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Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime V

(Being, a gentle reminder to the reader, a cornucopia of assertions, satire, commentary, interpretation, Trump-comedy, and much else, but always grounded in at least some facts.)

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The Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, Ohio, founded and shuttered in 1977 on September 19, a remembered in the area as “Black Monday”. Source: http://postindustrialrustbelt.blogspot.com/2014/10/rust-belt.html

Few phrases have done the round as much in this election cycle in the United States as the “Rust Belt”. On Washington’s Beltway, jubilant Republicans and morose Democrats will doubtless be talking about the Rust Belt for a long time, indeed until such time as rust begins to acquire around the idea of the Rust Belt and, like all others phrases that have done their time, this one too becomes a hazy memory. Contrary to received opinion, the phrase “Rust Belt” is not of recent vintage, dating, as is commonly imagined, to around 20-30 years ago, a period which witnessed both NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the emergence of China as a global economic powerhouse.  This is when jobs began leaving the United States, corporations started taking recourse to outsourcing, and the industrial heartland in the Midwest—and especially the area around Pittsburgh and other steel-producing towns—went into decline.

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The Rust Belt of the United States. Source: https://unitedstateshistorylsa.wikispaces.com/Sunbelt+and+Rustbelt

The veracity of this claim is not my concern at this juncture.  However, what is interesting is that though the term “Rust Belt” began to acquire popularity around the late 1980s, similar uses of the term can be dated back much earlier.  The Oxford English Dictionary informs us that the phrase “Rust Belt” was used as early as 1869, when the San Francisco Bulletin stated that “a foreign demand for wheat and barley would set a good many farmers on their pins . . . The demand will not, of course, help those who rented lands within the rust belt.”  More tellingly, a good decade before NAFTA entered into force, well before, as Trump and common wisdom would have it, Mexico, China, India, and other countries began swallowing up well-paying jobs that had sustained decent American families, an Associated Press story, published on 30 November 1982, stated that “unemployment is extremely high in many areas of the so-called ‘Rust Belt’, the heavy industry areas of the Midwest and parts of the Northeast.”  For all the tens of thousands of economists—the anointed ‘queens’ of the social sciences—writing on this subject, the claim that unemployment in the Rust Belt surged following the enactment of NAFTA and the packaging of jobs to China remains largely unexamined.  The rust on the Rust Belt has a longer history than is commonly imagined.

There is a consensus among commentators or “pundits”—proud Indians will doubtless have taken note of this, pointing to it as one of myriad signs of how Indian words have now become normalized in English—that the Rust Belt states won Trump his Presidency.  It is Hillary Clinton’s neglect of these states, and her presumption that the working-class was in her pocket, that is supposed to have sunk her bid for the presidency.  Of course, as scholars in particular are wont to say, such a claim is “problematic”, since even many outside the Rust Belt voted for Trump.  A majority of white women, 53% to be precise, appear to have voted for Trump, notwithstanding the fact that well over a dozen white women stepped forward with allegations of being sexually abused and assaulted by him; similarly, though Trump reeks of racism, fewer black people voted for Hillary Clinton than did for Barack Obama.  One could easily multiply such facts, but there is nevertheless a widespread and credible view that the Rust Belt states proved critically important and perhaps decisive in Trump’s victory.

So much for the view from the Rust Belt.  India’s much derided (or vaunted, by some) ‘Cow Belt’ furnishes us another perspective on the US Elections in myriad ways about which I shall be only tantalizingly suggestive.  Both India and the US are what may be called ‘bovine’ countries:  the cow is venerated in India among the Hindus and devoured in the US; in the Midwest, especially, beef jerky is a delicacy.  But let me not venture forth, for fear of being targeted by the internet gau rakshaks, on the numerous delectable ways in which India and the US, joined at the hip as the world’s two largest democracies, are bovine-minded.  The Cow Belt, which some view as a derogatory term, refers to India’s Gangetic heartland from where Narendra Modi drew his strongest supporters in 2014.  It is sometimes called the ‘Saffron Belt’:  in either case, it is in this densely populated part of the country that Hindu nationalism has its widest appeal and where gangs of young men have organized themselves into vigilante groups that terrorize Muslims and “pseudo-secularists” (as they are described by the advocates of Hindutva) who do not pay obeisance to the cow.

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Four young Dalit men stripped and beaten with belts, allegedly for transporting beef–not a crime under any Indian law, but a heinous offense to the Motherland and to Gau Mata from the standpoint of self-appointed Guardians of the Cow. The incident took place in July 2016 and was video-taped. Source: India Today.

It is here that a person might get beaten to pulp on the mere suspicion of eating beef or transporting dead cows to the slaughter-house.  In both countries, the narrative takes on the same hue, registering the disaffection of the ‘majority’ in the ‘heartland’ who are bereft of jobs and hobbled by some form of political correctness.  White racism in the United States, of course by no means confined to the ‘Rust Belt’, meets its match in Hindu chauvinism in the ‘Cow Belt’.

But there is seemingly another obvious reference when we speak of the perspective from the ‘Cow Belt’ on the US Elections.  Many commentators have pointed to the ‘strong man’ who seems to be trending worldwide today and have suggested, as did Pankaj Mishra in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, that Narendra Modi, with his boasts about his 56-inch chest, may have set the example.  Trump’s all but explicit remarks about the shriveled penis of one of his opponents in the Republican primary might seem to bolster such a view.  But it is doubtful that Trump emulates anyone except himself:  he has an equally long history both of boasts and of parading his own masculinity. Moreover, was there ever a time in the politics of the last two to three decades when the ‘strong man’ did not reign?  Have we forgotten Manuel Noriega? Or Saddam Hussein? Commentators would have been more on the mark if they had been sensitive to the shifts in the register of masculinity among ‘strong men’, shifts which portend what I would call an incredulous masculinity.  What could be more fantastic, for example, then the fact that Rodrigo Duterte, now President of the Philippines, as a candidate promised that if he were elected President he would gun down drug users and traffickers and, as President, would immediately exercise his privileges in granting himself immunity from charges of murder!  Whatever one may say of Modi, he lacks this kind of devilish humor and ingenuity.

