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An Interview with Tanika Sarkar


Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University
answers six questions sent to her by Permanent Black.


Here, first, is Dipesh Chakrabarty on Tanika Sarkar: “Tanika Sarkar is arguably the most prominent feminist historian today writing on Bengal and India. She also belongs to a tiny band of Indian scholars whose interests embrace both history and literature. Her many different books and essays on women's histories—notable as much for their breadth of interests as for their sensitive and imaginative handling of a wide variety of Bengali and English-language sources from the colonial times and before—show her to be an intellectual whose work is both attentive to the messiness of the past and at the same time deliberately resistant to what she sees as unsatisfactory, schematic interpretations of many postcolonial scholars. This gives her writing a polemical edge but it is not consumed by polemics. In the end, much of it is indeed pioneering, imaginative, and wonderful history from someone completely engaged with what goes on around her.”

Question 1
These three short extracts below are from Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation (Permanent Black and Indiana University Press, 2001), and Rebels, Wives, Saints (Permanent Black and Seagull, 2009) the two books which, it seems broadly agreed, established you as a world-class historian:

“... the consciousness of the colonised is [mistakenly] divested of all claims to an autonomous life and made parasitic upon the master discourse of colonialism”

“... there is very often an exaggerated account of this [colonial] impact within postcolonial studies which denies any substantive autonomy or authenticity to modern Indian discourses ... Indian history becomes rather too strongly a site for the work of the West rather than for the activities of Indian people”

“... The success of the theatre depended significantly upon lower-middle-class themes and preferences. While the classical themes and chaste language of Madhusudan Dutt’s early plays were displayed to depressingly empty halls, the fortunes of the lately established Bengal Theatre picked up and flourished in the early 1870s with the performance of a popular farce—Mohanter Ei Ki Kaj. This play enacted a scandal that had rocked the popular imagination when the mohunt of the Tarakeswar pilgrimage seduced a young girl who was, later, murdered by her husband”

Would it be fair to say that these extracts show us the core historical themes which your work on colonial times investigates: individual autonomy and agency; popular culture; women’s victimhood? What biographical and intellectual factors brought you to these themes, which seem a departure from your less unconventional first monograph on political protest, Bengal 1928–1934 (1987)?
Answer 1
I did not entirely depart from the concerns of my first monograph. I reworked the Jitu Santal narrative in my last book and I am now writing on aspects of Bengal’s labour history that I had touched on briefly there. But for a long time I did write on entirely different themes that focused almost entirely on gender and culture. You are so very right in selecting those citations as they precisely sum up my acute discomfort with the very hegemonic postcolonial studies framework that dominated history writing, especially on gender and culture, in the 1980s and 1990s. I am afraid that mine was a very kneejerk response which should have been theorized at some point. But I was troubled by the reduction of messy and profoundly dialectical processes into a single and very simple query about what was derived from the West and what resisted it. What little I knew of Western history also made me question the singularization of the West, and what I definitely knew of Indian history made me certain that its complexities would be impossibly steamrollered by the question, whose answer was, in any case, prefabricated, already known.
Also, while I strongly oppose the earlier nationalist and Indian Renaissance frameworks as equally reductive, if not more so, I was troubled by the cultural nationalism that was insistent on reconfiguring our modernity as a dark age when we lost our selfhood—because this was a time when so many dalits, women, and workers were, in different ways, articulating a very strong sense of selfhood. That seemed to be the most significant historical question, not the one about what is West and what is non-West in us.
If I did not theorize my own starting point and my disagreements beyond a simple polemic, I did try to choose themes that conveyed some sense of messy complications in the historical processes that I have referred to.
I would disagree with one of the points you make: I did not want to see the woman as victim alone, but more as a person who wrote and acted politically as never before. My standpoint was different there from that of the hegemonic feminism of those times which saw her as being endlessly recast into different patriarchal frames, Indian and Western. Since a lot of our feminist studies focussed on images of women in patriarchal texts, I wanted to see, instead, what they wrote and how they worked. I also wanted to attend to the writings by men which struggled to develop very different, very transgressive, notions of women. I suppose, E.P. Thompson’s approach was crucial here, however ill digested. Or Marx's point about men making their own history, but under circumstances not of their own choosing.

