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Book excerpt: Indian Cultures as Heritage — Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Indian Cultures.

SCIENCE AS CULTURE

Many Indian scientists, competent in their fields of specialization, know less about science as a form of knowledge, or the kind of reasoning involved in the scientific method that can also be applied to other forms of knowledge. This might explain their surprising and tacit acceptance of some of the more ridiculous statements made by non-scientists on the fantasy-based claims pertaining to science as supposedly practised by our ancient ancestors. This reduces their ability to recognize the difference between the remarkably impressive knowledge of premodern Indian thinkers in some of the sciences, and the infantile fancies that are often projected in their name by those ignorant of science in both premodern and in current times. The reasons for doing the latter are more often political rather than due to any scientific assessment.

The onus is not only on the scientist but also on the historian. Not enough attention has been given by historians to integrating the ideas related to the sciences from earlier times to other aspects of culture. The historian’s intervention from this perspective would require the re-crafting even of some historical formulations. This is being done for some other aspects in recent historical reinterpretations. One of these is the notion of ‘civilization’ as a somewhat fixed and continuing historical unit.

Used more casually in the earlier centuries to refer to the softening of manners and to artistic and literary achievements, it became a widely accepted unit of history from the nineteenth century, coinciding with colonial perceptions of history. The world was divided into discrete, geographically bounded areas each with a dominant culture, recognizably different in intellectual, aesthetic, technological and religious attainments, all of which were associated with urban centres, the use of scripts, the existence of a state and of an organized social order. In A Study of History, the British historian Arnold Toynbee counted twenty-six such civilizations, each rising in response to challenges and declining when the response was inadequate. More recently the count has been reduced to eight in Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. As a spokesman of the American political right wing, his theory that the future of the world will revolve around the clash of civilizations inspired by religious identities seems to envisage conflicting civilizations as a replacement for the cold war.

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Book Review: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Indian Cultures.

Title: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018
Pages: 222 pages 

 

Culture influences our values, world view, loyalties, behaviour and much more. Very often it is equated with civilisation a term that came to be used to describe societies that boasted of extensive territory, sophisticated language, literature, art and architecture, and above all, a single religion. Under the colonial influence, culture came to be redefined simply as a way of life of elite groups, for instance Aryans in the case of India. Unfortunately, our current understanding of Indian culture is overshadowed by this erroneous interpretation. Heritage, both cultural and natural, consists of ideas, objects and practices; contributes to quality of life, gives us a cultural identity and connects us with our past. India’s cultural heritage has always been subject to debates. While traditional historians favour the ‘unity in diversity’ approach in order to project a homogenised Indian identity and presumably invoke the spirit of patriotism, Thapar, in her latest book, Indian Cultures as Heritage Contemporary Pasts, does exactly the opposite.

A fearless, frequent and outspoken critic of our dogmatic and communal interpretations of the past, Thapar’s  book does not to go into the historical aspect of the making of Indian culture but provides glimpses of what is often omitted, marginalized, trivialized or is even considered irrelevant to its understanding. Drawing on her lectures and essays, published in the recent past, this book challenges the idea that Indian culture is the monolithic phenomenon it is often portrayed as in Indian historical writing or what is being currently imposed on the Indian citizens by cultural nationalists. Identification with a single culture, she argues, despite the existence of many in the country, is risky since it tends to dismiss all that does not conform to the mainstream forms, perpetuates inequality and silences all kinds of reasonable resistance. Culture is deeply linked with historical developments and bound to change. But the two differ as well. While history narrates and explains the past, culture can invent the past without any historical evidence. Therefore, one has to guard against spurious history which can be manufactured by culture. Thapar’s argument that we need to subject the Indian culture to rigorous historical scrutiny and juxtapose historical and cultural forms to understand their interface is highly relevant, especially in the present context when cultural forms are being subjected to identity politics due to ignorance and lack of general or intellectual interest in other cultures, within and outside the subcontinent.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with William Dalrymple

By Rituparna Mahapatra

William Dalrymple

Historian, art curator, travel writer, broadcaster, photographer and one of the co-founders and co-directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival – William Dalrymple wears many hats. Born and brought up in Scotland and educated in England, he made India his home, driven by his love for the country and its history.