There is also the matter, finally, of the Chastity Belt. chastitybelt American feminists and women’s organizations have rightfully expressed alarm at the looming erosion of women’s rights, and in particular women’s reproductive freedoms, under a Trump Presidency.  The sexual profligacy of Donald Trump, who even hinted that he would have made a stab at his daughter if she were not his daughter, should at once remove the slightest suspicion that anyone might have that the President-elect would like women to be decorous.  He may like, one suspects, women to be the playthings of men, but he is no advocate of the view that women should be chaste.  The same cannot be said of his Republican allies in Congress, whose views on abortion I discussed in a previous blog and who, it would not be too much to say, certainly think that some women—black women, Latinas, poor women, working-class women, Muslim women—should regulate their sexuality.  The metaphor of the ‘chastity belt’, nowadays a sex toy but in its heyday an instrument for ensuring that women did not step out of bounds and remained available to their husbands, was brought home to me when I stumbled upon this gem from Sarah Palin, another wondrous specimen of American political comedy:

With so many belts to go around, I wonder if we might not all want to make a lunge for the lungi:

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He may be the “Father of the Nation”, but it is more than his reputation, lately under assault from all the wise ones, that lies in tatters.  A plaque at the entrance to the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where Gandhi was confined for two years after he issued a call to the British to “Quit India” in August 1942, furnishes a brief introduction to this “monument of national importance”.

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Aga Khan’s Palace, Pune.  Source:  Khushroo Cooper, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kcooper/3074143937/sizes/o/in/photostream/

 

On my visit to this monument in March of this year, I found it in a state of utter dilapidation.  This is far from being India’s only “national monument” that has suffered from neglect and indifference; however, its association with Gandhi most likely ensures that it is not likely to see a revival of its fortunes.  If the murder of Gandhi was a permissive assassination, one celebrated by those elites who were enraged at the thought that the old man would if alive continue to exert an influence upon the affairs of a young nation-state struggling to find its feet in an evil world, permissive neglect seems to be the modus operandi through which Gandhi is slowly being sent into oblivion.

 

The Aga Khan Palace is remembered not only as the place where Gandhi served out the last of the many prison terms handed down to him by the colonial regime.  One of the most moving photographs in the vast archive of images of Gandhi shows a forlorn Mahatma sitting in a corner of the room across from the body of the deceased Kasturba.  She has lately, and not a moment too soon, come into the awareness of many as a woman who did not merely stand by her husband but was in the front ranks of those whose names are inscribed in the annals of anti-colonial resistance.  (No, it is not political correctness that has provoked an interest in Kasturba.) It is here, at the Palace, that their marriage which lasted over 60 years was brought to an end by her demise.  Not only that:  Mahadev Desai, reputedly closer to Gandhi than any of his sons, and often characterized in the Gandhi literature as his Boswell, also died during his confinement at the Aga Khan Palace.  In any other age, Mahadev, an uncommonly good writer and translator with a gift of observation and an exceedingly disciplined mind, would have achieved recognition as something more than the amaneunsis of Gandhi.

 

One might have expected, then, the Aga Khan Palace to be preserved as a treasured place in the nation’s history.  There are nearly a dozen large oil canvases; not all of the paintings are of great artistic merit, but they are a distinct and unique part of the repertoire of visual representations of Gandhi.  The canvas showing Kasturba in the cradle of Gandhi’s lap is not only unusual, but suggests a quiet intimacy between them which may not be visible to those who are determined to establish Gandhi as someone who exercised a tyrannical sway over Kasturba.

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One of the somewhat better preserved paintings, though “Rural India” is not very much on the minds of the Government of India or the country’s elites.  Photo: V. Lal, 2016.

“New Hope for Rural India” is one of the rare paintings of Gandhi that points to his engagement with the “Constructive Programme”.  All of the paintings are clearly in want of restoration:  the colors have uniformly faded, on occasion there are pigeon droppings, and the wooden frames show signs of decay.  Some paintings, shockingly, are now beyond repair.  Gandhi is little more than a white ghost in “A Crusader for Humanity”; many of the other figures are blurred.

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The artist was not attempting to create a blurred effect with his painting on Gandhi as a “crusader for human equality”.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

As is common in India, the museum displays resonate with inspiring slogans and exemplary didactic lessons—except that the unmistakable impression that is conveyed is that once the duty of parading homilies has been fulfilled, they can be easily dismissed as bearing little or no relationship to life.  Gandhi experimented for the greater part of his life with toilets that would work with little or no water.  One display in the Aga Khan museum complex is entitled “bhangi mukti” [freedom for the scavenger], but the lower half of the exhibit has been wiped out; the following panel, on the subject of “Cleanliness and Public Hygiene”, is one big blur.

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The slate of Gandhi’s teachings on cleanliness has been wiped clean!  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

Perhaps there is nothing accidental here: notwithstanding the hullabaloo over ‘Swacch Bharat’, the country has for decades blotted out the very idea of public hygiene from its consciousness.  V S Naipual had something nasty to say about this years ago, and however intolerable he is on most occasions, he had the gift both of observation and of writing.  But he was, not unexpectedly, roundly derided for reminding everyone of the shit that mars nearly every Indian landscape.  India, let us recall, holds—and by an exceedingly large margin—the world record for open defecation.  But there is something else about these paintings and displays that grabs the eye. Gandhi, even as he wrestled with issues of the greatest gravity, was always supremely attentive to the minutest details.  Here, at a museum dedicated to his life, the aesthetic sensibility is entirely lacking; not one frame or exhibit suggests any interest on the part of the curators, caretakers, or administrative staff in the extraordinary legacy that is under their charge.  The entire Palace and museum complex reeks of decay, indifferent, and neglect.

 

The shocking state of disrepair in which the Aga Khan Palace—a monument, let us reiterate, dedicated to the nation both for its place in the struggle for self-determination at a pivotal stage, and as the site of events critical to Gandhi’s life—has been allowed to languish is not likely to excite anyone’s attention.  The hostility to Gandhi among the advocates of Hindu nationalism is palpable.  Considerable segments of the RSS have thought nothing of glorifying his assassin, Nathuram Godse, who not coincidentally was born in Pune District.  Whatever the culpability, which cannot be doubted, of previous local administrations, neither the present local nor the state government can be expected to have any interest in reviving an institution intended to celebrate the life of a man whom they view as guilty of appeasing the Muslims and weakening the Hindu nation.  The Government of Maharashtra is securely in the hands of a BJP-Shiv Sena combine; the Shiv Sena’s former leader, the late Bal Thackeray, was often heard deriding Gandhi as a eunuch.  It is also worth recalling that Pune is the site of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a venerable research institution that was ransacked by Shiv Sena goons for none other than the reason that an American scholar, Jim Laine, had some years ago done research there to produce a book on Shivaji which his modern-day acolytes found to be inadequately reverential to their hero.  For those who pride themselves on the imagined glory of their martial traditions, a shrine dedicated to an effete Gujarati bania is just as soon forgotten.

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At this rate, all that will be left of Gandhi is pigeon droppings.  This panel is illustrative of the condition of many of the displays.  Photo:  V. Lal, March 2016.

