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WOODSMOKE AND LEAFCUPS: Autobiographical Footnotes to the Anthropology of the Durwa by Madhu Ramnath. Harper Litmus, New Delhi, 2015.

THROUGH Woodsmoke and Leafcups, Madhu Ramnath takes the reader on a journey into the heartland of Bastar, the home of the Durwa. The author’s training in anthropology, followed by an effective de-schooling and subsequent re-education in the forest, has resulted in an understanding of an enigmatic people that is gained through an extended ethnographic immersion spanning three decades. The anthropology of the Durwa told from this perspective reads as a richly detailed, yet informally written account that is accessible to anyone with an interest in the subject.

The book takes the format of an engaging memoir in which the author, once an outsider, is eventually incorporated by the community into its daily activities: the collection of yams and other food from the forest, hunting, grazing, births and deaths, dreams, healing and magic, festivals and markets (haats), the settlement of disputes, and the preparation of intoxicants: landa, mel and tadi. Through some of the daily activities, especially food gathering in the forest, Ramnath pursues one of his own key interests of developing a vegetative key to the plant families of the Bastar region. As the book progresses, he pays greater attention to the contemporary struggles of the Durwa: their reluctant dealings with a variety of government representatives such as the Forest Department (locally referred to as the ‘Depart.’) with their paternalistic attitudes to adivasi communities coupled with preconceived notions of progress and development, their interactions with political parties and, eventually, a brief account of their difficult positioning in relation to the Maoist struggles which overtook the region in recent decades. The questions related to their use of forests and the politics of land and resource appropriation by outsiders are key issues (though these could have benefited from some greater attention by the author). Though the last chapters are a sobering account of what has changed and what might come to pass eventually, the book ends on an optimistic note outlining the festivities and eager anticipation surrounding an impending monkey hunting expedition, the last of which had yielded several sacks of dried monkey and wild boar meat.

When read from the perspective of modern conservation in relation to hunting and harvesting of wild species, this book serves to convey some very critical points. Some analysts within the conservation community condemn hunting and harvesting as wholly unsustainable traditions. Animal liberationists and their ilk go to the extreme extent of labelling them as abhorrent, inhuman practices. Yet another group (primarily comprised of western conservation biologists) caution against moral relativism, urging compatriots to be less misguided by cultural practices without a credible scientific basis. Contrary to these exhortations where culture and local practices are criticized, Woodsmoke emphasizes the powerful role of culture and its positioning as an integral element of forest lives and livelihoods. More importantly, as Ramnath illustrates, among the Durwa, ecology and culture are intertwined, playing wholly inseparable, reinforcing roles. Cultural practices play key roles in everyday socio-cultural and ecological realities ranging from ecological regulation to reinforcing identity. For example, phenological shifts such as the flowering of certain species play a role in deciding hunting and gathering activities in the forest as well as agricultural practices. Seasonal rules guide the use of different plant species for specific purposes. Hunting is regulated by a series of rules regarding participation, weaponry, locations and species. Such accounts as described within individual chapters of this book are bound to serve as a particularly illuminating read for the fortress conservationist whose aim is to keep people out and who attempt to cleanse conservation of its cultural baggage.

The use of plant and animal species by communities is typically linked to a wider body of knowledge that is cumulatively gained and embedded within local ecologies. Termed as traditional knowledge, such local practices, skills, regulatory instruments and cultural expressions surrounding them are essential components of traditional cosmologies. For instance, Ramnath points out that the Durwa use over 500 species of plants and animals. As we have seen, many of these also have rules of use associated with them. Implicit within this is also the fact that to use as many species, community members are also likely to be aware of the nature of many more that are not used. Some species such as plant foods of nutritional value as well as those with medicinal properties are associated with extensive bodies of knowledge that surpass formal scientific knowledge. As an example, Ramnath points out the uselessness of traditional botanical field guides which tend to be ineffectual when actually identifying plants in a forest. Diascorea yams for instance, tend to lose much of their above ground vegetative parts leaving the confused botanist to rely on Durwa women and children for an education on this subject. Similarly, the relevance of toilet botany would perhaps be lost to many, but not to those with direct experience of working in a forest.