William Dalrymple was one of the guest authors at the 10th commemorative year of Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, 2018, Dubai. Beaming smile in place, Dalrymple spoke to a full house, the audience in rapt attention as he unfolded the story of the ‘Kohinoor’ diamond, a story that he narrates in his latest book by the same name, co-authored with Anita Anand.

In conversation with Rituparna Mahapatra at the Emirates Airline Literature Festival 2018, he speaks about his love for India, his travel stories, his passion for history, his current book and his family.
The first thing that strikes you about William Dalrymple is his affable laugh. He wanted to be an archaeologist digging ruins in Iraq; it was chance that he accompanied his friend to India and could never really get himself to go back, he laughs and says.

Rituparna: You have many laurels – historian, art curator, writer… how would you primarily describe yourself?

William Dalrymple: I am a writer.  Most of my life comes under that heading, and that is the work I do most days. It encompasses all my other roles. The other stuff that I do, like running the Jaipur Literature Festival or my photography is a lovely diversion. But on this, no question in my head – I am a writer.

Rituparna: You have pioneered the non-fictional narrative storytelling. Is there a particular method, a sort of regime to your writing?

Dalrymple: Very much so.

Thank you, it’s very sweet of you to say I have pioneered non-fictional narrative storytelling, but I think I have only pioneered it within the Indian context. The kind of books I write is very common among my contemporaries where I come from in Britain, and that is the biographical narrative British history, which is the traditional way of writing history. But in India, so much of history is academic history. With my sociological takes on history, people here were slightly ruffled by what I am doing. They thought, am I writing a novel? No, I am not writing a novel; I am writing non-fiction, but I am writing it in a narrative form. And it is all based on historical facts.

Coming to my regime, yes I follow a particular method while working on a book. It is typically a cycle of three to four years, sometimes more. The current East India Company book that I am working on would take around four to five years.  The first year, when I go on a book tour from the last book, I begin thinking about what I am going to do next. I start to look for ideas, track the right people, find archives, and by the end of the year, am finally settled on the subject of the book. Then, I start reading on what has already been written on the subject. That’s the most beautiful part of the cycle because you are just sitting by the pool, reading books on the subject of your interest.  Then gradually the pressure builds up, and then I begin looking at archives, and that is more like serious work, which means you could be at some Government archives maybe in Kabul, in Lahore or New Delhi. Then comes the writing itself, which usually happens in year three or four. That’s the final invest, getting up early… getting fit, dieting a bit.., not going out too much. This phase is more like doing an exam.

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Book Excerpt: From Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast

Strangers No More -- Sanjoy Hazarika

Excerpt 1:

But let’s leave aside historical treatises, myths and accounts and move to the present. Step by step, brick by brick, walls of difference, discrimination and division were meticulously built. Thus, over the past 150 years, the Northeast has been kept aside not by people from the region but by successive governments in New Delhi, and earlier Calcutta (the former capital), first by the East India Company which was the wealthiest and most powerful corporate house in the world that ran the political system and economic life of a subcontinent. Company Raj was followed by British Raj and then by the government of free India. In his compelling book about the Company, The Corporation that Changed the World , Nick Robbins dwells on the vast extent of not just its riches but how it intervened to shape political history in India, China and Africa by dealing in cotton, tea and opium apart from spices and other goods. It was a model (albeit ultimately a failed one) for the modern multinational.

Each successive government created more complex networks of legal control over its peripheral areas. In the process, the foundations of acute divergence between the region of Assam and the rest of the country was laid. As far back as 1874, the British recognized customary laws among different tribes and followed this up with the Assam General Clauses Act which endowed special status on tribal groups, ensuring that the laws of the plains would not apply to the hills. This was the first statement of difference, though it was wrapped in the mask of protection. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms Act, 1919, strengthened the differences. They were cemented by the Simon Commission’s recommendations, which were written by members who included Sir Clement Attlee, the future prime minister, agreeing to the protection of tribal rights.