However, the country’s left intellectuals will not be rushing to register their dismay at the state of this monument either.  Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a piece in the Economic and Political Weekly entitled “The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate”, arguing that every constituency in India had a grievance with him.  In the intervening years, it has become almost obligatory to denounced Gandhi as a sexist and racist; and there are even websites that claim that he raped virgins and should have been jailed as a serial sex offender.  Some of his critics had been long been convinced that he had prevented the possibility of a “real” revolution—apparently, unless several million people have not been killed, or the enemy has not been exterminated in a calculated genocide, a genuine upheaval cannot be viewed as having taken place—in India, but lately we have also heard that his empathy for Dalits was nothing but a sham and that he even fortified the British empire in South Africa and India alike.  Arundhati Roy is, of course, much too smart and sophisticated to write a book with a title akin to something like ‘The Gandhi You Never Knew’, but the substance of her critique is effectively the same.  And that critique is nothing other than the stupid idea that the “real” Gandhi has been hidden from history.  If the state of the exhibits at the Aga Khan Palace suggests anything, it will not be long before Gandhi disappears altogether from public view.  Then India can celebrate its “real” independence and manhood.

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Review-article on Ruby Lal, Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century IndiaThe Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  xvii plus 229 pp.).

More than twenty-five years ago, the Indian economist and public intellectual Amartya Sen helped ignite a debate on the “endangered” status of girls and women in Asia and Africa when he argued that 100 million women were “missing”, a third of that number from India alone.  Discrimination against girls in India begins, as is now commonly known, in the womb itself. I recall reading, some three decades ago, a report about a hospital in Bombay where 50,000 fetuses had been aborted: one, just one, fetus was male.  Sen was by no means the first person to have broached this subject:  indeed, the girl-child in India had, by the 1970s, already been the subject of numerous government committee reports, but there was still little awareness of the various largely invisible forms of discrimination that affected girls and women adversely.  The various government commissions may, not all that ironically, have helped to bury the problem; but India is attentive to the likes of Amartya Sen, who has wide recognition in educated liberal circles in the West and has been lionized in India.  Just three years after Sen’s article was written, the Government of India outlawed prenatal sex discrimination with the passage of the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act [1994].  Soon thereafter, one could see the following sign at least some hospitals:  “Here pre-natal sex determination (Boy or Girl before birth) is not done. It is a punishable act.”

It is Indian feminists rather than Sen, of course, who must be credited with whatever little reforms the Indian state has undertaken in the matter of rights of unborn girls, female children, and women.  Those who are familiar with the Indian principle of jugaad, which means, among other things, making do with the situation at hand, bending corners, and finding a way out, would not be surprised to hear that sex selection still takes place.  It is not merely the case that most Indian laws are seldom and certainly imperfectly implemented, though this is part of the story:  more than ten years after the legislation was passed, only 400 cases had been registered under the 1994 act, and a mere two convictions had been procured.   What is more germane is that under the guise of aiming to screen for birth defects, amniocentesis is still carried out without any fear of penalty.  At Amritsar’s New Bhandari Hospital, for example, amniocentesis is widely practiced and openly advertised.  Kanan Bhandari, who is herself a gynecologist and married to the hospital’s proprietor, defends her clinic’s practices by distinguishing between amniocentesis and the “medical termination of pregnancy of fetuses older than 20 weeks.”  However, the measure of the girl-child in India can be taken in myriad other ways.  In many Indian households, to take one illustration, girls eat after boys, and women after men; moreover, girls are given less to eat than boys, and they may be given smaller portions of milk, eggs, and poultry.

Considering what the sociological literature on the girl-child has to say, the work of the historian Ruby Lal comes as a breath of fresh air.  Her monograph on the girl-child in 19th century India is of an altogether different genre, even if it is similarly animated by the desire to make visible certain forms of experience that undergird the lives of what she describes as the girl-child/woman.  By the early 19th century, the colonial state in India had embraced the view that a civilization was to be evaluated, and placed in a hierarchical scale, on the basis of how it treated its women.  India was found sorely wanting in this respect:  colonial texts offered lurid accounts of the practice of sati (widow-immolation), female infanticide, child marriage, and the prohibitions placed on widow-remarriage, even among widows who had not yet achieved puberty and had never consummated their marriage.  We need not be detained here by such considerations as whether the position of women in Britain was all that much better, and whether the sexual exploitation of girls was not rampant, particularly in view of the vulnerability of working-class women under the new conditions of industrialism.  In Britain, as in India, girls generally had little access to education. Likewise, there is by now a sufficiently large literature which has alerted us to the politics of representation and the difficulties that inhere in unmediated readings of colonial narratives  What is most germane is that throughout the 19th century, the picture painted of Indian girls and women was generally one of doom and gloom, ensnared as they were by domesticity, servitude, or the iron laws of patriarchy that bound them to be unflinchingly obedient (as in the classic formulation of the Hindu law-giver Manu) to the authority, successively, of father, husband, and oldest son.

In Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century India, Ruby Lal argues for a very different reading of the spaces available to girls and women for the expression of their subjectivity in 19th century north India even as “entire stages and spaces of female lives” were “wiped out” (39).  While she is mindful of the duties imposed upon females, and recognizes that many of her subjects found the spaces of freedom fleeting, she nevertheless takes it as her task to argue that a certain playfulness informs female lives, thus “allowing forms of self-expression and literary creativity that are not dependent on masculinist definitions of fulfillment” (39).  For too long playfulness has been seen as the prerogative of males, as their “exclusive province”, but Ruby Lal attempts to understand it also as “a nonpaternal practice of the feminine” (55).  To delineate the contours of such “playfulness”, she distinguishes between “making” a “woman”, which she characterizes in India and other societies as an invariably “male project”, and “becoming” a woman which allowed greater room for negotiation (30-34).  Becoming a woman, in her view, is not a mere “teleological proposition” (33), one that takes us from a girl to a young woman and then to the exalted state of motherhood and finally the aging matriarch.  Her hyphenated girl-child/woman figure points, in fact, to her interest in the idea of liminality—and where there is the liminal there is also the transgressive.

The ethnographic substance of Lal’s argument is played out in four chapters where she considers the space of the forest, the school, the household, and the rooftops.  She turns to an early 19th century text, the tale of Rani Ketki by the writer Insha-allah Khan (1756-1817) where the hero and the heroine meet in a forest.  She recognizes, of course, that parallels can be drawn with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the scholar of Indian literature has to take great pains to ensure that these great pan-Indian epics do not colonize our understanding of texts and practices drawn from very different times and denude them of their local particularities.  Ruby Lal is not only sensitive to these considerations but shows how the trope of play is at work in this text:  as she points out, “the claim of writing a story in the Perso-Arabic script without using a single word of Persian or Arabic becomes all the more a claim about authorial agility and playfulness” (65).  In a similar vein, she describes Insha as “a theorist of playfulness” who systematized Urdu grammar and placed a heavy emphasis on decorum while being “committed to linguistic and gender playfulness” (69).  But what is singularly important for her argument is how the characters are constantly leaving behind the mohalla (the neighborhood) and the duties concomitant to respectable family living for the forest.  Lal describes this as a movement from the spaces of pedagogy to the spaces of pleasure.

