23 December 2019

The Press on the Roof of the World

 Somewhere in these mountains is the only independent press situated on the roof of the world. 
It will turn twenty next year. 

To mark the end of our teens, we've instituted a prize. The Kosambi Memorial Book Prize will be given annually to the best student in ancient Indian history at Ashoka University, Haryana.  The first prize was awarded on 13th November 2019 to Revanth Ukkalam and Haritha Govind of Ashoka University's Class of 2020. 

Haritha Govind with Mahesh Rangarajan
Revanth Ukkalam with Mahesh Rangarajan, Nayanjot Lahiri, and Pratyay Nath
The prize also marks our extensive co-publication programme with Ashoka University in the series Hedgehog and Fox, edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee. Over 75 titles have been published in this series in the five years since it came into existence.

As every year here at Permanent Black we proved that you don't have to add to the world's carbon footprint to publish internationally. We did not fly to bookfairs in Frankfurt or London but our books went places.

Some exciting literary reading included Joan Salés Uncertain Glory, published under license from Maclehose Press, UK; Neelesh Raghuvanshi's Girl with Questioning Eyes, the translation of a novel that has been described as 'Hindi fiction's most moving portrayal of small-town India' and iconoclastic poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Translating the Indian Past.

We also brought back into print Ramchandra Gandhi's "unusual and genuinely original book . . . on the basic problem of our existence as persons in community"
Our last book of the year was the final one of M.S.S. Pandian's brief, brilliant life:  
As always we are grateful to our readers, to the community of scholars and students who look out for our books and a few who read them with an eagle eye and get back to us with typographical errors. Our typesetter Guru Typographics runs a small, sturdy, independent ship as do our printers, Sapra Brothers. We thank them, as well as our main proof-reader Shyama Warner, and Orient Blackswan, wonderful publishers who have supported us right from the start by distributing our books. 
Most of all, none of these books would have reached you without the help and supervision of our core management team, comprising Barauni Junction (left), Piku (centre), and Sodamini a.k.a. Soda (right), which is responsible for the division of labour and resources.

We wish everyone a kinder, calmer year 
than this one has been.

19 December 2019


"Being the only boy in the house, I ran errands, went to the shops to buy our necessities, and delivered small quantities of milk and buttermilk which we sold to some neighbours, and then had my morning meal. Breakfast consisted of a small quantity of rice kept overnight in rice water which by the morning had slightly fermented, and a little lime pickle or chutney made dal, tamarind, and chillies. Sometimes a single hot chilli was all that was available to eat with the rice."

The memoirs and lectures of A.N. Sattanathan, presented here in a fully annotated edition, with a critical introduction, constitute a key literary-historical document of the caste struggle. Sattanathan’s autobiographical fragment is a unique record of non-brahmin low-caste life in rural South India, where the presence of poverty and caste prejudice is the more powerful for being understated.

As the experience—sparsely and beautifully rendered—of the low-caste but not stereotypically ‘untouchable’ villager, it is, quite simply, revelatory, and will make an impact as such on the English-educated reader, to whom that experience has been so far unavailable.

In a complementary narrative, Sattanathan’s lectures — on ‘The Rise and Spread of the Non-Brahmin Movement’ as ‘the most outstanding event in South Indian History in the twentieth century’— offer a lucid summary of the cultural and historical conditions that find more personal and immediate expression in the memoirs.

A.N. Sattanathan had a distinguished career in the all-India services. He was Collector of Customs and Central Excise, Calcutta, and in later life wrote and published widely on politics and economics in India. In 1969 he was appointed Chairman of the first Tamilnadu Backward Classes Commission and made a lasting impact on the state’s policy of affirmative action towards lower castes.

Uttara Natarajan is Reader in English at Goldsmiths College, where she teaches and researches in nineteenth-century English literature. Her publications include Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense and Blackwell Guides to Criticism: The Romantic Poets.
Paperback/ Rs 595

01 December 2019

I AM THE PEOPLE: A truly global account of populist and popular sovereignty

“In these masterful lectures, Chatterjee provides a truly global account of the logics of populist and popular sovereignty in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Drawing on the example of modern Indian capitalism and governmental techniques, Chatterjee shows that the career of the ‘people’ and populism in India enables a richer, deeper, and more complex account of populist politics than is the norm in current debates in Euro-America. ”
Thomas Blom Hansen, Stanford University

“Partha Chatterjee’s scintillating intervention is essential reading for a global constituency that is being encouraged, by journalists and polemicists alike, to understand populism, racism, and xenophobia through facile, divisive polarizations—the elites vs. the masses; globalization vs. the nation-state; tribalism vs. democracy. He is able to engage with the ideological ambiguities, political contingencies, and democratic antagonisms of our age while providing a constructive compass on where we are today and what is to be done. I Am the People is a fine achievement.”
Homi Bhabha, Harvard University

“Chatterjee sets forth an entirely original genealogy of political populism built around the theoretical significance of populist politics in India and their unexpected convergences with the West. No other political theorist has the range, analytical depth, ambition, and sheer novelty of political imagination to traverse this truly global story of popular sovereignty. Chatterjee has also delightfully given a new life to Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution for a new age and a new generation of critical theorists.”
Karuna Mantena, Columbia University

The forms of liberal government that emerged after World War II are in the midst of a profound crisis. In I Am the People, Partha Chatterjee reconsiders the concept of popular sovereignty in order to explain today’s dramatic outburst of movements claiming to speak for “the people”. Drawing on thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Ernesto Laclau, and with a particular focus on the history of populism in India, I Am the People is a sweeping, theoretically rich account of the origins of today’s tempests. 

To uncover the roots of populism, Chatterjee traces the twentieth-century trajectory of the welfare state and neoliberal reforms. Mobilizing ideals of popular sovereignty and the emotional appeal of nationalism, anticolonial movements ushered in a world of nation-states while liberal democracies in Europe guaranteed social rights to their citizens. But as neoliberal techniques shrank the scope of government, politics gave way to technical administration by experts. Once the state could no longer claim an emotional bond with the people, the ruling bloc lost the consent of the governed. To fill the void, a proliferation of populist leaders have mobilized disaffected groups into a battle that they define as the authentic people against entrenched oligarchy. 

