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

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

03 March 2019

Dhriti K. Lahiri Choudhury

We are very sad to know that Professor Dhriti K. Lahiri Choudhury has passed away. He died on Friday morning in Calcutta.

 Dr Lahiri Choudhury, born in 1931, did many things: with a PhD from Leeds in English Literature, he combined his work with elephants with teaching at Rabindra Bharati University. He was a member of the IUCN elephant group and of Project Elephant. It was a joy for us to publish his Trunk Full of Tales: Seventy Years with the Indian Elephant -- the editorial sessions involved long, old-style sessions of story-telling which should have been around a campfire. He would tell of his many hair-raising journeys across Assam, Meghalaya, Bengal, the Barak Valley and elsewhere, in search of rogue elephants or on arduous elephant surveys, when the evenings always began with emptying blood-soaked boots of leeches; he would talk lovingly of the elephants in his childhood home in Mymensingh -- now in Bangladesh -- their names and foibles; and of drinking elephant milk as a child.
We cannot but think of him, wherever he is now, sheltered by a wise, gentle gathering of elephants, welcoming one of their own.

26 January 2019


Neeladri Bhattacharya’s monograph, The Great Agrarian Conquest: The Colonial Reshaping of a Rural World (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2018; New York, SUNY Press, 2019) has had an electrifying effect among South Asia’s historians, sociologists, and those more broadly interested in colonialism and historical method. The first hardback printing sold out in less than six months – an extremely rare occurrence in Indian monograph publishing. A paperback has just appeared, and to celebrate its arrival we are delighted to reproduce below a conversation between Neeladri and Joya Chatterji, Professor of South Asian History at Cambridge University and Fellow of Trinity College, and until recently Director of the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge. (Her own next book, titled Partition’s Legacies, has just been published  (Permanent Black and SUNY)

JC (introductory remarks):
I am not given to hyperbole, but having read your book twice now, I cannot but conclude that it is a masterpiece. Every sentence, every paragraph and every section conveys years of research of the deepest, most sensitive, and most acute kind. Your work with sources is a master class in – to use a tired phrase – “reading against the grain”. The reader can also watch you grapple with wave upon wave of historiography – apparently hostile and irreconcilable trends locked for years in shrill debate – which you deftly knit together into a new coherence. No historian of South Asia can ever use the word “agrarian” unreflexively again after reading this book; and I am confident its impact will be felt beyond the remit of South Asian history.
            So, my questions here come from a place of deep admiration and collegiality. The first question has to do with historiography. While you acknowledge the impact of Marxisms and the post-colonial turn upon the shaping of this book, it seems to me that shades of the so-called “Cambridge School” emerge again and again. There is the large theme of the “sedenterisation” of mobile peoples, which both Christopher Bayly and David Washbrook have written about; there is also the image of the colonial state’s policies being “buckled, fractured or broken” in the face of overt or covert resistance. A very early work of the “School” described how the local knowledges that had accrued were flattened out by policy-makers at higher levels – a theme you also pursue. Admittedly you are adding rich and complex detail to these themes, and you add layers by regarding the “accrual of knowledge” as a project imbricated in power, but these strands nonetheless appear recurrently through the book. Could you elaborate on whether, and to what extent, the “School” has been an influence?

