Colonialism as an experience, as a site of conflict, triumph or loss, of nostalgia or repudiation, and as a destination of frequent, involved revisit does not seem to go away. Even if we move out of the Manichaean category and debate as to whether colonialism was the maker or the breaker of the world it once pervaded (can we really use the past tense?), we still seem to look upon colonial experience as one, without allowing nuanced, interactive differentiations within. In the postcolonial ideological jousts that have allowed wider participation in the tournament—the list includes scholars like Edward Said, Nicholas Dirks, Ashis Nandy, Partha Chatterjee, Ronald Inden, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha and others—the West is largely conceived as a singular, privileged agency which impacted the colony, whether as an instrument of conquest through knowledge, or as an intimate enemy, or through the production of derivative discourse or through effecting epistemic violence or some other ways of making sense of colonial experience.
Professor Tanika Sarkar has, in this incisive, interrogative book under review, chosen to move out of ‘the singularity of a binary’ which limits the historian’s, possible engagement with the shifts, mutations, complications, changes, and contradictions that inhere in every historical situation,’ to where ‘the concrete, the palpable, the sensuous—the lived experience within the historical activities of people,’ as of real interest, ‘more than the categories of reified relationships which are usually regarded as historical agents and actors.’ She states her position regarding the relative weight of structure and agency: ‘Rephrasing Marx . . . I like to think that in all situations people make their own history, albeit not under circumstances of their own choosing. This happened to colonized Indians as well, when they faced new intellectual, political, and moral norms and compulsions. How they thought and what they did preserved a high degree of autonomy.’ There were constraints, though. She considers colonial political economy a more important constraint on Indian activity than cultural imperialism or intellectual domination. But ‘even that con straint was not absolute; nor did it function equally strongly against all categories of Indians.’ The book has a varied menu on offer, but constituting a distinct meal with character. It is Bengal-centred, and its colonial context is a defining factor; but each theme is ‘internally pluralized’. It argues that nation-making should be seen as a way of people crafting themselves, ‘somewhat craftily, working insidiously under constraints past and present’.
Of the eight essays that make the polychromatic unity of the book to engage directly with women’s question in the reformist mood of the nineteenth century India. Widow-burning was the most spectacular of the issues over which the reformers and their opponents fought to relate with scriptural sanctions and impress the colonial law-makers. In ‘The Holy “Fire Eaters”’ Tanika Sarkar moves out of the familiar terrain of debate to see how the trope of the widow’s consent, of her agency and non-agency, functioned as an argument in discourses of that period, taking Digambari’s immolation in 1817 as a reference point. She shows that while the British were better off securing the scriptural sanction to their abolitionist project from a scholarly, modern brahmin pandit like Rammohun than from a Kayasth scholar like Radhakanta Deb, the social indoctrination or sanction to the practice of sati or even the freedom it allowed to the woman was ambivalent. She uses the idea of Michele M. Moody-Adams regarding the ‘reality of plural sources of moral thinking in all social systems,’ or better, the Gramscian idea of ‘contradictory consciousness.’ In the Gramscian sense there was always a coexistence of devotional admiration for and muted opposition against widow-burning, and Rammohun merely built upon this mute opposition. The reformers’ shift of attention to the un-burnt widows to secure their remarriage was no less problematic. The essay on ‘Wicked Widows’ shows how the humanity of the issue or the recognition of female sexuality was eloquently fudged by the entrenched patriarchy of the upper-castes, quibble over scriptural definitions of wifehood that outlives the death of the husband, questions of inheritance, and the flourishing social and cultural anxieties over the widow’s sexuality. If, on occasion, the reformers deigned to change the lives of the virgin child-widows, they were yet marooned in the belief that widows’ sexuality, unless held in leash by strict austerity and surveillance, would destroy the social fabric.
