Cultural Signifiers
by A.R. Venkatachalapathy , , pp.,
December 2006, volume 30, No 12

Reading this book was as pleasurable as having a cup of that delicious brewed coffee that became a cultural signifier of the Tamil way of life in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. To those who associate scholarship with dullness, I would strongly recommend Chalapathy’s book since it is consistently both scholarly and lively. The book is a collection of nine essays covering a gamut of Tamil experiences from drinking coffee to writing literature and playing politics in colonial Tamil Nadu. The first two essays are definitely seminal to the cultural historian. The first is titled ‘In those Days There Was No Coffee’: Coffee drinking and Middle Class Culture in Colonial Tamil Nadu. This brilliant essay breaks through hierarchy of knowledge and hierarchy of sources that has characterized much of history writing. The hierarchy of knowledge is primarily created by looking at canonical texts in Sanskrit and their interpretation in English books written by Orientalists, Nationalists or any other brand of historical scholarship characterized by one ‘ism’ or another. Chalapathy uses collective memory, biographies, fiction and oral traditions to reconstruct the cultural past of the Tamils and in so doing, opens up refreshingly new dimensions to the study of social history.

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