Thanks Joya for your appreciative words and probing questions. There is something peculiarly interesting about a Cambridge historian interrogating a JNU historian. When I was a student at JNU in the 1970s, such a conversation would have been difficult to imagine. Historians of Cambridge and JNU, at that time, represented two hostile camps, each defining its identity in opposition to the other. So I am really happy that we are having this dialogue.
            You ask me about my relationship to the “Cambridge School”. I do not think there is any longer a set of internally coherent ideas that now defines “the Cambridge School”.  The homogeneity that could be attributed to the school in the 1970s slowly crumbled over the subsequent decades. Historians of Cambridge now working on South Asia think in different ways, frame their arguments diversely.
            So in talking of the Cambridge School we can only refer to the early phase inaugurated by its foundational text, Locality, Province and Nation: Essays on Indian Politics 1870 to 1940, edited by John Gallagher, Gordon Johnson, and Anil Seal. I have always thought that the historians associated with the Cambridge School of that time raised many important questions but framed their arguments in problematic ways. And framing does matter. Seemingly similar questions posed within different frames have distinct meanings. The arguments that flow from such posing of questions are not the same. They may in fact be radically opposed.
            For instance, the notion of an all-powerful imperial state carrying through its policies with irresistible ease has been widely critiqued, but within different frames. Cambridge historians, as you say, spoke of imperial power being “hobbled at every turn”, of imperial policies being “buckled continuously by local conditions”, fractured and broken. There were others, beyond Cambridge, like Robert Eric Frykenberg in the US, who similarly referred to imperial power confronting processes of fragmentation and disintegration, with local power holders in villages resisting centralisation, silently corroding the imperial structure. In such formulations there is a shared notion of imperial power being internally hollow, diminished from inside, and therefore ineffective in implementing its will. It is almost as if the category imperial is empty. This is an argument suggesting a weak state, feeble power. In it the heterogeneity of voices within officialdom and inner tensions between officials are read as signs of an absent authority, or crippled authority. My exploration of the inner tensions and conflicts within colonial discourse is different. My argument is, in fact, about a strong state. We should not assume that strong power is necessarily monological, free of inner conflicts or self-doubt; or that a multivocal discourse is feeble.
            In developing my argument I was carrying on a conversation not so much with the Cambridge School but with one influential strand in post-colonial studies on power and discourse that developed in the 1980s and ’90s. Reacting against the Foucauldian notion of an all-pervasive panoptican power – one that governs and shapes all thought and action within society – many historians at that time went on to explore the internal tensions and conflicts within imperial discourse, its inner ambiguities and ambivalences. At one level, this move was immensely productive, opening up new fields of research, encouraging wide-ranging studies on colonial discourse and power. But at another level this turn became tendentious, fetishising the idea of “ambivalence” and “ambiguity”. My effort has been to build on what I have found productive within this particular discursive turn, and to critique what I thought was problematic. 
            The conceptual underpinning of my argument about discourses of colonial power in the book is twofold. First, to quote a couple of sentences in the book, I suggest that “Dissonance does not mean paralysing discord, ambiguities do not freeze decision and conflicts of opinion do not block the possibility of confident action.” So the point to explore is “how such differences are articulated, negotiated, and transcended, and [how] the authority of imperium is expressed.” Second, I see these confrontations of conflicting ideas, such negotiations of difference, as productive. They provide the inner dynamic of discourse; they explain mutations in thinking, modifications in policy, and changes in the way power is exercised. To explore this dialogic is to discover the inner vitality of power.

What about the argument of sedentarisation?