The most distinct space for pedagogy, initially for boys alone, was of course the school.  By the third quarter of the 19th century, textbooks for girls had come into shape.  Lal’s narrative at this juncture revolves around Raja Shiv Prasad, an inspector of schools in the Benares region and a writer of books such as Vamamanranjan, or ‘Tales for Women’. In 1856, when he first assumed his post, there were no schools for girls; within a decade, 12000 girls had been enrolled (98).  The matter of textbooks, particularly those focused on the study of history and morals, is too complex to be given any lengthy consideration; but Shiv Prasad’s textbooks are of interest to Ruby Lal since she seeks to understand how girls navigated the space of the school and received the learning that would enable them to engage in various forms of self-making.  The emerging centrality of the school in the 19th century as a form not only of socialization of children, but as a technology of governance and as a mode for creating national subjects, can scarcely be doubted.  Against such a backdrop, Lal’s analysis of the school as a site for “playfulness” is less than persuasive; indeed, the greatest strength of this chapter resides in her discussion of the debates surrounding “the standardization and the homogenization of languages, scripts, religions and communities” in late 19th century India (124).

Lal’s chapter on the “Woman of the Household” has similarly little to say on (to borrow from the subtitle) the “art of playfulness” and is focused on “a number of significant texts concerned with the upbringing and training of respectable (sharif) girls and women” (125).  These texts, not surprisingly, were concerned rather with the duties of girls and women, the modes of respectability, and the protocols of domesticity.  Her gaze extends to several texts, the “dominant motif” of which is sharafat or respectability (137); one of the texts in question has a section entitled “Concerning the Chastisement and Regulation of Wives” (139), not really a subject calculated to inspire hope that girls and women could readily escape the constraints placed upon them.  A much more promising space for tasting forbidden fruit was the rooftop of the home, which Lal in an imaginative stroke describes as the “the forest” that is transplanted.  The rooftop was the extension of the home, used by women and servants, to take one illustration, to put up the day’s washing; however, in another register, it was also the place, not just for dalliances, but for reading and writing.  The scholar who is attentive to the practices of reading in India would do well to devote some attention to Indian homes with their rooftop terraces.  It was similarly the rooftop from which women, when they were still forbidden to take part in the political life of the nation, observed marches and demonstrations.  Drawing on Fatima Mernissi’s memoir of growing up in Fez, Morocco, in the 1940s, Ruby Lal quotes her to suggest what possibilities came to mind atop the terrace (198):  “So every morning, I would sit on our threshold, contemplating the deserted courtyard and dreaming about my beautiful future, a cascade of serene delights.  Hanging on to the moonlit terrace evenings, challenging your beloved man to forget his social duties, relax and act foolish and gaze at the stars while holding your hand, I thought, could be one way to go about developing muscles for happiness.  Sculpting soft nights, when the sound of laughter blends with the spring breezes, could be another.”

While Lal’s close readings of the texts and the literary history of 19th century north India yields some arresting insights, her argument seems forced at times just as her neglect of a large swathe of literature that may be useful for her arguments is puzzling. More than six decades after it was first published, Johan Huizinga’s Homo LudensA Study of the Play Element in Culture (1950) has still not been superseded in its depiction of the civilizing function of play and the play-forms that are encountered in poetry, philosophy and art.  Considering Ruby Lal’s interest in the categories produced by aesthetics, even Huizinga’s analysis of the play element in the baroque and the rococo could have been productive for her own work.  If Huizinga seems too far removed from the Indian context, though his canvas extends to the Mahabharata and the Upanishads, Indian readers might ponder over the relation between the Indo-Islamic or Urdu literature that she peruses and the stories that proliferate in north India on the playfulness of the gopis or the village women who engaged in constant play with the god Krishna.   As Ruby Lal doubtless knows, the mythopoetic world in which Krishna and the gopis are immersed was construed by the most positivist of the Indian nationalists as one of the principal sources of India’s subjection to colonial rule.

Ironically, then, for a book that promises to open up our understanding of the “art of playfulness”, Ruby Lal’s monograph gives insufficient play to the idea of play itself.  Nevertheless, her social history of play and pedagogy, refracted through the lens of the girl-child/woman, is not without promise.  Whatever the limitations of education in India, and those are severe, and whatever the merits, which are likewise considerable, of the meta-critique of education as the indispensable element in the liberal pharmacopeia, the education of the girl-child in India still remains the first door leading to a more enhanced and dignified conception of human life. The criminal neglect of the girl-child and woman in India will haunt the nation for decades to come. However, as Lal’s study amply shows, girls and women have displayed remarkable ingenuity and resilience alike in giving play to spaces to make them less restrictive. It is in the imaginative dialectic of play and pedagogy, as it were, that the promise of Indian girlhood and womanhood will come to fruition.

[Adapted from a review published in The Journal of Social History 49, no. 3 (Spring 2016), 752-54.]

 

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Sunil Khilnani, IncarnationsIndia in 50 Lives.  London:  Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2016.  636 pp. + xvii.

“India’s history”, Sunil Khilnani argues, “is a curiously unpeopled place.  As usually told, it has dynasties, epochs, religions and castes—but not many individuals.”  The colonial scholar-administrators who governed India through the first half of the 19th century, and their largely pedestrian successors, were firmly of the opinion that the individual as such did not exist in India.  By the second half of the 19th century, colonial anthropology peopled India with “types”; in short time, India was then rendered a land of collectivities, where religion and then caste reigned supreme and the individual as an atom of being remained unknown.  That, in good measure, would become the origin of ‘communalism’.

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Statue of Aryabhata (c.476-550 CE), Indian astronmer, at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune.

Mohandas Gandhi, one of fifty individuals who sits between the pages of Khilnani’s tome, was fully aware that in writing his autobiography, he was engaged in a task that was relatively novel to the Indian scene.  He would, I suspect, have agreed that biography is another related genre at which Indians are spectacularly poor, though Khilnani seeks to rectify this shortcoming in this beautifully produced and elegantly written work which spans around 5000 years of history through fifty lives.  There is no suggestion that other lives might not have been equally interesting, pointers to India’s complex and variegated history, and Khilnani advances a number of arguments to justify his choices.  Many of India’s most compelling minds, he submits, have been compelled “to exist in splendid isolation”, and his endeavor is to put those lives into conversation with “other individuals and ideas across time and border”, though, as is often the case with Indian intellectuals, it is principally “the West” that he has in mind when he is thinking of cross-border exchanges and fertilizations.