This was followed by the Government of India Act, 1935, which divided the hills into excluded and partially excluded areas and declared that no central or provincial legislation would apply to them unless the governor decided, in pursuance of his discretionary powers, that they were appropriate and would help maintain peaceful conditions. The 1935 Act was the precursor of the Sixth Schedule developed by the Gopinath Bordoloi Sub-Committee during the drawing up of the Indian Constitution. According to Fernandes, Pereira and Khatso: ‘These provisions had originated in the colonial need for peaceful trading relations in the Hill areas that were allowed to govern themselves without a direct daily role for the foreigner. Despite such isolation colonial intervention did destabilise tribal lifestyle, so most tribes resisted it.’

Thus, the major effort of the colonial system was not to protect the tribes or upland people but to protect the extraction and plantation industries upon which the Raj depended. In the process, they kept the hill groups at a great distance from plains communities and the mainland, keeping normal intercourse to the barest minimum, making the hill districts feel they were separate and different, providing them with autonomous political powers and creating a system of administration that was not answerable to the provincial or state government but only to New Delhi through its representative, an all-powerful, all-seeing, supposedly wise but often arbitrary governor.

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Essay: Growing with history in Isa Kamari’s novels

By Mitali Chakravarty

Isa kamari novels - Kampong Scene by Lim Cheng Hoe

Kampong — scene by Lim Cheng Hoe

 

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Burnt Norton, TS Eliot

 
When I walk down the Singapura River and see the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles look down at me from the pedestal near Victoria theatre, I feel I know the man well, not because I have ever met him but because Isa Kamari, the celebrated ASEAN writer, brought him to life in his novel, 1819.

Downtown and around Singapore, one can get glimpses of the history of the island in architecture, sculpture and art. These can be directly related to the stories written by some of the local writers. The multi-faceted Isa Kamari is one such writer who holds me spellbound, taking me on a journey of exploration to the past to help infer the present. Isa – winner of the S.E.A. Write Award (2006), the Cultural Medallion Award, the highest award conferred on writers and artists in Singapore (2007), and the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang, the highest Malay literary award (2009) – has written all his novels in Malay. Most of them have been translated into English. The translations continue to have the fluidity of his own style, of which we get a glimpse in his first English Novella, Tweet, his maiden venture into writing in English.

His writing is intense and makes one empathise with the past and present as he deftly shuttles between different periods of history, weaving it into the current fabric of the island. You live and emote with the characters – feel sorry for the Malays, the Bugis (seafaring folk from Sulawesi) and animosity towards the British rulers who manipulated the islanders by indulging them in opium and fanning their differences, following the policy of divide and rule, the favourite policy of the Raj to maintain power across its colonies, the effects of which are still evident in countries like India and Pakistan.

Isa takes us on a historic adventure through time in his novel 1819 to a past where Singapore was won by the British in a tussle for power with the Dutch, who had earlier ruled it ‘as a part of Riau’. In those days, it was often referred to as Pulau Ujong or Temasek. The island was nominally ruled by the Sultan of Johor, who was controlled by the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Bugis. At that time the borders of countries were fluid and adapted to the ruler’s needs. Johor and Singapore were part of the kingdom of Riau. It was the British who finally made sure with a treaty in 1824 that the Dutch and the locals would have no say in the administration or trade of Singapore. The British would hold the sole power.

Taking advantage of the local ruling classes’ love for a life of ease, the new rulers introduced opium and encouraged them to indulge. In a daze of opium, the Bugis and the Malay handed over the island to Raffles. Raffles, the ‘official founder’ of Singapore, signed the papers to take over the island from the local Malays. The British created different colonies for different factions of Muslims, like the Bugis, Malays and the Arabs. As the historic character of the first resident of Singapore, Farquhar, gives out in the novel, the British would ‘split and rule’ the kingdom so that they could gain ascendancy over the country and the region.

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Badass disabled women from history you should know about

International Women’s Month is the perfect time to draw attention to the many women who have been overlooked throughout history in favour of their more privileged male counterparts. But one demographic who are frequently missing from these round-ups are disabled women.

