18 December 2013


Mechthild Guha

Danube, Ganges, 
and Other Life Streams

Mechthild Guha, née Jungwirth, was born in 1943 in Germany and grew up in Austria. After a PhD in anthropology at Vienna she journeyed to Sussex for postdoctoral research. England was meant to be a staging point for her return to West Africa, where she had spent several months, and about which she published a book—on the history of Benin. Meeting Ranajit Guha at the University of Sussex changed all her plans. They married, lived for a time in England, then moved to Delhi, and then went to Canberra. Now retired, they live close to the Vienna woods.

Of this short but deeply thoughtful memoir Mechthild Guha says: “It had never occurred to me that it would be possible to pack the memory of seventy years into a few pages. Nevertheless, out of an eventful and varied life, I have tried to select those aspects which not only speak of me but also the many people and places that make up my memories.”

A lover of nature, cats, and solitude, Mechthild Guha’s sensitivity, humanity, and curiosity also make her an insightful observer. Among the many fine things about her account is her refusal to defer to reputation: in her observations and assessments there is always the assumption that social status is irrelevant, and she relates well only to those she likes as human beings.

Best of all, she does not offer a fresh perspective on Subaltern Studies, but merely a superb counterpoint to it.

Hardback / 118pp + 8 pages of b/w photos / Rs 395.00 / World rights / end December 2013

18 November 2013

Sunil Khilnani on 1971 and Srinath Raghavan; TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan on Sanjay Subrahmanyam

If there were textbooks teaching academics how to write their PhDs and subsequent books, this spoof would constitute excellent advice:


At the non-spoofy end you'd have Sunil Khilnani, who, even when he's just writing a book review, seems as a writer in nearly a class by himself ('nearly' only because he'd have one companion in that class: Mukul Kesavan):


Neither entirely spoofy nor entirely serious is the style long adopted by TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan:


05 October 2013



Mukul Kesavan
by the inimitable     
Mukul  Kesavan

One day, in about 1981, looking in his pigeonhole at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was an M.Phil. student, Mukul Kesavan found a card from his supervisor Chris Bayly which included the line: ‘Cambridge isnt yet a holiday resort!’ The implication was that Kesavan better move it a bit on things academic. Later, Bayly presciently wondered if a career in journalism might not suit Kesavan well. A year or so later, while granting him his M.Phil., Kesavan’s external examiner Francis Robinson felt that with a little more effort the M.Phil. could be worked up into a Ph.D. Kesavan, thanking his stars for not having the money to work further at the wretched thesis, fled that corner of his foreign field happily clutching the M.Phil. Over the subsequent years he went back to Cambridge often, but mostly for the pleasure of punting on the Cam. Trapped as a student within a location bristling with libraries, he saw earlier than most the importance of enjoying Cambridge as the prettiest possible holiday resort.  

The directions of Kesavans early university years point to his later professional trajectory, which has been to combine everyday journalism with the higher learning. Taken to its highest form in Indian newspapers and journals, this is distinctively the art of Mukul Kesavan. A writer of the most witty, scintillating, excoriating, iconoclastic, and classical English prose—which in a quasi-Rushdiean way he has polished into an altogether superior idiom by layering it with sophisticated desi expression—Kesavan dodges classification. Neither fish nor fowl, a cat among the pigeons, he teaches history for a living and is formally a pedagogue, but virtually everything he writes seems implicitly to impale university prose so satisfyingly that, reading him, you can almost see the shaft travelling up the academic underbelly. Living within his tribe, he unsettles it as no one else merely by writing in the way he does. Or, to give it properly academic phrasing, he problematizes his profession. He complicates his colleagues. He liminalizes liminality.

Perhaps three-fourths of the essays and books that Indian social scientists produce are duller than ditchwater, the ditchwater very likely being deeply insulted by the comparison. The wealth of this variety of tripe, so conspicuous in India, may not be as apparent in other countries because, not being as rich in dysfunctional universities as us, they have fewer PhDs and conference-hoppers churning out hifalutin bilge, and therefore a smaller corpus of literature that can be immediately recognized as something that should never have come within sniffing range of a book, never mind becoming one. Of the remaining quarter, the bulk is perhaps passable, while a pretty tiny top-end shows up as imaginative, invigorating, analytic, and everything that academic prose of an international level ought to be. 

