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Encountering the Unusual

Amiya P. Sen

Edited by Jeanne Openshaw
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp. 217+ Appendices, Glossary, Bibliography and Index, Rs. 895.00


As with earlier works by the author, Writing The Self is a book that I read with avid interest. And having read the work it would be quite uncharitable of me not to admit that there is much on offer here. First, there is the sheer excitement of encountering the unusual: in this case, an autobiographical fragment written by a Baul. The Bauls of Bengal, most of whom identify themselves with the ‘living’, ‘natural’ or the contemporaneous (in Baul idiom, bartaman), as against the ways of conventional society (which they label as anuman) are not particularly known for their cultural nostalgia or commemorating the self. Arguably, this sets them apart from the bhadralok, who, ironically, were instrumental in revealing them to the public gaze. The discovery of the fragment and its painstaking deconstruction by our author did prove to be insightful and instructive as indeed I had anticipated, revealing newer complexities internal to quotidian culture. Happily, Openshaw does not stop at merely re-narrativizing a narrative but boldly confronts larger questions endemic to studies in history and cultural anthropology. Frankly, the autobiography itself (Jiban Charit by Raj Khyapa, 1869-1946) is quite unspectacular; it is the creatively original way in which this is read that catches the eye. I have to admit though that at first sight, the title of the book confounded me. For one, the accent on the word ‘dissenting’ seemed superfluous as Bauls and bartaman-panthis are generally taken to be dissenting and non-conformist anyway. However, as I read on, the aptness of the emphasis struck me quite forcefully for, here, there seemed to be dissent within dissent. In Openshaw’s able analysis, the idiosyncracies of our subject come through quite transparently. Raj Khyapa not only spurns the structures of everyday life (as indeed a Baul would be expected to do) but also goes to the extent of committing acts that meet with the disapproval of even fellow-Bauls. One of these is the elopement with a woman named Rajeswar, who was another man’s wife and the mother of a girl-child. More interestingly though, he also refrains from using terms like ‘guru’ and ‘sisya’ or faithfully situating himself within a spiritual lineage. This seems extraordinary, for, even as they rebelled against orthodoxy, the mediation of the guru was an idea that all popular cults strongly adhered to. In Openshaw’s understanding, then, Raj appears to have ushered in some kind ...

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