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Translating a Category

David Lelyveld

By Margrit Pernau
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. xxxvi 504, Rs. 995.00


Middle class, middle classes, bourgeoisie—these terms entered English and other European languages in a range of meanings and connotations with the rise of industrial capitalism in the late 18th century. The sociological traditions of Marx and, later, Weber, attempted both to generalize and to lend some precision to the concept of class by relating it specifically to the ways people are sorted out in terms of economic relations and social control. But the concept of class also carries a good deal of cultural baggage as the basis of social solidarity and conflict, manifested in such matters as taste, manners, language, friendship, love and other forms of association. While conceding the relevance of economic relations, Margrit Pernau is more interested in the cultural and ideological dimensions of group formation. Her project attempts to identify ‘the Muslim middle class’ in nineteenth century Delhi, which means that she wants to ‘translate’ this category, middle class, from its European application to one that would be useful in the study of Indian history.   Pernau is aware that in telling the oft-told story of the transition from status to contract, from Gemeinschaft and Gesell-schaft, from enchantment to secularization, from ascription to achievement—in short, from tradition to modernity—she is in danger of imposing the ‘grand narrative’ of Euro-America on to India and measuring the differences, the failure to match the model, as India’s insufficiency. She nevertheless defends the project as one of comparative, global, ‘entangled’ history that offers insights not only to the study of India but to the study of Europe, and more specifically, Germany. Originally published in German,1 the purpose of this book was to establish ‘a dialogue with the mainstream of historiography in Germany.’ The entanglement of this entangled history is the powerful, sometimes violent intervention of British colonial domination as a vehicle for social and cultural innovation by way of example, incentive, or stimulus to resistance. With respect to time and space, among the British as well as the Indians, she is attentive to variation, overlap, inconsistency and change.   The term ashraf refers to people who are sharif, exalted, eminent or noble. In the Arabic speaking world, this applies specifically to descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. In nineteenth century India, these terms shifted meaning. Pernau puts particular, I would say unwarranted, emphasis on a work by Mirza Muhammad Hasan Qatil, otherwise known as Dilwali Singh, ‘the khatri of Faridabad’, ...

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