04 June 2019

TRANSLATING THE INDIAN PAST





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.

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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

 
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

JOYA CHATTERJI AND NEELADRI BHATTACHARYA IN CONVERSATION



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, will be published shortly by 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?

NB:
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.

JC:
What about the argument of sedentarisation?

NB:
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.

JC:
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.

NB:
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.

JC:  
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? 

NB:
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.

JC:
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?

NB: 
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.

JC:
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.

NB:
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”.

08 January 2019

THE GREAT AGRARIAN CONQUEST by NEELADRI BHATTACHARYA


To listen to TWO excellent discussions on this book,
the first including Romila Thapar,
click here

and the second including Partha Chatterjee,
click here






This book examines how, over colonial times, the diverse practices and customs of an existing rural universe – with its many forms of livelihood – were reshaped to create a new agrarian world of settled farming. While focusing on Punjab, this pathbreaking analysis offers a broad argument about the workings of colonial power: the fantasy of imperialism, it says, is to make the universe afresh.

Such radical change, Bhattacharya shows, is as much conceptual as material. Agrarian colonisation was a process of creating spaces that conformed to the demands of colonial rule. It entailed establishing a regime of categories – tenancies, tenures, properties, habitations – and a framework of laws that made the change possible. Agrarian colonisation was in this sense a deep conquest.

Colonialism, the book suggests, has the power to revisualise and reorder social relations and bonds of community. It alters the world radically, even when it seeks to preserve elements of the old. The changes it brings about are simultaneously cultural, discursive, legal, linguistic, spatial, social, and economic. Moving from intent to action, concepts to practices, legal enactments to court battles, official discourses to folklore, this book explores the conflicted and dialogic nature of a transformative process.

By analysing this great conquest, and the often silent ways in which it unfolds, the book asks every historian to rethink the practice of writing agrarian history and reflect on the larger issues of 
doing history.

FROM THE REVIEWS:
 "The Great Agrarian Conquest is at once deeply theoretical as well as solidly empirical. It elegantly bridges different fields and approaches generally treated in a segmented manner by less accomplished (or less ambitious) historians. It integrates texts with contexts, discursive practices with material reality. This is a history of ideas and of institutions, of livelihood practices and of everyday social relations. It investigates both structure and agency, the reshaping of rural Punjab by a colonial ideology of codification and improvement as well as the actions of individual officials which were often at variance with each other.
At the level of method, the great achievement of Bhattacharya’s book is that it successfully brings together agrarian history and environmental history, two sub-disciplines that have tended to work separately and in isolation from one another...The Great Agrarian Conquest is a subtle and substantial work of scholarship. If there is one book Indians need to read to understand how colonialism actually worked (or did not work), this is it. says Ramachandra Guha, in WIRE

Neeladri Bhattacharya's "path-breaking monograph on significant transformations  in Punjab under British rule (1849-1947) adds to his legendary  reputation of a teacher" says Razi Aquil in Sunday Guardian

BUY THIS BOOK ONLINE



NEELADRI BHATTACHARYA
taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University for forty-one years, from where he retired in 2017 as Professor of History. He has been a Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and has held visiting professorships in Europe, South Africa, and the USA.









06 January 2019

A JOYOUS JANUARY TO ALL



There is so much happening in January we don't know where to start. For one thing, Delhi has a bookfair on. And while we know it's chilly and grey and there are a hundred things to do, we promise that stepping into the halls of the bookfair will make the most jaded souls feel like children.





Next up, Neeladri Bhattacharya is in conversation with a galaxy of star scholars about his new book. This event will take place in Calcutta on 14th January 2019. It may be worth travelling there for it, combining the trip with a few of Calcutta's winter treats -- notun gur shondesh, balmy walks on the Strand, breakfast at Flury's, boatrides on the Hooghly, and the standard pollution levels of all our big cities.


On the 18th of January, Jennifer Dubrow will be at the India International Centre, Delhi, speaking in the prestigious Frontiers in History Series. This series of talks, curated from its inception by Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor Partho Datta, has featured some of the best writers and scholars at work today in fields as diverse as history, music, design, even the army. Jennifer Dubrow will be speaking on lots of lively things, ladling out a spot of Avadh Punch to beat the cold.

See you there!