working particularly in the field of the environment, made me more alert to its political implications. I have seen here, for example, how the notion of ‘sustainable development’ has frequently been stripped of cogent meanings and how incongruous actors, from power-driven governments and profit-making corporations to indigenous people and city-action groups, have couched their intentions in the language of sustainable development.

Indian writing on environmental topics, even by people who wish to contribute to scholarly debates, or those who ultimately become academics, has often originated in activism or public concern around a specific issue. Do you find these ties between political engagement and scholarship limiting the kind of topics and perspectives environmental scholarship in India has taken up? Are there consequent gaps in the scholarship? What might they be?
I find Indian environmental scholarship, otherwise very rich and path-breaking, thin in terms of its political engagement in post-Independent India, especially in comparison with other parts of the world. There are only a few specific arenas, like dams, water, forests, and gender, where ties between environmental scholarship and political engagement have produced significant studies. Such concerns have expanded environmental horizons, including its subject, actors, and writers. However, there is still too little politics in environmental scholarship and too much rhetoric in political writings on the environment. We are yet to see nuanced and rich understandings of ecological politics in India, in all its dimensions. Studies on the politics of a particular moment and movement, of a community and its leader, of an area and its tradition, are not enough to fill the lacuna of a broader and wider understanding of ecological politics in the country. There is a vast and vibrant political canvas of secularism and communalism, nationalism and authoritarianism, democracy and political parties, capitalism and socialism, Dalit and Brahmin, red and blue, superpower and regional power, which impinges on environmental politics, and vice versa.

This book, Green and Saffron, has been long in the making. In what ways is it different from the project you originally embarked on?
I would respond in two parts: how is it different from my earlier works, and from its earlier conception. The making of this book reminds me of the story of the rabbit and the tortoise, narrated to us since childhood: to win the race, the rabbit runs fast, but the tortoise carries on slowly and steadily. If my journalism was the run of the rabbit, this book has been the slow-steady walk of the tortoise. Where my journalism ended, this book began. It also has a distinctive feel because, since its inception, I have been working formally and informally with some brilliant environment scholars and historians. Editors normally publish. However, academics make it difficult (at times impossible) to publish. And this gave me a robust/difficult discipline, and style of writing and publishing. Also, my other projects like Contested Coastlines (co-worked with Charu Gupta) were more environmental and human-rights oriented in nature, while this work is more political and sensitive. Here I was journeying with some well-established people and vibrant movements in tumultuous political times, attempting to chart a relatively unexplored territory. This long painstaking path was slow in the making and also difficult to pen.
When I initially conceived this project, some ten years back, I saw fragmentary and inadvertent links between Green and Saffron. However, as this work progressed, these faint associations became more concrete and wider. Further, I earlier envisioned the work largely in the context of the present and the contemporary. However, later I also dwelt on its deeper historical, social, and political roots.

Could you name and discuss five or six books that, over the years, have influenced your thinking or shaped your writing?
The readings that have shaped my writings have ranged from footpath literature, pamphlets, to journalistic works and scholarly books. However, if I were to pick five or six books, though difficult, I would choose the following: Rahi Masoom Raza’s Hindi novel Aadha Gaon, which narrates the story of a village in Uttar Pradesh at the time of partition and independence, and how Muslim and Hindu families were torn apart. The novel is a powerful testament of how communal politics weaves itself into our everyday existence. Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano for the ways in which it rejects a straight-jacketed chronology and instead traces Latin America’s exploitation and impoverishment through a history of its principal commodities over five centuries. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice has great resonance for me for its ideas of reconciliation between freedom and equality, justice as fairness, and distributive justice. Ramachandra Guha’s The Unquiet Woods has a continuing influence on me for its in-depth and path-breaking study of Himalayan social protests. I consider Richard P. Tucker’s work, especially his Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Decline of the Tropical World, a landmark study on modern global environmental history. It opens up new areas for me to study any ‘empire’ in the environment. A Field of One’s Own by Bina Agarwal has also been a regular companion.  