Several features set this book apart. During the past century, long-term engagement with a community or ethnic group was commonplace and was perhaps a prerequisite for ethnographers. In the current era, with a proliferation of careerists and their quest for university tenure and instant academic gratification, long-term ethnographies have become a relic of the past. In this context, Ramnath’s lack of self-importance and his deep immersion with a community is refreshing. Moreover, Woodsmoke’s proficiency lies in its unleashing the power of anecdotal narratives (Ramnath terms these ‘autobiographical footnotes’) to convey more than mere stories. It overcomes the tediousness and reductionism of quantitative anthropology that many recent scholars have fallen prey to when analysing complex human contexts. This is not to say that quantitative methods in anthropology are invalid, but to make a case for interpretive exploration when the context demands it, as it does in this case. This book shows that such explorations are perhaps better at capturing a wider picture of interactions and attempt a broader definition of what is considered as data outside the positivist definition.

Meera Anna Oommen

Associate Director and Trustee, Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore


INDIA DISENTS: 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument edited by Ashok Vajpeyi. Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2017.

Foucault’s dictum that ‘anyone who would learn the art of living must practice the art of doubt,’ readily comes to mind when one reads the pages of India Dissents: 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument, edited by Ashok Vajpeyi. The volume appropriately begins with the well known ‘Nasadiya Sukta’, the Hymn of Creation in the Rig Veda, which speculates about the creation of cosmos and its manifestation, and ends with radical doubt about its agency:

‘But who really knows? Who can tell where all arose? For the Gods themselves came after Creation. Who then shall proclaim how Creation happened?

Then He, who created all that is, or did not,

Who looks upon everything from the highest heaven,

He alone knows. Or maybe He too does not know’

This is evidently the beginning of Indian scepticism when no human or divine agency is taken for granted. This spirit subsequently gave rise to various religions in India – Buddhism, Jainism, and later, Sikhism. Their founders, Buddha, Mahavir and Nanak dissented from the ritualistic and caste rigidities of the orthodox tradition to discover new paths of spirituality, metaphysics and social organization. We must not forget that Hinduism itself is a capacious concept encompassing both orthodox and heterodox systems of thought. If it was, and has been, largely the domain of believers, it also had within its fold materialists like the Charvaks of the Lokayatan philosophical school for whom what mattered was the material world of experience rather than the promise of an otherworldly transcendence. Buddhism and Jainism, both radical faiths, were not posited on the notion and existence of God, and they rejected completely the scriptures of Hinduism and many of its foundational concepts like the eternal soul and the ubiquitous Brahman. The medieval Bhakti period characterized by dialogic and transgressive spirit, when religious orthodoxies were vigorously challenged, brought in a refreshing egalitarian outlook making God accessible to all, without resorting to the mediating role of priesthood, mosque, temple or textual authority.

India Dissents is a rich compendium of essays, letters, reports, poems, songs and polemical tracts ranging from excerpts from the Rig Veda to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, and interventions by thinkers like Gautam Buddha, Akka Mahadevi, Guru Nanak, Ghalib, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Sa’dat Hasan Manto, Jayaprakash Narayan, Namdeo Dhasal, Mahasweta Devi, U.R. Ananthamurthy and Amartya Sen. What is apparent from the diverse texts is that germane to the idea of Indian civilization is the tradition of dissent which it has sustained and kept vibrant through millennia. We are reminded of the critical voices who have helped preserve individual dignity and integrity given the climate of tolerance and promotion of plurality in thought and lifestyle. The crux of all the arguments in the book is to establish, as Vajpeyi remarks in his Introduction, that ‘There is no such thing as the Indian tradition: there are multiple traditions, all authentically and robustly Indian.’ The hallmark of Indian society is its plurality which accommodates differences; and differences, in their turn, embody and enact dissent. The classical period in which the Lokayata, Buddhism, Jainism, flourished and later the medieval Bhakti poetry, simultaneously devotional and iconoclastic, engaged in a lively spirit of argumentation. It is the same spirit which animated Tilak’s defiance of the British Raj when he took up cudgels on behalf of his country proclaiming that ‘swaraj is my birth right.’ Gandhi too was a dissenter who adopted the unique methodology of non-violence and satyagraha to attain the goal of freedom. He believed that in the struggle against the British what we were fighting against was as important as what we were fighting for. Gandhi had fierce debates with Ambedkar on the questions of untouchability and uplift of the harijans. In Annihilation of Caste, reproduced in the volume, Ambedkar is unequivocal in his condemnation of the Hindu scriptures: ‘You must not only discard the Shastras, you must deny their authority, as did Buddha and Nanak.’ With Tagore, Gandhi fought on the issue of swadeshi. Both M.N. Roy and Subhash Chandra Bose got disillusioned with the Congress. Yet the differences played out within the best traditions of democracy.

