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