18 October 2011


This month, PERMANENT BLACK is publishing Jayeeta Sharma's long awaited monograph on Assam, Empire's Garden

To coincide with its publication, we requested Professor Sumit Sarkar to ask his former student a few key questions about her book and professional interests. Their conversation is given below.

SUMIT SARKAR: How far was your choice of Assam as research area conditioned by your affiliation to the place? Apart from the personal involvement, what else shaped your choice of Assam and its plantations -- especially as you are not a tea drinker yourself, if I remember correctly.

JAYEETA SHARMA: As a young bookworm in Guwahati, I read all the history books that I could find, whether Gibbons or Gait. But I couldn’t stand the dates-and-events history the provincial Assam Board forced on students. Then I learnt that at Delhi University I could study social, cultural, and economic history. The next few years were a revelation, especially in my MA courses. When I began to do research, I did want to write about Assam someday. However, I wasn’t ready to do so for my M.Phil degree. Finding source materials for Assam was a problem, especially with little funding. Also, the Mandal-Masjid events impelled me towards looking at caste-class issues among Delhi’s Balmiki sweepers. Later, I learnt of the rich trove of vernacular sources at the British Library and applied for scholarships to do a PhD on Assam. Tea plantations were not yet on my mind, since I envisaged a history of vernacular cultures and regional identity at that point. Incidentally, I could not escape altogether from tea-drinking at Delhi University addas but I gave it up for more interesting beverages once I got to Cambridge, ironically, just as I brought tea into my academic frame of reference!

SUMIT SARKAR: Do you consider your book to be primarily a contribution to labour history or is it more a contribution to studies of regional identities and nationalism? How do the two concerns inflect each other?

JAYEETA SHARMA: I see the book as both, and again, this is shaped by the way it came about. As I began reading for my PhD, I often came across an unsatisfying dichotomy in historical scholarship: between literary-and-nation-centred works, and ‘labour and migration’-wallahs. I found it frustrating that so many works on ‘vernacularization’ or ‘public sphere’ had little to say about the mixed vernacular realities that labour migration and imperial policies created. Plantation studies and labour history in turn, often took little account of vernacular sources and differing regional cultures. Gradually, I conceptualized my study of Assam as a cultural history inflected by the study of labour, as well as a history of vernacular regions that would focus on empire’s workings. I started to view the colonial economy and plantation sector as economic and cultural actors that shaped the making of Assam and of India, as did the ideas and artifacts of the printing press and of associational bodies, and that both sets of processes impinged upon, interacted, and influenced each other, albeit to differing degree.

SUMIT SARKAR: What is the significance of the sequence of terms, 'jungle', 'garden', and 'plantation'?

JAYEETA SHARMA: Terms such as 'jungle' and 'jungli' have referred to Assam and its denizens all the way from Sanskrit texts to Gandhi (he eventually apologized). I got interested in the way 'garden' was strategically deployed to replace 'jungle' by so many actors with differing agendas, from Assam Company employees to American missionaries to pioneering Assamese intellectuals. At a wider level, of course, 'garden' has a long historical and literary lineage. I found a variety of scholarly works, on botanical gardens or food studies or on plantation labour, helpful to think through how tea became a metaphor for so many different improving projects.

Today, in Assam, the English word 'garden' is often used to refer to 'plantation' whether one speaks in English or in Assamese. Yet, as in the other 'garden' of South Asian history, that of Kashmir, it is the people who live and work on the plantations who are often elided when their picturesque surroundings come into view. My book’s title “Empire’s Garden” I hoped would bring to mind not just how the term Assam itself became a signifier via the imperial tea economy, but all these larger historical and political connections that it acquired.

SUMIT SARKAR: Do you intend to work further in this area? If so, where would you want to take it? If you plan on something else, how has this first study prepared you for the new theme?

