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WANDERERS, KINGS, MERCHANTS: The Story of India Through its Languages by Peggy Mohan. Penguin Random House, Gurgaon, 2021.

WRITING the past of the nations or regions is a consolidated practice in History and allied disciplines, and so are Historical Linguistics and Sociolinguistics the established approaches to make sense of the past and the present of languages. What has been lacking is linguistic history – history of language or languages, save few like Ostler and Schulman.

Given the dearth of engagement with the history of language, any attempt towards linguistic history deserves appreciation and Mohan’s book particularly so for being the first of its kind that weaves the past of select languages of India in the interesting, rather inevitable theme of migration. The book relates the story of India through its languages (and that’s the subtitle of the book) having chosen the languages, namely, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Hindi-Urdu, Nagamese and Indian English. Peggy limns a fascinating picture of these languages where migration happens to be the guiding and elucidating theme that cuts across the time and space these languages inhabit. Indeed, the last decade has seen a surge of interest in language and migration and this book can be seen as one of them but stands out for its focus on India in general and for its concrete anchor on select languages representing the wide canvas of the subcontinent. What follows is not a neat summary of each chapter but my notes or responses to the ideas presented across the chapters.

The book opens with the chapter ‘A Tiramisu Bear’, telling one curious fact that among polar or grizzly bears only males migrate and female do not, and the population sustenance or the spread is linked to this. This acts as a guiding analogy that works across the stories of the languages that come ahead in the book. Before we see what the individual stories are like, it is important to note a few important points. As much as this is a story of Indian languages, it is also, importantly, the story of Peggy herself. Peggy is a polyglot with Creole English (a Caribbean language) as her first language, and Bhojpuri (coming from paternal side her father being a Trinidadian Bhojpuri/Indian) and Canadian English (coming from her maternal side), besides several European and Indian languages added (see p. 2-3). She is a trained linguist who has worked on Trinidad Bhojpuri, taught linguistics, and been an expert witness in terrorism trials. Her fiction Jahajin is a riveting account the weary migrants settled into life as indentured labourers on the sugar estates. So, here is a book coming from a polyglot, linguist who is not blinded by mere theoretical bookish models, not restrained by the limiting Eurocentric approaches, but open to insights coming from the fringe. And that is evident from the references she brings in from recent genetic research or the insights drawn from evolutionary biology or as mentioned above, drawing parallels from the patterns of polar or gizzly bears.

Another upside of the book is that it has something phenomenal to say. The ‘focus of the book is not on the languages themselves, but on what language can tell us about migrations and the fusion and change they bring’ (p. 16-17). One such insight being that the suddenness in change seems to be more probable in certain instances than the generally held idea that any change in connection to the structure of language has to be gradual. This insight comes from juxtaposing the stories of creoles or multilayered languages across the globe. These ideas have been put to work to make sense of language not as a form but as a process (p. 15). All of this, in a way, invests into relating the story of ‘the little people’ (to use her often employed phrase) which is barely told, known or thought of, and this is immanent through the story of every language in the book. In terms of the method, it ‘is like the difference between the approaches of anatomy and physiology, with physiology being the one that studies how things work, and not simply what they look like’ (p. 15).

The second chapter of the eight chaptered book called ‘the hidden story of Sanskrit’ is a core and dense chapter of which I discuss two points here. The typical narrative of the Aryan invasion has been set aside by the idea of gradual migration (p. 26). This consisted of males migrating and marrying the local women for progeny. The idea of maternal/paternal substratum typically found in case of creoles is also parallel only to an extent. And in connection to Sanskrit there are several layers at which creole like definiteness barely applies. This is supported by the reference to the genetic research regarding mtDNA and Y-DNA (p.26, 28). Drawing references from a journal called BMC Eolutionary Biology (p. 29) the male migration in the Bronze Age that took place from the Pontic-Caspic region is further attested. One prominent and ever puzzling linguistic feature of Vedic is ‘retroflexion’. The retroflex are the speech sounds unique to Dravidian languages and Indic languages where the tongue is folded back to touch the roof of mouth to produce the series T, Th, D, Dh, N, and S and L, the first five of these are sounds that are represented in the third row of the alphabet chart of Indian scripts that follow Devanagari distribution. This feature has been discussed at length. The issue being when and how come Sanskrit – an Indo European (hereafter, IE) language – gathered these sounds. None of the other IE languages have these. Madhav Deshpande’s views have been brought in and responded to in connection to retroflexion.