As you know, sedentarisation is not a theme that is new in Indian history. Neither Chris Bayly, nor David Washbrook – whose works I greatly admire – nor I, are the first to talk about it. The question is, how do we frame this argument and see its spatial and temporal logic. Many historians of ancient Indian history – framing their argument within Marxist teleologies – have traced the history of the settling of nomads to the later Vedic period, when peasant agriculture expanded in the river valleys and plains, iron technology was discovered, agrarian surplus produced, caste order established, and states founded. Subsequent history was read as an unfolding of this settled agrarian economy. Within this transition narrative, as I argue in my book, history moves inexorably forward towards settled peasant society. Pastoralists and forest dwellers appear as vestiges of the past – as not worth the historian’s concern. Only in recent decades do we find the focus turning to pastoralists and nomads. My effort in the book has been to critique this linear teleology, to suggest that the early expansion of settled peasant agriculture happened primarily within the deltaic regions, in riverine belts, and on alluvial soils. Over the vast rural landscape beyond this zone of settled agriculture we see the pastoralists with their herds, “tribal” communities living on forest produce, shifting agriculturists engaged in slash and burn, and communities engaged simultaneously in a diverse range of  livelihood forms. We can discover the inner logic of these forms, and their intertwined lives, only when we stop seeing them as vestiges of the past.
            Chris Bayly wrote of the process of sedentarisation of nomads in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His thesis is important and I have engaged with it elsewhere. But I have a difficulty with his framing narrative. He counterposed his argument of the peasantisation of nomads to the nationalist argument about proletarianisation of peasants under colonial rule. This framing may be interestingly provocative but it is also problematic. We cannot replace one universalist argument by another. Not all peasants were proletarianised under colonialism, nor all nomads settled. I have argued elsewhere that Bayly shares the premises of the argument he opposes. Both these opposed theses share the common assumption that vulnerable social groups succumb to the irresistible and all-powerful forces of commercialisation and agrarian expansion. Unable to resist, peasants, according to one thesis, become paupers; according to the other, nomads become peasants. What I have tried to explore – not so much in this book  but elsewhere – are the diverse ways in which pastoralists and nomads negotiate their ways through changing times, creating spaces of resistance and manoeuvre, even as they feel the pressures of the agrarian conquest.
            The purpose of my study in this book is not so much the objective processes of sedentarisation as the creation of an agrarian imaginary, by which I mean the constitution of a regime of categories within which settled peasant cultivation is normalised and the agrarian comes to be seen as the universal rural. Such an imagination, and the categories and terms that constitute it, delegitimate alternative forms of livelihood and ways of being. It is in this sense, I suggest, that the agrarian conquest is a deep conquest: it transforms the way in which we look at the rural, it refigures the frames that structure our vision of all that lies beyond the city. This wide-ranging conquest, this radical delegitimation of plural ways of life, this normalisation of the settled agrarian, has implications that the category “sedentarisation” cannot capture.

You describe the colonial state as an anxious and internally divided entity that was able, on occasion, to work authoritatively and aggressively from above, at other times working “by stealth”: apparently changing nothing, but, by “preserving” the past, in fact changing everything. This is another brilliant insight which uses historical anthropology to great effect. You mention the consolidation by that state of patriarchy and caste in “villages” – yet, changing trends in women’s work and status, and the fate of the lower castes, are not analysed with the same deep attention you devote to other subjects. I wonder why.

In this book I don’t focus on rural work – whether of women or men, or of the various caste groups. Here my focus is slightly different.
            As for women, I explore how the great agrarian conquest impinges on their lives in several distinct ways. I suggest that colonial classificatory practices strengthened the power of male brotherhoods in the villages: tenurial categorisation recognised only males as proprietors, the codification of custom reaffirmed the power of male lineages and the rights of agnates, and the constitution of village panchayats consolidated the juridical power of the male proprietary body. But I also show the ways in which wives and daughters, widows and lovers, did not inhabit a pre-scripted legal habitus whose lines they had to follow unquestioningly. They questioned the new definition of rights, filed suits, and fought cases. When we move from the practices of codification to the activities of courtrooms, we see how judges had to continuously reinterpret codes and rework custom.  So, my focus in this book is on the changing regime of categories and codes, customs and laws, which impacted the lives of rural women. Their working lives have to be the subject of a different book.
            The changes I track had profound implication for the “lower castes”. Tenurial classification, premised on evolutionary theories of society, traced the lineage of proprietary brotherhoods, displacing the rights of those seen as non-proprietors. Rights to soil were believed to be defined by relationships of blood, with descendants of the original founder constituting the coparcenary community. Those who failed to assert such a mythical ancestry could not be members of the brotherhood – their claims could not be recognised in the record-of-rights. The Land Alienation Act of 1900 went further, debarring the sale of land to non-agricultural castes. Categorised as non-agriculturist, denied the right to land, excluded from the coparcenary community, the position of the “lower castes” became even more precarious as common lands disappeared, in part taken over by the colonial state, in part partitioned and appropriated by the khewatdars of villages. In this sense, the story of the consolidation of the village coparcenary communities that I track through several chapters is intimately connected to the fate of the “lower castes”. I agree that their everyday lives need to be explored in depth, but that again means writing a different book.

