19 August 2014


Ratna Raman
chances upon an Unrecorded
Vocabularian-Phonetic Rebellion
Hitherto Unknown Even to the Postmodern
Phase of Subatern Studies History

How Subalterns
Squashed the Tea Estate Burra Sahibs

From Bagdogra Airport it is a lovely afternoon ride to the Dooteriah tea estate. The tree plantations start almost as soon as we get off the main highway and both sides of the road are thickly carpeted, with dense green tea bushes. Tea leaves plucked from bushes growing at a higher altitude are more flavourful, Babua, the man at the wheel, informs us while the car begins its smooth, gradual ascent into the hills. The journey is beautiful and we unwind on the way to the tea estate, drinking in the colours of the sky and the earth. At the start of the tea estate the smooth road is replaced by badly rutted, narrow roads that were originally horse carriage routes through which the tea estate managers travelled up and down. Now cars and jeeps travel on them jostling shock absorbers and the innards of people sitting in them.
Photograph by the author

We arrive at the Dooteriah Estate in the early evening and alight at the Guest house, a gorgeous old building with high ceilings and ancient red oxide floors, once characteristic of South Indian architecture. The floor has a fabulous sheen, despite hairline cracks all over, rather like those on heritage porcelain taken out of ancient family chests. There is many a slip and unceremonious sprawl to be got past before we eventually sit down to our first cups of freshly brewed Darjeeling leaf tea, the flavour enhanced by Britannia Top biscuits. The view from the top is nothing short of spectacular. Lush, blue-green, triangular mountain ranges frame sloping valleys with large circular bushes of tea that taper into greenness while all around the bungalow, end-of-summer flowers  burst into colour within beds and in black polythene bags filled with soil. This horticultural practice of growing plants in durable black polythene containers in most places in these mountains sustains not only green life but also precious clayey soil since the requirement for terracotta containers has been greatly reduced by the sustained use of portable polythene.

The visiting estate manager invites us to look at the sifting and processing of tea on the estate. The journey begins from the point handpicked leaves packed into plastic bags arrive via ropeway from different gardens in the mountains. The leaves are spread out to dry and then processed, eventually dried and then sorted into four categories. It is a fascinating process and we also taste different flavours. When asked if the name Dooteriah meant anything specifically, he draws our attention to the tall Datura bushes with large white flowers that grow all over the estate. “It is possibly a corruption from the name Datura,” he observed laconically, pushing us to recall how many similar instances of naming were part of the legacy that the British left behind in India, in the course of moving back to their more scientifically named destinations. We have, of course, quickly renamed all our significant roads and cities. (Not that such change is ideal or advisable since it short-circuits and compresses memory while erasing history.) However, in quieter and relatively undisturbed pockets of the Indian subcontinent, older names remain and reverberate, endorsing the multiculturalism of time via language.

Dooteriah for Datura is a charming example of the sort of naming specific to the British residency in India. As was the elaborate ritual of tea tasting that we were drawn into during the  subsequent  period of our stay. Although great tea grows now on our mountain ranges, our tea drinking (and coffee drinking) traditions date back to the British, who planted and oversaw the idyllic, luxurious tea estates, where the only thing that everyone really did was to grow, pluck, process, pack, brew, and drink tea. Every other activity was only incidental, since in good weather the mountains ask very little of inhabitants and visitors alike.

On the way to other tea estates as we drove in and around the various valleys, we saw little shops selling green produce on different sides of the road. Many kinds of mountain greens, violet radishes, luscious green gourds, and small round red chillies that I first mistook for cherry tomatoes greeted us. Among the spread out vegetable ware, I was struck by the abundance of a vegetable that appeared sporadically on Delhi’s vegetable carts for two days in October and disappeared almost as if it were only a mirage.

 When we visited our grandparents in Chennai and uncles and cousins in Bangalore and Mysore, usually in the summer, we were first introduced to this vegetable. Akin to the gourd and the pumpkin families, at home we referred to it as chow chow and in South India it was called Bengalooru Katthirikai (eggplant). Other than the fact that its oval shape was reminiscent of medium-sized green brinjals, there was little other similarity between the real eggplant and this green vegetable that grew on a vine. It could be cooked into a stew, along with lentils or cubed  and cooked into a dry vegetable, garnished with coconut and eaten as an accompaniment to Saambar rice (spicy tamarind lentil mixed with plain rice). The peel of the chow chow was thick and covered with a sort of white stubble. This was usually transformed into a smooth thohayal (chutney). For making the chutney, the peel was roasted along with black gram dhal and ground with a little tamarind and red chillies. The resultant paste was garnished with mustard seeds and asafoetida and subsequently eaten with rice, dosas, chappatis, and pooris. The peeled vegetable was often cut into roundels and dipped into thick chickpea batter (mixed with a little rice flour, salt, and a pinch of asafoetida) and served up as platefuls of hot fritters, with steaming cups of coffee, that we consumed on hot lazy afternoons.