Works of Emmenau, Mehandale, Jan Gonda, Witzel have been referred to give an elaborate account of retroflexion. The author agrees with Deshpande on retroflexion not being an original Sanskrit feature, but doubts his argument that it had been introduced into recitation over several centuries. She believes that such changes, additions happened rather suddenly, based on the parallels drawn from how it operates or operated in the Carribean. She argues that were this retroflexion to be resisted deliberately, it would have been rather easy to do so as a conscious effort as the language of liturgy and instruction is more open to be rigid. Effectively, this addition of retroflexion to the language was rather sudden and unplanned.

She later draws a convincing parallel of Livonian – a Finno Ugric language and Latvian. The point is though Livonian got extinct as such, i.e. no native speaker remained, certain grammatical features like tonality or the contrastive tone were retained in Latvian. Thus, Livonian did survive in face of Latvian in a sense. This example serves as a parallel to explain how a feature like retroflexion – a non-Indo European one, got assimilated in Vedic Sanskrit. The story of Sanskrit has two steps. The first being the entry in the northwest and the second when the Vedic practices got rather consolidated under the Kuru regime, and this was the ‘expansionist phase, backed by military might, rejigged shrauta rituals and the beginnings of grew into a caste-system in Kurukshetra, the ‘land of Manu’ (p. 73).

The third chapter on Malayalam is based on the idea of how the Namboodiri Brahmins’ migration, to an extent, is a replay of the story of Sanskrit in the northwest – the difference being it would have been more peaceful and most probably rather devoid of the second step. Peggy does raise the question of unusual loss of the person, number, gender marking on Malayalam verbs – which other Dravidian languages have. She evokes a parallel to Marathi habitual forms of the verb where person marking is lost but number and gender are retained. However, this loss of the marking on verbs in Malayalam remains unexplained, though she does mention similar loss in Nagamese when compared to its Assamese counterpart. One important otherness of Malayalam is the fusion literary language style called Maniprvalam which stands out for its heavy Sanskritisation and that is explained with apt examples.

The next chapter, how the Indo-Aryan languages were born, rightly accounts for the marking of the gender on the verbs in the western Indo-Aryan languages like Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati etc. and its absence in Sanskrit. However, Dravidian languages (except Malayalam as mentioned above) do have such markings on the verb. So, the idea is to say structurally some grammatical features are rather more like Dravidian and starkly unlike the IE or Sanskrit. The idea of substratum does come through to explain some facts here. However, when it comes to a feature like ergativity (this is that strange sentence where one has to begin ones sentence with ne as in usne, and in some tenses or moods you cannot begin with vo etc. at all), having discussed internal genesis theories, she also brings in research that hints towards the extinct, unknown/undeciphered Harappan languages which could have had ergativity. The otherness of the eastern varities is also discussed in comparison. Ideally more such features could be studied which are neither explainable from the Dravidian or the IE sides, to see into the heads of ‘the little people’ of the past – who are saved in these grammatical structural features.

Chapter five, To Urdu and Hindi via Turki, brings forth the hitherto unexplored and unarticulated mediation of Turki or Turkic languages in shaping Hindi/ Urdu. Though present day form evinces the Turkic to a very limited extent, once upon a time, Turkic languages like Uzbeki, Chugtai played a significant role for a limited period before Persian decissively took over. One apparently surprising but actually rather predictable feature was the contemporaneity of Khusro’s language. And the language has remained largely unchanged when compared to Khusro’s expression, and it is the literary styles of Sanskritized Hindi and Persianized Urdu that extend the impression of the changed language. The vowel shifts (Ordu > Urdu, o changing to u), consonant shifts (Kha > h. Khanum > hanim across Turkish-Uzbeki-Urdu is a fresh piece of information. This opens up the possibility of future research to explore Urdu vowel system vis-à-vis the vowel shifts that took place between Persian and Turkish (or Turkic languages) before and after they (the vowels and the vocabulary containing those vowels) arrived in Hindi-Urdu.

