Reviews

‘Keywords for India: A Conceptual Lexicon for the 21st Century’ review: Constellation of words

‘There are times in history when patterns of memories shift, geography is reconfigured and language unpredictably mutates.’ Recognising and explaining the new world that we inhabit at a time of tumultuous transformation then demands a conceptual, interpretive exercise that can help decode both where we are and where we are heading. When Raymond Williams compiled the iconic Keywords (1976), he was attempting to make sense of post-war Britain, an emerging society and culture where language and words no longer meant what they did earlier. His strategy was to select a set of keywords which would capture the unconscious consensus about value or social reality, words that would reflect not only that which bind us but also the tension of disagreement or division. To state sharply, keywords help provide an entry, a pathway to engaging with the ‘soul’ of a culture/society.

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Ambitious exercise

Imagining keywords for India, a country far more culturally and linguistically diverse than any other, with the possible exception of Papua New Guinea, with multiple histories and traditions, lifestyles, cultures and memories, any effort to draw out commonalities while respecting the divergencies and tensions is both ambitious and audacious. Not only because of the scale and diversity but also because the process of making and unmaking an India of our imagination has never settled. And yet, through all the tumult, there is a new India that is unfolding a new mingling that makes possible a bridging of differences.

In the selection of 259 words drawn from multiple languages, both native and imported, this volume ‘seeks to provide via a constellation of words... a discourse mapping of the present that pertains to India, certainly, but also to a global world desperately in need of new vocabularies,’ in short keywords from as much as for India. Just think of the number of words /phrases from various Indian languages that have now been incorporated in the Oxford English dictionary. Hopefully, this ‘crossing over’ exercise will help foster an understanding of culture from a set of perspectives that counterbalance western ethnocentrism in an increasingly interconnected world.

‘Sogadu to Susegad’

The book brings together contributions from over 200 contributors from not just a variety of academic disciplines but fields of activity — from activists, performers, politicians, planners, scientists, philosophers and others. And while the book is in English, the words have been chosen from a wide range of Indian languages, though it is likely that some of them may not be comprehensible to all, say Sogadu (Kannada) or Susegad (Konkani) outside their cultural zone. The effort is collaborative. Second, unlike conventional scholarly texts where the focus is on high theory, philosophical concepts, this book makes a radical departure by foregrounding lived experience and material culture of common people.

So words like atma, ahimsa, dharma, moksha are discussed alongside more commonplace offerings like lota, balti, jharoo. More playful are words like kismet, pyar, matlabi, adda, baat-cheet and new creations like love marriage, gharwapsi, acronyms like VIP or terms like settled and adjust. Each entry can become the basis for a thesis.

Rich material

Overall, the 259 words have been grouped under seven categories: classical, heritages; contemporary aesthetic modes; economic mantras, media and technological change; intimacies; emancipatory imaginaries; language and self-reflection; and politics and the political, providing rich material on inherited traditions, shared cultural aesthetics, notions of economic power, technological change, intimacies of everyday experience, the nature of freedom, the language of thought and the structure of political power. Together these provide a fascinating entry into contemporary India marked by a melange of discourses that makes for a dialogic, argumentative society.

Scholars are likely to quibble over the selection/ absence of specific keywords or, for instance, the variation in the length of entry, writing style or complexity of treatment. But then, the editors make no claims to being either comprehensive or authoritative. Rather, the reader is invited into a process of engagement, to exorcise, disagree and elaborate on alternative meanings or readings of the words and phrases on offer.

As a result the exercise remains an open-ended one, reflecting a task that is never complete, a truer representation of a society and culture that is constantly transforming.

Keywords for India is a fascinating book, simultaneously illuminating and exasperating. Fortunately, many of the entries are playful, suggestive of the many ways in which common people, not just scholars, appropriate and remould words and languages for multiple purposes. And, importantly, how they travel across cultures, regions, and groups, often in ways that surprise. As such it can be fruitfully read and enjoyed by experts and lay people. Hopefully, it will inspire others into a similar experiment, because only then can we move towards constructing alternative epistemologies of the South as we attempt a swaraj of ideas, a decolonising of our mind.

Keywords for India: A Conceptual Lexicon for the 21st Century; Edited by Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Peter Ronald de Souza, Bloomsbury, ₹2,550.

The reviewer is ex-fellow at the Centre for Studies in Developing Societies.

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