Earlier this month, I was wondering where all of them were. As a disabled woman, should I believe there was no-one like me who managed to succeed in the past? Did we all simply not exist? Did we all spend our lives hidden away? Or were we just not being talked about?

It’s true, that to be a disabled woman in the distant and not-too distant past was even more of a struggle than it is today, with the double disenfranchisements of patriarchy and ableism in full-swing to contend with, which held women as being worth less than men, and disabled people as being less than human. And that’s even before we begin to consider the archaic medical systems, or the even greater struggles disabled Women of Colour faced in simply surviving in such a world, let alone thriving.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when my research revealed not just one or two, but hundreds of stories of disabled women from around the world, who not only led fulfilling lives, but were instrumental in shaping the times they lived in.

In Part One of this series, I’ve brought together six incredible disabled women who helped shape the 19th and 20th centuries.

Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923)

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Writing to Reconcile: A personal journey

Last fall, in Toronto, I went to see a play that was written by one of the writers in this anthology, Sindhuri Nandakumar. The play was called A Crease in my Sari and told the story of a young Sri Lankan Tamil woman, born and raised in Canada who found herself in a relationship with a Sinhalese man, whom she had met in the coffee shop. The young woman, Maheshwari, had been purposely raised by her mother in a western suburb of Toronto, away from other Tamils who generally live in the eastern suburbs. So, apart from one Tamil friend, she had no real contact with her community and heritage. Now, however, finding herself falling in love with this Sinhalese man, Chanaka, she also found herself confronted with the realities of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Chanaka, with all the naïve optimism that majority communities can afford to have, believed that love conquers all and that their ethnic difference was no barrier. This was partly his charm for her.

But the history of the country both young people had left was insistent, and it would not allow either of them to ignore it. It was the winter of 2009 and the war in Sri Lanka was in its last phase. Soon, Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto were protesting against the Sri Lankan government, most famously carrying out a sit-down in the middle of a Toronto expressway. Maheshwari discovered that Chanaka’s father was in the army, and that Chanaka believed this was a just war, a humanitarian effort with zero casualties. As the play progressed, Maheshwari grew increasingly politicised and, in the end, their relationship was unable to bear the weight of history.

After the show as I walked to the train, I was lost in thought remembering my own thoughts and feelings during those months in 2009; remembering how I didn’t want to join the Tamil protesters because they were protesting under the Tiger flag, but how I also couldn’t join the counter-protest by the Sinhalese in Toronto, as they had taken up the zero casualties-humanitarian approach, which I found ridiculous.

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How Urmila Pawar broke the barriers of caste and patriarchy armed with only words

The struggle of Dalit women in India is often perceived as a fight against patriarchy, and caste — as separate entities. The truth, however, is that their struggle is against against caste-ridden patriarchy, essentially an offshoot of Brahminism in India. Therefore, the claims of the Dalit woman in the the anti-caste struggle are more powerful, subtle, theoretically holistic and thought provoking. Not only this, Dalit women, through their narratives, seem to broaden the scope of movement against caste.

Right from the era of Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh and Mukta Salve, Dalit women’s writing has had a rich history. Needless to say, it provides a background to the discourse of feminism in India that has always been denied by Brahmin women who call themselves feminists. The position of Dalit women as ‘Dalit within Dalits’, is the crucial factor that makes their struggle theoretically fertile and, a discourse which feminism in India cannot afford to avoid.

When Urmila Pawar’s autobiographical work Aaidan was first published, it sent waves of discomfort in society, among men and women alike. I remember sometime in 2014, when I went to watch a play based on her work at the National Centre for Performing Arts, located in an elitist area of South Mumbai, witnessing for the first time on stage, the lives of women I had seen around me. Pawar came on stage before the play began and shared her experiences of writing her first book. She had faced opposition from male agencies across castes, including her own home — where her book (initially) was not celebrated, but looked down upon.