JAYEETA SHARMA: I certainly continue to be interested in labour and culture, and the circulatory flows between elite and subaltern histories. My next project is already well underway, and focuses on a region adjacent to Assam, the Eastern Himalayas. The chronological frame is late-19th century to late-20th century. There are two main connections to my first book. One arises from a connection to tea planters since I write about mixed-race children who were born of relationships between British tea planters and local women, and then educated in Himalayan schools. These were illicit relationships and conventional sources are virtually silent, so it is quite a challenge. Another connection is a focus on labouring and migrant groups: Darjeeling tea workers, as well as load-bearing coolies from Nepal and Tibet. I examine the cultural worlds and colliding spaces of various Himalayan groups, including of course, elite and middle-class hill residents. In terms of vernacular histories, I venture out beyond Assamese and Bengali sources to incorporate sources in Nepali, Hindi, and Tibetan. I believe that South Asian history needs more studies that speak across regions and specific language groups, and this project is a partial attempt in that direction.

SUMIT SARKAR: Can you discuss some books or events unconnected with your discipline that have been important to you?

JAYEETA SHARMA: I think I’ll talk about events if that is all right.

The initial set of events I’ve already mentioned: the mobilizations to oppose the Babri Mosque destruction and the caste prejudices exposed by the anti-Mandal movement. Till then, I had not really made the connection between my studies and the world, but the realization of these religious-caste-class fissures made me wish to go deeper into history in order to better understand present realities.
Another set of events is the mass mobilizations to express dissent with the Iraq war and the prevailing ‘new imperialism’ in the early 2000s. Those movements and the introduction they provided for a fledgling ‘diasporic intellectual’ to groups similar to those who had inspired me to become a historian, served as my personal and political lifelines at that time and still do so.

And lastly, an event that has altogether changed life and and work is the birth of my child. It is somewhat of a cliché to say parenthood changes a person, but having heard this all my life, I now constantly realize its truth. The world looks a different place when one brings a living sentient being into it. So do the study and writing of history, when one sees the vulnerabilities of human childhood at firsthand, not to mention the impact on one’s routines and plans, especially as regards archival and library travel.

05 October 2011


Amiya P. Sen, editor
Bankim’s Hinduism
An Anthology of Writings by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay

The great novelist and thinker Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838–94), associated with his famous hymn ‘Vande Mataram’, is sometimes seen as mainly a creator of Hindu nationalist icons. This is unfortunate, for Bankim was an enormously learned man, a deep and subtle thinker. A relatively unknown side of his work comprises his religious and philosophical thought, in particular his carefully argued ideas on Hinduism.

This collection of Bankim’s writings—many translated into English for the first time and excerpted from the author’s Complete Works in the Bengali original—brings out some of the inner anxieties and ambivalence within the novelist-intellectual’s work on religion, ethics, and philosophy.

By reading this book one may detect in Bankim a rational-functionalist approach to religion, as also a deepening faith and piety transcending that intellectual perspective. Bankim anticipates contemporary scholarship in claiming that Hinduism is the common name given to a variety of religious thoughts and practices; and yet, paradoxically, his writings—all penned in the colonial era of Indian subjecthood—also argue for a common Hindu heritage, as well as a unified religious and cultural world for contemporary Hindus.

A substantive Introduction and detailed annotations help to situate Bankim’s life and thought in his times.

AMIYA P. SEN was educated at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. He is Professor of Modern Indian History, Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He has been Agatha Harrison Fellow at the University of Oxford, and Visiting Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His several publications include Hindu Revivalism in Bengal: 1872–1905: Some Essays in Interpretation; Explorations in Modern Bengal c.1800–1900; and, as editor, The Indispensable Vivekananda: An Anthology for Our Times.

Hardback / 392pp / ISBN 81-7824-323-7 / Rs 795 / World rights / November 2012

On the Cup that Cheers

Empire’s Garden
Assam and the Making of India

Jayeeta Sharma

In the mid-nineteenth century the British created a landscape of tea plantations in the north-eastern Indian region of Assam. The tea industry filled imperial coffers and gave the colonial state a chance to transform a jungle-laden frontier into a cultivated system of plantations. Claiming that local peasants were indolent, the British soon began importing indentured labour from central India. In the twentieth century these migrants were joined by others who came voluntarily to seek their livelihoods.

