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Debating Assumptions

Rosinka Chaudhuri

By Ruth Vanita
Yoda Press, Delhi, 2005, pp. 316, Rs. 350.00


The images associated with the names in the title of this book are yoked together in an uncommon association; one does not normally associate Gandhi with the tiger or Sita with a smile. If the purpose of the usage is understood as an attempt to make the reader pause, rethink and re-evaluate the conventional, then the strategy succeeds not only at the level of the title but also in terms of the content of the book, for each of the essays in this book is an attempt to dismantle taken-for-granted assumptions in both everyday life and academia. Ruth Vanita has the credentials to easily access both spheres comfortably, her working experience as an activist and co-founder of the women’s magazine Manushi on the one hand and as a teacher of English and author of several books on the other contributing to a range of topics and style of address. Essays on postcolonial theory sit hand in hand with readings of popular Hindi films, expositions on gender and the construction of the female intellectual in India share space with a reflection on the evolution of women’s surnames.   The tiger in the title of the essay ‘Gandhi’s Tiger: Multilingual Elites, the Battle for Minds, and English Romantic Literature in Colonial India’ refers to a quotation from Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj used as an epigraph to the essay: ‘…we want English rule without the Englishman. You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India English… That is not the Swaraj that I want.’ Paradoxically, of course, as Vanita points out, the tiger is symbolic of the East both in western literature and eastern usage, whether in Blake’s famous representation in ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright / in the forests of the night’ or in Tipu Sultan’s choice of the tiger as his emblem. Vanita comments that ‘to suggest that by becoming tiger-like, Indian rule would become more English than Indian, is odd, because tigers, animals native to India, not England, had a long-standing pre-colonial association in India both with sovereignty and with power’, citing its association with Shaiva traditions and its incorporation as the vehicle of the warrior goddess Durga to prove her point. Conceivably, however, it was perhaps precisely this alliance of the tiger with power that made Gandhi envisage the colonizer as tiger; the associative implications of the tiger ...

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