Once politics enters a spiral of competitive populism, Chatterjee cautions, there is no easy return to pristine liberalism. Only a counter-hegemonic social force that challenges global capital and facilitates the equal participation of all peoples in democratic governance can achieve significant transformation.

is professor of anthropology and of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies at Columbia University. He is the author of more than twenty books, including The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (Permanent Black, 2004) and The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power (Permanent Black, 2012).

HARDBACK/ 212 pages/ Rs 595/ For sale in South Asia only

30 November 2019


M.S.S. Pandian (1958–2014) was an eminent historian of South Indian politics, caste, culture, and cinema. His writings offer distinctively Tamil insights on these areas. In this book his chief focus is Tamil political culture for roughly thirty years since 1985. His success lies in bringing a historical understanding to bear on what he called “the strangeness of Tamil Nadu”.

A key figure in Pandian’s thinking was E.V. Ramasamy “Periyar”. Pandian argues that Periyar’s ideals and strategies long remained popular among Tamil progressives, but that their survival became difficult because of radical changes in pan-Indian political culture. To show these changes, this book is organised chronologically as well as along thematic sections that reflect the themes of Periyar’s Dravidian ideology: linguistic identity, state politics, religion, and caste. 

Periyar’s ideas, Pandian argues, can still provide productive standards for critical analysis of politics in India. But because they are not widely known or appreciated outside Tamil Nadu, they represent the “strangeness” of Tamil politics instead of being adapted as progressive in the country as a whole.

"“The DMK–AIADMK era provides the political context for the writings collected in this book . . . Pandian had purposefully organised these short chapters chronologically, and in thematic sections that reflect fundamental subjects for Periyar’s Dravidian ideology: linguistic identity, state politics, religion, and caste.

Those themes embody a message that Pandian highlights in his Introduction: Periyar’s ideas still provide productive standards for critical analysis of political practice in India. The importance of this message reverberates through all his chapters, because Periyar’s ideas are not widely known, understood, or appreciated outside Tamil Nadu; and thus, they represent the “strangeness” of Tamil politics in India, rather than being sufficiently appreciated for their progressive potential in India as a whole. Dravidian ideals are anathema to the BJP Hindu nationalists who now rule in New Delhi and who cultivate popularity in most of India but yet remain uniquely (“strangely”) unpopular in
Tamil Nadu.

Periyar’s ideas are radically progressive but ignored by secular progressives in the Indian Left. His ideas have nevertheless been embraced by the downtrodden low castes, i.e. Dalits, all across India, who appreciate Periyar against all the odds . . . Most importantly, perhaps, Periyar’s ideas facilitate radical political thought and action focused on patriarchy and caste as multi-layered structures of inequity and power sustained by Brahmin authority and Hindu ritual.”

From the Introduction by Anandhi S. and David Ludden.

M.S.S. Pandian (1958–2014) was, at the time of his untimely demise, Professor, Department of Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He was co-editor of the twelfth volume of Subaltern Studies. His books include The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Films and Politics (1992), and Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present (2006).

Hardback/ 264 pages/ Rs 795

07 November 2019

TRANSLATING THE INDIAN PAST by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

An excellent review of this book THE TRIBUNE by the renowned Tamil scholar A.R. Venkatachalapathy (click here or paste the link into your browser: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/sunday-special/book-reviews/a-subtle-feast-of-words-to-be-valued/829591.html) is good reason to remind readers of how wonderful, as a work of Indian literary and cultural history, this book really is.
"Critic, poet, anthologist, scholar and translator. Mehrotra’s literary career is as multifaceted as it is difficult to write about. To do justice to it, we would need a higher vantage point than what’s afforded by the book review format. For those who haven’t read Mehrotra before, Translating the Indian Past serves as a decent introduction to the author’s longstanding literary preoccupations; the book can also be seen as a belatedly written preamble to the poems" Vineet Gill, Scroll

Through his poems, criticism, translations, and edited books, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has played a major role in defining Indian literature in English. This, his second essay collection, carries all the elegance, incisiveness, and erudition of his first, Partial Recall.

Some of the essays here are on an unexamined piece by Toru Dutt; an old appreciation of Amrita Sher-Gil by an obscure critic; the almost forgotten Srinivas Rayaprol who corresponded with William Carlos Williams; Arun Kolatkar’s unknown early poems and his letters to his first love, Darshan Chhabda; Eunice de Souza, admired for her spareness and acerbic feminism; and the reclusive Dickinsonian poet Reshma Aquil who loved anonymity. Throughout the book the collective presence of the ‘Bombay Poets’ is unmistakable.

What animates many of the essays is Mehrotra’s hostility to contemporary critical amnesia and his affection for quiet, unflamboyant writing. His distinctive view of the past stitches these pieces into something like an argument: if we value a complex literary history of Indian writing, he says, the byways and shaded locations need to remain visible.

ARVIND KRISHNA MEHROTRA was born in Lahore in 1947 and educated at the universities of Allahabad and Bombay. He has published six collections of poetry, three volumes of translations, and edited several books, including An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English. He lives in Allahabad and Dehradun.


HB/ 270 pp/ Rs 795/ BUY

27 October 2019


This collection explores what may be called the idea of India in ancient times. Its undeclared  objective is to identify key concepts which show early Indian civilization as distinct and differently oriented from other formations.

Read an excerpt here in Scroll.in

The essays focus on ancient Indian texts within a variety of genres. They identify certain key terms – such as Janapada, Desa, Varna, Dharma, Bhava – in their empirical contexts to suggest that neither the ideas embedded in these terms nor the idea of Bharatvarsa as a whole are “given entities”, but that they evolved historically.

