CARVING BLOCKS: Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth Century Bengal by Pradip Kumar Dutta. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.
‘But ’tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray
In deepest consequence.’ (Macbeth, Act I, Scene III)
THE political success of communal ideology hinges on the success of communal common sense – the success of the ‘instruments of darkness’ to win us to our own harm with the ‘honest trifles’! Witness not only the more strident activities of political Hindutva but also the respectability it gained among the ‘sophisticated’ lot in the post-Meenakshipuram phase. In this context, a positive fallout of the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya was ironically to provoke serious research into the making of communal common sense and its cultural dynamics. In the last decade there have been many attempts to address the question: wherefrom the intensity and efficacy of the communal appeal emanates? The volume under review is a welcome addition to an increasing number of systematic enquiries into this crucial question.
Pradip Kumar Dutta raises the question in the context of early twentieth century Bengal, ‘...how the banality of communal common sense conceals the process of problematising and recreating an awesome range of social relations’ (p. 152). He starts off his enquiry on a personal note, ‘One of the first markers of difference between Hindu and Muslim I learned as a child was the "fact" that Muslims bred faster. According to "common knowledge" this was because they married four times.’ More important is his confession of not questioning ‘this assertion till much later, when it provided a key plank of the "liberators" of the "Ram Janambhoomi"... The "fact" that I had picked up innocently now expressed communal paranoia. It raised a question: from where does this intensity come?’ (p. 21)
Not questioning the communal common sense till it becomes the main plank of a directly political and violent mobilization is the boon granted to communal politics by its opponents. It is important to keep in view that inspite of the clearly fascistic moorings of all variants of communalism, ‘unlike Fascists, no one claims to be a communalist’ (p. 7). Far from this being just a matter of semantics, a carefully constructed ambiguity actually informs the self-description and self-activity of communal politics. An analysis of this ambiguity can provide insights not only into fascistic fantasies but also the inherently cunning nature of communal discourse and politics.
Unfortunately, Dutta has not dwelt on this theme as rigorously as one would have liked. But this must not be allowed to detract attention from what he has done. Dutta takes a holistic approach, treating both variants of communal discourse as being mutually re-enforcing and the question of caste perforce enters his analysis. Both the variants of communal common sense naturally aimed at deflating the caste question within their own ‘bloc’ and sought to transfer the onus of whatever they perceived as evil and threatening on the ‘inimical other’.
This comes out clearly in Dutta’s insightful reading of the census related anxieties (which were partly responsible for producing the rhetoric of the ‘Dying Hindu’) and the numerous tracts produced with the intention of ‘improving’ the secular and spiritual plight of the Muslim peasant. In reality, however, these only helped in transforming him into a ‘communal Muslim’. It does not, however, follow that caste identity and its politics is an antidote to the fascistic politics of communalism. In fact, any identity politics steering clear of the inconvenient question of moral values and refusing to mediate with the other factors of social identity, is bound to end up in a exclusivist discourse quite similar to that of communalism. After all, in our own times, many heroes of ‘Mandalisation’ have ended up in the cosy company of the ‘Brahminical’ BJP!
Dutta has also competently discussed the symbolic investment in the controversies related to the incidence of abductions and playing music in front of mosques. His research and analysis demonstrates, once again, that after the symbolic investment, various events lose their autonomy and lend themselves to be read as ‘instances’ in a pre-existing narrative of perceived threats and evil designs of the inimical other. Naturally, this symbolic investment works both as cause and effect of the communal common sense, and thus perpetuates itself.
Carving Blocs is an important contribution not only for providing insights into the history of communal common sense during the period of investigation, but also in order to comprehend its dynamics in present times. The book certainly helps to clarify the question which provoked Dutta to undertake this study: ‘Where does this intensity (of communal feeling) come from?’
TRADITION, PLURALISM AND IDENTITY: In Honour of T.N. Madan edited by Veena Das, Dipankar Gupta and Patricia Uberoi. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1999.
TRADITION, Pluralism and Modernity is an interesting volume of essays by Indian and western scholars in honour of Professor T.N. Madan, a worthy festschrift and something the editors can reasonably be proud of. The list of contributors is a tribute to Madan’s standing in the academic world and his sustained scholarship over the years. His greatest single gift to sociology no doubt remains the nurturing role he played for the journal, Contributions to Indian Sociology, which he edited for 25 years (1967-91).
What is refreshing about this volume and clearly its strong point, is the range of topics covered by the essays as also the many distinct methodological techniques of practising sociology. Though a disciplinary text, a deep understanding of sociology or of any specific theory is not a precondition to comprehending this volume. It makes for interesting reading both for those connected with sociology as also those who know nothing about it.
There are a total of eighteen essays led by a paper by Veena Das framing the issues. It links all the papers to the overall theme of the volume and highlights the varied ways in which tradition, pluralism and modernity can be addressed. Diana Eck’s paper on the geographical landscape shows how Kashi is better understood through the grammar of signification in the pilgrimage landscape, as an instance of plurality and duplication rather than of uniqueness. R.K. Jain too addresses the issue of geography in his essay on the Indian diaspora, how it needs to be viewed and how different issues influence the theoretic analysis of this group.
Patricia Uberoi’s analysis of Dilwale Dhulhania le Jayenge and Pardes touches upon Indian’s abroad but from the perspective of problems arising out of the transnational location of the Indian middle class, in particular their handling of the issue of arranged marriage. Her paper further seeks to establish films as an important and valid source of sociological material. Another paper dealing with the domestic sphere is McKim Marriott’s analysis of the female family core which sets out domestic role types and correlates them to female life-course. Though Marriott refers to some ethnographic/Indological texts in setting out his parameters, his analysis differs from other papers that have based their analysis solely on textual interpretations.
