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A Good Life


Susan Visvanathan

ROBERT CALDWELL: A SCHOLAR MISSIONARY IN COLONIAL SOUTH INDIA
By Y. Vincent Kumaradoss
ISPCK, Delhi, 2007, pp. 300, Rs. 180.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 5 May 2008

I enjoyed reading this book, though as local histories go, it is extremely dense and detailed. Missionary history is a specialist domain, because it chronicles 19th century lifeworlds, very far removed from present circumstances. For those who have an interest, as supporters or antagonists to missionary lives, the narratives are infused with a specific subjectivity. Kumaradoss is able to transcend this boundary, being a well trained historian, who knows that subjectivity in method is about reading faults, as much as it is about valorizing contributions. While looking at a story about ‘good works’, the mission historian is someone who also knows that the history of colonialism is incomplete without reading the careful nature of chronicling, that went into the telling of that story. Narrative ‘reconstruction’ is what the mission archives provide for us. It is interesting for me, as a reader and writer of mission history, that Kumaradoss who is Professor at Madras Christian College, Tambaram (which is such a significant historical site for mission conclaves as described by Gerald Studdert) should rework his own commitment, to historical reconstruction and faith, as interweaving facets of a narrative. It follows the tradition set by Geoffrey Oddie who believed, very early, that travellers’ and missionary accounts were important documentary sources. It supports M.S.S. Pandian’s view that colonialism and lower caste conversions should not be wished away as problems of a nefarious interpretation that it was all ‘rice Christianity.’ People have a right to the faith of their choice.   Mission history is thus an important tool towards reading one’s identity in modern India, which understands well the comforts of Anglicization, if one happened to be within the circle of benefits, whether of commerce and or education. Such subjects concede the benefits of colonialism, (like school textbooks of the 1960s, which listed communication and print for instance), which is an honest thing to do, if it has benefited one. Kumaradoss forages not only amongst his family memories for several generations within the dynamic tools of oral tradition, letters and memorabilia such as photographs and household mnemonics, including village layout and buildings, but also believes, as so many of us do, that archives abroad can help in this retelling. Twenty-two individuals and organizations provided the money required for his travels to distant libraries which made this work possible. I am sure the trustees who gave so generously will be pleased with ...


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