Professor Chattopadhyaya examines these texts to unveil historical processes. Without denying comparative history, he stresses that the internal dynamics of a society are best decoded via its own texts. His approach bears very effectively on understanding ongoing interactions between India’s “Great Tradition” and “Little Traditions”.

As a whole, this book is critical of the notion of overarching Indian unity in the ancient period. It punctures the retrospective thrust of hegemonic nationalism as an ideology that has obscured the diverse textures of Indian civilization.

Renowned for his scholarship on the ancient Indian past, Professor Chattopadhyaya’s latest collection only consolidates his high international reputation.

B.D. Chattopadhyaya retired as Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His work on ancient India has been widely acknowledged. His many books include The Oxford India Kosambi: Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings (2009), Studying Early India: Archaeology, Texts, and Historical Issues (2003), and The Making of Early Medieval India (1997).

For Sale in South Asia only| PB| Rs 595| BUY

24 October 2019

Sumit Guha: History and Collective Memory In South Asia

“Much of this rich and exciting material has not been discussed in published form before. The subject of how South Asians have constructed the past has been an increasingly important one in the field; this book will become one of the most original and substantial contributions to this literature”
Douglas E. Haynes 
“Guha reminds us that the now-standard Western method of history writing, as practiced and taught in university departments, is of fairly recent vintage. This book should go well beyond the usual circles of South Asia specialists to general readers” Samira Sheikh

“Not only does Guha possess a mastery of a staggering diversity of historical practices in South Asia, his analysis extends to a thoughtful discussion of (and argument about) the origins and development of European history writing” William R. Pinch

“Guha charts the rise of historical memory in South Asia in a way that moves past literary affect or philosophical predisposition, refusing to reduce his subject to a reconfiguration of Western historiography even while he traces parallels in colonial institutions. Instead, Guha engages everything from family lineages and modes of accounting, to grand memorial narratives of the rise and fall of dynasties, to give us a comprehensive study of how social memory, wedded to evidence-based reasoning, transformed into the historical arts of South Asia, and finally how history matters even now in a ‘post-truth’ age” Christian Novetzke
In this far-ranging and erudite exploration of the South Asian past, Sumit Guha discusses the shaping of social and historical memory in world-historical context.

He presents memory as the result of both remembering and forgetting and of the preservation, recovery, and decay of records. By describing how these processes work through sociopolitical organizations, Guha delineates the historiographic legacy acquired by the British in colonial India; the creation of the centralized educational system and mass production of textbooks that led to the unification of historical discourses under colonial auspices; and the divergence of these discourses in the twentieth century under the impact of nationalism and decolonization.

Guha brings together sources from a range of languages and regions to provide the first intellectual history of the ways in which socially recognized historical memory has been made across the subcontinent. This thoughtful study contributes to debates beyond the field of history that complicate the understanding of objectivity and documentation in a seemingly post-truth world.
SUMIT GUHA read history at St Stephen’s College, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Cambridge University. He was a professor of history at Brown University and Rutgers University, and is currently a professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin. His books include Beyond Caste (Brill Publishers and Permanent Black, 2013), and Health and Population in South Asia (Permanent Black and Hurst Publishers, 2001).  

HB| Rs 795

Hedgehog and Fox series
Co-published with Ashoka University
For sale in South Asia only

02 September 2019


 A PS to our 2013 post on 


1 September 2019

"The Jawaharlal Nehru University administration has asked historian Romila Thapar to submit her curriculum vitae so that it can decide if she should continue as professor emerita, The Telegraph reported on Sunday. Thapar had retired from the university in 1991 and was made professor emerita two years later.

An emeritus position is an honour conferred by the university on a retired professor in appreciation of their past work. Once chosen, an academic typically continues in the post throughout, unidentified JNU faculty members told The Telegraph.

The university’s website already has Thapar’s CV, though seemingly an earlier version.

“It is a very unfortunate thing,” Thapar told Anandabazar. “We are going through a strange time. Emeritus is not a mere designation. It is an honour related to the university’s goodwill.”

Writing in Economic and Political Weekly, economist Prabhat Patnaik said any periodic reassessment of emeritus professorship is out of the question. He said Thapar had responded to the JNU administration by reminding them what it means to confer an emeritus professorship." Scroll

The scandalous and bumbling effort to dishonour

Romila Thapar has caused an uproar throughout 

the reading world and resulted in at least one 

hilarious spoof -- to read it, click here.

The great academic book often gestates for a very long period before it appears in print and, like wines of a high quality, acquires body, maturity, and distinction as it ripens in the author’s mind. In the high-calibre territory of history-writing informally referred to as Ancient India, Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (700pp; published by the University of California Press, copublished by Permanent Black) is the most recent work of this monumental variety. For the obvious reasons, such books appear only once in a very long while. The scholar’s intellectual stamina needs to be exceptional. The book needs to be driven by big ideas. The end result needs to show massive scholarship, elegance in thought and style, and a range far beyond the capacities of normal human beings.

The next one in this genre of great books, originating at Permanent Black and copublished by Harvard University Press, is Romila Thapar’s The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India (776pp).

At some point in the early 1990s a series called ‘Themes in Indian History’ was initiated, and among the book possibilities discussed for that series were three historiographical volumes, one each for the ancient, medieval, and modern phases of Indian history. They were envisaged, at the time, as edited volumes: Romila Thapar, Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Chris Bayly being thought of as the people to edit them. As is common in publishing, the editor proposes but the author disposes. About forty edited volumes appeared in the series, but they did not include surveys of historiography.

Meanwhile, the interest in answering a key question—does South Asia provide evidence of historical writing amounting to a historical tradition?—took several directions, all implicitly disputing James Mill's imperial disdain. Among the many works tackling the idea, several appeared from Permanent Black, including Textures of Time by V.A. Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam; Creative Pasts by Prachi Deshpande; Assam and India by Yasmin Saikia; and History in the Vernacular, edited by Raziuddin Aquil and Partha Chatterjee.