Patrick Olivelle’s detailed analysis of language in dharma literature examines the link between the concepts of purity and social hierarchy to show that the two are not linked in ancient texts. He shows how purity as an idea is multifaceted and that there is a clear distinction in literature between references to people and things as being pure and impure. He concludes that purity is not the historical basis of the caste system. Khare’s paper on the ‘right to food’ among the Hindus also draws on dharmic texts in an attempt to examine food accessibility in modern India.
Another essay that concentrates on a text is Tambiah’s re-reading of Bernier’s account of life in the Mughal court. The paper raises doubts about the ‘objectivity’ of the account and shows that it is riddled with western stereotypes. Lloyd Rudolph establishes once again the utility of written texts, but seeks to make a case for accepting a diary as reflexive ethnography. In so doing Rudolph bypasses the ethnographer or the specialist sociologist and argues that an informed self-conscious native can also write valid ethnography which will qualify as an account of the ‘other’.
Babb’s paper on the Agarval community’s myths of origin, Dipankar Gupta’s paper on caste and politics, and McGilvray’s paper on Sri Lankan Muslim ethnicity address the issue of identity in various ways. Babb links the Agarval myth to other similar myths of trading communities. McGilvray shows how Sri Lankan Tamil Muslims consciously chose an Arab Islamic identity while denying their Tamil links, despite the strong presence of countervailing evidence. Gupta points to the lack of fit between caste numbers and elections results across three states and concludes that caste alliances are based on factors other than caste alone.
Lionel Caplan’s paper on Anglo-Indian charity in Madras provides an interesting look at charity and its construction from the viewpoint of both donor and recipient. Originating in colonial times under state patronage, charity has now become more personalised, and also a stepping stone to public life. Kleinman and Seeman’s article on moral practice in psychotherapy and religious healing demonstrates that both psychotherapy and religious healing achieve their end by focusing attention on what is at stake in local contexts.
Apffel-Marglin’s study on secularism and diversity, while linked to her rather interesting evaluation of the growth of scientific forestry in India, contains an analysis of secularism that could be linked to papers exclusively on the topic by Paul Brass, Harold Gould and Ashis Nandy. Apffel-Marglin distinguishes secularism in science from that in politics and discusses how science, while suited to collecting data, has gradually led to a reshaping of the natural and cultural landscape.
Paul Brass and Harold Gould both defend secularism as an essential if India is to combat Hindu communalism. But while Brass focuses almost exclusively on secularism as an ideology, Gould traces the history of the politicization of the Babri Masjid and its manipulation by various groups, including the Congress party. Nandy, in a unique analysis, links the rise of Hindu nationalism to the presumed loss of religion, a result of the rise of secularism. He views Hindutva as a packaged commodity for those Hindus whose Hinduism has worn off, i.e. the Brahmanic, middle class, urban, westernizing Indians who are both culturally and geographically uprooted.
Undoubtedly a well-packaged book meant for all those seeking some intellectual stimulation.
METHODOLOGY IN SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH: Dilemmas and Perspectives. Essays in Honour of Ramkrishna Mukherjee edited by P.N. Mukherjee. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2000.
THIS volume on Methodology in Social Research in honour of Professor Ramkrishna Mukherjee comes at a time when the ‘crisis in sociology’ is being lamented by many in the profession who sense a loss of faith in sociology as ‘the science of society’. It could be argued that this loss of faith is in part due to the inability of sociology to demonstrate and claim ownership to a method of inquiry that is solely its own. Further, a sense of its ‘own turf’ is made doubly difficult by new hybrid disciplines such as ‘cultural studies’.
The manner in which sociology originally provided a sense of unity to subject matter claimed by other disciplines (for example, economics or politics) and to differentiated spheres of social life such as religion, kinship, social stratification, urban and rural dimensions of social life was purportedly through a unity of method. Durkheim’s ‘Rules of the Sociological Method’ sought to delineate not only the subject matter of sociology but also a method for arriving at causal explanations. The matter did not end with Durkheim, and the deliberations on method continue. Today, sociology operates with a multiplicity of methods and methodologies and philosophical orientation. ‘Disciplined eclecticism’ rigorously pursued, as the editor argues, seems to be the sensible path when one looks at the plurality of theories and methodologies and methods available.
This is a very rich book. The editor undertakes a Herculean introduction (71 pages) in which he provides a competent and clear overview of major theoretical paradigms and research methods. He also captures the rich flavour of sociology in three well-stocked sections. The first deals with methodology from the perspective of philosophy of science, the second with methodological applications while the third attempts to pin down R.K. Mukherjee’s own methodology through explicating various concepts used by him. The conversational format of this section is especially useful in relating Mukherjee’s concepts to analysis of particular phenomena, for instance class-in-itself and class-for-itself, besides giving us a sense of the latter’s lifelong tenacity in his pursuit of understanding ‘reality’.
Although Mukherjee denies being a positivist, his approach, which the editor perspicaciously describes as a combination of Marx and Mahalanobis, tends to be closer to what Wallerstein, in his contribution to the volume, calls ‘scientism’. Thus, in Mukherjee’s research on the hierarchy of basic needs in West Bengal villages (his question being ‘Do people put a premium on hunger (food) or shelter or education or health?’), empirical data lead him to conclude that people are primarily concerned with the generation of income and not with education; generation of income would give them a secure life. Mukherjee correlates this finding to the understanding that it is the concern with security and prosperity which leads to the concern with education. This could be interpreted to mean that the variable of education is not directly but indirectly correlated with fulfilment of basic needs. Here sociology as inductive science would seem to be in play.