 

There is also the more familiar argument that the omission of some well-known names allows Khilnani to rescue from obscurity some who scarcely deserved that fate.  Thus, alongside the predictable pantheon of the greats—the Buddha, Mahavira, Akbar, Adi Shankara, Guru Nanak, Gandhi, Ambedkar, to name a few—we come across a slew of characters who are little remembered today.  Among the more memorable of his cast are Chidambaram Pillai (1872-1936), a Tamilian lawyer whose Swadeshi Team Navigation Company created a sensation in nationalist circles before the British found a pretext for removing him from the political scene, and Nainsukh (1710-1784), a master of the Pahari school of miniature painting in whose work Khilnani finds ample evidence of humanity, warmth, individuality, and, most significantly, a modern sensibility.

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A Share Certificate from the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, Tuticorin, established by Chidambaram Pillai. [From the Hindu files.]

Yet more remarkable still is Malik Ambar (1548-1626), an Abyssinian slave whose journey took him from Ethiopia to Baghdad and thence to the Deccan, a journey at the same time from subjection to overlordship.  Racial prejudice, Khilnani rightfully notes, has obscured the rich history of linkages between India and Africa and the place of Africans in India’s history.

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Murtaza Nizam Shah II, ruler of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, and Malik Ambar.

 

Khilnani rather admirably is able to do justice to his subjects in comparatively short but crisp essays.  On occasion, there are even startling insights or formulations.  He writes of Jinnah with sympathy, but the critique in the concluding paragraph could not be more forceful:  every dream of homogeneity is undercut by the fact that there is “some aspect of identity, some sect, some culture or language, that doesn’t fit”; in other words, “identity is prone to be secessionist.”  The essay on Charan Singh, whose most thorough biographer is the American political scientist Paul Brass, is against the grain:  he has been willfully forgotten, perhaps an index of the contempt in which recent governments have held the Indian peasant, but Khilnani is appreciative of his ability to command the voice of the peasants even if he is mindful of Charan Singh’s inability to speak for the landless farmer.

 

Everything in Khilnani’s charming book is reasonable—and that, perhaps, defines the limits of his imagination.  About everyone gets the same number of pages, and one could say that the king (Ashoka, to name one) and the pauper (Kabir) are treated with radical equality.  No man (or woman, though there are few and far between) is treated with reverence as such.  Criticisms of Gandhi are these days dime a dozen, but even the Buddha is reprimanded for exhibiting patriarchal values.  The principle of selection is anodyne at worst and liberal at best.  It is, after all, a mark of the liberal sensibility that one should be able to view one’s subject with warts and all, and Khilnani is scrupulous in the observance of this principle.  The accent is unquestionably on the modern:  nearly thirty of his fifty individuals, commencing with Rammohun Roy, lived in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Doubtless, modern lives are better documented, but perhaps Khilnani reveals something of his sensibility in his predilection towards the modern.  He bemoans the fact that Indian women’s lives are not well documented, but one might counter by asking why Razia Sultan, Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Lata Mangeshkar are omitted from his narrative.  There is, however, a greater problem:  if Khilnani is constrained by his sources from speaking about women, he is surely not precluded from venturing into the politics of gender, femininity, and masculinity.  There is precious little of that in Incarnations, since he lets a rather elementary even procrustean conception of women’s lives guide his treatment of gender.

 

As with an anthologist, one should perhaps not begrudge Khilnani his choices.  There is a perfectly good reason why each of those fifty Indians becomes one of Khilnani’s “Lives”, though one should not imagine that they are necessarily, in Emerson’s phrase, “representative men”.  It is not as if Kabir is representative of the nirguna bhakta while Mirabai is the preeminent voice of saguna bhakti, assuming that the vast swathe of what is called the “bhakti movement’ may be divided into these two camps.  Nevertheless, as Khilnani himself would recognize, one can be certain that much of the animated discussion of his book will revolve around his choices, and some will deplore the absence of their heroes while others will wonder why a Sheikh Abdullah is being placed in the lofty company of Gandhi or Ambedkar.

 

Rammohun, Vivekananda, Tagore, Satyajit Ray:  one can have only so much of (as someone once quipped) the still-continuing Bengal Renaissance.  If one were attempting, say, 50 American Lives, I think it quite likely that Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth would certainly have made the cut if not Michael Jordan and Jackie Robinson.  Yet, not a single sportsperson is represented in Khilnani’s Incarnations, though for two decades the hockey wizard, Dhyan Chand, made millions of Indian hearts flutter.

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Dhyan Chand, India’s “Hockey Wizard”.

P. T. Usha never won India a single Olympics medal, not even a measly bronze, yet for a decade the hopes of an entire country were invested in her.  The chest-beating that takes place in Indian middle-class homes every four years, when a country of much more than one billion finds itself possessed of a medal or two, outclassed by countries such as Belarus, Georgia, and Jamaica, points to the deep anxieties that afflict the Indian middle class.  Had Khilnani been attentive to the politics of recognition, it is quite likely that he would have come up with quite a different set of Indian lives.

[A slightly different version of this review has been published in The Indian Express, 2 April 2016, as “From Aryabhata to Vivekananda”.]

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Recent events at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India’s premier university, are an ominous sign of the Modi Government’s relentless assault upon democracy.  The arrest, around ten days ago, of Kanhaiya Kumar, a graduate student at JNU who serves as the JNU Students Union President, on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy under Sec. 124A of the Indian Penal Code has been roundly condemned all over India.  If convicted under this colonial-era legislation, Kumar could in principle receive a sentence of life imprisonment.  The campus of this venerable institution, whose alumni feature prominently in the political, social, and intellectual life of the country, was turned for several days into a fortress with armed police at every corner.  Widespread demonstrations by faculty and students at the police crackdown led to suspension of classes and campus life remains seriously disrupted at this time.

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JNUSU President, Kanhaiya Kumar, Being Arrested by the Delhi Police.

It is not the first time that Indian democracy has been put under severe stress, but this is surely one of the gravest tests to which the country is being subjected since an emergency was imposed by then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi for 21 months commencing in mid-1975.  The present chain of events was set in motion when some students at JNU decided to hold a protest meeting on February 9 to mark the third anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri militant who was founded guilty of the attack upon the Indian Parliament in 2001 and handed a death sentence by Indian courts. Afzal Guru’s conviction was always under a cloud of suspicion.  In its 2003 judgment, the Delhi High Court implied that Guru had been tried by the court of popular opinion and found guilty, and that the court was obligated to follow “the collective conscience of the society.” The JNU students are not the only ones who have termed the hanging of Afzal Guru, carried out in Delhi’s Tihar Jail in secret, a “judicial killing”.