Some years back the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, inheritor of the chair which Bertrand Russell once occupied, was asked to edit a volume called The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Instead of the considerable bother involved in inviting contributions from distinguished scholars, Blackburn simply wrote the whole damn Companion all by himself. This is roughly what Romila Thapar seems to have done—not bothering with a ‘Themes in Indian History’ editorial job, she preferred to make the whole blessed thing with her own sweat and blood. 

This took a mere twenty-five years of making notes, cannibalizing from her earlier papers, rethinking historical issues written up in different formats, and writing large chunks out for the first time. Not a long time, given that Ancient India stretches over twenty-five hundred or so years. Perhaps not even a long time for Romila Thapar, in her early eighties now, hale and hearty and feisty as ever. 

The years spent in thinking and writing the book show to good effect: very little is missed out, virtually everything you can think of in relation to the subject finds a place in here. Greek and European History. Chinese History. Islamic Historical Traditions. Herodotus to Hinduism, Iliad to Indica. The range is fascinating and unusual because South Asian historical forms and traditions are seen in relation to forms and traditions thrown up by other contexts. The result is a mindstopper that's also a doorstopper. The original script weighed in at 240,000 words; it cost Romila Thapar blood, sweat, and a lot of tears to trim it down to 200,000 words. The exercise of shortening involved her and Permanent Black in several months of mutually wonderful consultation and editorial work (all supervised by her lovely white labrador Amba) splicing, excising, mauling, chopping, discarding, rewriting, tweaking, restitching. Whole sections within chapters were pushed down (what Partha Chatterjee might call) The Black Hole of Ancient India. Hands were thrown up in the air at several points. Do the seams show? We think not.

Romila Thapar raises this theme—Did My Earliest Forefathers Do What I’ve Been Doing?—to an entirely new level. Her book is a colossal survey of every kind of writing in early India that might be said to be an attempt to record the past. The first four pages, reproduced below, indicate a work that will be ‘necessary reading’ for anyone with a serious interest in Indian history. The questions asked are so fundamental, and the interpretive magnificence with which they are discussed is so compelling, that this isn’t a book which any of Ancient India’s pigeonholes and caves can accommodate. Medievalists and modernists are warned that they too will need to clear 52 millimetres (two full inches) in their bookshelves to allow for its girth. They will think it worth the while: it isn’t every day that you get to buy the first edition of what will soon be recognized as a classic.

Generalizations about the nature of a society or civilization, when they take root, spread adventitiously. A couple of hundred years ago it was stated that Indian civilization was unique in that it lacked historical writing and, implicitly therefore, a sense of history. With rare exceptions, there has been little attempt since to examine this generalization. So entrenched is the idea now that one almost hesitates to argue for a denial of this denial of history. I would like to suggest that while there may not in the early past have been historical writing in the forms currently regarded as belonging properly to the established genres of history, many texts of that period  reflect a consciousness of history. Subsequently, there come into existence recognizable forms of historical writing. Both varieties of texts—those which reflect a consciousness of history and those which reveal forms of historical writing—were used in early times to reconstruct the past, and were drawn upon as a cultural, political, religious, or other such resource at various times, in various situations, and for a variety of reasons. To determine what makes for this historical consciousness is not just an attempt to provide Indian civilization with a sense of history, nor is it an exercise in abstract research. My intention is to argue that, irrespective of the question of the presence or absence of historical writing as such, an understanding of the way in which the past is perceived, recorded, and used affords insights into early Indian society, as it does for that matter into other early societies.
       Historical consciousness begins when a society shows consciousness of both past and future, and does so by starting to record the past. “There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.”  To argue over whether a particular society had a sense of history or not on the basis of our recognition of the presence or absence of a particular kind of historical tradition—one which has been predetermined as being properly historical in perpetuity—seems somewhat beside the point. It is more purposeful to try and ascertain what each culture regards as its historical tradition and why it does so; and to analyse its constituents and functions as well as assess how it contends with competing or parallel traditions.
       Historical traditions emanate from a sense of the past and include three aspects: first, a consciousness of past events relevant to or thought of as significant by a particular society, the reasons for the choice of such events being implicit; second, the placing of these events in an approximately chronological framework, which would tend to reflect elements of the idea of causality; and third, the recording of these events in a form which meets the requirements of that society.
Such a definition does not necessarily assume that political events are more relevant than other sorts of events, although as issues of power they tend to be treated as such. If the above definition is acceptable, then it can in fact be said that every society has a concept of the past and that no society is a-historical. What needs to be understood about a historical tradition is why certain events are presumed to have happened and receive emphasis, and why a particular type of record is maintained by the tradition.
        A distinction may therefore be made between the existence of a historical tradition and a philosophy of history. The latter may follow the former. An awareness or confirmation of a philosophy of history may make a historical narrative more purposeful. But such a narrative does not thereby necessarily express greater historical veracity: narratives based on the theory that history is determined by divine intervention are fired by purpose rather than by the sifting of evidence. On the other hand, a historical tradition may not concern itself with either divine purpose in history or any other philosophical notion of history and yet be an authentic record—if not of actual events, certainly of believed assumptions about the past.
       A historical tradition is created from the intellectual and social assumptions of a society. Consciously selected events are enveloped in a deliberately created tradition which may only be partially factual. An attempt to understand the tradition has to begin by relating it to its social function, to ask the question: “What purpose was served by creating and preserving this tradition?” And, flowing from this, to see how a changing society made use of the tradition.
      Historical traditions emerge from and reflect their social context, and the context may produce and extend to a broad range of social forms. Within these forms, history is generally the record of recognizable socio-political groups. Historical writing in such cases tends to incorporate a teleological view, even if it seems to be only a narrative of events. So, cultural symbols and stereotypes have a role in delineating the past.
      Studying  a tradition involves looking at a number of indices: first, the point in history at which the need to create and keep a tradition becomes imperative; second, the social status of the keepers of a tradition; third, whether the tradition was embedded in sacred literature to ensure its continuity; fourth, the genres that emerged in order to record the tradition independent of other literary forms; fifth, the social context in which the historical tradition was composed and the changes that it underwent when society itself changed; sixth, the audience for which any specific text of that tradition was intended; seventh, the social groups which used or manipulated the tradition, and their reasons for doing so; for, above all, such a tradition legitimizes the present and gives it sanction. 
Together, these constitute the broad framework of analysis for the texts and traditions that I examine in the book. Flowing from the framework, certain key questions recur or are implicit during the examination of a text or tradition: does it provide an instance of a past authorship looking further back into a more distant past in order to record or interpret that past? Can it be seen as outlining a sense of time and/or a fresh chronology of past and sometimes a future time? Can we detect in the material the deployment of historical events or the construction of narratives that are at bottom historical for hegemonic purposes or for cultural and political legitimation?

