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‘My Son’s Inheritance’ review: A culture of violence

Scholarly discourse on Hindu majoritarianism and allied sectarian violence has generated many books, volumes that have traced the root of these evils to the rise of the political far-right in recent times. Aparna Vaidik’s My Son’s Inheritance goes deeper into Indian history and culture, and shows that instead of being a recent phenomenon, violence, physical and psychic, has been endemic to the Indian socio-polity since ages.

Fiction of peace

Addressed to her son ‘Babu’, the book’s easy-flowing narrative presents violence as both a familial and a national legacy that cannot be wished away. Vaidik locates this violence in communal enmities between the Hindus and the minorities, particularly Muslims, which often validates itself as retributive justice. Deep psychic violence also operated, the author reminds us, among Hindus themselves. Many Indian Muslims and Christians, we are asked to remember, were Hindus of the lower castes, or ‘non-Aryan’ tribals, who converted out of Hinduism because of the torture of untouchability and ostracisation.

Vaidik links the continuance of this people-on-people violence (as distinct from state inflicted violence) to our denial of its existence — to the fiction that we create of the historically peaceful India, the land of the Ganges and of Buddha, wherein many diverse peoples have coexisted peacefully through centuries. “Our looking away from inconvenient truths,”Vaidik argues, is what “makes us either remain silent or glorify non-violence as our essence”. This silence, this deliberate perversion of history not only lets violence go on unabated, it also corrodes us internally and “lynch(es) our souls”.

In support of this argument Vaidik presents illustrations of sectarian violence in the Indian past. She also shows, through examples drawn from her own family and neighbourhood, that the seeds of communal hatred and prejudice are often transmitted inter-generationally, if also unwittingly, among even educated Hindus, and that to this day those germs continue to spawn much wilful misunderstanding and negation of facts.

Cultural nationalism

Vaidik devotes a full chapter to the phenomenon of ‘cow protectionism’, tracing it back to its roots to pre-Independence India, thereby seeming to implicate a certain strain of the freedom struggle in the growth of cultural nationalism in the country. But perhaps the most telling section of the book is its Epilogue, which illustrates the wide prevalence at one time of animal-centred lifestyles among tribal Hindus and the attendant violence to animals, including cows, that would make today’s satvik Hindu nationalists squirm. The graphic descriptions — for example, of raktis or roasted films of goat blood, or of a dish made of the first thick milk of a cow who has just given birth — seem designed to elicit gut-level reactions, and they do. The point — that of the acceptance of cruelty to animals in Hindu lifestyles — is unmistakable.

Vaidik does not end pessimistically, despite her thorough unmasking of the ‘invisible’ presence of violence in the Indian past. In the Epilogue she points out to Babu that he “is free to choose the elements of his inheritance” that he wishes to “own, to discard, ...or even to fight.” It is this implicit message that we have the power to acknowledge and get beyond our legacy of violence that is the crux of the book.

Busting myths

In a volume centred on the idea of violence as a manifestation of power one would have liked some discussion of how a patriarchal social structure generate and sanction gender violence and how violence is often markedly gendered. Vaidik comes close to this issue when she points to the symbiotic relationship between religion and politics, something that people often (choose to) ignore. That religion as a power-system is endemically patriarchal and, therefore, a bed-rock of gender oppression is a well-established fact; one wishes this interesting book took a quick look at this issue vis-a-vis Hinduism.

In all, Vaidik does a rather good job of busting the myth of India’s inherently peaceful and inclusive (Hindu) culture, and the book’s unconventional structure will ensure a wider readership than a straightforward scholarly book normally gets. On the flip side, there is a danger that the story-like format and the designed-to-be understood language of the book would keep it from being taken seriously by scholars of history and Asian studies. That would be unfortunate, for the book has the potential to make an important intervention in the shaping of scholarly conceptualisations of our ancient land.

My Son’s Inheritance; Aparna Vaidik, Aleph, ₹499.

The writer is an academic and a commentator based in Bengal.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 10:24:29 PM |

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