Friday, February 19, 2010

maria misra: vishnu's crowded temple

#15 Vishnu's Crowded Temple: India After The Great Rebellion, Maria Misra

[Caveat before I start: I'm a very casual reader of history.]

The faux-exoticist title is justified on the first page: Misra opens the book with a short account of the Guruvayur temple in Kerala (incidentally, my family's hands-down bestest and most favourite ever place of worship bar none) and the struggle over making it open to lower-caste Hindus in the years before and after 1947. The one-step-forward, two-steps-back process of this achievement, Misra suggests, is illustrative of the entire process of India constructing its modernity (which Misra has to make clear for her largely non-Indian audience). The stated goal of this book is to trace India's self-construction of its modernity through the years after the Mutiny. This project is divided into three interlinked parts - the heyday of late 19th-century colonialism, the Congress-led change in India's image leading up to 1947, and the country's successes and failures in negotiating modernity, both in relation to its past and to the global present, in the years after independence.

So I kind of forgot all about this underlying thesis because Misra also does, for long stretches of the book: she just likes to tell the stories, and she's good at that. She goes full throttle through her first two excellent chapters on British imperialists and their creepy racist obsession with royalty and the caste system, and their interference in these structures to rigidify and oppress an originally more fluid society. I'm always amazed that the government didn't cram all this into our history books in school - Misra retells a lot of stuff Indian kids learn at a young age, but she gives them a life and depth that the state-board texts don't really provide. Of course, this is nothing compared to what they will hide from you about the beginnings of the nationalist movements. The Maharashtra Board will tell you that the public celebrations of Ganpati were started by Tilak in the interests of Indian nationalism and self-image. But it can't admit that to do this, at least in Bombay, he crushed the public celebrations of a festival that already had a long tradition of multi-faith celebration and subversive native pride: Muharram.

Misra puts all this together in a layered, dense narrative. She avoids cultural history for the most part, unless it ties in directly with her exploration of the political process. This is probably a good thing - two of the weakest bits in the book are her (short) digressions on British-era cricket and Sholay. Mercifully, she plays to what I thought was her main strength in the middle chapters: political biography. There is Gandhi, whom Misra plainly finds a little distasteful, but whose work and philosophies she assesses scrupulously. There is Nehru, whom Misra obviously thinks is the bee's knees*, but whose failures she reports without flinching. The only jarring note in her superb chapter on the Nehru years (called 'The Last Viceroy') is her concluding paragraph, in which she writes that Nehru, although he is now popularly seen as a tragic hero with a fatal flaw - excessive idealism - he was really a fighter; just one who was betrayed by the system he hoped would support him. This is a pretty self-defeating argument - and let's not forget how many people (Rajagopalachari and Ambedkar, among others) legitimately felt let down by him. My grandfather and I were talking about him the other day, and he said what I have heard from many people who lived through the early years of Independence - that Nehru was a great man, and his one fault was that he refused to be a dictator. Misra's saving grace from that puzzling final contention of hers is that she obviously disagrees.

The third person, of course, is Indira Gandhi. Here Misra gives up some of the authority that characterises her analyses of Gandhi and Nehru and prefers a more dispassionate, declarative tone. Her view of the Emergency is by and large that of the commentator who said that it was a failure of a dictatorship, that its opponents failed to overthrow (Contentious, I know). On the other hand, her criticism of Operation Blue Star and Sanjay Gandhi is scathing, and her assessment of Rajiv is unsentimental and brusque. Then she spends about half a page on the '84 riots. It escapes me why Misra, throughout the later portions of the book, chooses to spend so little time on what has been one of the defining conditions of urban India and its own grappling with modernity: institutionalised political violence in the form of riots. She sees them as part of the pathologies of the State, effects of its cultural process. But they are also the causes in some important ways.

LALALA OMG TALKING A LOT. Quickly, two other things about the book I liked: 1) her potted history of the facts, opinions, benefits and fallouts of liberalisation, and 2) her frequent running comparisons of how South India has developed political and social modernity differently from the North - in fact, I wish there had been more of this in the book. I also have two major quibbles. The first is objective: my edition of the book (a yellow-coloured paperback that I can't find an online link to right now) is riddled with elementary editorial errors. No one should let stuff like 'Champaram' for Champaran or 'Lakshmi' for 'Lakshman' pass by, and I hope other editions are better proofed.

My second major quibble is a bit of Hollywood criticism*. It is her general indifference to challenging the popular status quo (I'm less sure about the academic one). Why not talk about subaltern voices? Why not tackle how the lives of women or children have changed through the years? Why not examine the changing dynamic and rhetoric surrounding the relationship of urban and rural India? I understand that it may not be in the scope of Misra's project to challenge a mainstream consensus: we may at least generally agree that independent India's expectations of modernity have been shaped by the objects of her focus on this book. She aims for balance as well as decisiveness, accessibility as well as depth. I will stick my neck out on her behalf, and say that she writes as fairly as the somewhat self-selecting inclinations of her thesis allow her to do. This book definitely isn't a people's history; but I think it can justifiably argue that it tells a nation's history.

* - You're never liberal enough for everyone.

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