With Independence came the horrors of Partition. Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s piece, ‘Save India from Its Leaders’ is a severe indictment of politicians who he thought were bringing the nation to ruin. If we look at the current political mess, Manto’s warning sounded so prescient. The aftermath of independence brought other woes. Social inequities have been rampant and a poet like Paash becomes a revolutionary voice of the Naxalite movement in Punjabi literature in the 1970s. Balraj Sahni, a committed artist and thinker, takes a dig at the ‘new wave poetry’ which ostensibly rants against social injustice but ‘the sound and fury remains only on paper, confined to small, mutually admiring social circles which is reminiscent of Premchand’s presidential address at the inauguration of Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow in 1936. Incidentally, Premchand is conspicuously missing from this otherwise comprehensively representative anthology.

In the history of postcolonial India, the national Emergency was a dark period when the voice of democracy was ruthlessly suppressed. The book reproduces Jayaprakash Narayan’s impassioned letter to Indira Gandhi written from jail during the Emergency, in which he questions her for undermining the democratic core of India. Reminding her of her great inheritance Narayan writes to her, ‘Please do not destroy the foundations that the Father of the Nation, including your noble father, had laid down.’ Nayantara Sahgal was another vehement critic of the Emergency who questioned Indira Gandhi’s policies and fought vigorously against institutional devaluation. With equal forthrightness, she is unsparing in her criticism of the present regime for surreptitiously restricting individual freedom. She resigned from the Sahitya Akademi on the issue of censorship and subsequently returned her award inviting the disparaging comments from the establishment and snubbed as belonging to the ‘award wapasi gang’.

An open public domain and the voice of dissent, as long as it does not degenerate into the voice of violence, are essential for the advancement and progress of any society. The recent years have witnessed a wave of protests by intellectuals, students, human rights activists and the victims of state policies against the emasculation of public institutions and assault on citizenship rights and individual freedom. The killings of M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and Gauri Lankesh most recently reveal a sinister design. They were all eliminated on the specious ground that they were rationalists and heretics who posed a danger to popular faith and public order. As a matter of fact they were creative minds who articulated their views as freely as Kabir or Akka Mahadevi did centuries earlier and must be seen in an unbroken continuum of the vital and irrepressible millennia-old Indian tradition of doubt, disagreement and resistance.

However repressive a regime may be, it cannot go unchallenged and there will always be those who have the courage to speak truth to power. There have been strong voices of dissent in the totalitarian regimes. On the other hand democracy gives plenty of space to the citizens to express divergent points of view, but one should not be under the mistaken belief that democracy is completely immune to its own subversion. Even democratic governments quite often fail to accommodate democratic aspirations of the people and tend to undermine human rights when they do not fulfil the promise to uphold democratic individualism, stripping the citizen of his distinctive singularity, agency and dignity.

The volume comes with an urgency as it relates to our contemporary concerns. We find in it the Dalit student activist Rohith Vemula’s last letter before he committed suicide and television anchor Ravish Kumar’s speech while accepting the Kuldip Nayar Journalism Award in early 2017 testifying to his intellectual integrity and journalistic accountability. These statements only underscore the point that the goal of those who muzzle dissent is only to establish the hegemony of a particular way of thought and conduct. Those who conform are fine; those who allegedly ‘manufacture dissent’ must understand that their deviation from the norm would be at the risk of their lives.

In a democracy under siege the moral imagination is always in peril. The real ‘clash of civilizations’ (Samuel Huntington’s phrase) is not between western democrats and Muslim fundamentalists; it is here within each society, between liberals and religious zealots, and the real challenge is to fight the enemy within and learn how to live in the world with others. The Portuguese social activist Boaventura de Sousa Santos believes that alternative worlds are possible through alternative modes of engagement if one follows the hermeneutical strategy of resisting ‘reductive essentialism’.

The academia, which has traditionally been a space for free thinking and free knowledge, is one of the few places where the domain of freedom is nurtured and protected. It is at a university where young men and women learn about different ideas and viewpoints, acquire skills and participate in vigorous debates. They also learn that the imposition of a single canon is an act of cultural imperialism. One should opt for the notion of an open, dynamic canon that is constantly being revised. Inclusion is judged by the capacity of the text to convey the truths we hold to be most dear. Central to the plural tradition or sensibility is the notion that there are many ways of looking at and living in the world. Plurality accommodates differences, and differences in their turn embody and enact dissent. It is truthful communication that helps to undergird democracy. With fundamentalism on the rise there is often a callous disregard for the usual canons of argument and scholarship as we fail to understand norms of civil discourse and academic freedom. We forget that dissent is the soul of democracy. JNU’s culture of dissent cannot be just dismissed as a manifestation of left politics. The suppression of any vision which shows a path different from the one sanctified by state power, would only lead to the impoverishment of our democratic way of life.