31 August 2019

What it is to be a Conscious Person in Community

When first published in 1976, Ramchandra Gandhi’s The Availability of Religious Ideas was described thus by John Hick, Professor of Theology at Birmingham University: “This is an unusual and a genuinely original book . . . on the basic problem of our existence as persons in community. The author embodies both the spiritual tradition of India (for something of the spirit of his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, is powerfully present in his outlook) and the intellectual tradition of the West (for he holds an Oxford doctorate . . . ) With this double focus he explores philosophically, and in a way which shows the influence of Wittgenstein, what it is to be a conscious person in community and shows how the religious ideas of the soul, of God, prayer, immortality, the mystical and miraculous are generated by a kind of moral necessity . . .”

This reprint includes a new Introduction by the eminent philosopher Arindam Chakrabarti (currently Professor at Stony Brook University), who knew Ramchandra Gandhi and is an admirer of his work.

Ramchandra Gandhi (1937–2007) was a student of Peter Strawson’s at Oxford, from where he obtained his D.Phil. He taught philosophy at the University of Hyderabad, the University of Rajasthan, the University of Southampton, Visva-Bharati, and Delhi University. His books include Presuppositions of Human Communication, Two Essays on Whitehead’s Philosophic Approach, and Sita’s Kitchen, a Testimony of Faith.

Paperback/ Rs 350

28 August 2019


Hinduism, as is well known, has taken a multitude of shapes and forms. Some Hindu “little traditions” have remained obscure or under-studied to this day on account of their regional remoteness.

One such offshoot is the influential cult of Mahasu, which has existed since medieval times in a part of the western Himalaya. The deity at the core of the cult takes the form of four primary Mahasus with territorial influence, installed in various far-flung temples. Their geographical centre is the village of Hanol, and the larger territory is integrated to the Mahasu politico-religious system by a peripatetic deity with loyal followers across a considerable domain.

Mahasu remains influential in the region, its ritual practices having remained quite distinct despite social change. An anthropological survey was conducted in its terrain during British times, but Lokesh Ohri’s book is the first to offer a detailed framework, a fine-grained history, and an analytically nuanced understanding of one of the rarest branches of Hindu worship.

This book will seem invaluable to those seeking to understand the anthropology of religion and the diversity of Hindu belief and practice.

“A fascinating piece of work. I have learned a lot and feel honoured, almost initiated, to have had such a knowledgeable guide to the Mahasus, their realm and the devta ka kaam”
JOHN KEAY, author of The Great Arc

“A fascinating book about a fascinating topic. Mahasu Devta was — and in many respects still is — the most powerful local deity in the Western Himalayas. The history of his cult tells us a great deal about Himalayan culture and religion, about relations between Paharis, the colonial regime, and about how the hills have changed in the course of modernisation . . . Lokesh Ohri tells this story with verve and style”
WILLIAM S. SAX, author of Mountain Goddess

LOKESH OHRI is an anthropologist and activist who has worked for several years in the Himalaya. He was a doctoral fellow at the South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany and has worked on political rituals, heritage and resource use in the mountains.
He is currently working on an extensive documentation of the river Ganges from source to mouth.


04 August 2019


How did states come to monopolize control over migration? What do the processes that produced this monopoly tell us about the modern state? 

"Mongia has written a pathbreaking book. In the wake of this work it will no longer be possible to tell the story of border-making without a scrutiny of how human labor was dehumanized on an imperial and global scale" H-net

"Mongia’s book is a methodological tour de force in migration studies and theories of the state. But the commendable feat of this book is that these accomplishments do not stand apart – her contribution to migration studies is enriched by the careful theorising of states, at once colonial, transcolonial and metropolitan" Wire

"Mongia’s account is a fresh, fascinating explanation of the intricacies of migration and its impact on host-countries, nation-state and bureaucratic development, and at the heart of it all, the emigrant" International Social Science Review

It is also reviewed in the Journal of International and Global Studies and in Economic and Political Weekly

In Indian Migration and Empire Radhika Mongia provocatively argues that the formation of colonial migration regulations was dependent upon, accompanied by, and generative of profound changes in normative conceptions of the modern state.
Focused on state regulation of colonial Indian migration between 1834 and 1917, Mongia illuminates the genesis of central techniques of migration control. She shows how important elements of current migration regimes, including the notion of state sovereignty as embodying the authority to control migration, the distinction between free and forced migration, the emergence of passports, the formation of migration bureaucracies, and the incorporation of kinship relations into migration logics, are the product of complex debates that attended colonial migrations. By charting how state control of migration was critical to the transformation of a world dominated by empire-states into a world dominated by nation-states, Mongia challenges positions that posit a stark distinction between the colonial state and the modern state to trace aspects of their entanglements.

RADHIKA MONGIA is Associate Professor of Sociology and faculty in the Graduate Programs of Sociology, Political Science, Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies, and Social and Political Thought at York University, Toronto.