Chapter six on Nagamese juxtaposes its case with Sanskrit, Malayalam and other languages discussed and the intriguing part of it is that despite there being no apartheid situation this language has come into existence, and is observable peacefully while the first languages of the Naga people continue to coexist. The contrast with the other cases is that there is no engulfing of any language by spread of Nagamese, and that ‘the first intruder, in the Naga case, was not a human migrant but the market which brought the tribes out their mountain strongholds’ (p. 220). The author rightly classifies Nagamese as the youngest Magadhan language – a new addition to the group. Also, the author notes how it has lost the markers on the verbs like Malayalam. And though this is an instance of simplification of the paradigm (i.e. reducing the number of distinct forms), a typical feature of creole, both Malayalam and Nagamese lack other characteristics of creole.

Chapter seven, Indian English as an invasive species, draws a parallel to the two steps of Sanskrit. Except that unlike the pre-Vedic, Vedic migrants, the British didn’t make India their home forever. Also, the second step is marked by independence where the life of English is organically held even in the absence of the British. English now enters the bilingual repertoire of a child way earlier and faster than it would in the British times. And that there is a kind of diglossia between English and Indian languages. It is apprehended as the slow variant of language death (p. 242). However, at present, English plays a functional role (like one shopkeeper being able to carry out the conversation only related to selling, convincing etc.) while speakers of Indian English being mostly diglossic.

The final chapter, Confluence, highlights the ‘bittersweet story of convergence’. It cautions us with the overriding theme of punctuated equilibria where individual languages need not go wrong to be ruined but it is the environment that may change all of sudden, giving a massive blow or another life to the languages. The sheer variety of cases, like Prakrits which are quite close to the target language, then creoles which have grammatical structure of the older languages in mind and vacubulary of the new dominant and then we have cases like Urdu and Malayalam which follow the verbs of one source but have affinity to nouns from another source.

So, is this a book of conjectures? Yes. We come across parallels drawn and the cases of languages juxta-posed with lots of ‘would haves’ across the book. But these are intelligent conjectures, and the juxtapositioning and the parallels are convincingly argued to make the story of every language compelling. As goes the Henri Poincare’s quote, ‘it is far better to foresee even without certainty than not to foresee at all’; this book offers a hindsight, a way to look into the past and the present of languages based on what has happened or generally happens to languages, the process or the physiology that lends the insightful hindsight.

We are witnessing a time when several kinds of claims of purity are being made, racial purity being one. This book narrating the story of convergence, of intricate and inextricable mixing and layers of encounters and coexistence can be read as the one that underscores the inclusive, hybrid, multilayered idea of India. May this story of languages of India help us change the language of our story of India.

Chinmay Dharurkar

Research Centre for History and Culture, Beijing Normal

University and BNU-HKBU United International College, Zhuhai


Peggy Mohan, Jahajin. HarperCollins, London and New York, 2008.

Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Harper Perennial, London and New York, 2006.

Nicholas Ostler, Ad Infinitvm. Walker and Co., New York, 2007.

Nicholas Ostler, Passwords to Paradise. Bloomsbury Press, London and New York, 2016.

David Schulman, Tamil: A Biography. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,Cambridge, MA and London, 2016.


LANGUAGE POLITICS AND PUBLIC SPHERE IN NORTH INDIA: Making of the Maithili Movement by Mithilesh Kumar Jha. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2018.

REGIONS and spaces that are significant for the mythic and modern history of Mithila and the Maithili language appear in Mithilesh Kumar Jha’s Language Politics and Public Sphere in North India: Making of the Maithili Movement. The title links the book to the field of literary and print history whose proliferation over past decades has revealed varying dimensions of the modern polities of North India. This study would have benefited from a closer engagement with the claims and conclusions of these texts as they impinge on the question of Maithili, though the author does present the themes of various pertinent texts in the introductory sections. However, with recent attempts to emphasize a singular language for the country, this detailed account of a region in what is often represented as a uniformly Hindi-speaking territory is a useful contribution.

Jha’s work makes it apparent that linguistic identities and literary imaginations that were an uneasy parallel to the emerging dominance of Hindi were nonetheless not symmetrical with each other. Instead, each acquired different dimensions and representational values across history. Thus Maithili, as this book indicates, appears to have developed neither a popular written idiom nor become a vehicle of popular political representation until the late 20th century. Languages such as Maithili were not positioned to be the bearers of sub-nationalist identities. They were philologically contained as dialects, which allowed for them to be interpreted in administrative terms as localized and therefore subordinate variants to Hindi.