Question 2
You seem to have perfected, in particular, a wonderful narrative technique in many of the essays comprising both Hindu Wife and Rebels, Wives. You focus on the specific victimhood of a particular woman with whom you make us identify, or on the tragic circumstances of an individual life, and then, having engaged our empathy in the manner of a fine storyteller, you enmesh us within larger and larger stories of the economy, culture, legal ethos, etc. which made that individual tragedy possible. The specificity of that tragedy is made to expand, via your historian’s voice, into something that has a socially representative character for that period. Each essay offers a broad social landscape, but it is a picture which you have coloured over by that one particular tragedy. This technique seems a way of enriching the historian’s normal focus on community and class with the tragedian’s art. It gives your essays a peculiarly emotive or affective quality, making them seem genealogically connected both with Ranajit Guha’s classic essay ‘Chandra’s Death’ and your own father (the Presidency College scholar-teacher) Amal Bhattacharji’s legendary knowledge of classical tragedy (his Four Essays on Tragedy appeared posthumously from the Clarendon Press in 1977). Could you say something about your early life, your education, your family circumstances, etc. which may show us how and why you arrived at this uniquely literary and emotionally involving way of giving us history?
Answer 2
This is difficult to answer. My father never taught me literature but he sometimes read out from Shakespeare. Once, when I was very small, he read out all of Macbeth. I saw him trying to teach himself Greek as he wanted to work on Greek tragedies and, out of curiosity, I would pick up his collection of the translated plays now and then. I was transfixed by what I read, though I did not understand much. I cannot understand why I never asked him to explain things to me.
The only time I read a bit of literature systematically was when I did my A levels in Cambridge. We had a most wonderful teacher who communicated his somewhat Leavisite enthusiasm for the texts to the class—an enthusiasm that was, however, much contradicted and tempered in him by the influence of Raymond Williams. It was interesting to see within him an uneasy cohabitation of the two compulsions.
An inescapable sense of the tragic came to me when my father died a very slow and painful death at the age of fifty—especially painful because he so wanted to live. It seemed that the tendency to ascribe all tragic situations to social problems, to problems of power, was not entirely adequate. Nor could one invariably sustain an infinitely affirmative stance towards life and history. So I read the plays again, especially King Lear. However, since I am a historian, social and political problems are inevitably my field of enquiry. I suspect a seepage of that deep affinity with literary works on tragic human predicaments into situations that are made tragic by social and political power does happen: somewhat inappropriately, I guess.
Of course, there was also the tragic collapse of hopes in actually existing socialisms that happened relentlessly as I was growing up. This was sometimes complicated by a revival of hope in plebeian struggles as we also lived through the era of the Vietnam wars. So, despair was never translated into cynicism. Together, world events made it impossible either to hope or to despair about the course of human history—or, they made many of us determined not to accept the inevitable. Which, again, is a tragic predicament.
I have now revealed myself hopelessly as a person who is made by Western texts of power. Let me hasten to add that the Bengali translation of the Mahabharata is just as important to me.