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Sitting in Dharna: Protests by JNU students on February 18.

At JNU’s student-organized protest, however, a number of participants were also heard chanting slogans calling for the destruction and fragmentation of India.  The campus, as is widely known, is a hotbed of politics; in recent elections for the Student Union’s post of President, the candidate representing the student organization linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which flaunts its Hindu nationalist credentials, lost to the left-affiliated student organization to which Kanhaiya Kumar belongs.  Acting upon a complaint that the JNU campus was being used to stage “anti-national” activities, the Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, issued a statement warning that “if anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on the country’s integrity, they will not be spared.  Strongest possible action will be taken against them.”  Within hours of the Home Minister’s pronouncement, the Delhi Police had swung into action and taken Kumar into custody.

Over-reach and lunacy, strong as these words are, do not begin to describe the tyranny that is being unleashed by a government that fears democracy.  The law on “sedition” was framed by the colonial state to repress and silence Indian nationalists, and none other than Mohandas Gandhi was put on trial in 1922 on the charge of “bringing or attempting to bring into hatred or contempt or exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government by law in British India.”  Sec. 124A, as Gandhi noted ironically, was the prince of the legislative masterstrokes by which the British government sought to contain Indian nationalism.  The state in independent India has trotted out this obscene and obsolete piece of legislation from time to time to punish dissenters.  However, as the Indian Supreme Court has noted on more than one occasion, speech cannot be deemed seditious unless it is accompanied by violence, or incitement to violence.

Kanhaiya Kumar has denied that he was chanting the incendiary slogans calling for India’s destruction and thus far those engaging in sloganeering have not been identified.  Indeed, it is now reasonably certain that the videos which purport to capture the sloganeering were themselves doctored.  Be that as it may, what is most germane about Kanhiaya Kumar is that he has always openly stated that calls for India’s ruin and the fragmentation of the country must be unequivocally repudiated.  Kumar has also been captured on video making a fiery yet eloquent extempore speech where he swears by India’s constitution and denounces the attempt by the Hindu nationalists in power to impose their worldview upon all Indians.

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The oratory of Kanhaiya Kumar

 

His speech, a striking display of rhetorical skills, is a ringing critique of upper-caste domination and the oppression of the poor.  It is his unsparing indictment of the present government, rather than any so-called “anti-national” activities, that has brought down the power of the state upon him.  It is a reflection of the pathetic composition of this government that Smriti Irani, the Minister of Human Resource Development, a former actress who has barely finished high school, has under her charge the subject of education.  Since the government is incapable of an intellectual or reasoned response to criticism, it wields the power of the stick.  That has been the timeless way of bullies.

 

There is but no question that a battle is looming large between an inept and tyrannical government and those elements within civil society who are deeply committed to the idea of India as an ecumenical democracy that has a long way to go in enabling every Indian to lead an unimpeded life of dignity.  It is also worthy of note that those who are describing JNU as a bastion of Maoist politics, or a breeding ground for terrorists, and who have now branded a young man from one of India’s poorest regions as a sedition-monger, hail from political organizations that contributed not an iota to India’s own freedom struggle.  Many of the present government’s highest-level ministers and functionaries are lifelong members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS), a paramilitary organization staunchly wedded to the idea of India as a Hindu state.  The RSS was implicated in the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Gandhi on 30 January 1948 and the organization was at once banned.  It is their narrow, provincial, and bigoted conception of Indian society that Kumar has contested and his implicit call to join the struggle must be heeded if Indian democracy is not only to survive but thrive.

 

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File Photo of MM Kalburgi

Former Vice-Chancellor of Hampi University, MM Kalburgi, who was shot dead at his Kalyan Nagar residence by unidentified gunmen, in Dharwad, Karnataka on 30 August 2015

A little less than six months ago, on August 30th, M M Kalburgi, described in Indian media reports as an “eminent” writer of Kannada literature, was assassinated by two unidentified young men who had the audacity to shoot him at point-blank range in his own home in the Dharwad district of Karnataka.  Given the colossal ineptitude of the police forces in India, it is no surprise that his assassins have thus far not been tracked down, though the police have put a man described as Rudra Patil on the “most wanted” list for this crime; one can never be certain that those who are apprehended, if at all that happens, will be the real culprits.

 

But let us leave aside the sordid story of Indian police-keeping for the present or the thought that India is one country where the death penalty should never be exercised, even in the “rarest of rare cases”, considering the real possibility that the wrong person will be sent to the gallows.  The assassination of Kalburgi has rightfully been denounced by all sane-minded Indians as another sign of our deeply troubled times.  The nation has been under extreme stress, the news at every turn is not merely disheartening but chilling, and hoodlums and their political patrons rule the streets.  Kalburgi was apparently a very distinguished writer, educator, and literary critic:  he served as the Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi, and was conferred the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006 for Marga 4, a collection of his research articles.  It is as a scholar of vachana literature that he seems to earned the greatest distinction, and several scholars and commentators have speculated that his interpretation of the vachanas, and in particular his critical reading of the 12th century poet-philosopher, Basava, may have offended various members of the dominant Lingayat community for whom Basava remains a supreme figure.  If there is any truth in these claims, it is all the more deplorable that in India we have been reduced to settling intellectual differences through the barrel of the gun.

 

Kalburgi’s assassination has been viewed all across India as a sign of the growing intolerance in Indian society and the assault on reason.   Let us describe the genuinely felt expressions of shock at the cowardly murder of Kalburgi as a settled view, even if there is a tiny coterie of people who have condoned the killings and seek to impose their views through various tactics of intimidation and terrorism.  But this should not excuse us from turning to very different and critically important questions—just so long as we are clear that airing these questions should not even remotely be construed as exculpating the assassins.  Above all, before we pose any further questions about Kalburgi’s murder, let us acknowledge that the mere brute fact of the assassination is a cold and grim truth that casts a dark shadow on India.

Youth Congress members protest

Bengaluru: Youth Congress members protest against the killing of Former Vice-Chancellor of Hampi University M M Kalburgi.

Nevertheless, there is this overwhelming question:  Who is Kalburgi and what do we know of him? And, as I shall dwell upon it later, what are the implications of the ritual incantation of names, even if the names in question are being invoked to condemn brutal acts and issue calls for justice?  Let us recall that Kalburgi’s murder has often been mentioned alongside the equally cowardly and deplorable assassinations of the Marathi writers and scholars, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar.  In Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, and elsewhere, similarly very little was known about Pansare and Dabholkar when their murders took place.  Upon reading the news of Kalburgi’s assassination, and then watching it being constantly replayed on television, I set out to ask some friends and acquaintances in Delhi, where I had arrived the day before his murder, if they had ever heard of Kalburgi.  The answer, in each and every case, was a resounding no.