 Here in the hills there seemed to be two varieties of chow chow,  pale green and creamy white. Stopping by the stately Teesta river at the vegetable market adjoining the highway, I am informed by the women selling the vegetable that the white variety is costlier and has a longer shelf life. I am intrigued further by its local name, Iskush. They offer me stems and leaves of the Iskush and I learn that these are cooked by themselves as greens or with yellow lentils and eaten with rice. As I mouth the name Iskush in order to remember it better, Babua, our charioteer, amused by my interest, regales me with stories of the Iskush.
When he was a little boy, Babua tells us, in a village not very far from Kalej valley, his grandfather would come home beaming from ear to ear, at the end of a day’s work. When asked why he was so happy, he would proudly announce “momo khaya (I ate momos). ” Babua went on to explain that long ago “momos” (steamed dumplings), now part of popular street food in much of North India, were made by monks at the not-so-nearby Buddhist monasteries. Cooking food for an entire community, these dumplings (mostly vegetable) were steamed inside enormous containers, and lay visitors such as his grandfather had access to them if they were in the vicinity of the monastery at mealtimes. “We used to wonder then,” Babua muses, “what this momo was that made our grandfather so happy. Only when we were older and could head to the monasteries did we find out. These days, every household makes momos, not only with vegetables, but also with chicken and pork, and everyone owns small steamers in which they cook them, so now every child knows the taste of momos.”

“You must try iskush momos,”  he adds, deferring to our herbivorous preferences. As we head home he stops and draws our attention to a small wood-and-iron shed beside a tea garden over which green leafy vines have been trained. Stepping out of the car we can see Iskush gourds of varying sizes draped in pleasant green foliage. My daughter, who does not share my fascination for Iskush, asks Babua why he does not extol the potato which is so much more delicious. “The potato can be found all the year round,” replies Babua. “The Ishkush is there for only a season and we eat its leaves and its stems and its fruit. Then it is gone and we miss it. In my village, after the fruit is over and the leaves and vines have been consumed, the roots are dug out and eaten and relished. Then we wait for the next season!”

We reach the guest house and savour Iskush momos (reminiscent of ravioli-stuffed zucchini) that Mahendra has made for dinner. The next morning, following a pre-breakfast huddle with Mahendra, green Iskush paranthas (the leaves and vines are cooked and ground and kneaded with flour and spices) find pride of place at the dining table. Crisp and green, the paranthas are served with savoury yellow lentils cooked with Iskush stem and leaf. Washing all this goodness down with steaming cups of tea, I wonder idly if Iskush was introduced to the Kanchenjunga ranges  by plantation wives who grew them in the impromptu kitchen gardens that frame the sides of magnificent tea estate bungalows. 
The Ishkush on its vine. Photograph by the author.

Slowly, it dawns on me that maybe, when plantation wives arrived in India, they were armed with squash from their gardens. They must have planted a few aged squash in the lush soil, longingly hoping to propagate familiar associations of home in a strange new land. Emboldened by the familiar climate, the squash rooted itself effortlessly in this foreign environment. It appealed to local residents who took to this English vegetable, root, shoot, and leaf. They eventually appropriated its name and made it their own. Iskool and iscooter  are two significant (north) Indianizations of  the words ‘school‘ and ‘scooter’,  both of European origin. The third and perhaps more endearing (north) Indianization that I have come upon is the exotic Iskush which has now replaced the low profile, more prosaic, ‘squash’.  With the season’s last crop of Iskush carefully rolled in old newspapers, and tucked into carry bags, we headed for Bagdogra, from where we would soon return to the workaday plains.

