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Shifting, Contextual Discourse of Power

Susan Visvanathan

By G. Arunima
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 223, Rs. 450.00


This is a tensely argued book, which was submitted perhaps a decade ago in Cambridge, as a doctoral thesis. I have heard interesting snippets of it at seminars, at Teen Murti Library (NMML) and the Institute of Economic Growth since 1995 or so, and have been waiting for it to be in print for many years. Orient Longman has fortunately taken the responsible decision of seeing this work come to general view. There will be many different ways of reading the material provided by Arunima, and for anthropologists particularly, classroom teaching will take on a different hue with the reading of this book. Contentious or not, the attention that this book will receive in the coming years cannot be doubted. It is a complex weaving of legal cases, newspaper accounts, family histories and fiction, of that disturbing period of the colonial confrontation with tradition, when matriliny became patriliny, in the matter of decades marked by sustained litigation.   It is indeed curious that judgements in law courts are such a substantial source for history writing or anthropological reading. Perhaps the scrutiny to which law court judgements are always put under, by a knowing and knowledgeable public, makes the judiciary a self aware institution of significant scribes. My work on the Syrian Christians, which was also a doctoral dissertation submitted to Delhi University in 1987, and published in 1993 as The Christians of Kerala, depended heavily on law court cases. So it is here that I wish to make the first set of comments.   At one level legal discourses are open to scrutiny, at another level, they represent the tussle with dominant voices in the community —whether in assent or discordance, they communicate the rage and the desire of that time. I think Arunima has handled very neatly, the spaces by which a conversational space of doubt in family courtyards or neighbourhood streets become larger and more organized as social currents which then are represented in newspapers, fiction, and outright activism to bring about change. Laws don’t just appear – there is a cumulative space where the debates are first voiced then legitimated. This is her most subtle contribution in the book and she uses her materials well. It also puts to test the comfortable assumption that customary law is a homogeneous space from which death, birth and marriage can be judged as a site where Hindu law and patriarchy can be discussed. Clearly there ...

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