The early discrediting of scientism and positivism in the social sciences reduced empirical work (often survey methodology combined with the use of statistical concepts and tools for analysis of gathered data) to the status of ‘manual labour’ which generally failed to yield any ‘meaningful’ insights. The often unbridgeable gulf between the users of quantitative methods, and those of qualitative methods (especially ‘participant observation’ favoured by social anthropology), is clear from R.K. Mukherjee’s critical remarks on concepts popularised by another doyen of Indian sociology, M.N. Srinivas (p. 57, 249). D’Souza, another contributor to the volume and a purveyor of positivist scientific methodology, argues that such qualitative studies may be brilliant and thought- provoking but are not ‘conclusive’. The debate on the relevance of the two methods continues as another contributor, John Gusfield, remarks: ‘It is the non- technical, less research designed work that has provided the conceptual and discourse material out of which the social sciences and their publics have "made sense" of our world’ (p. 110).
Is it ‘unscientific’ for a discipline to be eclectic or to have a diversity of philosophical, theoretical and methodological allegiances? One could try to understand this problem by using the analogy of biodiversity and of the market. In the first analogy the argument that concerns us is that maintaining biodiversity is useful for the health of the planet, i.e. a multiplicity of species prevents major disturbances in the ecosystem that could result from the extinction of one species. Biodiversity also leaves open the possibility of finding solutions to future problems (i.e., as yet undiscovered medicines for life-threatening diseases), since the growth of knowledge in the social sciences is incremental although not necessarily cumulative.
The model of the market presents the phenomena of competing paradigms that act as a check and balance on each individual, competing explanation. A specific explanation of a phenomenon (for instance, dowry) does not survive in the marketplace of theories and explanations unless it is rigorous and able to stand up to critical scrutiny from competing paradigms. Here we may come close to proceeding through what R.K. Mukherjee calls accepting or accommodating different valuations in the process of research – and in coming to a conclusion as to ‘which valuation gives a probabilistically better understanding of reality’ (p. 246). That is all one can hope for in the social sciences.
INDIA’S COMMUNICATION REVOLUTION: From Bullock Carts to Cyber Marts by Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2001.
IN 1972, when filmmakers were invited to make films on the theme of India’s Freedom to celebrate our silver jubilee of Independence, Pramod Pati, then chief producer, Films Division and a noted documentary filmmaker, presented a one-minute short film called ‘Perspective’. Pati’s film was memorable in its simplicity. It opens with a long shot of a jet plane taking off. As the sound reaches a crescendo, the camera pans and tilts up to follow the plane as it moves far into the sky. The sound track cross fades to a young child’s voice saying ‘a, aa...’ and an older person’s voice repeats ‘a, aa...’. The camera tilts down gently to a small hut where a child is teaching his/her elderly parent/grandparent the alphabet. The sound of the earnest teaching and learning effort gains in volume as the sound of the jet plane fades away. The film ends with a fade out to black. This short film perhaps captured an abiding truth about our country – the simultaneity of different realities.
The upbeat volume, The Communications Revolution by Arvind Singhal and Everett Rogers neglects to take note of that simultaneity in the sub-title of the book, From Bullock Carts to Cyber Marts, suggesting a transition from the bullock cart (a symbol of old and slow traditional technology) to cyber marts (a symbol of the modern, if futuristic, fast shopping experience). Ironically, the artist illustrating the cover has a stylized picture of a farmer on his bullock cart carrying a satellite dish antenna, suggestive of the simultaneous (even if apparently incongruous) coexistence of the two symbols.
The present volume is an update on the earlier book, India’s Information Revolution (1989) by the same authors. As they admit, much has happened in the last decade in India that could not be anticipated at that time. The major driving force has been the new economic policy and removal of high tariff barriers and deregulation of industries. At the same time there has been the unregulated (till recently) rapid spread of cable TV bringing plurality in news and variety in entertainment into Indian homes through direct broadcast satellite television. Spread of telephones and the ubiquitous presence of STD/ISD/PCO booths everywhere and the subsequent advent of mobile telephony have made Indians far more aware of the necessity of telecommunications, not only for business but for social interaction, pleasure and ‘keeping in touch’ with family and friends. The expansion of the computer industry, particularly the software exports, has resulted in a rapid growth in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector during the 1990s.
All this has been possible largely through private enterprise with some supportive policy initiative for software exports from the government. In broadcasting, the government has dragged its feet in granting autonomy to Doordarshan and inspite of some imaginative response in the early 1990s has reconciled itself to holding onto AIR/Doordarshan as its own propaganda machinery, thereby losing its commanding position. On the other hand, the conversion of the Department of Telecommunications into a corporation (retaining a small policy-making body) and setting up an independent regulatory authority are significant achievements.
By 2000, nearly half of India’s villages were connected by telephone, an amazing feat given that in 1988, only four per cent of Indian villages had telephone access. Several state governments, notably Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh but including Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat have taken advantage of the more liberal economic environment to encourage the computer software industry and establish their leadership in this area.
Singhal and Rogers are irrepressible in their enthusiasm to introduce new words into our lexicon. ‘Informatization’ and ‘technopolis’ are two such words. Informatization, according to them, ‘is the process through which new communication technologies are used as strategies for furthering socio-economic development. The informatization strategy has been particularly important in Northern California’s Silic on Valley, and in India, in the Bangalore technopolis, and the emerging technopolis of Hyderabad. A technopolis is a geographically concentrated high-technology complex characterized by a large number of entrepreneurial spin-off firms.’ The authors’ thesis on informatization as a strategy for development may get vindicated in India, notwithstanding the present setback owing to a recession in the IT sector in the USA.
