Encountering the Unusual
Amiya P. Sen
WRITING THE SELF: THE LIFE AND PHILOSOPHY OF A DISSENTING BENGALI BAUL GURU by Jeanne Openshaw Oxford University Press, 2010, 217 pp., 895
July 2010, volume 34, No 7

As with earlier works by the author, Writing The Self is a book that I read with avid interest. And having read the work it would be quite uncharitable of me not to admit that there is much on offer here. First, there is the sheer excitement of encountering the unusual: in this case, an autobiographical fragment written by a Baul. The Bauls of Bengal, most of whom identify themselves with the ‘living’, ‘natural’ or the contemporaneous (in Baul idiom, bartaman), as against the ways of conventional society (which they label as anuman) are not particularly known for their cultural nostalgia or commemorating the self. Arguably, this sets them apart from the bhadralok, who, ironically, were instrumental in revealing them to the public gaze. The discovery of the fragment and its painstaking deconstruction by our author did prove to be insightful and instructive as indeed I had anticipated, revealing newer complexities internal to quotidian culture.

Happily, Openshaw does not stop at merely re-narrativizing a narrative but boldly confronts larger questions endemic to studies in history and cultural anthropology. Frankly, the autobiography itself (Jiban Charit by Raj Khyapa, 1869-1946) is quite unspectacular; it is the creatively original way in which this is read that catches the eye.

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