Had he put his heart into the academic profession, Kesavan would very likely have written the sort of attractive prose that Indian academics such as (for example) Sunil Khilnani, Arvind Mehrotra, Partha Chatterjee, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Sudipta Kaviraj have shown they can write. But as a writer Mukul Kesavan doesn’t really partake of this fine pinnacle either. Having climbed it, he has sidestepped it. The reason is that he does not desire to complicate or problematize or liminalize; he wants his writing to be accessible also within the university, not only within it. Consequently his forte has been the intelligent man's op-ed, the entertaining and thought-provoking analysis in a journal or weekly. 

The problem is that, all too frequently in India, the genres of writing that appear in such fora are seen as ephemeral and transitory, forgotten the day after they have been consumed, dismissed in a general way as the work of hacks. One answer to this difficulty is to collect the best columns and essays of the best journalists into a book, for whereas the single column vanishes from view within hours, a book of such pieces provides coherence and body, it enables the material to appear as a set of ideas, a worldview, a distinctive authorial viewpoint. You get a very different sense of the person writing if you can read 75,000 words by her through the pages of a book over four or five consecutive days instead of 1200 words piecemeal seen by chance over several years. 

  Columns by Indian journalists do sometimes get gathered into books, but the books they become bear little resemblance to the collections by, say, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell, Auberon Waugh and Clive James, where journalism-of-the-moment is so memorably shaped that it reads like art. (In our context the things nearest this are the essay collections of writers like Arundhati Roy, Ramachandra Guha, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Amit Chaudhuri, and William Dalrymple.) Until the recent appearance of Caravan magazine, and some might say Open magazine now and then, there hasn't since the demise of Modern Review and then Encounter and then the infrequently alive Civil Lines been space for the literary essay and strong narrative journalism. We've been short of a LRB, a NYRB. The result has been that high quality journalism, the pungent short essay, and the exquisite long one have been scarce, and these forms havent attracted anything like the sort of writers, money, and adulation that fiction has. Kai Frieze, Ruchir Joshi, and Pankaj Mishra come to mind as exceptional writer-journalists who may as a consequence have had shorter shrift in India than they might if our media and publishing cultures had been more supportive towards their genres. Additionally, because winning prizes is now The Big Thing, a gravitation towards the writing of literary fiction rather than literary journalism may have starved this variety of non-fictional prose. 

For all these larger reasons, and because Mukul Kesavan tends to spend more time talking than writing (his tongue may be the most exercised tongue in the country), it seems not to have been adequately noticed by the public at large that Mukul Kesavan is the finest living writer of Indian English non-fiction. We offer this opinion with provocation but without reservation, and with every expectation of hearing the whistle of hurled slippers. Absurd? Over the top? Maybe. But the assertion is a calculated exaggeration, made because there is no doubt in our minds that the prose offered up by Mukul Kesavan over the past decade or so is utterly exceptional, wholly international, and worth preserving for eternity. 

Sudipta Kaviraj narrates an incident which uncovers one aspect of our local university ethos that has generated vast reams of dreadful writing in the social sciences. At the end of one of his papers during a conference, Kaviraj says, he was approached by an eminent woman academic who said to him with no trace of doubt: ‘Your argument was so aesthetically expressed that I can’t take it seriously. I hope you will write a proper paper for the conference volume.’

Mukul Kesavan once wrote a paper for a conference volume. (He may have written more than one, but the wonder is that he even got to One.) It is titled ‘Urdu, Avadh and the Tawaif: The Islamicate Roots of Hindi Cinema’, and it is reproduced in Kesavan’s earlier Permanent Black collection of essays, THE UGLINESS OF THE INDIAN MALE AND OTHER PROPOSITIONS. Alongside his Cambridge M.Phil. thesis, which he was typically too lazy to rework into a monograph (a loss to Permanent Black; the offer to publish it remains open), this essay has one leg in academia and the other in the world of fine writing. It reveals, as do almost all his essays, that Kesavan is (pace the late Bernard Cohn) An Essayist Among the Historians. Kesavan’s new collection, below,

is, if anything, even more brilliant and wonderfully readable than that earlier one. What the blurb says is the bare truth:

‘Homeless’ in the title of this book means ‘cosmopolitan’. Mukul Kesavan, considered by many to be India’s most articulate and sophisticated scholar-journalist in English, covers a huge range of political and cultural subjects, local and international, in this collection of opinion pieces. These include Hollywood and Bollywood, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, Steve Jobs and Julian Assange, Sri Lanka and Israel, wildlife at the Kruger National Park and beachlife in Goa.
Kesavan’s viewpoints can veer from being scrupulously rational to extravagantly funny. Regardless of the tone he adopts, his observations are acute, his analysis of what he notices Orwellian. The perspective and worldview that emerges is that of a truly global intellectual who is both admirably idiosyncratic and secular to the point of being hidebound, a combination which makes this essay collection quite exceptional.
Identifiably Indian in its location, this book is written with such uncommon flair and intellectual passion, and in an idiomatic English of such polish and perfection, that it transcends the local. Journalism was never meant to be this good, and in India it has never been. The newspapers and newsmagazines in which this stuff first appeared just got lucky—this quality of writing should have originated in a book and been enshrined there forever.
Well, better late than never: buy it quick.