While there are notes of caution, the authors are generally optimistic about the future based on a reading of positive trends – the rapid growth and size of the telecom and IT sector; the technical possibility of the expanding cable network as the carrier of internet and telephones; and, a more favourable government policy environment and incentives. The book is interesting and easy to read with lots of facts and useful information peppered with photos and boxed items. It is most useful for a quick review of the growing importance of this sector.
Among the many items that are highlighted in the book are a set of profiles of several Indian IT billionaires and their spirit of enterprise. Most of them are professionals who have ‘utilized their business acumen to amass considerable wealth by combining technical expertise with risk-taking skills.’ Another notable feature of these rich entrepreneurs is their keen desire to give some of their wealth back to the educational institutions where they studied or the villages where they grew up. This growth in private philanthropy in India, especially for education, health and rural development, is a welcome sign when the state is retreating or unable to adequately discharge its responsibilities.
INDIA THROUGH THE WESTERN LENS: Creating National Images in Film by Ananda Mitra. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1998.
AT first glance the title of the book suggests that the author is perhaps exploring (or documenting) the creation of an image of the emerging Indian nation through the ‘lens’ of western photographers and filmmakers. In a sense the book is not quite as simple as that. In fact, it chooses the representations of the Indian (South Asian) subcontinent in popular Hollywood films over the years to demonstrate that these films have reinforced the colonial perspective about this land and its people. The author argues that Hollywood films, even post Independence, with few exceptions, continue to reflect the view that ‘whatever civilizing influence that the Europeans might have had is now gone and India has degenerated back to its generally perceived (as in the West) primitive conditions’ (p. 101).
Ananda Mitra is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Wake Forest University, USA and his special interest is in the area of South Asian media and society. He is part of the Indian diaspora and, as he observes about himself in the preface, ‘The image of America gleaned from the movies was not always accurate and that those were indeed fiction with specific ideological purposes. More importantly, I came to be acutely aware of the way in which I was perceived in America.’ This became the starting point of his inquiry into the ‘ways in which images of South Asia and South Asians were being produced and circulated.’ It was obvious that media, particularly popular movies, played an important part.
The book, in the main, is a detailing of the study, which has been executed with a fair degree of analytical rigour. The style is lucid and the variety in the selection of films for analysis, beginning with Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and Elephant Boy (1937) to Kim (1950), Bhowani Junction (1956), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Jungle Book – animated (1967), Man Who Would be King (1975), The Party (1968), Bombay Talkie (1970), Gandhi (1982), Heat and Dust (1983), A Passage to India (1984), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Salaam Bombay (1988), and City of Joy (1992) among others, shows the methodical scanning of popular cinema that Mitra has carried out to develop his argument.
The author follows a structural approach to analyzing the films, going beyond the mere storyline (narrative) to the manner in which the ‘pieces are put together.’ In film this translates into the representation of the landscape – ‘exotic, hostile and mysterious’, the people – ‘different and strange’ and the climate with its extremes of temperature and weather. Taken together, the author observes, ‘this version is the result of a careful process of selection where the specific representational units such as the strategies of naming the place, the train, the station and the bazaar, the jungles, the weather and the other units are chosen over and over again for inclusion in the films. Not only are these units selected, but they are also signified or framed, in specific repetitive ways that go on to produce a preferred, dominant and "common sense" way of imaging space. Alternative representations are rarely encountered and such authenticity remains more of an anomaly’ (p. 107). The author argues that it is ‘these structural elements that ultimately produce the images that become a part of the cultural memory of the viewers.’
The book is an engaging read for those interested in film studies as also for understanding the hegemonic role of western culture. As a serious scholar, Mitra is particular about methodological clarity and his scrutiny goes beyond the study of ‘social stereotypes’ or traditional ‘genre analysis’ precisely because such categorization is limiting for the ideological issues that he wishes to address. These issues are particularly important to him as he, along with other members of the Indian diaspora, are trying to break out of the earlier marginalized positions in western society and are negotiating for their legitimate place with the freedom to retain their cultural ties and associated practices.
There is an interesting chapter towards the end where Mitra examines the ways in which the South Asians attempt to portray themselves, in particular the tension therein of remaining as an alternative ‘other’ or becoming part of the mainstream. Films like My Beautiful Launderette (1985) and Bhaaji on the Beach (1993) are discussed as a counterpoint to the typical imaging that has remained in the cultural memory of the West. Mitra also extends his argument to other media like newspapers (India Abroad) that cater to the felt need for information about South Asia among the immigrant community in the West. He is keenly conscious of the fact that establishing one’s identity and locating oneself in the structure of American society is linked to the ways in which they are imaged in popular culture. ‘As the diasporic people perform their religious practices, promote their cuisine and their talent in the West, they are constantly renegotiating their existence in the West and working towards guaranteeing the identity of the second and third generation immigrants’ (p. 228).
These are certainly issues of concern in a world where national identity is becoming unbound from a specific geographical location, creating in its wake the problem of ‘being American while at the same time maintaining connections with the Indian roots.’ Mitra succeeds in his effort to expose the ideological basis for the imaging of South Asia so far and poses the right questions for reimaging and repositioning. The cultural identity of the subcontinent and the stated aspirations of the nation states in this region are not always synchronous. Similarly, the problems encountered by second generation South Asian immigrants are different. But these are precisely the issues that we have to grapple with in a ‘post-nation’ world of ‘imagined communities’. This book certainly gives the reader from South Asia something to think about even if it is dense reading for the uninitiated.
ELEMENTARY EDUCATION IN RURAL INDIA: A Grassroots View edited by A. Vaidyanathan and P.R. Gopinathan Nair. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2001.