Indian Migration and Empire is a highly original, compelling, and superbly crafted work that thoroughly reveals the racialized foundations of the modern state. Given the contemporary debates about the relationship between migration, the state, and race—whether in relation to Europe’s refugee crisis or the exclusionary immigration politics of Donald Trump's America—this book could not be more relevant or timely”
Professor of State and Democracy, University of Göttingen

“Scholars have long claimed that modernity’s signature—the nation-state—is the consequence of imperial power. In this sweeping history of the territoriality of the western state system, Radhika Mongia offers new analytical paradigms for understanding the relationship between national sovereignty and colonial labor. A corrective to facile transnational arguments and a rigorous case for the management of migration as the genealogical heart of modern western state formation, Indian Migration and Empire roots modern European state practices in mobile bodies and the regulatory regimes they provoked”
Catherine C. and Bruce A. Bastian Professor of Global
and Transnational Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

HB| Rs 695

30 July 2019


Language (śabda) occupied a central yet often unacknowledged place in classical Indian philosophical thought. Foundational thinkers considered topics such as the nature of language, its relationship to reality, the nature and existence of linguistic units and their capacity to convey meaning, and the role of language in the interpretation of sacred writings. The first reader on language in—and the language of—classical Indian philosophy, A Śabda Reader offers a comprehensive and pedagogically valuable treatment of this topic and its importance to Indian philosophical thought.

A Śabda Reader brings together newly translated passages by authors from a variety of traditions—Brahmin, Buddhist, Jaina—representing a number of schools of thought. It illuminates issues such as how Brahmanical thinkers understood the Veda and conceived of Sanskrit; how Buddhist thinkers came to assign importance to language’s link to phenomenal reality; how Jains saw language as strictly material; the possibility of self-contradictory sentences; and how words affect thought. Throughout, the volume shows that linguistic presuppositions and implicit notions about language often play as significant a role as explicit ideas and formal theories. Including an introduction that places the texts and ideas in their historical and cultural context, A Śabda Reader sheds light on a crucial aspect of classical Indian thought and in so doing deepens our understanding of the philosophy of language.

“Johannes Bronkhorst is a master of the field of Indian theories of language, and he brings his lifelong expertise to provide comprehensive coverage and lucid access to scientific thinking about language from Sanskrit classics including traditions of Sanskrit grammarians, Buddhist and Jain philosophers, Yoga, Vedānta, Mīmāmsā, Hindu logicians, and Sanskrit poetics. A Śabda Reader is going to become essential reading for anyone interested in Indian theories of language.”
—Madhav M. Deshpande, author of The Meaning of Nouns

A Śabda Reader provides a comprehensive survey of what arguably was the world’s richest speculation on language and its nature. It was a direct exposure to this tradition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that prompted the emergence of modern linguistics. The lucid nature of the exposition makes the contents easily accessible to nonspecialists and highly informative to specialists trained in South Asian languages.”
—Piotr Balcerowicz, author of Early Asceticism in India: Jīvikism and Jainism

“Never before has Indian philosophy of language been made accessible in such comprehensive, penetrating, and masterly fashion. Containing an original selection and careful translation of passages from around fifty different texts in Sanskrit, Vedic, and Pali, A Śabda Reader is an indispensable guide and sourcebook for students and scholars of India’s long, rich, and dynamic
 intellectual history.”
—Jan E. M. Houben, Professor of Sanskrit, École Pratique des Hautes Études, PSL Université, Paris

“In no other tradition did speculation on language have such a strong impact on philosophical thought as in premodern India. Both Brahmanical and Buddhist philosophers, in spite of their radically conflicting views on language, brilliantly contributed to its investigation. Exploring the labyrinthine world of Indian linguistic thought, led by the firm hand of Johannes Bronkhorst, means entering Indian philosophy as a whole through the main door.”
—Raffaele Torella, author of The Philosophical Traditions of India: An Appraisal

Johannes Bronkhorst is professor emeritus of Sanskrit and Indian studies at the University of Lausanne. He is the author of a number of books, including Buddhist Teaching in India (2009) and How the Brahmins Won: From Alexander to
the Guptas

11 July 2019


Known for the elegance of her prose as much as for the sharpness of her insights into Indian history, Joya Chatterji’s new book will enthral everyone interested in modern India’s apocalyptic past.

She provides here a selection of her finest and most influential essays. “Partition, nation-making, frontiers, refugees, minority formation, and categories of citizenship have been my preoccupations,” she says. These are also the major themes of this book.

Chatterji’s Bengal Divided (1994) shifted the focus from Muslim fanaticism as the driving force of Partition towards “secular” nationalism and Hindu aggression. Her Spoils of Partition (2007) rejected the idea of Partition as a breaking apart, showing it as a process for remaking society and state. Her third (jointly written) book, Bengal Diaspora (2016), challenged the idea of migration and resettlement as exceptional situations. Partition’s Legacies can be seen as continuous with Chatterji’s earlier work as well as a distillation and expansion of it.

According to David Washbrook, “What emerges from these essays is often quite startling. The demarcation of Partition followed no master plan but was made up of myriad ad hoc decisions. Refugee policy, immigrant rights, and even definitions of national citizenship were produced out of day-to-day struggles on the streets and in the courts . . .”

JOYA CHATTERJI is Professor of South Asian History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College. A former director of the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge, she is the Editor of the journal Modern Asian Studies. She was recently elected Fellow of the British Academy.

03 June 2019

Sexed In, And Cast(E) Out Of, The City

by Simona Sawhney

Reviewed in The Book Review

Focusing on eight Hindi novels, Vasudha Dalmia’s new work traces the emergence of a modern urban culture in North India and the changing shapes of its political, aesthetic, and moral concerns. Beginning with Pariksha Guru by Lala Shrinivasdas (1882), the book engages, successively, Premchand’s Sevasadan (1918) and Karmabhumi (1932), Yashpal’s Jhuta Sach (1958, 1960), Agyeya’s Nadi ke Dweep (1948), Dharamvir Bharati’s Gunahom Ka Devata (1949), Rajendra Yadav’s Sara Akash (1951) and Mohan Rakesh’s Andhere Band Kamre (1961). Written during a period when print had an energy and power that has long been depleted, these novels actively participated in the forging of language, of sensibility, and of political and sexual subjectivity. Yet as Dalmia’s book progresses, certain strands come to the fore and gain evident prominence. In the epilogue, she reflects upon what became, for her, the most salient thematic link between the novels she has chosen: ‘the difficulties that women face in the social spaces they inhabit, and what they themselves say when they speak’ (p. 407).