On hill stations: ‘Hill stations should come fitted with a thermostat. This way they’re just primitive forms of refrigeration.’

On wildlife: ‘Human populations shouldn’t be herded. Animal populations should—what are zoos for?’

On Nature: ‘I agree completely with Kingsley Amis who said “Nature is most pleasant when seen through the eyes of a character.”’

On Books: ‘I recommend magpie knowledge. Selective reading can be made to seem profoundly well informed.’

On Walking in Mountains: ‘There’s no option except to pretend we’re happy striding through this deranged topography.’

On Seeing a Hill Cow: ‘The cow is a creature of the most supreme stupidity. No wonder the Hindus warm towards it. Donkeys have some semblance of an impulse to spontaneity. Cows are only distinguishable from plants because they move.’

On Seeing a Wheatfield: ‘I must say, it requires a leap of faith to imagine the end product of something green and vertical as a chapati. From something long and thin and vertical and green into something flat and white and round. Vegetarianism has clearly stolen an aesthetic march over non-vegetarianism. It doesn’t require half as much imagination to see cooked meat as the end product of an animal.’

Inside five minutes of entering the [Kruger National] park, we saw our first substantial animal (I’m not counting deer which are to wildlife sanctuaries what weeds are to gardens), a rhino. After a quarter of a century of bourgeois travelling, I’ve arrived at a convergence theory of national parks, which is that all national parks are the same national park. Whether you’re at B.R. Hills near Mysore or in Sariska near Alwar or Kruger, there’s a road in the middle and scrubby wilderness on either side. The difference in Kruger was that there was visible wildlife as well, made evident by the rhino. It must have been all of twenty feet from the car and it was being stared at by a Land Rover full of safari-ing tourists. …
By the time we got to our lodge we had seen several giraffes. Giraffes aren’t native to Kruger. They are intelligent extraterrestrial life forms masquerading as earthly animals. I saw it at once in their lofty indifference to everything around them. We also saw two elephants, a big one and a little one which could have been its child, but we couldn’t tell what sex they were partly because it was dusk but mainly because we didn’t know exactly where to look on an elephant. Specially the African elephant, which is enormous. Ours seemed puny in comparison. I felt a pulse of elephant patriotism. This lot were large good-for-nothings. They couldn’t be taught or tamed or trained to do anything.  They just hung around in profile, staying still so people could take pictures. They made great silhouettes, though. They were so big that driving past one was a bit like driving by India Gate.
… the vehicle [stopped] so we could watch two white rhinos. One of them was defecating and he produced what can only be described as perfect, cylindrical shells that were expelled with such force that the crap was a kind of cannonade. After the rhinos left (both male, young: [the guide] Lazarus could always tell the girls and boys apart, even in the dark) he drove us down to their lavatory, which he called  a midden.
I have a very bad video of him standing outside the Land Rover surrounded by rhino turds, explaining that a midden wasn’t just a place to shit for the rhino, it was also a place for acquiring information, the rhino equivalent of a cyber-café. The midden told the rhino if there were any willing rhino maidens about, it told him if there were any pushy male rhinos horning in on his territory. Lazarus stopped to pick up an old rhino turd and crumbled it. You could tell from the turds, he said, if they had been produced by a black or a white rhino. The colour was different as was the content because the one grazed (ate grass) while the other browsed (ate twigs). It was fascinating but some part of me kept wanting him to wash his hands afterwards.

Hardback / 314pp / Rs 595.00 / World rights / mid October 2013

17 September 2013


All are welcome to this lecture by Professor Romila Thapar,
chaired by 
Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya

23 July 2013


When Permanent Black signed on this book, the agreement was that it would include around 40-50 illustrations. In print, the book will have more than 200. How come?