MORE than five decades after Independence, less than 60 per cent of children in rural India attend school. This being the all-India average, there are states like Kerala that have succeeded in sending about 95 per cent of rural children in the state to schools, a sharp contrast with states such as Bihar that have only 47 per cent of rural children in schools, and Rajasthan with 55 per cent rural children attending schools. This contrast is not only in the different regions; there exists intra-regional unevenness in the spread of education not only among different districts, but also among different villages and social groups. This highlights the fact that formal education, meant to advance human potential, is not accessible to all, more so for different groups in society.
This volume, viewing elementary education in rural India as part of the national research project funded by the UN Development Programme and the International Development Research Centre of Canada, is a welcome addition to our understanding of contextual situations and regional variations with regard to the reach of education in rural India. Using village-level studies spread across seven Indian states, it explores the nature and extent of these variations and persisting disparities.
While most contributors to this volume have identified paucity of state funding as a major reason explaining tardy progress, the slow growth in elementary education can equally be located in socio-economic factors and public attitudes to education. Generally speaking, children of upper castes from economically better-off families show higher enrolments and easier access and, as Sarthi Acharya argues, economic class rather than region becomes the main determinant in the spread of education. In his study on Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, he observes that the higher the land-man ratio and the larger the number of socially disadvantaged groups, the lower is the level of literacy. The correlation between economic and social backwardness and low literacy is well brought out by Krishanji in his study of Andhra Pradesh villages. Parental occupation and education and socio-economic status of the family influences enrolment of children in Bihar as pointed out by Jabbi and Rajyalakshmi in their study. According to Sailabaladebi in her essay on Orissa, illiteracy among parents, poor economic status of the family and high opportunity cost of their children are important reasons for non-enrolment and discontinuance of SC/ST children.
The problem is compounded when households have to incur direct costs of schooling, especially on books, uniform and travel as in the case of Tamil Nadu highlighted by Duraisamy. Thus, education is not free for the poor even where schools do not charge tuition fee. The opportunity cost where a child does paid work or releases another member of her/his family from domestic responsibilities is another important deterrent.
Ravi Srivastava points out exceptions to such correlations in U.P. villages in the case of scheduled castes where, though they are the poorest as a group, their educational performance is not always the worst. This may be the result of freeships and scholarships and positive discrimination in jobs that may have enabled them to overcome opportunity costs and, later, to raise expected returns from education. However, this is not the case with Muslims and other backward castes in the area. Srivastava contends that it is the higher social value placed on Islamic education that perhaps keeps many Muslim children out of formal schools. Geetha Nambissan also refers to social and cultural factors in addition to economic ones that lead to a poor response to schooling among Muslims (Meos) in Rajasthan. However, when a community itself challenges religious orthodoxy through meaningful initiatives, as happened in Areacode in Kerala (Joseph Thomas), the impact on education can be positive and pervasive.
Majumdar observes that while the relative educational backwardness of the coastal villages of Kanyakumari is often traced to ‘economic hardships’ people face, an important related impediment in the way of larger access to education is the district’s changing industrial landscape. With the relocation of cashewnut factories and brick kilns from Kerala and the booming housing industry fuelled by Gulf remittances, there are new avenues of employment for poor children that keep them away from schools.
The gender gap and the continuing deprivation of girls and women in the sphere of elementary education is explained by the absence of schools meant only for girls at convenient locations, inadequacy in the number of women teachers for girls, and attitudinal problems of parents. In Rajasthan a large number of Meo girls were more likely to continue going to the maqtab rather than to formal schools. In the case of Bihar, the reasons cited for non-enrolment of children were economic and home-related in the case of girls. In Orissa again, the economically better-off parents prefer that their daughters stay at home after a certain level to share in domestic work and prepare for marriage. The problems of non-enrolment and dropouts are more critical for girls in Uttarakhand. In the rural areas of the state, as highlighted by Anuradha Pande, the environmental crises is one of land degradation that leads to lower availability of fuel wood, water and fodder. When mothers are busy collecting these in the forest, the burden of domestic chores largely falls on girls who are consequently pulled out of school.
Insofar as quality is concerned, most studies underline that schools are poorly provided with basic infrastructure. Dilapidated and poorly maintained buildings, lack of drinking water, toilets and teaching aids adversely affect the quality of the learning environment. An inadequate number of teachers complicates the problem further when children have to contend with multi-grade teaching. Irregularity of attendance and lack of punctuality among teachers is also a crucial problem as are some educational practices and curricula that distance children from their environment and local needs.
The sub-standard education imparted in government run schools has resulted in the growth of private schools in rural India. Often such private schools are run in two or three rooms in a rented premises, as in Maachari in Rajasthan, offering no incentives to any category of children. Nevertheless, parents end up paying Rs 700 to 800 per annum and take pride in sending their children to these schools under such conditions just so their wards learn English from class I. There is a general feeling that private schools imply good quality education, at least better than what government schools offer.
Even though private initiatives in elementary education are on the increase, the primary responsibility for providing elementary education for all rests with the democratic state. Hence, complete solutions cannot be sought from the private sector. Notwithstanding the problems of poverty and structural constraints related to disparities between caste and gender, the contributors argue for a more inclusive and equitable basic education system that emphasizes community participation and the role of local bodies in managing schools.
In the Introduction, Vaidyanathan and Nair accept that ‘the important aspect of the quality of education has unfortunately not been studied in this collaborative project.’ This is unfortunate indeed, because focus on macro-level issues pertaining to education and its relationship with the economy and society lead to a neglect of micro aspects such as what is taught, what should be taught, who teaches and how, and how all this is determined in real practice. While the structural socio-economic conditions do influence education, they need to be necessarily related to pedagogy to bring about a change in quality and retention. The studies also take no note of the World Bank funded District Primary Education Programme initiated in some states in the mid-1990s primarily aimed at improving the quality of education imparted in the rural areas and reducing the gender gap.
