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Going Beyond Narrative Histories

G. Arunima

By Prathama Banerjee
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. vii 273, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 12 December 2007

Prathama Banerjee’s rigorously argued book Politics of Time is both a meditation on questions central to contemporary theoretical concerns—namely modernity, subjectivity and agency—as also an exegesis on the colonial Bengali preoccupation with the past. In that sense this book is centrally about History—about how the past becomes an object of remembrance and narration, and how this act then transforms itself into not just a discipline, but knowledge itself. It is also a book of encounters—between the Bengali Hindu bhadralok and their ‘primitive’ Other, the Santal tribals of Bengal; between colonialism and the Bengali intelligentsia, and the concomitant experience of alterity among the Bengali; and between different perceptions of selfhood, of the Santal and the Bengali. These encounters, particularly that between the Bengali and the Santal, according to Banerji, constitute the definitional moment in creating the ‘condition’ called colonial modernity.   Working with what she calls ‘a singular, temporal definition of modernity’, Banerji argues that the experience of modernity of the Bengali was contingent on rendering the Santal ‘primitive’—thereby creating the non-modern, ‘backward’ Other, of their own putative modern subjectivity. In a curious mimicking of the project of colonialism, the Bengali bhadralok’s emergent self definition as ‘modern subjects’ was a paradoxical enterprise. On the one hand, this involved distancing themselves from the Santal (by rendering them ‘primitive); on the other, it was imperative that the redefined ‘primitive’ Santal should coexist within the same timeframe of the modern, thereby acting as the ‘backward’ referent that exemplified the modernity of the Bengali. It is this temporal double bind—of at once denying modernity, and thereby history and agency to the Santal, yet demanding their anachronistic presence within the Bengali life world—that underwrites the insistent, almost obsessive, preoccupation with history writing in colonial Bengal.   What was then the trajectory of history writing in 19th and early 20th century Bengal? For the colonized Bengali, tackling the ‘primitive within’ assumed far greater significance than the threat posed either by the encounter with colonialism, or indeed the reconstituted memory of historic defeat at the hands of Muslim ‘invaders’. Banerji makes a persuasive argument for the conflict between the modern and the primitive, or arya and anarya, assuming foundational significance in early Bengali historiography—one that was supposed to provide answers for the colonial condition—from economic backwardness and political subjugation to a virtual absence of historical identity. In that sense, ...

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