When a book subtitled The Novel and the City in Modern North India describes its own central preoccupation thus—that is to say, when it recognizes the mapping of gender as its underlying and recurring concern—it also makes a striking and entirely persuasive claim about modern Indian fiction’s imagination of the urban. Dalmia’s readings demonstrate again and again that in the novels she examines, the imagination of the urban was inextricable from the figure of the woman. To explain this conjunction only by taking recourse to the overarching horizon of modernity would perhaps not enable us to take full cognizance of the proposition that it was crucially a certain image of the city, of the urban, that brought into focus a set of questions, not only about the feminine, but about sexuality, sex, and indeed the subject as sexed.

It seems to me that such a proposition may be glimpsed at several moments in the book. Let me briefly discuss one such instance. In Chapter 2, ‘Wife and Courtesan in Banaras’, Dalmia focuses on Premchand’s Hindi novel Sevasadan (1918), originally written in Urdu in 1917 under the more risqué title Bazar-e-Husn (The Market of Beauty). As she does in every chapter, Dalmia gives us, in considerable detail, the plot of the novel, interspersed with her own comments and analyses, as well as the remarks of other, often earlier, critics. It is in part this practice of narration that makes a fairly long book immensely readable and pleasurable. She also gives us a rich sense of the structural transformations that affected most North Indian cities after 1857, when the Muslim elite were either killed, forced to flee, or effectively marginalized. The restructuring of space and economy was to the distinct advantage of upper caste Hindus, as ‘Hindi-Hindu and Urdu-Muslim grew increasingly bifurcated’ (p. 26). The protagonists of all her novels emerge, she writes, from the ranks of this very Hindu culture that modernized after 1857.

Sevasadan is from one perspective the story of a city, Banaras, coming to terms with the shifting struggle between Hindu and Muslim merchants and professionals after the passing of the Municipalities Act of 1916. Through Dalmia’s commentary, we see how Premchand’s satirical rendering of the Municipal Board debates about the relocation of courtesans (from the center of the city to its outskirts) not only foregrounds his critique of the votaries of social reform, but also reveals the communalized scaffolding of every such debate. But we also see that at the heart of the novel is the figure of Suman, the wife who becomes a courtesan because she finds a loveless marriage too constrictive. Dalmia argues, in effect, that the intensity invested in Suman by the writing, in her beauty, passion, and intelligence, undercuts the novel’s ‘pious’ conclusion where Suman must leave the profession and end up teaching at an institution for the daughters of former prostitutes (the Sevasadan of the title). We might rephrase the argument thus: even if, at the level of the plot, Suman has found a place in Banaras, in truth, the novel has shown that there is no place for her—that is to say, no place for an upper caste woman who seeks a different relation to sexuality than the one ordained by an exploitative patriarchy. Ostensibly a narrative about the reform or taming of Suman (p. 145), the novel in fact becomes a lament for her ostracization; it becomes, as Dalmia writes, a tragic tale.

The lament echoes through Dalmia’s book. Its echo reminds us that we encounter just such a destroyed or banished figure in several of these novels—in Agyeya’s Nadi Ke Dweep (1952), Bharati’s Gunahon ka Devata (1949), Yadav’s Sara Akash (1960) and Mohan Rakesh’s Andhere Band Kamre (1961). The space of the city allows for the emergence of the upper caste woman as sexed and desirous but it can, almost literally, find no space for her, as she wanders through railway waiting rooms, like Rekha in Nadi ke Dweep, escapes to the roof to weep, like Prabha in Sara Akash, or, in the most explicit version, dies in excruciating pain in Bharati’s Gunahon ka Devata. As I read Dalmia’s book, the North Indian cities of which she wrote with such fine historical nuance began to morph, first into mass graveyards of the Muslims systematically killed or driven out after 1857 (Dalmia’s citation from Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s The Last Bungalow (p. 23) is particularly vivid in this regard), and then into troubled sites haunted by the ghosts of these alluring, banished women.

Though the latter image, unlike the former, emerges specifically from the world of literature, like Dalmia, I would hesitate to simply blame the misogyny of the authors for this banishing. However, where Dalmia seems most interested in perceiving these characters and their travails in connection with socio-historical developments, mapping their itineraries on the changing landscape of North Indian cities with their new-styled homes, shopping centers, and most importantly, colleges and universities, or in exploring the ways in which the nationalist movement and access to education led to unprecedented yet limited freedom for middle class women, I wish she had paid more attention to their literary and symbolic function. In this vein, I wonder whether these narratives are not, for the most part, essentially about a certain crisis of masculinity, and whether these female characters don’t appear in these texts primarily to dramatize such a crisis. The fact that in some narratives the male protagonist (invariably Hindu and upper caste) encounters a series of women, and that these women are quite strikingly differentiated in terms of their religion and caste, makes their symbolic function all the more evident.