Read her own blog, in the midst of life, here

17 August 2014

Scholars and Scholarly Publishers: New Developments

Changes in the climate of relations between academic authors and their publishers


Six years ago the vice chancellor at Delhi University was told he could soon be arrested. Someone in Dera Bassi near Chandigarh had filed a case against him: an essay by the scholar A.K. Ramanujan in an OUP book titled Three Hundred Ramayanas had hurt the religious sentiments of the plaintiff. Ramanujan was showing Hinduism as made up of a variety of traditions. The plaintiff found this offensive because he knew it to be a fact that there was one true Hinduism: the one he had been taught in Dera Bassi. The case was filed by a proxy. The man behind it is believed to have been an RSS schoolteacher, Dina Nath Batra, known for his interest in a new kind of Mahabharata to dismantle the Nehruvian worldview and replace it with the Savarkarian and Golwalkarian. Central to his effort was a rejection of the empiricist assumptions on which history is based because it offends what Hindutva thinks is Hinduism.

The Delhi vice chancellor was only the first target of a man who had sensed that the judiciary can be used as a stalking horse. The charge of causing harassment can be sidestepped by making the fight look all cleanly legal, even as the individual complained against is harassed into having to employ a lawyer, pay court fees, and defend himself for years on end in places he didn’t even know existed.

The Delhi vice chancellor and the OUP, who jettisoned the Ramanujan essay, were trying to escape trips to court. Their decisions buttressed Batra, whose next target was the academic publisher. The OUP, who had published Ramanujan, had even disowned their superstar author and—until shamed by pressure from their scholarly constituency—declared Ramanujan’s books out of print. It was like the walls of Jericho in the Old Testament, which crashed not because of an assault but by mere trumpet blasts blown by Israelite priests. Batra had hardly hitched up his khaki shorts to find the opposition pulling down its yellowed pants.

Setting aside the work of British Orientalists from William Jones to Vincent Smith, scholarly publishing in English became properly visible in modern South Asia only about fifty years back. Nationalism of the strongly moral sort was a generally fierce impulse from the 1950s to the 1970s, and among some of the Indian branches of British publishers—such as OUP, Longman, and Macmillan—nation-building of a kind came into being via the publication of learned works by Indians. Gradually, with improvements in standards and the efforts of exceptional publishers such as Ravi Dayal, it even became prestigious to publish within the country. This spawned smaller imprints which snapped successfully at the heels of the bigger corporations from which they had broken away. For about twenty-five years—until the arrival of Penguin India gave Indian fiction writers a distinct presence which overshadowed the university crowd—the phrase ‘Indian writing in English’ referred mostly to the writings of scholars and scholar-poets such as Ramanujan.

This quiet arena seldom made it to the newspapers. Books appeared and were reviewed; publishers acquisitioned invisibly, earning themselves a little money, some social clout, and a reputation for helping local scholarship. Relations between writers and publishers were friendly.

Since Batra’s assault on Ramanujan, two alien elements have disturbed this serene flow. First, the terrain has become less unfamiliar to the public, sometimes via front-page headlines, ironically because of Batra’s efforts to stop the flow altogether. Second, the spirit of bonhomie between authors and scholars has become strained because of a new wariness between the two. Publishers now instinctively look for potential legal difficulties within every script and assess the author’s possible degree of animosity towards them should problems arise. Authors now instinctively wonder if the publisher will ditch their books the moment there is any hint of legal trouble from the Hindutva cohort.

The most unfortunate instance of this changed atmosphere is the trouble between Megha Kumar and her publisher Orient Blackswan (OBS), with the author denouncing the publisher for altering the normal process of publication by getting lawyers to re-review a finished copy of her book. Academics in sympathy with her predicament have supported her, even as they have acknowledged her publisher’s need to protect its staff and commitment to other authors. OBS have maintained that neither Kumar’s book nor another attacked via the courts by Batra—Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s From Plassey to Partition—has been withdrawn. One of their directors, Nandini Rao, summarizes their peculiar problem:

While we were obviously  aware of the Doniger issue, the James Laine case, etc., when we received Batra's legal notice for From Plassey to Partition, we were stunned that a bestselling title by a universally acknowledged authority should be targeted a decade after its publication. 

The fact that we are going ahead with Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s book demonstrates our commitment to independent scholarship and our refusal to be bullied. … However, we are not above the law. … we have to seek appropriate academic and legal advice and find ways to put out our books in the market without them facing any hurdles, primarily without a stay being placed on their distribution.
Both James Laine and the MD of the publishing house faced criminal cases and long legal battles. Despite the author issuing an apology‎ the Bhandarkar Institute was ransacked. … we do not want to stop publication of Megha Kumar’s book. Our interest is in finding a way to publish it without a stay being placed on its distribution and eventual reach.