The striking aspect of the movement is the preponderance of the Mithila region as a defining cultural symbol that acquired modern dimensions, but that remained an exclusively brahmanical referent through the late 19th and early 20th century. While the claim for Mithila took on the dimensions of a territorialized and linguistically defined nationalism, an idea that was paramount at the turn of the century, it did not substantially alter or expand its symbolic or ideological potential to represent interests other than those of a fragmented brahmanical elite until the late 20th century.

Though the author references theories and arguments indicating that the surge towards linguistic nationalities was not a natural but a dominant process, the book retains a strong loyalty to Maithili nationalism. The trajectory of argument is shaped by the expectation that a modern linguistic identity would be voiced around Maithili as a natural political phenomenon. As a result, the story of Maithili tends to be driven by its deviance from the timeline of dominant linguistic nationalities, which occasionally makes for difficult reading, as each source is mined for its perspective on the issue, leading to repetition.

However, the text also highlights dimensions of language use that emerged in relation to political structures such as the Darbhanga Raj, which was significant to the renewal of Mithila as a cultural symbol and to the development of a modern infrastructure for language. Rather than reproducing the philological pattern of a linear inevitable progression towards the present, the author points to the conflicting philological positions for Maithili, as he states, ‘looking westward from the company seat at Kolkata… Maithili… appeared to be a dialect of Bengali. However, looking eastward from the Mughal Imperial seat at Delhi for philologists like Kellog and Hoernle, Maithili appeared to be a dialect of eastern Hindi.’ The text mentions the role of Buddhist literature such as the Charya Padas, and its significance as a linguistic lineage for a cluster of regional languages such as Assamese, Bengali and Maithili.

Seeing the mass movement for state recognition as the only form of success for a linguistic movement, leads to a conflation of claims for Mithila those for Maithili, though there are many indications that both were not necessarily as significant for some of the protagonists discussed. For instance, the first two histories of Mithila were written in Urdu in 1868 and 1883, the book states, indicating the need to separate conceptions of region and language. While Grierson’s grammar appeared in 1880, the same year that the Darbhanga Raj extended its support for Maithili print, Hindi was made the language of the courts in 1881. The ambiguous actions of the Darbhanga Raj and associations of Maithil upper caste elite indicate that Maithili was envisioned neither as the language of administration nor of religious modernity by those who sought to be significant figures in modern politics. It was Calcutta University which first recognized Maithili as a subject of study in 1917. Other aspects likewise, do not lend themselves to the model of a singular territorialized language with a singular script. Mithilakshar or Tirhuta as a script was used to write Sanskrit dramas, in which dialogues were rendered in Maithili. Thus, Sanskrit and Maithili textual production continued simultaneously, without a naturalized convergence of language and script. These details suggest a more complicated relationship of language to script other than the division between unlettered speakers of Maithili and a Maithil elite seeking recognition for the region. In fact, the text indicates the diverse roles of Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Sanskrit, and Hindu, aside from various other languages that were thrust into marginal roles by the emergence of Hindi, such as Bhojpuri.

Varying geographies and their asymmetries make for interesting details. While the Mithila region did not have physical boundaries, its empirical referents acquired prominence, as it historicized. Against the idea of a homogenous linguistic region, the book reveals that a sizeable number of Maithili speakers live in the Terai/Madheshi region of Nepal, and that the language emerged in print in Jaipur, Banaras, Allahabad, and Kolkata.

One of the more interesting chapters of the book is the one tracing post-independent politics when Mithila as a region acquired more democratic dimensions through the vision of socialists such as Lakshman Jha, who demanded statehood as a means to resolve problems of floods and famine, rather than the restoration of social orthodoxy. This is also the chapter that reveals that the exclusion of Maithili could also signal different forms of inclusion. Thus, Maithili was removed from the Bihar Public Service Commission exams, which saw mass protests, while in 1980, the Maithili-speaking chief minister made Urdu the second language of state. Given that this is the only point where a popular claim for Mithila appears, it is not clear whether popular writing or print ever bridged the gap between Maithili speakers and the Maithil elite.

The first chapter presents the Congress and leftist conceptions of nation as broadly identical in advocating cultural plurality and religious secularism. This flattened perspective enables an anodyne depiction of Savarkar’s Hindutva, which, the text states, ‘takes the idea of the Indian nation prior to both pre-colonial and pre-Mughal times.’ Though intended only as a thumbnail sketch in the book, this depiction is more reflective of what has become the contemporary common sense on nationalism, as accounts of the uses of nationalism by the Congress and the left would challenge this. Further, this formulation elides the explicit exclusion that is inherent to Savarkar’s conception of Hindutva. A few more details and dates would help illuminate the connotations to the names for Mithila, such as Tirhutiya. The book appears not to have undergone a process of editing, an omission that draws as much attention to the publisher as to the author.