The highlighting of major contrasts within regions, districts and villages, demonstrates that it is not possible to look for universal remedies and solutions that might be applicable across the country. There can be no one model and one needs to keep in mind local requirements that will enable children avail of education.
Given this, it is surprising that these studies have not documented micro, local initiatives with the exception of Lok Jumbish in Rajasthan that have been successful in recent years. The state has a lot to learn from such initiatives to be able to adapt them to situations where conditions are more or less similar. For, as the volume maintains, it is ultimately the state’s responsibility to create conditions that will facilitate access to education to the deprived millions. Other than this drawback, the essays included in this significant volume hold together thematically. The data is well presented and will serve as good reference material for those in the fields of education, sociology, development and policy planning.
RAINBOW ON THE ROAD: Montages of Madras by Chandralekha. Earthworm Books, Chennai, 2001.
PERHAPS the most interesting thing about Chandralekha’s evocative book, Rainbow on the Road: Montages of Madras, is the movement of Kamala, the central figure of the 15 part prose-poem. Kamala slips in from the tangle of huts next to the narrator’s house as easily as she slips out. She seemingly comes from nowhere and disappears into nowhere; yet she is a constant figure, the impetus of the poem. Kamala is the epitome of womanhood. She is at once the wife, the mother, the blushing girl with blue lights in her hair, the old woman nostalgic for her Kerala childhood, the goddess with overflowing breasts.
Life within this colony of huts is rhythmic, poignant, as is Chandralekha’s language. The poem meanders from its starting point, the cowdung sprinkled, kolam decorated huts where women talk loudly and children speak with excited voices to a lasting image of a changed city. The rhythm of the poem is staccato, jerky in places and then suddenly flowing, almost like the alternating rain coming to ransack the city and the sun that must follow. It reads like bold, strong movements of dance – here a stamp of the foot, there a raised eyebrow, building image upon image until there is a picture, a pose in entirety, a village complete, a woman’s life exposed.
The central theme of the poem is the struggle between having and not having, gaining and losing, longing and leaving. The women in the poem, for it is a poem about women, are beset with troubles – husbands who disappear for days, husbands who drink, husbands who beat their wives. There is also the narrator who is separate, not part of the village, but looking at it from the outside, almost wistfully. Sometimes looking at those huts, it seemed to me that all women were pregnant all at once. She watches the women with strange and secret feelings and it is only through Kamala, who is her window to that other world that she finds out about the ways of women’s love. The women are like the roofs of huts that catch the leaking sky. They must hold things while they are overflowing; they must become the vessel, the container that will give shape to unborn life.
The village too is full with things: blissful buffaloes, fortune tellers who sell hope in the streets, sad smileless men, soiled black women risen from nowhere searching the earth. But mostly it is full of children. The children come from everywhere, they swarm and clutch and hold on to their mothers. They play in muddy puddles, they gape with their liquid eyes at pink sweets dotted with flies. The village has its gods and goddesses who give and take. Life seems so difficult and yet every evening things become rarefied. Space is made. The sky opens up for the night.
The parallel between the city and the women of the village is striking throughout the poem. Chandralekha effectively juxtaposes the women with their bellies bursting forth live splinters with the city that has swelled like a pregnant woman, bursting forth sewers and buildings, bulldozing shortcuts and razing down slums. The poem progresses into phases as do the seasons in the village. Our summer comes like a Kathakali king, Chandralekha writes.
sunlight shuttles on silvery threads
the parrots shoot and screech
and merge with the green
Degeneration of the city comes slowly. Somehow it becomes too heavy a load to bear; the shadowy men dragging cartloads, the beggars with stumps for limbs, women’s dried menstrual blood on the mouth of dogs, the gutters clogged with hair and slops of tobacco. It is against this deteriorating city that the narrator sees the image that makes for the title of the book.
on my way home
i often watched
a sudden rainbow on the roadside
colours of spectrum
that danced in drops of crystals
when a small boy stood
making a parabola of piss
across the air –
a thing of splendour
against a blazing sky
The startling quality of Chandralekha’s work is her ability to portray the tenuous nature of life. How the thing that gives is often the thing that takes away. Life is continually stifled, abortions are attempted, wives are abandoned, houses are burnt, yet life somehow persists almost with the same tenacity that children cling to their mother’s blouses. In the end we are left with enduring montages, a slum that is a microcosm for an entire city and a woman who speaks for all women.
It seems the city wins. Huts are removed, Kamala is elsewhere, lost in the wilderness, everything has changed. The city that was a sprawling village, that was Madras, has receded into time just like Kamala. But we are left with a distinct feeling of hope, Kamala returns like a mirror image, like a rainbow that must fill the sky whenever there is sun and rain. And in the city of Madras there is always the sun and the rain.
MOTIBA’S TATTOOS: A Granddaughter’s Journey into her Indian Family’s Past by Mira Kamdar. Public Affairs, New York, 2000.
TRACING family roots is a favoured pasttime, not only among aristocrats or the upwardly mobile lower orders keen to construct for themselves new myths of origin, normally grand, but for those in exile, by choice or otherwise. Nowhere is this more marked than in minority communities in non-native lands, often because experience of extant discrimination fuels the drive for ethnic differentiation.