But how can such commitment proceed other than along the directions the publisher may soon be asked by a court to follow? With this position Professor Partha Chatterjee says he has some sympathy and several caveats:

… a lot of the hostility between authors and publishers has occurred recently because of a series of cases in which publishers have withdrawn or are asking for review of books that they have already published, after having gone through all their evaluations and editorial checks. When this happens, authors quite rightly feel betrayed.
         To avoid this, it is necessary that publishers do all their evaluations, including assessment by lawyers of the risks that the book might violate the law or even that it might draw unacceptable political attacks, before they actually accept a manuscript for publication and sign a contract with the author.         

Publishers will find the OBS logic compelling because the press has carefully distinguished itself from OUP/Ramanujan and Penguin/Doniger. But many authors will agree more with Partha Chatterjee’s logic: the publisher had best assess it all beforehand; once a contract is signed, no more lawyers.

The Megha Kumar problem is also the symptom of a generally dismaying development. A thorough checking of every sentence in every book for possible future Batra-bashing means not just protracted turnaround time but the appearance of fewer scholarly books. Batra may not eventually succeed in court, but the Batra effect has already created conditions of self-censorship which greatly increase the costs of academic publishing. The phenomenon is temporary and not a decimation of Indian scholarly publishing—the domain is too large even for the RSS to demolish—but it has vitiated the climate for investment in this kind of book.

How do authors and publishers respond to this altered scenario? Nayanjot Lahiri sees Batra in an illustrious lineage of disruptors:

Remember the litigation around D.N. Jha’s Holy Cow – Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions ? It was strange because Rajendralal Mitra in the nineteenth century convincingly argued for cow sacrifice and beef eating among the Indo-Aryans, just as P.V. Kane did in the 1940s … the most determined litigants in his case were not Hindus but Jainas. Jha had cited evidence to show meat-eating among them in ancient times. The book was published by Matrix Books and was eventually withdrawn by the publisher … In situations like this, the publishers should support authors—especially if they have deep pockets like OUP and Penguin.

She also raises an issue that bothers most authors and publishers these days: self-censorship. Among authors and publishers the term now means a state of intimidation, proceeding with extreme caution for fear of harassment.

Of this there are several examples. It is not generally known that an excellent monograph by the American professor of Hindi Studies, Philip Lutgendorf, entitled Hanuman: The Life of a Text—Performing the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas (University of California Press, 1991: winner of the A.K. Coomaraswamy Prize in 1993), did not find an Indian co-publisher because of its historical treatment of a religious subject. Why would any Indian publisher buy Indian rights for a book virtually guaranteed to be the object of a long-range Batra missile from the day it appeared in the market? As Professor Vasudha Dalmia, Hindi professor at Yale, puts it, “Undressing the Hindu gods doesn’t go down well these days, specially if the scholar is based in the West.” Multiplied, this situation suggests a possible future of mass self-censorship, with the best books on Indian religious history being published and available in the West but not in India, making a mockery of Indian protestations about its democracy providing freedom of expression to writers and thinkers. Several varieties of Batradom exist and keep a vigilant eye out for intellectual spaces to infiltrate: Muslim conservatives, Khalsa Sikh gurudwara heads, and hyper-sensitive Jainas have stifled normal historical investigation whenever it has suited those in power within these communities. The talibanisation of Afghanistan and Pakistan looks harsher than the hindutvisation of India for the moment, but as Shelley would have put it, “If Taliban comes, can Hindutva be far behind?”

Two other instances, similar to the eventful non-publication of the Lutgendorf book, confirm India’s international stature as an already existing undemocracy of self-censorship. First, Paul Courtright’s book Ganesa (OUP New York, 1985) had to be withdrawn by the publisher’s Indian branch because of its historical and psychonalytic treatment of how the image of an elephant developed into a holy cow; twenty years after its appearance the author was still getting death threats. Second, one of the most elegantly crafted, learned, and readable monographs ever to be written on an Indian subject, Harjot Singh Oberoi’s The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (OUP India and University of Chicago Press, 1994) so incensed the orthodox Sikh establishment in Canada that Oberoi made himself a living monument to self-censorship: he resigned his Sikh Studies chair in 1996 and stopped writing on Sikh history altogether. The reason? He has a family, and doesn’t feel any strong Joan-of-Arc urges.