The reason is that the author is very persuasive. And he is very persuasive because he is both incredibly knowledgeable about his area of specialization, Telugu cinema, as well as enthusiastic about it to the point of being nuts. Facing a book which came in with four times the number of illustrations agreed to in the contract, it was surprisingly easy all the same for Permanent Black to say 'to hell with the agreement' because there is something quite special about this author's involvement in his subject. He has dug out an incredible array of songbook covers, film posters, and newspaper adverts from the most obscure and unknown private sources, and they are of immense value to his history.

The other thing about this book is that you don't need to be a Film Studies wallah to follow it. Srinivas has boned up on Film Studies theory and chucks in some impressive nuggets from it now and then, but he is careful to take it easy with the technicalities and jargon. He wants to reach you and me first, and Ravi Vasudevan, Madhava Prasad, and Ashish Rajadhyaksha later. (That he has also satisfied them is clear if you read to the end of this blog entry.) 

Centrally, this book is a social and political history of the Andhra region written by a madly involved cinema buff. And it is brilliant, in part because it so unusual. It shows us large sections of political and cultural life in urban and hinterland South India through the camera lens. No one ever saw Hyderabad, Teluguland, the Telengana region, Rayalseema, etc. etc. the way Srinivas sees it. His perspective is genuinely fresh, his enthusiasm for the world he investigates so infectious that you'll feel caught by the throat once you start reading it.

 Here is what the jacket blurb says:

This book provides a picture of the Telugu cinema, as both industry and cultural form, over fifty formative years. It argues that films are directly related both to the prominence of an elite which dominates Andhra Pradesh and other parts of India, and to the emergence of a new idiom of mass politics.

Looking in particular at the career of Andhra Pradesh’s best-known film star Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR), S.V. Srinivas reveals how the Telugu cinema redefined ideas of linguistic identity and community feeling within a non-literate public in South India. Dissecting NTR’s remarkable election campaign of 1982–3, he shows processes of political transformation and electoral mobilization via film, newspapers, and audio cassettes. He uncovers the complicated ways in which Indian politics can be linked with movie-going and, more broadly, cultural consumption. Cinematic and political performance are shown to be inextricably connected in ways disctinctively Indian.

NTR and the Telugu cinema, Srinivas argues, have shaped important aspects of Indian political and cultural modernity. Their legacies continue into the present time—when film has yielded pride of place to television, when the future of Andhra Pradesh’s statehood is unclear, and when Indian star-politicians no longer feel certain of success in the quest for power. 

S.V. SRINIVAS is Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, and co-ordinator of the Culture: Industries and Diversity in Asia (CIDASIA) research programme there. He was educated at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and the University of Hyderabad. He has taught at Arunachal University (now Rajiv Gandhi University), Doimukh, and held visiting positions at the National University of Singapore and Hokkaido University. He was ICCR Visiting Professor of Indian Culture and Society at Georgetown University for 2012–13. His publications include the book Megastar (2009) as well as many essays on popular culture as an industry.

“This book provides a historical and theoretically informed perspective on how Telugu cinema was implicated in, and contributed to, the rise of a new ruling caste-class constellation, the emergence of the star-politician, and a new idiom of mass politics in the Andhra region ... It skilfully weaves strands of economic, political, and social history with film history and textual analysis."Manishita Dass

“S.V. Srinivas’s Politics as Performance is an ambitious historical account of the agrarian background, caste profile, and political functions of the Telugu film industry, including a sustained narrative of the rise of N.T. Rama Rao. An exemplary text of film industrial history and political analysis, Politics as Performance makes a powerful argument for the importance of cinema studies in expanding and reconfiguring social science and historical research.”Ravi Vasudevan

“S.V. Srinivas’s long awaited book on Telugu cinema, seen from the vantage point of movie star-politician N.T. Rama Rao’s career, radically repositions the very concept of a star, and indeed that of the cinema, within modern politics. His site of inquiry, Andhra Pradesh, reveals an extraordinarily complex twentieth-century social and economic landscape, and the further manifestation of that landscape in one of India's largest film industries opens up new definitions of film narrative, the film industry, and the overall film economy. This approach to the cinema provides a completely new frontier for the discipline of film studies.”—Ashish Rajadhyaksha

“Unusually for these times, this is a work of film history that does not ignore the larger socio-economic realities of which any culture industry is a part. Indeed it seeks to demonstrate how the channels of mutual determination between socio-economic, political, and cultural instances work in practice. The Telugu film industry, one of the biggest in India, will now be assured of its place in Indian film history with Srinivas’s comprehensive, interdisciplinary study.” M. Madhava Prasad