Mahasweta Devi in her article ‘The Republic of Dreams’ locates Indian culture in the right perspective: ‘Indian culture is a tapestry of many weaves, many threads. The weaving is endless as are the shades of the pattern. Somewhere dark, somewhere light, somewhere saffron, somewhere as green as the fields of new paddy, somewhere flecked with blood, somewhere washed cool by the waters of a Himalayan spring. Somewhere the red of a watermelon slice. Somewhere the red of a new bride’s sindoor. Somewhere the threads form words in Urdu, somewhere in Bengali, somewhere in Kannada, somewhere in Assamese, yet elsewhere in Marathi. Somewhere the cloth frays. Somewhere the threads tear. But still it holds.’

Indian democracy, despite its limitations, uncertainties and glaring faultlines, is still a functioning democracy and will continue to have, one hopes, its conscience keepers. We have no other option. As the writer Nayantara Sahgal remarks: ‘A country is a work in progress. It needs watchdogs to keep democracy working.’ It will, therefore, march on, as contradictions within it are unveiled and addressed. However, it is imperative to reconstitute social imaginary for enlivening democratic spaces. The book brings home the truth that India is not a homogeneous monolith, and it should make us realise that if the country has any singularity, it is because it is plural.

Satish C. Aikant

Former Professor and Head, Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University, Pauri


THE DECLINE OF CIVILIZATION: Why We Need to Return to Gandhi and Tagore by Ramin Jahanbegloo. Aleph Book Company, Delhi, 2017.

ANALYSING the variegated genesis and working of civilizations, Arnold Toynbee declined to ascribe any kind of superiority among them on the basis of their spontaneous or derivative origins; neither did he grant any distinguishing merit between them and pre-civilizational societies for reasons of endowment of civilizations with either distinctive institutional structure, or systematic division of labour. On the contrary, Toynbee discerned in pre-civilizational societies the existence of institutions as well as divisions of labour and authority that were as elaborate and subtle in their own times as in the successively advanced civilizations. In recognizing this fact of history, the veteran historian was rejecting any essential notion of superiority amidst civilizations on sequential and virtual scale. Now, in this perceptive and timely study of a dangerously coupled process of inebriated mediocrity and imposing ambition currently motivating interrelationship of societies around the world, Ramin Jahanbegloo describes the fatal potential of this phenomenon to civilization, which he considers to be above all an intellectual and ethical quality. A sentence at the close of the book summarizes a moral audit of this process: ‘People who subject other human beings to violence destroy exchange and the possibility of hope even though they believe they are helping the oppressed by coercing them to become part of a superior civilization.’

Coming especially at a time of increasing intolerance and violence everywhere, and closer home, sectional clamour for silencing artistic expressions because they offend so-called sensibilities based on weird readings of heritage, even while the loud display of kitsch on traditional occasions is considered a matter of pride, The Decline of Civilization: Why We Need to Return to Gandhi and Tagore, addresses the question of how to retain and nourish the virtue of civilization while all along cultivating with true honesty the faculties of autonomy, empathy and non-violence. Jahanbegloo introduces the reader to a wide range of western philosophy which has engaged with the human possibility, both in its individual and communitarian manifestations. The thinkers whom he appropriately quotes or explains beginning with Socrates through Immanuel Kant, Mohandas Gandhi, Miguel de Unamuno, Rabindranath Tagore, Sigmund Freud, Hannah Arendt and Norbert Elias, to George Steiner, share a burning concern of our times – of conserving the relevance of culture and civilization while not losing sight of the necessity of constantly purging it of its banality, not in the sense of protecting a ‘high culture’ from dilution but of reforming the recurrent elements of hegemony and oppression that cause moral injury to communities, and which have betrayed what can be termed as the human heritage captured in the principle described by Jahanbegloo as the meaning of human civilization not simply in terms of evolution of culinary and sartorial etiquette, but much more profoundly as originating from its unfailing relation to the idea of appreciation of a common humanity. This alertness on the part of the author enables the book to negotiate the paradoxical idea of civilization as being simultaneously oppressive and liberating.