The experience of British colonialism pushed many individuals, families, even communities into strange lands. Many of them were so forced, particularly as indentured labour. There were also those who moved out in search of greener pastures – to make their fortunes, as it were. Prominent among the latter were trading communities with long histories of migration, temporary or permanent. The link with the homeland (watan) never quite snapped. Even those who did not came back, remitted money back home, invested in property, built temples and schools, often married from within the community. Nostalgia, pride and concern were defining features of this relationship.
The last few decades have witnessed a very different kind of outmigration – one of highly skilled professionals – mainly to the Anglo-Saxon world, earlier UK and now Canada and the US. Partly the choice was dictated by familiarity with the language and the links forged by colonialism. But, so we are told, Hollywood too played a role, the films providing insights about expected behaviour in the new destination. Now, as some of these communities have ‘arrived’, including in local politics, and are being wooed back home for their capital, skills and contacts, attention has naturally focused on understanding them.
Within the genre of these accounts, Motiba’s Tattoos stands apart. Despite being written by an academic, it avoids all the trappings of the cultural theorist favouring frameworks of post-coloniality. If anything, the narrative is more gripping than the usual diasporic fiction, capturing the epic character of the change while not missing out on personal, intimate details.
The book is more than a family history. It is equally a story of the transformation of the closely knit community of Kathiawari Jains moving out from the villages and towns of their region to local metropolis’ like Bombay, ‘exotic’ locales in Burma, and the West – all the while relying on and strengthening family/community bonds. But, above all, it is the story of two women from two generations – one the subject, the other the narrator – which helps us grasp the continuity and change in the perceptions and aspirations of Indian women through the 20th century.
Motiba was born in the prosperous Khara family of Kathiawari Jains, one which made its fortune as traders in Burma. Hailing from the Kathi tribe, ‘the cradle of whose race is unknown,’ her people graduated from being cattle rustlers to herdsmen and finally petty rulers who served as landlords and administrators to local rulers. The first to move out was her uncle who, enraptured by the opportunities in Burma, pawned his mother’s jewellery, migrated to Akyab, and after a few years of working as an assistant to a Kathiawari Muslim trader, bought out his ‘master’s widow’ and expanded his business. To assist him, he invited Motiba’s father, Muljibhai. The remittances helped the family shift from the village of Gokhlana to the town of Amreli.
Brought up in the lap of luxury, Motiba was married at age 14 to Prabhudas Kamdar, ten years older and staunch Gandhian, one who had taken the vow of brahmacharya. An interesting side-story describes how the young bride and her mother-in-law confronted Gandhi and asked him to release his disciple from the vow of celibacy. Once Prabhudas (Bapuji) entered grahastha, he had to earn his living and this he did by joining the in-laws’ business in Rangoon.
The narrative begins from the early pre-war days in Burma, the descriptions matching the evocative power of Amitava Ghosh’s epic The Glass Palace. The idyllic world of the Indian traders collapsed with the Japanese attack and the family was forced to move back to India, this time Bombay. In Bapuji’s experience we also get an insight into how the Indian nationalist leadership treated the Indian expatriate community, doing little to help them as they were expropriated of all they possessed.
Motiba’s son, Mira’s father, was in the first flush of Independence, among the early stream of students who made their way to the US. In time he became an engineer, married a Scandinavian American, and settled down. How his family reacted to and adjusted to this change, one involving marrying a foreigner, makes for instructive reading. As do the attempts (successful) of his wife to pick up the ways of the Kamdar family, including vegetarianism.
Each of the three main sections in the book – on pre-war Rangoon, Bombay before it became Mumbai, and the pre-Vietnam, pre-Beatles immigrant experience in the US – are an anthropologist’s delight, the details and the nuances too rich to capture in a brief review. Of particular interest are the accounts of Bapuji’s and subsequently Motiba’s visits to her children and family in the US. What may today appear quaint is the wide-eyed enthusiasm with which the Indians greeted the US, not the more common accounts of racial discrimination.
What is it that drives Mira Kamdar into tracing and then chronicling her grandmother’s story? To this reader what comes across is more than the love for a grandmother, even one with as much fortitude and humour as Motiba. It is, I suspect, a search for the elusive quality of being both rooted and receptive simultaneously. The transition from a village to a metropolis within a generation can often be more traumatic than migration to foreign lands. Yet, it does appear that the earlier generations were able to adapt and adjust to new situations without losing out on their sense of self.
Did this come from strong community bondings, the link to a native place, a kul-devi, active participation in social rituals of clan and community? How is this different from the invented ethnicity that so infuses the current NRI groupings? Why is it that we feel a sense of pride and satisfaction when Indians abroad come across as Indians and not as citizens of their new nation? Is this not divided loyalty, something that our political leadership continually accuses non-Hindus of?
Finally Motiba’s Tattoos should evoke some rethinking among our feminists in search of authentic role models for the modern Indian woman. Was Motiba, a pious, dutiful wife and mother, one who was brought up to look at marriage as a goal and one who lived out her swadharma to the end, a strong woman? Someone worth emulating? Or will current generations see her as a person who self-consciously restricted the growth of her individuality? Mira Kamdar has painted a flattering portrait without falling prey to hagiography. A delightful cameo of a book, one well-worth reading and thinking about.
HINDI NATIONALISM by Alok Rai. Orient Longman, Delhi, 2001.
HINDI and Urdu are perhaps the only two languages in the world which are, linguistically speaking, indistinguishable. In their spoken form, there is absolutely no difference between the two. And yet, the history of North India in the past two centuries has been irreversibly shaped by the internecine feud between the two. If one takes a look at the way Hindu-Muslim relations worsened and led to the partition of the subcontinent, one would find the Hindi-Urdu controversy at the root of it all. This feud, despite Urdu having become the official language of Pakistan, continues to simmer, posing a potent threat to the already considerably weakened secular edifice of Indian nationalism.