In Empire’s Garden, Jayeeta Sharma explains how the settlement of more than one million migrants in Assam irrevocably changed the region’s social landscape. She argues that the racialized construction of the tea labourer catalyzed a process by which Assam’s gentry sought to insert their homeland into an imagined Indo-Aryan community and a modern Indian political space. Various linguistic and racial claims allowed these elites to defend their own modernity while pushing the burden of primitiveness onto “non-Aryan” indigenous tribals and migrant labourers. As vernacular print arenas emerged in Assam, so did competing claims to history, nationalism, and progress that continue to reverberate in the present.

“Jayeeta Sharma’s subject is the creation of the notion of ‘Assam’ during the pre-colonial and colonial periods, both as a literary artefact and as a region defined by its relationship to the wider India. She wants to know how, when, and why the Assamese came to see themselves as different, particularly from Bengalis and from the Muslims of what is now Bangladesh. She is also interested in how some subordinate groups within the province were incorporated into the idea of a Hindu Assamese identity and others not … Dr Sharma has made a major contribution to the reassessment which is now under way of what might be called ‘regional patriotisms’, both in India and throughout  Asia. Her wider theoretical and historical interests in the emergence of ‘ethnicities’ or ‘micro-nations’ also put her work in the vanguard of developments in the social sciences more generally.”—C.A. Bayly

Empire’s Garden is a new departure for the historical study of Assam, extraordinarily wide-ranging, with important things to say not only about Assam but about India, South Asia, and themes ranging from colonialism, nationalism, and regionalism to ethnicity, elite formation, migration, and economic development. It will anchor histories of Assam for years to come.”—David Ludden

“This rich history of Assam fills a void in scholarship. Assam is an area of South Asia that has received little attention from serious historians of the subcontinent, except those working on the tea industry. Jayeeta Sharma provides us with fascinating details of Assam’s history. More importantly, she relates local themes to larger issues of South Asian history: colonial ideologies of race and the importance of these ideologies to the political economy, the structure of colonial rule, the development of the public sphere, and the reformulation of identities under colonial circumstances. Empire’s Garden also helps us to understand the historical dimensions of contemporary conflicts in the region, without making the conflicts seem predetermined by what happened in the colonial period.”—Douglas E. Haynes

JAYEETA SHARMA is Assistant Professor of History, University of Toronto.

Hardback /  348pp / Rs 750 /  ISBN 81-7824-343-1 / October 2011 / South Asia rights

03 September 2011

One More from the Enfant Terrible of Med Ind and the Med Cosmos ...

Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Three Ways to be Alien
Travails and Encounters in the Early Modern World

This book looks at individual trajectories in an early modern global context. It draws on the lives and writings of a trio of marginal figures who were cast adrift from their traditional moorings into an unknown world.

The subjects include

v  a “Persian” prince of Bijapur in Central India held hostage by the Portuguese at Goa
v  an English traveller and global schemer whose writings reveal a nimble understanding of realpolitik in the emerging world of the early seventeenth century
v  an insightful Venetian chronicler of the Mughal Empire in the later seventeenth century who drifted between jobs with the Mughals and various foreign entrepôts, observing all but remaining the eternal outsider

In telling the fascinating story of floating identities in a changing world, Subrahmanyam injects humanity into global history and shows that biography still plays an important role in contemporary historiography.

“Through case-studies of three quite remarkable ‘aliens’ and ‘border-crossers’ Sanjay Subrahmanyam has given us a startling new vision into the intricacies and the day-to-day realities of the always unsteady, always conflictual nature of cultural ‘encounters’ across and within the European and Muslim empires of the early-modern world. With his wry humor, keen eye for detail, and gift for startling juxtaposition, no one can match him.”—Anthony Pagden

“Integrating biography, microhistory, and world history in the study of cultural border crossers, Subrahmanyam’s book will probably initiate a whole new generation of studies in the field of cultural encounters in which individual lives figure prominently. Few scholars in the world can match his mastery of the political and economic history of the Early Modern empires of Asia and Europe, or the ease with which he crosses historiographical traditions to bring their history together in this lucid and innovative study.”—Stuart B. Schwartz

Hardback / 248pp / Rs 595 / ISBN 81-7824-339-3 / South Asia rights / 2011
Copublished with Brandeis University Press