The imminent end of the liberating spirit of civilization forms the crux of the book. Jahanbegloo thus describes decivilization: ‘If civilization, not only as a manner of thinking but also as a mode of living together, is heading towards its eclipse, the cause of its impending death resides in the fact that the act of living among human beings has become meaningless in today’s world. Life has lost its spiritual substance. In other words, all processes of self-development and self-fulfilment of human beings as autonomous individuals and unique beings no longer exist. Without the capacity to understand and appropriate uniqueness and otherness, the life of each human being is indeed doomed to meaninglessness. Such a situation, which has been described in this work, is the decivilization of our times.’

In its difficult interrogation of the history of civilization and the crimes against humanity committed by the supposed/mistaken mission of civilization, Jahanbegloo opens his study with a chapter on the definition of civilization, going on to develop his argument on the historical equation between the ‘civilized’ and the ‘other’, the zealotry of the ‘civilized’ in history, before concluding with a chapter each on the ongoing decivilizing of societies and the ideal of the universal human community which provides the means to arrest and reverse this process of decivilizing.

This thoughtful study is prefaced with a meaningful Foreword by Romila Thapar, who begins her remarks by contemporizing, in the frame of the last two centuries, the very idea of civilization, linking it symbiotically with the analogous concepts of nationalism and secularism, with their common origin in the thought of a dominant West and its tendency to regard the global South as uncivilized and even incorrigibly barbaric. Thapar is frankly suspicious about the prevalent idea of civilization, terming it as inadequate and prejudiced. This idea has, in her opinion, institutionalized the tendency of those ensconced in prosperity and power to look askance at the disinherited and consequently led to mutual hostility, violence, and terror. She views the concept of civilization as being essentially mobile, and posits that an urgent question now confronts the epistemology of civilization: ‘Are we on the cusp of a radically new relationship with the world – with both the environment and its inhabitants – that will alter the core of the earlier relationship through restructuring our ethics and moral values?’

The book is not a comprehensive study of civilization but rather of the possible connotations of its decline, acknowledged in the Introduction by the author himself. His brief engagement with the question, of what it takes to continue to be human, draws upon a broad survey of philosophical understanding of the subject, and in particular assisted by a consideration of an outline of the thinking of Gandhi and Tagore. The third chapter which moves the author’s argument onto the next stage is titled as the Gandhian Reconstruction of Civilization. Jahanbegloo sees both these personalities as exemplars in building a human community. His discussion of Gandhi’s views is based on Hind Swaraj, while Tagore, who has been accessed more through scholarly opinion of his works than original writing (in part because much of it is in Bangla), is appreciated for having offered ‘the first fully dialogical and exotopic analysis of otherness in the tradition of civilizational plurality.’

Gandhi’s view on civilization is perceived by Jahanbegloo as the ‘master key’ to gain insight into the ‘two grand decivilizing trends in the contemporary world’, which Jahanbegloo identifies as two seemingly contradictory viewpoints – on one hand the perception of reality in only techno-scientific terms, and seeking legitimacy in religion and politics solely through the idea of divine authority on the other. Jahanbegloo states that Gandhi provides a ‘self-examining and self-transforming’ concept of civilization through the principle of nonviolence which can liberate the concept from its twin bonds of religious fanaticism and rational dogma. One, however, wishes for a slightly more detailed and nuanced discussion of Gandhi and Tagore regarding their concept of civilization than what is contained in the book, especially given the reference to them in its sub-title. I am reminded of Gandhi’s pithy definition of civilization in Hind Swaraj: ‘Civilization is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. So doing, we know ourselves.’

The Decline of Civilization: Why We Need to Return to Gandhi and Tagore makes a scholarly, insightful and convincing argument against the triviality, fanaticism and violence that are threatening to suffocate cultures around the globe today. Well crafted, its value enhanced by its conversancy with a world of rich scholarship, the book is a significant addition to the moral universe of those sensitive to the peril of valorization of one specific idea of culture and civilization. Hopefully, in present day India, the champions of the idea of ‘one culture, one nation’ will pause to consider this admonition from that great 19th century thinker and reformer, Swami Vivekananda: ‘No man, no nation, my son, can hate others and live. India’s doom was sealed the very day they invented the word mlechchha and stopped from communion with others. Take care how you foster that idea. It is good to talk glibly about the Vedanta, but how hard to carry out even its least precepts!’

Gangeya Mukherji

Visiting Professor, Ahmedabad University