In the 19th century, a beleaguered Muslim aristocracy wanted to retain its domination while an aspiring and emerging Hindu professional elite – drawn mostly from the dominant castes of Brahmins, Rajputs and Banias – was itching to upstage it. Government jobs offered by the British colonial rulers became the bone of contention between the two communities who used Hindi and Urdu as weapons in their battles, mutilating their shared cultural past and endangering their present as well as future. This is the naked truth, suppressed by official histories that project this battle of self-interest as a battle of nationalisms.
Alok Rai subverts the neat historical narratives that have been traditionally offered to us by opening our eyes to this naked truth. While doing so, he makes an impassioned plea for sanity, and in this well-researched essay, lays bare the arrogance, intellectual dishonesty and chauvinistic urges of the Hindiwallahs. This book is not an easy read; it is disturbing, and Hindiwallahs will be loathe to read it.
While Rai, wisely, keeps himself away from the conspiracy theory that places the onus of all our troubles at the doorstep of the ‘divide-and-rule policy’ of the British, by marshalling an impressive array of historical facts he does show that the establishment ‘under official aegis’ of the Company Bahadur of the College Fort Williams with John Borthwick Gilchrist, a surgeon and itinerant linguist as Professor of Hindustani, played a historic role in the eventual bifurcation of Hindi/Hindavi/Urdu along communal/religious lines into two distinct registers – Hindi and Urdu. The missionaries of Serampore too provided an added impetus to this process of splitting a language into two.
As the late Amrit Rai, Prem Chand’s son and Alok Rai’s father, has shown in his book A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi/Hindavi (curiously, Alok Rai refers to this book as A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi-Urdu), the process of weeding out indigenous words used by the common people in their day-to-day interaction from Hindi/Hindavi/Rekhta/Urdu had started in the 18th century when the Muslim aristocracy began a process of far-reaching significance by crafting an unfamiliar language laden with Persian and Arabic words. However, this was not done in the name of religion but on grounds of urbane sophistication. What Fort Williams and Serampore missionaries did was to put a stamp of religion on the two styles, thus identifying Perso-Arabicised language with the Muslims and the Sanskritised variant with the Hindus.
Tadbhav, words of colloquial Hindi/Urdu, were the first victims of this conscious attempt to fashion languages on a religious-ideological basis. Alok Rai puts them within double inverted commas while using no such device to denote the unadulterated language. Thus, for him, "Hindi" means the heavily Sanskritised while "Urdu" means the heavily Perso-Arabicised modern Hindi or Khari Boli. However, when he decides to altogether dispense with the nomenclature of Urdu in favour of Hindi, it gives rise to a host of problems.
Rai’s argument is that ‘the etymological connection of the name "Urdu" with "military camp" is unhelpful in designating a peaceable cultural legacy and must, for me, yield to the name Hindi.’ This is as explosive a suggestion as the one that would like all the inhabitants of India to be called Hindus. It is rather late to do away with the prevailing nomenclature, howsoever value-loaded or ideologically-driven it may be. Because the fact remains that as of today, Hindi and Urdu, with or without double inverted commas, exist as two distinct languages with their vast literatures. There is a lot of space where they overlap but it does not detract from the fact of their separate identities. And, frankly, it is this interplay of identity and difference that makes the matter of Hindi-Urdu so interesting and so problematic.
Rai has also demonstrated with great clarity that the protagonists of Hindi in the 19th century, who spearheaded a movement for the adoption of nagari script in the courts and government offices, were often fuelled by a reformist religious zeal bordering on a distinctly communal attitude. No wonder that Urdu was identified with the kothas of the dancing girls and dubbed as ‘effeminate’ while the need of the hour was perceived to have a ‘virile’, in other words puritanical, language. In this the role of the Arya Samaj merits particular mention even though certain important leaders, such as Madan Mohan Malviya, were sanatani Hindus. However, not many readers would have known before reading this tract that most of these leaders were not in favour of a heavily Sanskritised Hindi.
While in a chapter entitled ‘The MacDonnell Moment’, Rai offers an enlightened and informative discussion of how the decisions of the British administration consciously or unconsciously helped widen the divide between Hindi and Urdu and often played one against the other, he also takes an objective look at the way language politics developed in post-1947 India where Hindiwallahs staked, as it were, an exclusive claim over nationalism with visions of Hindi as the only national language.
However, Rai has not touched upon certain other problematic questions in his book. Why is it that Hindi writers and poets have been so indifferent to the rich treasures that Urdu offered them, and why have the Urdu writers, with perhaps the only notable exception of Nazir Akbarabadi, paid no attention to the literary heritage of Avadhi and Braj? Why does a genius like Bharatendu, who was well-versed in Urdu and Persian, maintain in the later half of the 19th century that khari boli was unfit for poetry when Urdu or Rekhta (just another name for khari boli) poetry had already reached its zenith in Mir and Ghalib? Why was he so involved in the khari boli versus Braj bhasha controversy, voting in favour of Braj as the language most suited for poetry? Why did only Hindi writers feel a filial bond with Avadhi and Braj?
These questions still beggar answers. If Hindi and Urdu are in reality one language, why do our Hindi and Urdu departments in colleges and universities not have overlapping (not common) syllabi? Why do we hail Bharatendu as the harbinger of modern Hindi (khari boli) prose when much before him, Ghalib had already taken it to dizzying heights as can be seen in his letters? Why do the Urdu departments not teach Avadhi and Braj poetry? Do the Urduwallahs feel no affinity with these languages?
These are not easy questions, but one hopes that a writer as well-equipped and intellectually alive as Alok Rai will perhaps write another tract to find the answers.