Rochelle Pinto

Independent researcher, Bengaluru


* Rochelle Pinto is the author of Translation, Script, Orality: Becoming a Language of State (Orient Blackswan).


TALK ON THE WILD SIDE: Why Language Can’t be Tamed by Lane Greene. Hachette Book Group, US, 2018.

THE threat to the existence of languages seems unreal to Lane Greene for whom language is like a wolf – robust, organic and evolving to suit the changing conditions in the wild. With infectious enthusiasm, the polyglottic columnist considers the deep strangeness of language to be its saviour against potential vulnerability. After all it is human invention that is bound to evolve with time with different users contextualizing it to suit their communication needs. If that be so, why shifts in expressions and meanings of words should be worrisome? It is only the purists who love one dialect and may take it as an imminent sign of linguistic ruin.

Written words do abide by grammatical conventions, but it is the spoken language which is continually in flux ‘providing speaker a menu of options for getting ideas effectively into the reader’s mind.’ Each language has two sides to it – one formal and the other normal, with the formal having a limited role. Profiling the changes that are sweeping the language (English), Greene wonders when the purists will appreciate normal English as relevant because ‘formal written language isn’t the only form of language that matters.’ Language is a many-faceted thing. Slang and dialect, jocular and off-beat, teen-speak and text-driven, and corporate jargon and political ramble. Do these forms pose a threat to language or enhance its versatility? While this could be open to differing interpretations, it does show that each facet fills a distinct need. ‘Not all language is well behaved, nor does it need to be.’

Erudite and ebullient, Talk on the Wild Side argues that decentralized changes are not only acceptable but inherent to language. Else, neither will language live nor will it continue to be spoken by people. Humans have done important things with languages and continue to do without letting them fall apart into pieces. The wild side of language is that it is adaptable, but that hardly applies to native languages which easily fall prey to the hegemony of dominant ones. That being not the subject of his inquiry, Greene instead argues that language doesn’t fall apart even when people do novel things with it or adapt it to suit varied needs. Every language, therefore, remains a unique product of human genius.

The core idea behind this immensely readable book is that language is always changing, influenced by externalities of the times. The words may not mean the same they did a century ago, and there is nothing wrong with it because languages always evolve towards simplicity. Greene cites the word buxom, which originally meant pliable, then happy/gay, and now, a large-chested woman. The need is to accept language as it remains relevant to the context in which it is adapted. The fact that English language enriches itself by integrating words from other languages (especially Hindi) every other year bears testimony to its absorptive capacity of integrating words from other cultures. That is the dynamic nature of language.

However, there are purists who fear that such integration corrupts language, and which may eventually bring its terminal decline. Such impression may be far from the truth. Most language experts today – those who really understand what language is and how it works, rather than those who focus on how they think it ought to work – sit closer to the descriptivist camp, rather than being prescriptivists. Arguing instead that the latter group is wrong, Greene feels that language can never be tamed or shaped to the will of a select few prescriptivists who keep nuances of grammar closer to their chest without realizing that the regimentation of language may bring its downfall. Language should be allowed to evolve.

Talk on the Wild Side is full of sweet spots that unfold many aspects of language in an ever-changing world. It is both a guide to the great debates and controversies of usage, as well as a love letter to language itself. It touches upon contemporary developments in technology to generate and create languages, or to help with translations. These aren’t flawless! However, letting the power of language slip into the domain of technology is fraught with political control. As language is inextricably connected to power, majority-language nationalism may lead to political upheaval. Allowing the one who’s holding the sword will eventually decide who’s mispronouncing the word. The future of language, therefore, should be in the hands of those who use it. Instead of attempting to tame it, we should allow it to roam freely and evolve in its own way. Greene is clear that neither is thought language nor grammar. Language is culture, dynamic and evolving.

Sudhirendar Sharma

Independent writer, researcher and academic


TURBULENT TRANSFORMATIONS: Non-Brahmin Srivaisnavism on Religion, Caste and Politics in Tamil Nadu by Katherine Young. Orient Blackswan, Hyderabad, 2021.