Question 3
Your distinction as a historian lies partly in your interest in exploring deeply emotional and dramatic moments or events in individual lives that reveal what it was like to be alive at that time in history, and this interest seems to take an unusual turn in two of your essays because of their focus, in different but related ways, on the ‘child as god’ — on the emotions aroused by very small children. In your essay ‘The Child and the World’, which looks at Tagore’s writings for children, you say: “I think he [Tagore] worked with four important sources. Memories of his own childhood; observing children, especially his own, in their infancy; early learning with his father; and looking at forms of folk literature addressed to the child.” And in your essay on the Balakdashi sect you say of the child Vaishnav saint Balak: “He accorded pre-eminence to an earlier phase of Krishna’s leela, when a naughty and bewitchingly beautiful child-Krishna lived out a rich relationship with his adoring mother Yashoda. The appropriate form of raganuga or emotional response to this phase would be vatsalya, or parental love for the deity, as prescribed by Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which spelt out a range of emotional stances to Krishna and privileged them over vaidhi or ritualistic devotion.” If at one level your work fuses history with elements from literature, to what extent do you think it also fuses, consciously or subconsciously, your Marxism with elements of Freudianism? Or are these not so much the product of intellectual currents as of your own experiences as daughter and mother?
Answer 3
You are so right to think that the theme of the child is very important to me. I am now working further on holy infancy in Vaisnava literature as well as on the making of a domain of childhood through Sati and widow remarriage debates. I also wrote something on Rabindranath’s old age text on his childhood which I want to develop further. This interest probably comes from reading Rabindranath’s works for the child in my own childhood as well as other significant Bengali writings on children's literature—Abanindranath, Leela Majumdar, and many others. These were such rich ways of living in a world of children and in a world which imagines children in different ways. I periodically reread them as routes back to my own childhood as well as a way of establishing a relationship with the child as an adult.
A second source: my rage against the world that we live in, one that is made by capitalism, flows most strongly when I think of how it has blocked and distorted so many lives of children.
And, of course, having mothered a baby makes me happiest when I think or write about children. However, doomed to be a historian, I cannot find many situations when I can write happily about the child. That is why I so enjoyed writing the piece on the child in Tagore's writings.
Question 4
You have taught and lectured at St Stephen’s, JNU, and Cambridge, and given a shared course with Martha Nussbaum at Chicago University. Could you say something about (a) a few of the highlights or memorable moments of your career as a teacher and supervisor; (b) how you have changed or developed as a teacher over the years.
Answer 4
Teaching, especially at Stephen’s and JNU, has given me a deep sense of how little I know and how inadequately I can handle the questions that pour in from students. Every time I try to answer one of their questions, I think sadly that if only I had known much more about related themes, I would have been able to open up new worlds of awareness and interest. These students—or many of them—are so alarmingly well read, so efficiently argumentative, and so humblingly thoughtful that I am always left with a sense of ‘if only I could have walked that extra mile’.
There is another sense of inadequacy, especially with supervision. It is impossible to get to the research level in History without being able to read and write fairly fluently in English and so many of our students do not really know the language. Sometimes they do have interesting ideas which they cannot really articulate, nor can the ideas be fully formed as thinking has to be done within language and they have to read important works on History in order to know how to think. And, so many of these books are in English. They really need professional language teaching and we are not trained to provide that. So, most of the time, supervision means correcting sentences and not engaging with ideas. I feel a bit of a fraud when I supervise such students. Had there been one or two of them, a constuctive effort could have changed a lot of things, but at all times we are loaded with scores.
Let me give a couple of instances when a student’s question wrought important changes in my own thinking. Once, a first year undergraduate at Stephen’s interrupted my lecture on the Opium Wars in China where I was churning out a pretty efficient explanation of the Wars in terms of the economic calculations of Western imperial powers. She asked: why opium? When I asked her to explain herself, she said: ‘So far you have told us why the Western powers wanted to foist opium on China. But you have not told us why so many Chinese people wanted opium so badly at that point of time. Is that not important to know?’ That made me think, over many years, that the history of the colonized is never fully explained by what the colonizer does to them.
At Witwatersrand University in Johannesberg, where I taught Indian history, a student asked me when the British had passed a law to ban interracial marriage. I said there never was such a law, and they were astonished. Their surprise made me think about why interracial marriages were legal but intercaste marriages were not, for most of our colonial history. That, in turn, made me think seriously about colonial complicity with indigenous structures of power which, in specific cases, outweighed the structures of racial domination and discrimination.
At Chicago, I was lucky to share a course with Martha Nussbaum on texts of Indian modernity. Students came from many disciplines and most knew nothing about India, or about Tagore who was the central figure for the course. At the beginning, I was very pessimistic about the prospects of teaching them over an entire semester and I thought that the wall of strangeness between students and the course would remain impenetrable. But, amazingly, slowly, they began to grope through the maze of unknown and unthinkable people and situations and through cultural strangeness, and taught themselves to engage very intensely with the writings. The last class was based on his novel Jogajog, translated as Relationships by Supriya Choudhury. When they came for the class, they looked stunned by what they had just read. One of them then read out his essay on the novel and the level of understanding was so profound—so suffused with the tragedy which was not merely one of patriarchal power—that I was amazed. I also learnt a lot, along with the students, from Martha’s lectures on Western political philosophical texts that were relevant for an understanding of Tagore. I learnt a lot, too, from her infinite patience and gentleness with, and her deep interest in, her students, her ability to extend questions that seemed trivial into a discussions of things important and interesting, all without leaving the question behind.

