Review of Chandan Gowda’s Another India — Events, Memories, People: When past is present

Why caste hierarchies remain entrenched despite challenges to the system through the ages

December 15, 2023 09:02 am | Updated 09:08 am IST

In the Preface to Another India, Chandan Gowda tells us that he prefers to offer narratives, with minimal interpretive commentary, as pictures of community interaction, spiritual imaginations, and often mythic worlds, as an alternative to logical and analytical reasoning that overwhelms public discussions. He assembles short stories, folk tales, forgotten histories, films, and myths, to celebrate living moral and aesthetic imaginations occluded in modern society. “They reveal the limitations of the modern ideas of progress and development which make people settle for thin views of the world amidst a plentitude of rich cultural visions all around.” We read some fascinating, and some not so fascinating stories, ranging from film star Rajkumar, to millets, to Sri Raghavendra Swamy, to celebrated writer Kuvempu, to ‘the Irish connection’, to Half a life from Mughal India, and to Gandhi, Ambedkar and cultural historians. Some of the essays hold relevance for us, and others less so.

Not distinct worlds 

It is impossible to do justice to each essay, so let me focus on the central issue that Gowda lays before us: the distinction between a disenchanted modernity and colourful tales of the pre-modern era. The pre-modern and the modern are, however, not two distinct worlds. As William Faulkner writes in his Requiem for a Nun, “the past is never dead. It is not even past.” The moderns recast the ancient in novel ways. What appears as new is the appropriation, the reconfiguration and the transformation of tradition. For example, Gandhi’s civil disobedience brings to mind Antigone, but he transformed individual protest into collective action. And then there are continuities. Common to the present and the past is the desire to control political power and resources. The past continues into the present sometimes as memory, sometimes as warning, and always as wisdom, despite the different contexts of our worlds. 

History is a saga of discontinuous continuities as the author shows well in the essay on actor Rajkumar who can portray the two worlds of traditional and modern heroes/values. In an intriguing essay on the hajjam or the barber, the author recounts the lesson taught by Tenali Rama — the high and the low can never change places. This is as true of caste hierarchies today, despite the presence of challenges to the system through the ages.

Gowda’s offer of closely knit communities and thick relationships as an alternative to the thin values of modernity raises questions. There is no magic in modernity. True. But does the Indian mind have to discover magic in the miracles of godmen, as in the essay on Shri Sathya Sai Baba? To think that one man, clad in saintly robes, can control lakhs is frightening. I read the last sentence, that the well-meaning activist’s effort to keep people away from pseudo-holy figures might be better off if it perused its own understanding of the nature of religious belief (p 58) with some unease. Is this religious belief?

Respect for religions

The essay on Sri Raghavendra Swamy and the Nawab of Adoni resonates with its message of reciprocal respect for religions, as does the story of Mastani Maa and that of Sant Shishunala Sharif. Gowda has an interesting piece on the theatre director Prasanna, who suggested that everyone should become a Shudra. Whereas the Brahmin was a metaphor for a life freed of labour, the Shudra stood for physical work and simple living. Quintessentially Gandhian. 

Whether he recounts stories of devotion to village goddesses, snippets from the lives of eminent leaders, folk tales, and tales for children, Gowda holds our attention. Take the piece on D.R. Nagaraj. For Nagaraj, writes Gowda, mystical traditions that revealed hitherto hidden relationships in the world through metaphor were fascinating. A sense of vismaya or wonder and a relish for metaphor which modern scholarship dispensed with, aided the overcoming of cultural amnesia. Edward Said’s Orientalism led to the publication of hundreds of books. But the hundreds of ways in which small communities retained their creativity amidst colonial rule was neglected.

Yes, remembering the past through culture and metaphors is essential because we must know where we come from. Thus, the culture of the past becomes a constitutive aspect of the present. We inhabit the past by reading charming folk tales. And then we negotiate our prosaic everyday life in a capitalist society and rampant consumerism. We might inhabit two worlds or one world that integrates the past as well as the present. Modernity has found ways of incorporating the past as integral to the present. We live in many worlds, the world of technology, the world of mythology, the word of real politics, and the world of protest quite harmoniously, because the past is not past, it is the present.

Another India: Events, Memories, People; Chandan Gowda, Simon & Schuster, ₹699.

The reviewer taught Political Science at Delhi University.

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