Hardback / 454pp / Rs 950 / ISBN 81-7824-372-5 / 200+  rare archival pictures / world rights / SEPTEMBER 2013 / Published in 'The Indian Century' series, in association with The New India Foundation

also from permanent black

Ravi Vasudevan
The Melodramatic Public
Film Form and Spectatorship in Indian Cinema

Ranjani Mazumdar
Bombay Cinema
An Archive of a City

Mukul Kesavan
The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions

Kathryn Hansen
Stages of Life
Indian Theatre Autobiographies

Jyotika Virdi
The Cinematic ImagiNation
Indian Popular Films as Social History

Monika Mehta
Censhorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema

15 July 2013


Admirers of Kathryn Hansen's 
Kathryn in Austin, Texas
many contributions towards understanding North Indian culture, literature, and theatre will want to read this interview. It provides an excellent synoptic view of a scholar who has devoted a large part of her life to a deeply empathetic engagement with things Indian. Not many know that she played the sitar and became, when she first came to India, a friend of Nikhil Banerjee.

Permanent Black was privileged to be approached by her to publish STAGES OF LIFE: INDIAN THEATRE AUTOBIOGRAPHIES (2011), one of the most accessible, readable, and enthralling books on our list. In this she both contextualizes four important autobiographies by four theatre personalities from the days of the Parsi theatre, and translates all four from Hindustani/Gujarati into excellent contemporary English.

Books by heavyweight scholars can seem intimidating; this isn't one of those. Kathryn Hansen entices you into the Bombay and Calcutta and Lahore and Karachi worlds before Bollywood with anecdote, poster reproductions, and critical analysis in prose that's never difficult. You don't have to be interested in theatre and cinema to enjoy this one, it's a book for everyone. Here are two small bits from it:

"In the early twentieth century, leading Parsi and Gujarati companies still hired men to perform women’s roles.  All the autobiographies mention this practice as routine, just as they refer to the employment of women as actresses, which had begun in some companies, as problematic.  None of the other autobiographies, however, describes how it felt for a man to play a woman’s role.  Sundari’s autobiography is extraordinary in documenting his experience as a female impersonator.   No other “lady actor,” as such performers were sometimes called, has left such an insightful account of the process of transformation from man to woman.  Sundari was a female impersonator of the highest order.  Through his method of total identification with women, he created idealized feminine characters that were widely imitated.  Sundari’s stage movements, attire, and speech became models for women offstage.  He was second only to the great Bal Gandharva in bringing about changes that led, paradoxically, to greater freedom for women."

"[...] There was one other incident between 1908 and 1909, when we were rehearsing Chandrabhaga.  One evening, as I was coming down the stairs in the Gaiety, Mr Clement the ticket master said to me, “A woman wants to meet you.  She’s sitting outside in her carriage.” 
I went to the door of the orchestra section and saw a beautiful young Parsi lady.  I approached her carriage and asked, “Did you wish to see me?” 
She smiled modestly and said, “Do you have a copy of the drama Lalita Dukhdarshak? I saw the play last week and enjoyed it very much.”
“Some books are on sale in the auditorium,” I said.  “Maybe the ticket master has it.  I’ll ask him to arrange a copy for you.”
The ticket master came up and said the book was sold out.  He recommended that she go to a certain bookseller.
“Mister Jayshankar,” the Parsi lady retorted.  “How can I go there, being a woman?  Can’t you order the book through the ticket master?  I’ll come and get it next time.”           
I did just that.  But she couldn’t come the next day, and several days later a letter arrived from Matheran in elegant handwriting.   It read, “My dear Jayshankar, I cannot forget you.  You have inhabited my heart.  You are such a gentleman—this I realized from our first meeting.  And seeing the Theosophy ring on your finger made me very happy.  I want to open my heart and tell you so many things.”
It was obvious from the handwriting that the letter was from a woman, but the mode of address struck me as odd.  There was no signature, and I wondered who the woman might be.  Suddenly I remembered the Parsi lady from a few days earlier.  Still, I couldn’t be sure it was she.
All my incoming letters were first read by my bosses before being handed over:  it was how they kept me under surveillance.  They were always alert lest another theatre company lured me away.  So they were abreast of everything in my life, and this had two consequences.  First, I bridled at these restrictions and was angry, and second I had to constantly bottle up my desires.  But like it or not, my life was the target of their moral rescue, and I was powerless to oppose it."