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Govind Pansare, member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and biographer of Shivaji; attacked on February 16, 2015, and succumbed to his wounds on February 20.

Among those known to me are people who, even if they are not academics or litterateurs, are widely read and even have a passion for reading.  They are conversant with writers and social commentators—and this list is purely random—such as Meghnad Desai, Paul Krugman, and Thomas Piketty, as well as novelists such as Orhan Pamuk, J M Coetzee, and Philip Roth.  If asked about contemporary Indian writers, they can reel off the names of those who have acquired a reputation for themselves in Anglophone Indian literature—Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Neal Mukherjee, to name just a few.   The English-speaking literary class in Delhi may read some Hindi fiction every now and then, though it is not very likely; in that case, some of the contemporary writers who might elicit a bit of attention would include Geetanjli Shree, the poet Mangalesh Dabral, and the late Nirmal Verma.  However, when it comes to contemporary Indian literature in translation, the last person most of them are likely to have heard of is Rabindranath Tagore, who has been dead for a very long time.

 

Lest it should be inferred that I am putting this down to the ignorance of the educated middle-class in Delhi—and we know how much Delhi is abused as the city of philistines, as though Mumbai is just ablaze with writers and serious readers—I should state at once that I, similarly, had absolutely no knowledge of Kalburgi before I heard the news of his assassination.  Of course, I may be an example of ignorance writ large and the case might be closed at once.  But let me plead for a different reading.  I am far from being a specialist in vachana literature, though an education in the 1980s at the University of Chicago, in part under the tutelage of A K Ramanujan, introduced me to the writings of Basava and Mahadeviyakka [also known as Akka Mahadevi, c. 1130-1160).  I have since heard Ramanujan’s translations being critiqued by a few other scholars, but I am no judge of this matter; no one doubts, in any case, that Ramanujan was a brilliant scholar, translator, and literary critic, and that Speaking of Siva itself occupies a significant place in Indian literary history.    But if one knows neither Kannada nor is a specialist in vachana literature, and knows little of Kannada literature beyond, say, the late Ananathamurthy’s Samskara (also translated by Ramanujan), how likely is it that one would know of Kalburgi?

 

There is, of course, the nearly (as it seems) insurmountable problem of translation.  There are long-standing traditions of translations into French and German from English, or into French from German and vice-versa, or into English from various European languages, and the Japanese have been extraordinarily quick at translating significant literary and scholarly works, especially from European languages, into Japanese.  In India, traditions of translation have yet to take root, and of course one recognizes the complexity of the Indian linguistic scene.  Writers who have been conferred the Sahitya Akademi award are in fact more fortunate than those who have not been so honored, since the Akademi’s own mandate requires that writers whose works have won national recognition be made available in English and Indian languages.  Very little of Kalburgi’s work is available in English:  there is a play called Fall of Kalyana, released by an altogether obscure publisher in Delhi, and a collection of his translations of Basava published in Bangalore by the Basava Samiti, which is far from being a household name in most parts of India.  Try finding these translations at a bookstore in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, or Ahmedabad, or even on Flipkart—provided, of course, that one had heard of Kalburgi.  The vast majority of India’s writers who are working in Kannada, Gujarati, Tamil, Assamese, or any of the other Indian languages with enviable literary traditions remain unknown to the rest of their countrymen and women.

 

My set of reflections, however, does not intrinsically touch upon the subject of translation nor do I wish to venture into the question of whether such translations as are available are even adequate let alone of sparkling literary quality.  One consideration is that educated middle-class Indians in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, and Bangalore are far more likely to know something of the West and especially the United States than they are to know of the literary, aesthetic, and intellectual traditions of the rest of their own country.  For the Bengali bhadralok in the nineteenth century and moving into the twentieth century, one went from Calcutta to London—there was nothing beyond.  There are other cities on the horizon now, and those who can afford it in India are flocking to American universities; in many respects, however, the frame remains the same even if elements within the frame have changed and are arranged differently.  The colonization of the Indian mind has just entered another phase.

 

However, beyond all this, there is a yet more troubling question.   The reaction to Kalburgi’s assassination suggests that the aftermath of such acts is now played out as a set piece.  An assassination is just that, and so is the condemnation—and nearly everyone will argue, quite reasonably, that a condemnation of an abomination loses nothing by virtue of the fact that the condemnation is made both in ignorance and as a collective act of catharsis.  But perhaps we should pause a little to reflect on the ethical implications of such incantatory acts of denunciation.  Assuming, as also seems quite reasonable, that very few of those who joined in the denunciation of Kalburgi’s murder had even the faintest idea of who he was, other than what they had read in the papers or heard on television hours beforehand, is there at least a touch of inauthenticity in their actions?  Some will argue that authenticity is of little consequence in the face of a public emergency, but it is possible to adopt the opposite positon and suggest that authenticity matters the most precisely when the stakes are so high.  Surely, if there is a touch of inauthenticity or more, does that not compromise the action itself?  And, more significantly, is it possible to infer that inauthenticity in acts of denunciation is perceived as such by the perpetrators of assault and assassination and that it viewed as a provocation to greater acts of infamy?  Does the inauthentic diminish the prospects of a dialogue?  Surely we do not believe that bringing the perpetrators to justice, and let us hope for such an outcome, will clear the poisonous air?  It is not only the assassinations and lynchings that have rocked India, but even those responses that we deem to be enlightened and marks of progressive thinking, that open up deeply troubling questions about who we are as a people and the future of the nation.

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Protest at Kollam against the murder of Professor Kalburgi.

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 The gifted Indian writer Raja Rao, in introducing Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s memoirs, Inner Recesses Outer Spaces (1986), did Kamaladevi (3 April 1903-29 October 1988) the unusual honor of describing her as “perhaps the most august woman on the Indian scene today.  Firmly Indian and therefore universal, highly sophisticated both in sensibility and intelligence, she walks with everyone, in city and country with utter simplicity.”

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

We shall not linger on what exactly Raja Rao may have intended to convey when he suggested that she was firmly Indian and “therefore” universal, for surely not everything Indian is universal, nor does India, whatever the conceit of those who always applaud it as the “greatest” or oldest civilization, have a monopoly on the “universal”.  The greater puzzle is why Kamaladevi, who left behind the impress of her intelligence, insights, and remarkable energy on everything that she touched, and whose contributions to so many diverse fields of human activity are such as to stagger the imagination, is so little remembered today in India and is virtually unknown outside the country.