The conquest of the commons, the scrubs, and pastoral land is a central theme of the book, and one of its great contributions is its analysis of how rights (and communities) in these regions often agglomerated around the construction of wells, the building of bunds, and the ownership of cattle. (Here, your shifting of the gaze from the forest to the scrub is very welcome.)  But again, I wonder about the relations of power within communities you describe as “nomadic” or “tribal” – particularly the role of women and girls – in societies structured around the training of  boys and men to loot and steal.  You mention the violence of nomadic groups on neighbouring habitations but say little about their internal fractures and violence. I wonder if I could push you a little on that issue? 

Well yes, I do not say much about the internal fractures within nomadic societies. That again is to do with the way I define the object of my study in the ninth chapter, which is the one you are referring to.  As you know, the central focus of my discussion there is not so much the nomads as the spaces they inhabited. I am looking at grasslands and scrublands – the bãrs in particular – that the British wanted to colonise. They saw these as wild and open spaces belonging to nature, unexplored and unexploited, waiting to be cultivated. But no project of colonisation could proceed without an encounter with the history of the place and the people who inhabited it.  For this reason I discuss the nomads who inhabited the bãrs – the vast highlands of western Punjab – and the politics of raids and counter-raids through which nomadic zones were demarcated; and I then explore how pastoral landscapes were reterritorialised in the second half of the nineteenth century. Colonial officials went around surveying the bãrs, mapping the terrain, settling the nomads, regulating their movements, enumerating them, subjecting them to a new fiscal regime, and finally creating the canal colonies. I explore the history of diverse micro encounters – between nomads and officials, villagers and surveyors – that shaped the way colonisation could proceed.
            I fully recognise the importance of exploring the internal structure of nomadic societies, but, once again, I’d say that that is a slightly different project. I have written earlier on pastoralists in a colonial world and hope to publish more on nomadic pastoral societies, on the diversity of their social forms and life experiences.

Turning away from the book, you are celebrated as an inspirational, dedicated, and unselfish teacher. What animated your drive to teach? How did your methods of pedagogy evolve over your forty years at JNU? What insights could you impart to others striving to do their very best for their students?

Yes teaching has been a passion, and I have always felt that meaningful research has to go along with engaged teaching. I love the dynamic communicative context of the classroom, I find it energising and enormously stimulating.
            JNU has been a very special institution. The admission policy we had devised – unfortunately it is being dismantled now – enabled students from diverse backgrounds – social, cultural, economic – to join the university. We had an amazing mix of students from different classes, castes, genders, and regions. They came with enormously varying linguistic and academic competencies. So teaching was challenging.
            To teach in JNU I had to learn quickly that it was not enough to be eloquent and knowledgeable – it was important to get across to all the very diverse kinds of students we had there. It was necessary for me to try making sure that every level of student  understood what I was saying. Also, there isn’t much point if students find a lecture impressive but are unclear about the argument and remain untouched by what is said. As a teacher, one needs to be sensitive to what they cannot understand and why. This requires empathy: a desire to know the problems of different students and recognise that everyone learns in dissimilar ways; they have different proficiencies. When students come armed with vastly different levels of knowledge, and with linguistic and analytic competencies that differ widely, the critical challenge is to try reaching them all – neither making some feel you are talking above them, nor allowing the attention of others to flag. Over the years I felt it necessary to articulate ideas in different ways, at different levels of simplicity and complexity, building arguments in a form where the most complex idea becomes comprehensible to all: so that what is difficult does not appear to be so. As an aside, I might add that in writing this book I was conscious of the need to move at these different levels and was grateful that my editor, an old friend, at times demanded that I explain myself, at other times wanted me to tighten an argument that was over-elaborate.  
            In conducting discussions – whether over tutorials or in seminars or with an editor – every teacher and writer develops a preferred personal style. I can only mention some of the pedagogic problems I have tried to grapple with. Some of them are general pedagogic issues: How best to draw out the ideas a student is attempting to formulate – ideas that are at times inchoate, waiting to be developed; how to help a student think through his or her ideas, see the possible problems within them, the criticisms they may be subject to – that is, how to encourage students to critically engage with the arguments not only of others but their own.
            Given the social diversity of JNU’s students that I mentioned earlier, the question for me was: how do I critique without demoralising, how do I discover what is worth appreciating even in presentations that are initially not clearly formulated; how do I nurture a dialogic context in which the self-confident and the articulate do not silence those who are reticent and full of self-doubt.