“These four autobiographies of artists and writers who shaped early Indian theatre during its most creative period are as riveting as the fare that the theatre itself provided. Kathryn Hansen’s lifelong and perceptive involvement with that rumbustious enterprise infuses every word of her translation of these texts.”Girish Karnad

“Kathryn Hansen has given us a special kind of book—one with many voices, on many layers, which cohere in a single, satisfying picture.  Autobiographical accounts of early pioneers of the Parsi theatre are enriched by the author’s considerable knowledge of this theatre, its performance styles and people and languages. This well-produced book includes original thinking about a number of topics, including autobiographical writing in India, its history in India and first-person narratives as a form of cultural memory.  The narratives themselves, which lie at the heart of the book, are lovingly translated, combining humour, flare and intimacy.  They read as they were written and bring us inside this world where stages of life were sung and danced and spoken under the lights.”— Stuart Blackburn

So, a book for everyone. And a career for her fans to admire and congratulate Kathryn Hansen for. We hope she will write many more books as brilliant as her last, and publish them all with us.

28 June 2013

Before the Atom Bomb

Coming in September 2013 from Permanent Black

It's a great new telling of the birth of nuclear India from the 1930s to the late 1950s. Jahnavi Phalkey is a lecturer in the history of sci-tech at King's College London and, long back, her PhD won the annual Sardar Patel Award for the best dissertation submitted at an American university on a South Asian topic. Since then she's been beavering away revising, discovering more material, rethinking and reformulating -- all the usual things that careful scholars spend years agonizing over before a publisher wrenches the script away from them. (JNU has at least two brilliant historians, Neeladri Bhattacharya and Indivar Kamtekar, who are still chewing their fingernails revising their PhDs: Permanent Black has assured them posthumous publication as well as medical expenses for possible onychomycosis. Curiously, these two share a birthday, so there may be something to astrology.)

Phalkey demonstrates with hard evidence and irrefutable logic that the connections so frequently argued between the Indian "peaceful nuclear explosions" of 1974 and the early years of nuclear research were at best tenuous and at worst non-existent. The folks at the TIFR Bombay, the IISc. Bangalore, and University Science College in Calcutta didn't have atom bombs in their heads when they set about trying to procure cyclotrons for their labs. Phalkey says the dots connecting them with the Thar Desert explosions constitute a falsely retrospective reading. The academic term among historians for making up a story when there isn't one is 'teleological argument'. A teleological argument is a very bad thing. Phalkey shows us how bad, and does so rivetingly. So, from her book we find out a lot about C.V. Raman, Homi Bhabha (the comprehensible first version), Meghnad Saha, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, and others less famous; and a little bit about how historians cook up stories and, disregarding hard facts, make teleological arguments. Phalkey, broadly in line with the school of thought that includes Meera Nanda, shows science as a 'universal' pursuit much more than a culturally specific practice.

In brief, a book to look out for. Plenty of luminaries say so:

“Is there an Indian way of doing science? All too often, the answer to this question has raised the possibility of alternative scientific worldviews. Phalkey's outstanding study shows that the answer must vary according to the viability of alternative practices among scientists working in a particular discipline. Unlike their colleagues in medicine or the social sciences, Indian physicists have fully claimed as their own the universal practices of doing physics. And like big science everywhere, nuclear physics could only be done with state support. Phalkey shows with meticulous care the political desires that brought together the practices of scientific knowledge production and the priorities of state leaders. A valuable addition to the growing literature on the history of independent India.”—Partha Chatterjee

“Jahnavi Phalkey has written a closely argued work which shows the tensions inherent even within Indian nationalism on the matter of science. The book is empirically rich, using hitherto unseen private archives. Beyond this empirical richness, it is located squarely within an argumentative tradition of linking science and political economy, but also a tradition where science is never simply reduced to politics. Its fluent style and accessible character mean that this book can be read not just by historians of science but by all those who are curious about the many paradoxes of South Asian state-building and modernity.”—Sanjay Subrahmanyam

“By examining the emergence of nuclear physics in India between the late 1930s and mid-1950s, Phalkey unravels a complex story of competing individuals and rival institutions. She shows in lucid detail how a crucial branch of theoretical and applied science struggled, across the colonial divide, to function and find support. She presents a compelling picture not only of why some scientists failed and others succeeded but also of how the pursuit of nuclear science became a hallmark of India’s modernity and an adjunct to state power. An original, intelligent and timely book, Atomic State will help provoke a radical reassessment of what science in twentieth-century India was for and who were its beneficiaries.”—David Arnold  