In a study of the Balakdashi Vaishnava sect of early modern Bengal Tanika Sarkar explores the complex nodes of intersections of caste and sect in the changing colonial contexts. Though the lower caste guru, Balakdas, had a brahmin teacher and an upper-caste twentieth century hagiographer in Satyendranath Basu. The upper mobility of the lower castes even in the changing times was both qualified and modest. Moving to the early public theatre in colonial Bengal she takes up several points of collision and collusion of state and social powers. Dinabandhu Mitra’s Neel Darpan, Dakshinaranjan Chattopadhyay’s Cha Kar Darpan, or Mir Musharaf Hussain’s Jamidar Darpan were meant to mirror the oppression of the upper classes. While they clashed with the colonial censorship they also moved out of the stranglehold of rich patrons, and using satire and melodrama, they moved into the orbit of middle-class support. Tanika Sarkar points out that in understanding power in colonial modernity one should recognize that ‘sources of power were nearly always pluralized, beyond racial divisions and hierarchies, even in plays dominated by the theme of colonial misrule,’ providing instances of scowling prohibition, subordination or resistance and moments of ‘strange intimacy’.
‘The Birth of a Goddess’ in Bankimchandra’s Anandmath is Tanika Sarkar’s fine, scholarly riposte to the modern political apotheosis of Mother India, produced and publicized through prose, through the novel, the medium of print, and ‘the market for literature . . . used in the service of a goddess’—the new deity sliding ‘smoothly into the Hindu theogony as an always-already-there, a given.’ Although changes in Anandmath’s various editions refuse a closure to the text, the goddess striding its world forces a subjective unity to the novel. Congress nationalists honed in on its anti-British exhortations while the Hindutva ideologues have seized upon its unconcealed hatred against Muslims as both sacred and foundational, and both invoking the goddess and the Song in moments of violence. This political edition of goddess Kali is an embodiment of patriotism, commanding a holy war, demanding devotion and sacrifice and assuring Her Children success. The overpowering significance of the goddess and the song, or for that matter of the holy war, does not merely consist in worship and singing but in forcing conformity on others. But Rabindranath Tagore in his Ghare Baire rejects Bankim’s mode of loving one’s country, and his ‘Questioning Nationalism’ is the theme of Tanika’s next essay. She points out that Tagore had no use for ‘an essential and singular cultural foundation for the people;’ instead he saw endless heterogeneity and perpetual openness as India’s essence and claim to uniqueness. Universalism and humanism was his way of overcoming the pathologies of the nation, which, otherwise, ‘lacking any commitment to continuous self-correction through interaction with others and possessing only an imperative to cultural closure and stasis’ would only be crude celebration of power. Two friends in the novel symbolize this conflict in their totally opposed ways of loving woman and country, while Tagore’s poetic statement in ‘Jana Gana Mana’ harmonizes pluralities.
Engaging still with Tagore, Tanika Sarkar shifts to the register of joy and wonder in ‘The Child and the World’. Moving beyond the analyses of Krishna Kumar and Partha Chatterjee who locate Tagore’s educational ideas to post-Enlightenment western values, Tanika sees a distinctive and individual shape of his pedagogic thinking, deriving it from a certain relationship with the child. For her it belongs to the story-telling mode in which words carry a strong aesthetic charge to refer to their own strangeness and richness. In her last essay on ‘Tribals in Colonial Bengal’ Tanika revisits the theme of Jitu Santal’s rebellion, which she had reconstructed earlier for the Subaltern Studies project. Now she finds in it less of autonomy than re-statement of radical modernity, innovation rather than acculturation or unbroken continuity of earlier tradition. Jitu Santal’s brief reign was intended to displace and absorb within itself a ‘triangulated structure of power: colonial court, tribal manjhi, and the village landlord.’ And in this self-fashioning ‘it was not so different from the reforms that modern middle-class Indians initiated’.
Rebels, Wives, Saints not only makes brilliant reading but also upturns some of the received notions about colonialism or the ways in which nation is said to have discovered itself. It also shows how, contrary to what ideologically shackled advocates or their carping critics proclaim, a historian carrying a leftist flag can yet be free. As Tanika tells us, for her ‘leftist values and aspirations never mean anything more than a commitment to the struggles of subaltern people for justice, democracy, and self-determination, and to the survival of human life and sanity.’ Choice of values is both freedom and its limitations. We live with it, and should learn to celebrate it.