Academics generally believe OUP India and Penguin India, being rich and big, did not have to buckle. Romila Thapar says:

Wealthy publishers like Penguin have money power behind them and there are ways in which money can be used.
         If publishers are afraid of their offices being vandalized and their staff being physically assaulted, then they should make a public announcement in the media of who is attacking them and which book and author and give the text of the attack and the response of the author. These are not surreptitious actions and need public exposure.
         There is a fear of long drawn-out legal cases, but no publisher has gone this route. If the courts were to clear such passages in even one book it would be a major victory. If it does not, then it will be no worse than it is at the present.
         Religious nationalism cannot go on forever. Historically it does have a limited time period—maybe a half century or so. So those that support it are desperate to establish it while they can. They resort to all means—physical violence, legal threats, abuse. … Religious nationalists always suffer from lack of confidence: we are going through the process of their testing their strength by making all these attacks and seeing where they succeed.  
OBS’ assurance of wrestling Batra to the ground will be a kind of litmus test of what authors want: a steadfast defence of the author and the book contract.

A historian known for his ability to summarise large swathes of intellectual work is Sumit Sarkar, who says:

                  A quiet and insidious pressurising of publishers and authors is evidently under way. It has not so far led to formal official bans or even instructions to withdraw publications, as happened the last time the NDA was in power. This time, it takes the form of individual action—legal notice or even a threat of that. The beauty of it is that the government cannot be held openly responsible, even if we know that Batra has been a RSS member almost since its beginning. This reminds me of the method of ‘rumours and messages’ in Elizabethan England which would be carefully circulated and with which Elizabeth managed to manipulate Parliament without open commands or formal censorship laws.

Is a fight-back replicable within smaller houses that have painstakingly developed respected niche lists but lack the resources required for protracted legal battles? Ritu Menon runs Women Unlimited, a small independent press. She argues the need to distinguish the big press from the small in the context of assault:

I wonder whether it’s useful to make a distinction between large multinational corporations, who have very real compulsions and pressures on them, and small independent presses who might just be able to persuade lawyers to argue, pro bono, on their behalf, on principle. (Recent cases have all involved big publishers; Aleph after all is owned by Rupa.) Smaller presses may have less to lose in some respects than the big guys, but the threat of violence remains the same for both. But yes, unfortunately, it does polarise authors and publishers. Let's not forget, though, that the same was true for Lawrence, Joyce, Burroughs, Rushdie, and others!
         Yes, this is a very vexed situation, one that is exacerbated by the state's abdication of its responsibility. …

Another highly regarded independent is S. Anand of Navayana, who publishes an eclectic range centred in the universalist politics of Ambedkar. His passion is evident in his views of the current problems:

Whether as publishers or as writers, if we are engaged politically, we are constantly—and we have to be—in some kind of tension with the state. Whether the government is run by the BJP, the Left, DMK or the Congress, it does not matter. … 
   That said, in India, like Ambedkar said: it is not the state but society which is the bigger gatekeeper. Several times in India, society is less enlightened than the state. And when this state comes under the control of conservative societal elements, the state acts conservatively no doubt. It has been said before that our Constitution is more enlightened than its citizenry. Which is the case.
   Now, after whatever years of independence we still do not have editors who happen to be Dalit or Adivasi working in the publishing industry, and there’s no introspection on this … How many dalit authors manage to publish books with mainstream presses? And on what terms are they published? Freedom of expression does not exist for millions in India who have no way of being heard or getting published. And in this so-called publisher–author face-off these issues remain under the thick carpet which hides a lot of dirt despite a pleasing pattern on the surface. 
   Publishers and authors are always in a dialectical relationship. And several times publishers refuse to publish certain authors; authors refuse to publish with certain publishers. Now with the Hachettes and Bertelsmanns of the world, profit is the only ethic. Ideas have to sell. And if ideas come in conflict with the state and conservative elements in society, both the MNC publisher and the family-owned OBS will succumb even before a fight is on the cards. 

This is not a conclusion with which everyone will agree, and certainly not OBS. People fight their own fights in their own ways. Is every publisher who wants investments to yield a decent return automatically profiteering, ideologically deficient, and liable to crumble when taken to court? OBS v.Batra will provide an answer to Anand’s excoriating perspective.
All this said and done, one vital feature remains to be factored in: the internet. Batra’s war is directed against paper editions, and court directions suppressing books have been limited to such editions. Meanwhile readers are switching to e-editions and pirated downloads, which are virtually impossible to attack or ban. If publishers have seen their sales drop and their margins plummet because of the new technology, the new formats may also be the reason why Batra and the RSS find it futile to target the monograph and switch to altering textbooks, where the internet cannot thwart them.

So, if Tagore were writing today, he might conclude:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up by the internet into fragments
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my Facebook Page awake me.