Question 5
Despite living mostly in Delhi, like many Bengali intellectual-activists you’ve been very involved with Singur, Nandigram, and the contemporary Maoist insurrections. How does a historian of deeply emotional moments make you look at these deeply affecting situations within your own lifetime?

Answer 5
That was a supremely difficult time. We have been so committed to the Left government in Bengal, given the growth of right wing forces elsewhere, that we did not really want to know too much, we did not want to disturb our comfortable anchorage. For instance, much to our shame now, we did not respond at all to the hideous massacres of low-caste refugees at Marichjhanpi—it was not that we actually ever defended inexcusable acts but that we hardly ever publicly condemned them.
When we heard of Singur, we went there, initially to prove the Left’s claims were right. And we walked staright into a classic peasant rebellion of the sort that we have read about and written about and even dreamed about—but one targeted against the wrong party, it seemed, and one also supported by the wrong party. We had to make a choice. Should our leftism consist of support to subaltern movements for justice and rights, or of support to a party that calls itself Left? We also felt that private grumbling about the Left’s policies—which many of our friends engaged in—was hardly enough and what we had to say must be said in public. At one stroke, we lost the only party we had some faith in and we lost most of our friends.
What we saw in Singur and Nandigram made us realize the importance of ethnographic work, seeing for ourselves, as nothing else would have brought home the actual meaning of two sets of argument—the small peasant’s argument about the relative viability of their form of livelihood, as all alternatives without a toehold in land would pauperize them and destroy them morally and culturally, vs. the neo-liberal argument about the necessity to foster market and capital in the cause of development and not to think twice, or even once, about livelihoods and the lives of those who do not have capital or power over markets. We also saw for ourselves the sheer cussed peasant determination to hold on to land at all cost—something that we have only read about, almost as inspiring myths. We realized, too, that it was not only an innate peasant heroism that animated their struggles against the combined powers of transnational capital and an extremely well entrenched and ruthless state power; in fact they were speaking a literal truth when they said that without land their lives would not be human lives. That, again, reinforced what we read about taking peasant rationality seriously. Ananya Roy’s work on the Calcutta poor confirmed the truth of what Nandigram peasants said about a landless future. It also made us recall that, historically, Indian industries have grown only through a circular relationship with villages which reproduced the labour force and gave workers shelter against old age, accidents, retrenchment, and unemployment.
It also made us rethink the trajectory of early Subaltern Studies writings on peasant struggles. There is a great problem about narrativizing such movements if we do not or cannot see them only as instances of heroic resistance against deprivation. For there will be layers of contradiction within such struggles—of internal class, caste, or gender power, for instance. It seems that one can either ignore these problems and romanticize the struggles or one can focus on the contraditions and debunk them, expose their complicities with other forms of power even as they claim to resist power. Or, to say that since power exists even within resistance, an insurrectionary situation is inherently problematic for it will breed new forms of power. So, how to develop a language which would do justice to the magnitude of the effort to resist as well as to its necessity, and yet would lay out the internal contestations, without one compromising the other?
Maoist politics is even more of a dilemma especially since one knows so little about what actually happens, where state infiltration and propaganda end and where actual Maoist work begins. In the first place, I have no faith in their starting point—the inevitability of seizure of state power through violence and terror. But I cannot honestly think of any alternative form of struggle that will be more democratic and that is immediately effective at the same time. The large social movements in many parts of the country that resist development by displacement have a massive potential but they resist immediate problems of survival. The structural problems of the entire system are so very critical, and seemingly so impossible to resolve within the existing frame of parliamentary democracy, that it is difficult to be clear about what one can say beyond a very general condemnation of all forms of violence, state and Maoist. Yet, thinking of such a politics is absolutely essential.

Question 6
If you had to list five or six non-scholarly books that have meant a great deal to you, books you’d want to recommend to everyone, which would they be?
Answer 6
This is a really difficult one as one at times cannot think of a single such book and at others, one can think of at least a hundred. May I pass it by?


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