Turbulent Transformations brings a critical caste lens to the study of what has been viewed as a significant sectarian (pertaining to a definable sect) religious tradition in Tamil Nadu, Srivaisnavism. At a time, when the term Hindu appears infinitely extendable, and capable of assimilating a range of positions, arguments and beliefs, it is sobering to remember that not too long ago, the term did not have the meaning it does today. Religious practice hinged on sectarian beliefs and organizations and were not easy to coopt within a so-called ‘national’ religion.

This book examines Srivaisnavism in its sectarian existence: not as doctrine or soteriology, but as a creed adopted by a group of practitioners, comprising Non-Brahmin and Dalit individuals and families in Tamil Nadu. Katherine Young puts late colonial and contemporary experiences of Srivaisnavism in conversation with their social and political milieu: defined by the powerful anti-Brahmin and Self-respect movements on the one hand, and a politics, anchored in a felt and expressive Tamilness, on the other.

There are three parts to the narrative: The opening chapters point to what made Srivaisnavism attractive to Non-Brahmins in a religious milieu, dominated, at least from the early medieval period, by the Brahmins and temples that were under their control. In line with other scholarly thinkers on the subject, Young notes the devotional world of Srivaisnavism made for a limited, though, fervent communitas. It held out the promise of spiritual equality and salvific freedom for all, irrespective of birth, sex and caste. While not socially consequential in all instances, and limited by the real world structures of royal and spiritual authority and property and caste standing, this promise drew Non-Brahmin sudras, from the cultivating, artisanal and trading classes and sections of the so-called outcastes into the Srivaisnavite fold.

We see how this freedom was reworked and updated in and through a dormant yet powerful language of rights and equality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as sudra spiritual mentors updated their spiritual claims, often in the face of Brahmin authority and control. Young does not quite dwell on what made this possible, though she places it within the moment of modernity. There is a rich history of ideas here that stands to be unravelled, and the book gestures towards it, without actually laying out the protocols for what might be done henceforth.

The chapters that follow (Chapters 3 to 6) proceed from the late colonial past to the immediate present, and here we are introduced to a range of Srivaisnavas, most of whom are from the Naidu and Vanniyar castes. The former comprise Telugu speaking men and women, who, however identify themselves with Tamil Vaisnavism, as expounded by the 12 Alwars, devotional poets from Brahmin, Non-Brahmin and Dalit communities, whose writings form a distinctive literary and spiritual corpus, viewed, in some instances as equivalent in value and significance to the Vedas. While Young references Dalit adherents of the sect now and then, we hear of the views of only one group of them, all belonging to a single family and kin cohort.

Young’s subjects comprise men (and a few women) who, originally were from families of farmers, weavers and in some instances traders. At the time of the interviews, a substantial number of them were town, if not city dwellers, living in well-marked peri-urban or suburban neighbourhoods, in the close vicinity of a Vaisnavite shrine. Identified as ‘Bhagavatas’, as different from Brahmin Srivaisnavites, their sense of religious belonging appears to have to do with an expansive and egalitarian vision of the faith espoused by Ramanuja, the eleventh century sectarian leader and philosopher. This is as true of the Dalits as it is of the Non-Brahmins, though with Young’s Dalit interviewees, we see a faith leavened by democratic fervour.

In expressing their Srivaisnavism, these sectarians challenge Brahmin monopoly over Srivaisnavite doctrine and text, seek to uphold the importance of the Tamil Vaisnavite devotional corpus, and insist on their right to propagate their vision of the creed. Young notes that proselytization was a key feature of all medieval sectarian traditions, and in the late colonial and modern period, this assumed particular institutional forms: the setting up of associations such as sabhas and the equivalents of what in the past were known as ‘Sri Ramanuja Kutams’ (assemblies of adherents to Ramanuja’s sect), the conduct of lectures, publishing of tracts, and the ordination of people that desired to enter the Vaisnavite fold, through specific rituals. In contemporary times, such sabhas also offer ‘secular’ goods, to do with health and astrology.