Finally, I note your poignant dedication of the book “to JNU, as it was”. You have had an uninterrupted view of JNU from within, over forty years. It would be marvellous if you could write at some length about JNU “as it was”, to produce one kind of fragmentary source for a future generation of historians seeking to research the history of India’s universities in the late twentieth century.

I do not think I can speak in any detail about JNU within the space of this interview. But let me explain the dedication.
            My dedication is part celebration, part nostalgia. It is a celebration of what JNU had come to embody, what it stood for. It is nostalgia for that intellectually and politically vibrant  space that is now under attack.
            Part of this nostalgia is to do with my own personal connection with JNU. The MA courses in JNU started in 1972, I joined as a student a year later, and between 1976 and 2017 I was teaching there. I have seen an arid landscape – a scrubland of the lower Aravallis – being transformed into one of the greenest belts of New Delhi. I have seen the university structures come up: the school buildings, the hostels, the dhabas, the shopping complexes, the stadium, the auditoriums, the nurseries and gardens. As students we worked till late in the library, moved to the dhabas for tea, spent long hours discussing the state of the world or the inner logic of different theories, and walked up the rocks romancing and socialising. We attended political meetings, heard great lectures, organised study groups, and participated in intense discussions on diverse issues. JNU was a fun place where learning was joyous, and where the academic and the political fused seamlessly, where to be intellectual was not to be anti-political. Learning to reflect was also to think about the world politically.  Knowledge had to open up a vision of the future, make us aware of the world we inhabit. We learnt from our great teachers, but we also learnt a lot outside the classrooms.
            The institutional structures of JNU developed over the years through debates and discussions, struggles and negotiations. These structures were to fecilitate collective discussion between different departments and schools, and between teachers, students, and administrators. Courses were discussed and norms of functioning debated within these institutional structures. Within them teachers and students had a voice in defining the shape of intellectual and institutional life in the campus. The unique admissions policy that was developed was the product of students’ struggles and prolonged discussions at different levels.
            It is the admissions policy, as I said, that defined one of the most remarkable characteristics of JNU. Since 20 per cent weightage was given for economic and regional backwardness, we could draw students from different social, regional, and linguistic backgrounds, even before the statutory reservation policy came into effect. JNU became a polyglot, multicultural, and socially diverse space. For students, living within such a space was itself a learning experience. In interacting with each other they learnt about cultural and social diversity, and about the meaning of deprivation. For most teachers, teaching this diverse social body was both exciting and challenging.
            It takes long to build an institution and very little time to destroy one. Over the last few years, democratic structures established through discussion and struggle have been rapidly dismantled. Meetings of statutory bodies – Boards of Studies and Academic Councils – are not regularly held, and when held discussions are disallowed and minutes manipulated. Selection boards to appoint teachers are now packed with people who are not part of approved panels of experts. All the  established norms and conventions are being violated, teaching is being policed, political discussions disallowed, and students and teachers who protest are being targeted. Spaces of social and intellectual interaction – the iconic dhabas of JNU – are being closed down.
            With all its problems, JNU was a happy and exciting place over the time I lived and learned and taught there. It has been now transformed into a sort of war zone. Teachers and students are engaged in an everyday battle to save the university, staging demonstrations, holding protest meetings, filing court cases. Even those who have never directly participated in politics in the past now see the need to speak up, write, protest. I hope something of the past will survive because of this amazing struggle that is now going on, and that something positive will emerge from the current chaos. I am an optimist, but for the moment I cannot envisage, leave alone write, a script entitled JNU “as it will be”.