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Of Changing Dynamics

Nandini Dey

By Peter Robb
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 336, £31.99


Peter Robb’s third book drawn from the diaries of one Richard Blechynden (1759–1822)—architect, surveyor, and civil engineer, who moved permanently to Calcutta in 1791—focuses on the ‘special meaning and function’ of friendship among Europeans, and between Europeans and Indians in early colonial Calcutta. It must be stated outright that the term ‘friendship’, as it is employed in the book, frequently does not adhere to its definition found in any common dictionary, or even to the obvious interpretation that comes to mind of referring to a relationship based on familiarity and mutual affection. Rather, as the book moves from anecdote to anecdote and incident to incident, the term finds itself open to scrutiny, as the relationships themselves are often used (and abused) by the various characters that make an appearance in these tales. I say tales, because Robb’s book, while undoubtedly a work of high scholarship and meticulous research, reads more like a novel with characters that inspire both awe and contempt for the accounts of the seemingly rampant corruption in the days of a bygone Calcutta.  After Sentiment and Self and Sex and Sensibility,1 the first two volumes based on the Blechynden diaries, Robb turns his attention to the social, economic and political spheres where ‘friendship’ and personal connections played an extensive role in the very structuring of these domains. A common occurrence was to appoint or recommend the appointment of a nephew or cousin to a position in the government, or securing work contracts through prior personal contact. What is striking about this, and throughout the book, is that while there is a notion of this being a time when colonial rule was still very much in its early phase, the structures of bureaucracy involved in drawing up contracts for public works, the norms of debt and credit-taking, and the best practices of dealing in trade and administration were not only established, but entrenched deeply enough for various officials to find ways around them to an extent that corruption was not an exception, but almost a monotonously routine occurrence. This was also the time, however, when rules and procedures became increasingly more bureaucratic, and any appointments made based on personal connections were frequently exposed and subjected to investigation. Robb argues that as institutions became more formalized and objective, the ‘uses of friendship’ changed as a social response to ‘modernity’ (pp. 38–41).Modernity was and remains defined in largely ...

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