What has proved contentious though is this: who possesses the right to ordain whom, and through what means. Traditionally, Srivaisnavism has been propagated by lineages of men, drawn from 74 Brahmin families, who hold themselves to be official teachers of Ramanuja’s doctrine, and are known therefore as ‘acharyas’. There was another line of adherents, men who gave up their householder lives and turned ascetics, and who came to be known as the ‘jeeyars’ and this included both Brahmins and Non-Brahmins. Acharyas perform the rite of spiritual ordination (known as samashrayanam) for Brahmin adherents, but usually are averse to doing this for Non-Brahmins. While some Non-Brahmins were able to persuade the acharyas to ordain them, this does not happen often, and it is the Non-Brahmin jeeyars who end up ministering to their fellow caste men and to Dalits. But this does not include the actual ordination ritual, during which the marks of Vishnu are literally branded on to the skin of the would-be adherent, which even Non-Brahmins concede is a Brahmin prerogative. Young presents us one exception here, a Brahmin who has since been hailed as Ramanuja of the present, for daring to ordain and consort with sudras and Dalits. She also points to governmental efforts to set up schools of spiritual learning for Non-Brahmins and Dalits, backed by court rulings, but notes that these have not been sustainable.

Even as Non-Brahmin sectarians challenge Brahmin reluctance to be their spiritual mentors and protest being kept out of spiritual communities and temple-related rituals, such as chanting from the Tamil spiritual corpus of texts, they are not frontal in their opposition: they appear to want to achieve a separate but equal status. And besides, they are uneasy with the strident and passionate language of rights, as put forth by the Self-respect movement, and many expressed their misgivings over the latter, even as they noted that in their younger days they had been drawn to it. The Dalits who appear in the book are clearly drawn to Gandhi than Periyar or Ambedkar. While all Non-Brahmins featured in the book profess a caste-free religiosity, it is not clear if the Bhagavatas wish to remain fraternal with Dalits in the broad sense of the term.

Young does not comment or gloss such views for us, but only presents them. She is more forthright in her pointing to the privileges and claims exercised by Brahmins, which she contrasts with the richer and more layered history and content of Srivaisnavism. In this context, she distinguishes between the two strands of Brahmin Vaisnavites: the Northerners (Vadakalai) and the Southerners (Thenkalais) and notes that the latter, were more eclectic and egalitarian and favoured the use of Tamil as a language of worship, and that they were often disdained as not being Brahmin enough. On the other hand, the Thenkalai group too was not particularly forthcoming when it came to heeding the spiritual claims put forth by the Non-Brahmins, possibly because, Young reasons, they sensed a challenge to the general Brahmanical control over the temple, the priesthood and the system of shares that separated out temple honours. In this context, she reviews the history of legal struggles to access and equality, and points to the equivocal stance adopted by judges, which, in practice, endorses Brahmin claims.

Missing in Young’s appraisal of the social, civic and spiritual progress of Tamil Brahmins (which she does in the last two chapters of the book) is a critical sense of their claims to exclusivity. Brahmin exclusiveness rests on its perceived privileged relationship to scriptural and philosophical traditions of learning, but this is asserted rather than demonstrated, given that apart from a handful of them, Brahmins are not familiar with these latter. Further, the priesthood that is often viewed as an iconic symbol of privilege was not historically in possession of this learning either, being trained only in secondary rituals. The fictions that underwrite Brahmin claims to exclusivity including in the secular sphere of the arts, which Young concedes have been challenged, need to be further interrogated.

Curiously, Young has not sought to visit the temples and associations of Srivaisnavites of Southern Tamil Nadu, which have had a longer history of ecumenism, with respect to doctrine as well as practice. Tamil scholars such as Tho. Paramasivam have written extensively on the subject: Paramasivam’s masterly book on the Alagar Kovil, the temple of Alagar in Madurai, is a wonderful historical and ethnographic account of the temple and its festivals, and how a provisional and liminal communitas has been built and sustained over centuries.

While valuable as an account of a field of experience that has attracted little scholarly attention, Young’s narrative does not quite produce for the reader the ‘turbulence’ promised in the title. While it invokes conjuncture and context, and gestures towards the importance of place-making and everyday religiosity, it does not seek to locate these within a broader social history of Tamil life, as it has unfolded in post-independent India.

V. Geetha

Historian, Chennai


* V. Geetha is the author (along with S.V. Rajadurai) of Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium: From Iyothee Thass to Periyar, among other books.


POWERSHIFT: India-China Relations in a Multipolar World by Zorawar Daulet Singh. Macmillan, New Delhi, 2020.

THIS book presents China-India relations both shaping, as also being shaped by, a larger Asian rejuvenation in the midst of a global transition towards a reformed multipolar order. At the core, however, the author contends how their disputed border remains the most formidable challenge which calls for not just more objective analysis but also locating these in their changed power profiles where mutual equations have become far too intertwined with their regional and global interface. He especially cautions Indian experts to steer clear from rhetorical assessments of China from either romantic or utilitarian extremes.

