Saturday, March 22, 2008

on being south indian (or, on having a massive chip on my very worn shoulder)

I'm getting a little fed up of books by eminent Indian social scientists that invariably turn to Bengal for their empirical meat. After 4 and something years in graduate school, I have this vision of a Bengal teeming with social scientists discussing Marx, Dostoyevsky, or genealogies of modernity at coffee shops or second hand book stores on streets named after writers, while all around them bhadralok and bhadramahila scurry to and fro on their bourgeois itineraries, with idle subalterns watching stealthily from between cracks in buildings. None of this has been vindicated by trips to Kolkata, although that's probably my fault (Calcutta is always on the way to somewhere else - Sikkim, Bhutan, etc.) As far as books go, Dipesh Chakrabarty's excellent Provincializing Europe is no exception ('The second part of the book concentrates on the history of educated Bengalis', p. 19). Ch. 7 ('Adda: A History of Sociality') is a must read for anyone interested in the geography of Calcutta's intellectual life. As the title promises, it is a delightful exposition of 'adda', essentially a space for long, informal and unrigorous conversation, a central institution of Bengali life. Not being Bengali, or a resident of Bengal, I am consumed with envy at his description of this vibrant intellectual practice, till he poses the question of when coffeehouses began to act as major sites for literary addas. This is pleasing as far as the competitive stakes between cities are concerned, because it is one area in which Bangalore is not lacking - even if many joints that claim the status of coffeehouses are terrifically anodyne. Here is Chakrabarty on the appearance of coffeehouses in Calcutta:

The big coffeehouses were started by the Indian Coffee Expansion Board as a way of marketing coffee to a city that belonged - and still does - predominantly to tea drinkers. However, the practice of drinking coffee...was introduced into the Bengali culture of Calcutta in the 1930s by the immigrant southerners (the Bengali word dakshini refers to people from the south - Tamilnad, Kerala, Andhra, and so on) in the city who set up small eating places around Ballygunge about this time (p. 202).

Us southerners - we usually get one word, even though we speak such different languages. Languages that are as distinct from each other as Bengali is from Marathi. And yet we are 'Madrasis' to the Mumbaikars, 'Dravida' in the national anthem (written by a famous Bengali) and 'dakshini' to the Bengalis. And even when this Bengali takes the trouble to disaggregate us into our constituent communities - Tamilnad, Kerala, Andhra - it is left to that weighty 'and so on' to contain within it, unmentioned, subsumed, forgotten , THE BIGGEST GODDAMN COFFEE GROWING STATE IN THE COUNTRY.

As I hope readers will recognise, this isn't really a serious criticism of Chakrabarty. I think the book overflows with fascinating insights. But it only reinforces my impression of the very skewed, Bengal-heavy nature of Indian historiography, which has tended to leave the rest of the subcontinent understudied, undertheorised. That 'modernity' appears later elsewhere shouldn't really be an excuse. Chakrabarty is too careful and sophisticated a writer to suggest that his observations about Bengal are applicable anywhere else, but reflecting on what I know of the field as a whole, I cannot help thinking that Indian historiography might benefit from a work entitled Provincializing Bengal.

Comments:
i think you might benefit from a t-shirt entitled "provincializing bengal."

or westphalia.
 
on a more serious note, I would actually love some recommendations for good scholarly histories of southern India--I've read a little on hyderabad, but otherwise, as you say, the histories I've encountered have been northerly in focus. a kolkata-delhi-mumbai axis.
 
the thing is, i don't actually know. coffee table books, the dalrymple kind of stuff, yes, (please note that i am not equating him with coffee table books, but he is certainly not narayani gupta - but i digress...) the short answer is, i don't know. i will find out. ram guha writes local history type columns every now and then.
 
oh dear. i'm laughing very loudly and i know i shouldn't. that whole image of bhadraloks and mohilas scurrying around while the subalterns watch them was too funny.

there are, i believe, a few really good books on hyderabad. don't know of any solid work on chennai. the stuff on kerala is mostly cultural history.

the problem, my dear thariel, is that you southerners haven't invented a word to encompass all northerners alike. frankly if i was called north indian i'd get pretty mad, since i'm not and i'm glad i'm not. you need to find some suitable word and hurl it at the bengalis/oriyas and assamese. it's the only way methinks...
 
hehe... i was *waiting* for you to say something. and if you hadnt, i would have emailed this to you! can you mention specific titles if possible?
 
I think there is a bangalore word to encompass all north indians, but which (of course) reduces them to macho punjabi types. the word being, 'chom'.
 
Bengal is provincial already. All of it.
 
The chom has spoken!!!
 
i'll send u the book recommendations soon. btw, ur city has re-named itself so that every time u write it u have to write 'bengal' first. hah.

in the UK from the 5-15 of july, 14-27 of september. we MUST meet this time. also u'd better be turning up in december.
 
i tend to ignore things renamed after my birth. e.g. the czech republic.

yes we must meet when you're here. december contingent on where i am and $/£/Rs situation. At this stage, I'm not even sure which continent.
 
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