FACEETIOUSNESS, sarcasm, black humour and biography in a book on 100 years of the subcontinent’s history are rare ingredients that make the narration less cumbersome. These elements lighten the contents in Joya Chatterji’s slightly intimidating 800-page tome and, to the relief of the casual reader, nearly 200 pages are glossary, notes and index, which one can skim over.
The first 203 pages are closely written, for they encapsulate the beginning of the British Raj; the formation of the Congress party and its gradual evolution from a debating club; the tragedy of the first Partition, followed by a second one 24 years later (Bangladesh); the killing of Indira Gandhi and the slow pirouette into what is today Modi’s India.
All the names and events leading up to Partition and the early years will have a familiar ring to an Indian ear. But these pages do not just set the tempo of the book. The even- handedness with which she tackles the various strains of competing nationalisms gives the confidence that what follows will also not be biased. For a casual student of history or for those trying to make sense of today’s cacophony about these very competing strains, the 200 pages set all major events and personalities in a chronological order with their warts and flawlessness of their personalities and actions on impartial display.
As the book moves over to a more unusual terrain, the markers are not just political events as is the wont of any book on political history of the three nations once collectively under the British colonial thumb. Chatterji herself acknowledges that most political histories of the 20th century capture moments of huge drama: Swadeshi, Non-Cooperation Movement, Civil Disobedience, Partition and Bangladesh liberation. And the swift break from an event-based narration to a wide-angled view of how we shaped up in diverse areas that touch everyday life — ritual purity, the South Asian diaspora, favourite novels, films, and even food.
Naturally, the narration on such highly personal issues turns into first person. Observations about each book she likes, the new patrons of leisure and films, food, regional quirks and even the survival of untouchability in modern Pakistan are commented upon with a personal insight that comes from lived experience or, as the extensive indexing and notes indicate, with deep field research and life-long association with academics where she earlier set a high water mark with the acclaimed ‘Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932-1947’.
There are answers in all these humdrum issues of daily diet about how we, the people of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, reached an inflexion point where all the three nations drew tight borders around themselves and convinced themselves about the Machiavellian traits of the other two. It all, of course, started with nationalism in South Asia being akin to a civil war. The trait has unfortunately persisted and the “upper caste construction of the nation being synonymous with religion” was a toxic legacy that has blighted the lives of people in all the three countries.
Chatterji also brings out a very pertinent aspect that is usually untouched by political historians. At the start of the 20th century, nationalists were able to rope in all sections because they made economy the chosen terrain. The common article of faith was that the British had impoverished India. But the paradox at the heart of nationalism was that despite a clear perception of unequal and inequitable treatment by the British, nationalists glossed over the most pertinent issue of distribution of income. As a result, Gandhi’s legitimate political means never achieved hegemony and violence in the pursuit of political goals had, and continues to enjoy, legitimacy.
But all through the book, she brings out the fact that whatever the BJP might say today, liberal policies had a different flavour than the Western version, perhaps due to the difference with the West in food, films, cultural practices and previous experiences. As Chatterji has spent decades in the UK, what blights the book is her locating the Somnath temple in Odisha. This slip-up ought to give rise to the suspicion that this is a ‘table-top’ production, but the coherence that binds the book, her extensive personal experience, and, of course, the scholarship that runs through ought to dispel the impression.
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