Second, Daulet Singh shows how their 1980s template of ensuring ‘peace and tranquility’ along disputed borers – that saw Beijing offer in 1993 critical nuclear fuel for India’s Tarapore reactor after the US and France had abruptly refused supplies, sign two most detailed confidence building agreements in 1993 and 1996, and then stand firmly neutral in the 1999 India-Pakistan Kargil War – has become far too fragile. This template finally failed them in their prolonged violent face-off in 2020, which has seen both sides desperately exploring newer equilibria in their relations. Other than their intentions, their force and infrastructure modernization has itself increased both the frequency and intensity of their border face-offs which alludes to an urgent need for revamping their extant methods and mechanisms for resolving recurring tensions.

Based on the author’s engagement with the archives and his earlier work, Power and Diplomacy (2018), this volume explicates various complicated British legacies that underlie Indian discourses being animated with polemics. He shows how India’s northern borders were not even on the original agenda of the much fabled 1914 Simla Conference of which the McMahon Line was nothing but an afterthought that was summarily rejected by China’s nationalist government. Its insignificance was further reinforced by continued British ambivalence on its sanctity. The British were willing to concede Tawang to the Tibetans for their explicit recognition for the rest of this line. Indeed, till Major Bob Khathing’s February 1951 expedition, Tawang was under the de facto control of Tibetans. Till 1947, they had continued to claim not just Tawang but Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and parts of Ladakh to create some kind of federation of Tibetan-speaking Himalayan nations. This explains India signing a spate of agreements with these Himalayan kingdoms.

Likewise, the western sector was also never resolved by the British; they were not interested in border demarcation but only in ensuring their ‘exclusive’ access for commerce. So, as China liberated Tibet in 1951, it surreptitiously expanded its control across this larger Aksai Chin region. Later, realizing the precarious nature of what came to be called its soft underbelly, the Chinese became insistent on India accepting this entire region as being part of China and as a bargain offered to even recognize the McMahon Line. India, on the other, could never appreciate this swap between the two sectors as it took the McMahon Line as being the settled border. After half a century of negotiations when India finally accepted to go for the package deal, this boundary question had been subsumed by their larger geopolitical dynamics as emerging economies. The author contends that the unprecedented rise of China and now its early recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, has further exacerbated their asymmetry where even an external balancer (read the US) can no longer offset the ‘structural superiority’ of China.

For Daulet Singh, more specifically, it is the rise of Asia, decline of the West, and changing China-South Asia equations that are shaping India’s immediate periphery as the most contentious region for China-India relations. He believes China is least bothered about South Asia’s domestic politics as it focuses on protecting its larger economic investments. It is South Asian regimes that often assume China to be their insurance against western pressures or hedge against India’s interference in their internal affairs. For India, China’s intrusion in its periphery is often responded to emotionally, making it overlook their critical ‘overlapping interests’. He concludes that in the face of a 5-1 advantage in economic power – which is even greater when measured in high technology, human and scientific capital – history offers no example of accommodation between a major power (China) and a rising power (India).

Powershift alludes to China’s two big rapprochements – first with the US in the 1970s and then with Russia in the 1990s – and how both were the consequence and not the cause of the grand political detente (emphasis in original). But today’s China remains extremely sensitive to any third country taking sides in what it now calls its ‘great power competition’ with the US. The author believes that the informal Modi-Xi summits of 2018 and 2019 had briefly cast a reset in their relations based on the premise of India abiding by ‘strategic autonomy’ whereas most Chinese increasingly see India as choosing to stand with the US. For the immediate, he believes India must begin from the border; give up ideas of extended deterrence by responding on the seas to China’s challenge in the Himalayas, and suggests creating agreed buffers in the grey zones, coordinate patrolling to avoid violent scuffles and then gradually explore new equilibria of cooperation and contestations in their broader strategic equations as two emerging powers.

While the book stands out for its exhaustive analysis that makes an important value addition to the spirited India-China discourse, it also often becomes repetitive, and prescriptive, revealing an unwanted flab that may be trimmed in its subsequent reprint.

Swaran Singh

Professor and Chairman, Centre for International Politics, Organization and

Disarmament, JNU, New Delhi