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.