“Jahnavi Palkey’s new work is a very important step in focusing in on the single field of nuclear physics in India and its practice around accelerators and cyclotrons from the 1940s. She uncovers a ‘messy social terrain of crises’, and explores how three accelerators at three labs actually came (and sometimes didn’t come) into operation. Using what she calls ‘the small instruments of empirical history’, Palkey makes clear the disconnection of much of this physics research and development from ‘building the bomb’, and shows other purposes and ambitions at work. The fascinating role of persons and personalities like Raman, Saha, Bhatnagar and Bhabha is not missed (nor of their lesser known colleagues of the time), leaving readers with a deeper appreciation of how these crises were managed, and to whose loss and whose benefit.” —Robert Anderson

22 June 2013


Niraja Gopal Jayal
Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Niraja Gopal Jayal
whose book CITIZENSHIP AND ITS DISCONTENTS: AN INDIAN HISTORY (Permanent Black and Harvard University Press, 2013) has been published to profuse critical acclaim, is interviewed here by 

Madhav Khosla

Madhav Khosla (PhD Candidate, Department of Government, Harvard University).

Q1. It is sometimes felt that a strictly legal conception of citizenship, as it were, can work against more participatory forms of citizenship. Do you feel that some inclusionary forms of citizenship are reflections of deeper failures?

A1. That, in a sense, is my point of departure in this book: equality is the premise and the promise of citizenship, but it is also, and precisely because of this aspiration to equality, an embattled and endlessly contested political project. Take legal citizenship: it is certainly true that the denial of legal citizenship can be gravely unjust, but its affirmation in law can also be worth little or nothing. As far as inclusionary forms of citizenship are concerned, it rather depends on what sort of inclusion is attempted and which inequalities the polity seeks to redress. We may be, and frequently are, satisfied with symbolic inclusion, without however aspiring to address the much larger challenge of structural inequalities which hold the key to equal citizenship.
Having said that, legal citizenship should properly be seen as a first, necessary, but far from sufficient condition of a robust conception of political membership. This applies to immigrants in affluent societies as much as to those who are nominally citizens in their own country but so desperately poor or discriminated against that their citizenship has little real purchase. The impediments to participation are not exclusively from legal conceptions of citizenship, but they can also emanate from the denial of membership in the political community.

Q2. Much of the current discourse around citizenship in India focuses on rights and their expansion. Do you think that India needs to be more circumspect in this regard – and that the enthusiasm with which matters are being set in stone might, as Bentham had famously feared, hold the potential for giving rise to illiberal outcomes?

A2. To the extent that Bentham was suspicious of natural rights, and saw rights purely as creatures of law, the current predilection (of both state and civil society) to give legal and even constitutional status to social rights, with no antecedent moral principles being corralled to justify them, can quite cheerfully cohabit with Bentham’s view. However, the real question is about whether we run the risk of illiberal outcomes with rights being cast in stone, and the question seems to imply that social and economic rights run this risk more than, say, civil or political rights, which are deeply and foundationally liberal. So, to return to the question of social and economic rights, thirty years ago this could have been quite easily answered with a nod in the direction of the then Soviet Union. Today, however, this is considerably more complicated. Except for those who altogether dismiss rights as appendages of bourgeois modernity, the interconnections and interdependencies between different types of rights have become stronger, whether in international covenants or in some of the new constitutions of the Global South. If anything, with new forms of state censorship on literary and artistic work, and of state surveillance using sophisticated technology, it seems that it is the civil and political rights and freedoms that underpin liberal politics that are endangered. Today, the possibility of illiberal outcomes appears less likely to emanate from social rights (to the implementation of which there are not only serious structural impediments, but also bureaucratic and social resistance) and more from the new forms of governmentality, and – literally – new technologies of rule.

Q3. In many countries, citizens, in any particular endeavour, are not reduced to a single identity. At the same time, however, the law itself does not focus on management through identities. The very idea is that one need not speak through one’s identity. What you do feel should be the relationship between immutable identities and citizenship?

A3. I think what you are describing in these countries is really the French ideal type of the past. The politics of multiculturalism of the last quarter-century suggest otherwise. I think it is important to recognize that this emphasis on the immutability of identities, and on conceptions of citizenship mediated by identity, is something in which citizens and states are complicit. There is a pact between states (who are eager to ‘identify’ their citizens and govern them additionally through laws that recognize identity) and citizens or their community leaderships which make these claims on the state. In such a context, the idea of a civic identity seems either terribly retro or politically incorrect.
I do believe that something valuable is lost when the civic identity completely drops out of the project of citizenship, but that does sadly seem to be the way things are in the present. The Occupy movements did seem to herald some possibility of change, but eventually turned out to be rather shortlived. Ultimately, a civic identity must be not only about identity, but also about solidarity, and civic solidarity is essential to crafting consensus on, say, redistributive strategies for a more equal citizenship.