I am thinking here especially of Amarkant in Karmabhumi and Chandar in Gunahon Ka Devata. Dalmia, however, pursues a different line of thought, mostly reading the fiction, as her title says, as history. Her book suggests that these urban male protagonists, in the midst of immense domestic or political turmoil, encounter in the female protagonists an unexpected force, one that they are often unable to accept, understand, or even face. Whether it be Amarkant in Karmabhumi, Bhuvan in Nadi Ke Dweep, or Madhusudan in Andhere Band Kamre, they struggle in each case to come to terms with the desire for autonomy, the passion, or the creativity of the women with whom they find themselves in a kind of contest. Analogously, her readings suggest that the narratives themselves are at times unsure about how to accommodate or resolve the questions posed by these women characters. It is these characters who come to dominate the affective space of the novels, even if they find themselves displaced in their own homes and cities. Hence, though at one level the novels do take on some of the functions of social history (in a different context, Dalmia writes about the unparalleled ethnographic description of refugee camps in Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach), at another level they perhaps compensate for social history by providing, as it were, a space where difficult characters and questions can make a lasting and effective appearance.

Laudable as such efforts at compensation might be, we cannot but be reminded, over and over again, of Dalmia’s observation early in the book that these great novels, the first modern and modernist novels in Hindi, tell the story only of the modernization of the Hindu upper caste. In her earlier work the historian Mrinalini Sinha made a powerful argument about what she calls the ‘hypervisibility’ of liberal Indian feminism in the interwar period1. Liberal Indian feminism, she said, precisely by making a significant contribution to the consolidation of the neutral or universal citizen-subject, also played the role of rendering alternative subaltern modernities parochial and limited. While this claim cannot be entirely mapped onto the novels Dalmia discusses, it may be productive to bring Sinha’s argument into the picture, insofar as it helps us to notice how the upper caste Hindu woman assumes her position as the rightful subject of nationalist modernity by specifically differentiating herself from Christian, Muslim, or Dalit women. This is perhaps most obvious in Premchand’s Karmabhumi, where, as Dalmia notes, Dalits themselves seem to have little agency in the temple entry agitation which brings the upper caste Sukhada to the forefront of public life.

Though a political critique of the projects of the novels is at times visible in Dalmia’s commentary, such critique is rarely extended or developed. Dalmia seems primarily interested in locating the novels within intellectual and social history, and she is in some ways uniquely positioned to do so, at least in English writing. I can think of very few scholars who would have as sure and comprehensive an understanding, not only of these novels, but of the novelists themselves, of the other texts they wrote and read, of debates in Hindi writing of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and of the intellectual history of Hindi thought. Perhaps precisely because she brings to this book her formidable reading and study of many decades, it seems that her relation to the material takes the form of an inheritance. This is however, a difficult inheritance, for the act of becoming an heir, of assuming that position, cannot be dissociated, in this instance, from an acute awareness of precisely the dearth of heirs. Thus, a consciousness of loss, of something lost, seemed to me to lie at the origin of the book. Though at times it merges with the other losses of which the book speaks— for instance, the loss of the splendour of North Indian cities prior to 1857, or the loss of the spirited, fiery women who are ‘tamed’ or exiled even by narratives of putative ‘empowerment’—this loss remains nevertheless distinct, recognizable in its specificity. A sense of the absence or loss of readers, critics and writers who today would recognize in the works of these monumental authors an intellectual legacy they value flows like a subterranean stream through the book. Dalmia is writing defiantly (as she has been writing for long) in the face of, even against this loss, this poverty. The extended plot summaries may hence be a way of reaching out to a potential new audience of Anglophone teachers and students in India, who may not have hitherto taken seriously these landmarks of Hindi literature.

It is perhaps this very mode of positioning herself as an heir that also prevents Dalmia from being more critical of the positions adopted by the novels. Though she indeed makes critical remarks at various junctures, she rarely develops them into substantive arguments. As I have indicated already, the novels’ treatment of caste or their often unselfconscious adoption of the male subject position may have warranted greater scrutiny. In a similar manner, the privileging of ‘individualism’ in some of these texts and their implicit critique of the Progressive Writers (as in the case of Bharati) could have been examined more critically. In this context, Nancy Armstrong’s fascinating work on the production of individuals and the consolidation and propagation of individualism by the English novel might have been of interest to Dalmia (she does cite Armstrong but not in terms of this argument).

These comments, however, must not be read as complaints—they are, rather, my own response to the discussion inaugurated by a remarkable book that takes seriously the complex relations between intellectual, social, and literary history in North India. To re-view a work, after all, is to look at it again, and hence to bring to it as well the gaze of other texts, other thinkers.

Simona Sawhney teaches in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT-Delhi.

Fiction as History by Vasudha Dalmia is published by Permanent Black (2017), 428pp.

01 May 2019

The Girl with Questioning Eyes

A novel that understands the soul of middle India like no other

"Written in straightforward language ... the novel, even as it describes ordinary everyday events, gets an odd raciness — you want to turn the pages quickly, know what happens next." 
Sara Rai, Indian Express

Babli, sixth in a line of nine siblings, is carrying dried cowpats – fuel she has to deliver to her father, who runs a wayside dhaba. On her way she is stopped in her tracks by a well-dressed college teacher who asks: “Is my bindi properly centred?” “Yes,” gasps the child, aghast at being seen carrying smelly cowpats by such a grand lady.
The encounter seems inconsequential, but it lodges deep in Babli’s mind. When the novel ends, many years later, she understands how much this image – of a labouring child bewildered at being addressed by an educated woman – has driven the twists and turns of her life.
The world of Babli’s family is the distillation of small-town India. Through her we live among farmers and markets, lawyers and louts, casual romances and dying marriages, drunk men and resilient women, festivities and superstitions, and the changing colours of an evening sky. The dust that hangs over everything is the pressure to marry and reproduce a world along lines dictated for centuries by men, siblings, family, neighbours.
Does Babli have what it takes to withstand all that she sees so clearly?
Translated from the Hindi by Deepa Jain Singh

Neelesh Raghuwanshi has published four acclaimed collections of poetry in Hindi. She lives in Bhopal.
This book, Ek Kasbe ke Notes, is her only novel and was published in 2012.

Deepa Jain Singh grew up speaking Hindi-Urdu. She did her Masters in English Literature from Delhi University, then joined the Indian Administrative Service. Now retired, she devotes her time to reading and writing.

Paperback| Rs 495