A book review in the Friday Review section of the Chennai edition of this paper titled “Those murder mysteries” (March 29, 2013) is an entry point to explore what readers may miss if a reviewer does not take an excursion in erudition to contextualise a book. The Tamil book, Prabhala Kolai Vazhakkugal, in question is about 10 criminal cases that captured the imagination of the vast majority in the last century. The reviewer wonders why the author gave a disproportionate coverage for a single case — the Bhawal Sannyasi case, which accounts for nearly half of the book.
The Bhawal Sannyasi case is the subject matter of the narrative history written by one of the world’s major political theorists, Partha Chatterjee. A founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective, Prof. Chatterjee embarks on a fascinating study to bring out multiple nuances of what constitutes a complex rubric called nationalism. Titled “A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal,” the study was first published by Princeton University Press in 2002, and had subsequent paperback editions both in India and elsewhere.
Range of questions
It was Chatterjee who located this lengthy case that started in a district collector’s office in 1921 and ended with a Privy Council ruling in 1946 within the discourse of nationalism and de-colonialisation. Chatterjee says: “The Bhawal case provoked a large popular literature in the 1920s and 1930s that took a completely different perspective from that of the judges. In addition, my story is peopled by several women who played roles quite different from those depicted in the judicial discourse…. Faced with the facts of the momentous consequences on individual lives of the decisions of governmental authorities, the historian cannot, I agree, remain indifferent to the question of truth. Whether he can always find it is, of course, another matter.”
The exhaustive 650-pages-long book is not about murder mystery; it is about a range of questions relating to the theory of history, governance and transfer of power. Chatterjee’s story was constructed “entirely out of information that can be attributed to definite sources; all gaps in information left unfilled, and speculative remarks have been appropriately flagged.” And this resulted in a narrative “in which the truth turns out to be undecidable”. But neither the Tamil book nor its review acknowledges the seminal research of Partha Chatterjee. Further, there was no murder and the case was about identity — was the fakir indeed a prince?
In The Hindu
This is actually a symptom of a larger malaise: the indifferent treatment meted out to the knowledge production systems in Indian languages compared to English. This paper’s approach to books and ideas in English is enviable. There is a regular weekly review section that does a systematic introduction to major books that have hit the stands. The reviews are erudite, incisive and insightful.
Creative writing in English gets adequate coverage in the Sunday Magazine and in the Literary Review section. Columns by Pradeep Sebastian and Navtej Sarna have both: gravitas and readability. They delve deep and are never satisfied with scratching the surface. Earlier, the paper had absorbing columns on books by Ravi Vyas, Nirmala Lakshman and David Davidar. The coverage of books in English displays a sense of rigour, a well-thought out deployment of analytical tools, a craft that makes the complex accessible to every one and paves way for important narratives to become an everyday engagement of the readers.
However, the same cannot be said about the way Indian writings in Indian languages are covered. A regular reader of The Hindu will effortlessly know that Amitav Ghosh has just published two volumes — Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke — of his Ibis trilogy and it may finally not be a trilogy as the author feels that he may not be able to stop with three. Interviews with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie by Mukund Padmanabhan are recollected with relish by many who are engaged in the world of letters.
The profound changes in the literary world of Indian languages fail to secure their due space. Do we know what is the latest novel of Konangi or when did poet Gnanakoothan publish last in Tamil? Do we know what are the experiments that are happening in Kannada? Or why the revolutionary fervour generated by leftist poets in the seventies and eighties have given way for more meditative verses in Telugu? Who are the new rising stars of Malayalam writings? What links Dalit writers across the languages and how did the universe of Pan-Indian Dalit writing emerge? Who are the contemporary literary icons defining new boundaries in Hindi? What is happening in Urdu literature? Has the overreach of Hindi hurt Punjabi literature? Is there still a symbiotic relationship between what is written in Dhaka and Kolkata? It is hard to answer any of these questions by just reading the English dailies alone.
Some of the writers, critics and public intellectuals felt that this paper fails to make a distinction between literature and pulp, important and insignificant when it comes to writings in Indian languages. They are absolutely right. Time has come to rectify this anomaly.