Q4. Do you feel that the contests within identity groups merely represent new forms of elite power capture, and that the poor remain potatoes in a sack – unable to speak to one another or mobilize together? Does a focus on immutability run the risk of turning our gaze away from class, and those who truly lack the capacity to participate as citizens?

A4. It is very difficult to objectively distinguish between the genuine claims of oppressed identities and those that represent forms of mobilization for elite capture. The political scientists’ binary of primordialism vs constructivism simply cannot answer all questions. It is however true that the more strident claims are often made by leaders of already empowered groups that have learnt how to leverage identities by linking them to political and economic opportunity. This has, as we know, generated incentives for the invention of new identities. In that the state is the first and last port of call for arbitrating identities, we have not strayed too far from the colonial script. As for class, it is astonishing that despite the obvious and compelling overlap between class and horizontal inequalities, both citizens and the state are equally invested in the latter, and tend equally to disregard the convergence between them.

Q5. On a more personal note, can you us a little bit about your journey into this topic, both from your important earlier work, Democracy and the State (1999), and more generally? And, if possible, what we might expect your next project to be?

A5. The journey from Democracy and the State was fairly straightforward, though long and punctuated. In that book, I had argued that the quality of Indian democracy should be assessed in terms of its ability to provide for the meaningful exercise of the rights of citizenship. So the next logical question clearly was: what are rights of citizenship, and is citizenship about more than rights. This book attempts to answer both those questions. Going forward, I would like to explore a bit more the implications of the theoretical hollowing out of the state, which is at least partly an outgrowth of some of the citizenship literature and its fascination with transnationalism and cosmopolitanism. My worry is that while the questioning of borders and normative nationalism is very appealing, it can also be a little irresponsible because cosmopolitanism does not offer any convincing answers to problems of poverty, hunger, and disease, even as it lets the state off the hook completely.

Q6. (publisher’s question) Could you list a few of the books that have stimulated your ideas and intellectual directions?
It is hard to identify a handful of books that have influenced my intellectual formation. Two books that made me turn to the study of Indian politics in the 1980s were Partha Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse and Atul Kohli’s The State and Poverty in India.

I derive aesthetic pleasure from novels that are unusually structured, and speak to contemporary problems through history. Two of my all-time favourites in this genre are Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio and Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land.

This may also explain why the books that I have hugely admired, without their necessarily having influenced me in any discernible way, are Hobbes’s Leviathan, Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India.  


  Citizenship and Its Discontents

An Indian History

Breaking new ground in scholarship, this is the first history of citizenship in India.

Unlike the mature democracies of the West, India began as a true republic of equals with a complex architecture of citizenship rights that was sensitive to the many hierarchies of Indian society. In this provocative biography of the defining aspiration of modern India, Jayal shows how the progressive civic ideals embodied in the constitution have been challenged by exclusions based on social and economic inequality, and sometimes also, paradoxically, undermined by its own policies of inclusion.

Citizenship and Its Discontents explores a century of contestations over citizenship from the colonial period to the present, analysing evolving conceptions of citizenship as legal status, as rights, and as identity.

The early optimism that a new India could be fashioned out of an unequal and diverse society led to a formally inclusive legal membership, an impulse to social and economic rights, and group-differentiated citizenship. Today, these policies to create a civic community of equals are losing support in a climate of social intolerance and weak solidarity.

Once seen by Western political scientists as an anomaly, India today is a site where every major theoretical debate about citizenship is being enacted in practice, and one that no global discussion of the subject can afford to ignore.

“The idea of citizenship in India promised inclusive community, but the country's enlivened politics have transformed that promise into a more fragmentary, divisive reality. In this magisterial analytic history, Niraja Gopal Jayal maps for the first time the concept's vicissitudes, and makes an essential contribution to our understanding of contemporary India and of political theory.”—Sunil Khilnani, King’s India Institute

“A contribution to our understanding of citizenship and democracy in India that is empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated.”—Amrita Basu, Amherst College

Hardback / 376pp / Rs 795.00 / ISBN 81-7824-371-7 / South Asia rights