As a Dalit woman, Pawar wrote about her life experiences, dared to articulate them intimately and explicitly — and that was the point of arrival from which Dalit narratives against caste society became clearer to the world. Though pioneering writers like Shantabai Kamble and other Dalit women had already put their struggle into words, it was Pawar’s work which received wide readership. In her book, one of the instances she mentions is of the menstrual cycle, illustrating how the the idea of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ not only fractured Brahmins psychologically but also victimised Dalits till a certain point of time. When she, as a girl, was made to sit in a corner by her mother to avoid touching anything during her cycle, Pawar recounts thinking: “As if I wasn’t discriminated (against) enough by others outside, now (my) family too, has set rules for me”.

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‘Silenced Shadows’: A Fine Presentation of Compassionate Resistance Poetry in Sri Lanka

The Amnesty Intentional has published a collection of poems titled ‘ Silenced Shadows’. It’s a collection of 15 poems and translations of the said poems into all three languages, Sinhalese, Tamil and English. Originally, Amnesty International called for poems on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and selected 15 poems for publication. Five of the poems were written in Sinhala , five in Tamil and five in English. Now a very powerful collection of poems are available for readers in all the three languages.

The 20th Century generated a genre of poems which are now known as compassionate and resistance poetry. This particular genre of poetry was a response of the creative minds throughout the world to the changed circumstances of the 20th Century which can also be characterised as the most brutalised century in the human history. As the life got more and more inhumane and forms of human cruelty became one of the most shocking experiences of this century, the creative minds responded in reasserted the basic human values and protested against the widespread brutalisation and dehumanisation.

Sri Lanka was no exception to this general trend of decadence, violence and degrading the humanity and the human civilisation itself. Insurgencies And counter-terrorism, both relied on violence in its most extreme forms and the result was a widespread fear that was spread through the entire country. South, and North and the East were all affected by forms of violence which was hitherto unknown in the island. This island which was once known as the paradise of the orient began to manifest many aspects of hell not only for many persons but for the nation as a whole.

Most forceful expression of this situation was the enforced disappearances that took place in large scale in all parts of Sri Lanka. Enforced disappearances had all the characteristics of a perfected violence which combines extreme efficiency in execution of persons on the one hand and on the other, every form of the attempt to erase all evidence so that any attempt to ensure a justice to the victims will be almost impossible. Perfection of efficiency in execution is one of the most prominent aspects of 20th century violence.

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An Introduction to Nepali Literature in 5 Books

Since its political liberation in the 1990s, Nepali literature has flourished with all of the diversity and vibrancy of the nation. Although many native tales remain oral legends, some of the most enduring and canonical texts have recently been translated into English. We now have access to vivid stories straight from the birthplace of Buddha.

 

Arresting God in Kathmandu by Samrat Upadhyay

Upadhyay, born and raised in Kathmandu, is the first Nepali author to write in English and be published in the West. His writing offers an unprecedented insight into the domesticity of Nepali life. This collection of nine short stories, published in 2001, is a triumph for its presentation of love and family in a city where there are more gods than people and more temples than homes. His writing presents the multi-faceted face of family lives where desire and spirituality, earthly and religious forces conflict and define identity. The opening story, The Good Shopkeeper, explores the strains of society on the male identity in an entertaining, heartfelt and thought-provoking tale. The Limping Bride is another equally beautiful piece, challenging social norms with an honesty that pierces prejudice. Arresting God in Kathmandu is a bold entry for Nepalese fiction in Western literary spheres, marking Upadhyay as a star in Asian literature.

Annapurna Poems by Yuyutsu Sharma

Yuyutsu Sharma’s work is anything but expected. Since being featured in the tribute anthology, Dance the Guns to Silence: 100 Poems for Ken Saro-Wiwa, in which his poem Content Metamorphosis addresses issues of commercialization, commodification, and consumerism in modern society, Sharma achieved something of an international status. His collection, Annapurna Poems, contains some of his greatest work. Unafraid to merge the glittering glory of Nepal with the gritty reality of its flecked political history, Sharma’s poetry is complex and engaging. Sharma eloquently transports the reader into the hubbub of Nepali life to manipulate the senses, and often to wrench at the heartstrings.

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