Born into a Saraswat Brahmin family in Mangalore, Kamaladevi was initiated into politics at an early age.  Her memoirs are scanty on early dates and details:  she lost her father, who had not written a will, when she was but seven years old, and the family wealth and properties all went to a stepbrother with whom there was little contact.   At a stroke, Kamaladevi and her mother were left disinherited.  This dim awareness of the precariousness of women’s lives would, in time, lead to the recognition that, as she wrote in her memoirs, “women had no rights”.  At the home of her maternal uncle, Kamaladevi received another kind of political education:  he was a notable social reformer and visitors to the home included eminent lawyers, political luminaries, and public figures, among them Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Srinivas Sastri, Pandita Ramabai, and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru.  Throughout, however, Kamaladevi’s mother and grandmother left the deepest impression on her.  Both women were educated, ecumenical in their interests, and enterprising, and it is from them that Kamaladevi inherited her own love of books.

Kamaladevi

Like many educated upper-caste Hindu women of her generation, Kamaladevi was brought into the political life of the nation in the 1920s and 1930s by the ascendancy of Gandhi and his insistence on adhering to a nonviolent struggle.  Kamaladevi’s relationship to Gandhi, whom she acknowledged as a titan without peers, is a vast and complex subject.  By 1923, she had fallen under his spell and she enrolled herself in the nationalist struggle as a member of the Congress party.  Three years later, she had the unique distinction of being the first woman in India to run for political office.  Kamaladevi competed for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly and lost by a mere 55 votes.  Along with the rest of the nation, she was completely captivated by the Salt Satyagraha, but she differed with Gandhi’s decision to exclude women among the initial group of marchers.  Though Kamaladevi was charged with violation of the salt laws and sentenced to a prison term, the most dramatic moment that brought her to the nation’s attention occurred when, in a scuffle over the Congress flag, she clung to it tenaciously.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

While Kamaladevi’s admiration for Gandhi never wavered, and the ideals to which he aspired became her own, she occasionally felt stifled by the authoritarian strands within his personality and felt restless at the slow pace of change.  She had been slowly drifting towards the socialist wing of the Congress party and in 1936 she took over leadership of the Congress Socialist Party.  Meanwhile, Kamaladevi had been establishing extraordinary networks of political solidarity within and outside India.  In 1926 she met the Irish-Indian suffragette Margaret Cousins, who founded the All India Women’s Conference and remained its President until Kamaladevi assumed that role in 1936.  Kamaladevi’s first writings on the rights of women in India date to 1929; one of her last books, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, was published in 1982.  Over a period of some five decades, Kamaladevi articulated in dozens of writings and speeches a distinct position, one that was mindful of the liabilities faced by Indian women that were both peculiar to them and common to women everywhere.  While she became an advocate of positions that are now commonplace to women’s movements all over the world, such as equal pay for equal work, she also resisted the idea that the experience of the West was to furnish the template for women’s movements in India.

Kamaladevi was, however, also a key figure in the international socialist feminist movement.  From the late 1920s to the 1940s and beyond, Kamaladevi became not only an emissary and spokesperson for Indian women and political independence, but for larger transnational causes, such as the emancipation of colored people around the world from colonial rule and political and economic equity between nations.  She attended the “International Alliance of Women in Berlin” in 1929, only to become aware of how race and national boundaries might become obstacles to the solidarity of women:  it was a “misnomer” to call it “International”, she says, as the only non-Western representatives were from Egypt and India.  At the International Session of the League Against Imperialism in Frankfurt, Kamaladevi could discuss problems encountered in common by colonized peoples in West Africa, North Africa, Indochina, the American south, and elsewhere.  Though this has never been recognized as such, Kamaladevi facilitated India’s emergence as the leader of the non-aligned movement and the crafting of the Bandung Declaration of 1956 which was nothing other than a clarion call for a fundamental reordering of the world order.

Kamaladevi was a prolific writer, and her twenty odd books furnish unimpeachable evidence of the wide array of her intellectual and political interests, and a global outlook which shunned alike a narrow nationalism and a superficial cosmopolitanism.  She traveled to Nanjing and Chongqing and met with resistance leaders during the country’s occupation under Japanese rule:  from this resulted a small book, In war-torn China (1944).  Yet, given her spirit of inquiry, she also took it upon herself to visit Japan and came to the conclusion, in Japan:  Its Weakness and Strength (1944), that the Japanese, who had sought to be the vanguard of a pan-Asianism, had bloodied their hands with the most virulent strands of materialism and imperialism.  She is also among a handful of people in India in the 1930s-1950s who wrote widely on the US.  In Uncle Sam’s Empire (1944) and America:  The Land of Superlatives (1946), she reverses the gaze.  Reams and reams have been written of the saffron robe-clad monk, known to the world as Swami Vivekananda, visiting Chicago in 1993 and thereby bringing Hinduism to the New World; and yet we know little of the sari-clad Kamaladevi wandering around the United States, making her way into prisons, union meetings, political conventions, black neighborhoods, and American homes, and leaving behind the distinct impressions of an Indian feminist with strong nationalist and socialist inclinations of the possibilities and limitations of the experiment with democracy.

Kamaladevi was arguably the best traveled Indian woman of her generation, and built up a resume of foreign trips that enabled her to enhance remarkably international networks of political solidarity; yet, as her work in social, political, and cultural domains amply showed, she remained solidly grounded in the ethos of Indian life.  The lives of common people were of abiding interest to her. The city of Faridabad today has a population of around 1.5 million; but hardly anyone is aware of the fact that Kamaladevi played the critical role in giving birth to this industrial township, a flagship project that she undertook as the founding leader of the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) to resettle nearly 50,000 Pathans from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the wake of the post-partition migrations.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

The Kamaladevi that most Indians are familiar with is a figure who, above all, revived Indian handicrafts, became the country’s most well-known expert on carpets, puppets, and its thousands of craft traditions, and nurtured the greater majority of the country’s national institutions charged with the promotion of dance, drama, art, theatre, music, and puppetry.  It must seem strange to those acquainted with the first half of her life that someone who was so intensely political should have eschewed every political office in independent India.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi.  Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi. Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Did she abandon “the political center” as she acquired prominence as an authority on India’s craft traditions and the country’s tribal populations?   Greatly disillusioned by the partition, Kamaladevi had come to recognize that India was not going to even remotely take the shape that she had envisioned at the dawn of freedom.  However, it may be a mistake to partition her life in this fashion.  Her life offers many cues about the intersection of politics and aesthetics and in her resolute insistence on autonomy and the integrity of every life we find the threads that enable us to fold the various Kamaladevis into one majestic figure.

[The Plural Universe of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, co-edited by Ellen DuBois and Vinay Lal, will be published by Zubaan Books, New Delhi, in 2016.]

(Originally published in the Indian Express, Sunday Magazine (The Eye), 25 October 2015, as “A Beautiful Mind:  Looking Back at the Life of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay”

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