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Myriad Ramifications of Self-Immolation

Amiya P. Sen

By Andrea Major
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 231, Rs. 625.00


It is not often, I imagine, that a subject is able to draw forth two landmark produc- tions in fairly quick succession. Happily, this indeed has been the case with ‘sati’ and particularly, modern readings thereof. In 1998, interested readers woke up to a startlingly new thesis in Lata Mani’s Contentious Traditions* that took the issue out of its standard, unproblematized ‘social reform’ framework and placed it in the arena of contestations. Sati, in Lata Mani’s understanding, was the fulcrum on which a redefinition of Indian tradition itself rested. It was, equally, an issue around which boundaries of legitimate state intervention had to be redrawn or the parameters of colonial control renegotiated. However, this thesis, though widely acclaimed, also apparently had its critics—almost at its inception, one might say, for, I noticed that research for the present work that departs so significantly from that of Lata Mani, was begun by 1999, i.e barely a year later.   In the work under review, Andrea Major examines at length, changing British and European perceptions of sati and other matters that came to be discursively associated with it. The image of sati was not only an object of interest by itself but one that also came to be tied up with other public debates over gender, suicide, religion or the treatment of the human body. This, as our author claims, coincided with shifts in the nature of public concerns and varying perceptual frameworks adopted for each. Thus, whereas in the 18th century, sati was largely understood in terms of religious practices, in the 19th, it became more closely linked with anxieties related to the status of women. It is at this point that the arguments put forth by Mani and Major begin to depart from one another. The former, by focusing on official attitudes towards sati, grounds her arguments on matters like political expediency. The latter, by comparison, appears to take greater cognizance of public culture and ideology. Whereas Mani would have us believe that sati was used primarily to emphasize the Hindu’s cultural ‘otherness’ and therefrom to vindicate the political agenda of colonialism, Major throws open a new aspect to this issue by demonstrating how sati was often understood through a location of similarities and resonance with western society and ideas. After all, patriarchy, depicting the woman as the weaker and the more corruptible of the two sexes or the ...

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