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The Kaapi Cats

A scooter ride of a book, whizzing past the intriguing metaphors of Tamil culture

The Kaapi Cats
The Kaapi Cats
In Those Days There Was No Coffee...Writings In Cultural History
By A.R. Venkatachalapathy
Yoda Press Pages: 224; Rs 495
There is a tiredness to social science in India, a feeling that we have produced a whole generation of professionals who are utterly competent but have little that is exciting to say. If one wishes to read social science, one either enters the world of literature to read a U.R. Ananthamurthy or a Salman Rushdie or rushes to see a film by Manmohan Desai or Aparna Sen. But there are a few exceptions to the dullness, authors who write with style, argue with insight and seem to have enormous fun while doing it. The few who come to mind are Ashis Nandy or the late D.R. Nagaraj. There is one more author one might soon add to the list: A.R. Venkatachalapathy.

Chalapathy is a seasoned scholar in Tamil, an author, archivist and historian. He obtained his PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi with what one examiner called an unjnu-like thesis on "the social history of publishing". This set of essays produced in the Yoda series edited by Saurabh Dube is an assorted collection but has some pieces which promise to be great entertainment and scholarship. Chalapathy is a bilingual scholar who wants to argue his politics across two cultures and is playful in his movement between two languages.

The sense of fun is evident in the opening lines itself. Chalapathy begins by citing Isaiah Berlin who once compared himself to a London cab, which went wherever it was hailed. Chalapathy claims he is more like the notorious autorickshaw drivers of Chennai who want to drive their customers to where they themselves want to go. The essays, written over a decade-and-a-half, aim to understand what it means to be intellectually, politically and socially located in the Tamil culture. Chalapathy practises two kinds of biculturalism, one between Tamil and English, and the other a balance between professional and popular audiences.

The first essay and paean to coffee is an ode to Tamil culture and its contradictions. Coffee, as Levi Strauss would say, is not only good to drink but to think about. Coffee, a naturalised white man's drink, was introduced by the Portuguese, who also introduced the original version of the rasogolla. The natives, as the imperial mind put it, took to it with alacrity, abandoning their rice gruel for this bittersweet affair. Coffee was called complexion coffee in the family. It was something that the Brahmin mind needed with that other meticulous creation, The Hindu. Chalapathy chronicles it brilliantly—the social history of coffee, the use of coffee as a literary metaphor, the rise of coffee hotels, the role of coffee as a literary marker. The essay is a gem. It is scholarly, relaxed, and informal without the preening you normally expect of an anthropologist.

The piece on tobacco is also intriguing. Chalapathy comments on how while Gandhi ranted against it, businessmen were happily bringing out the Gandhi cigarette. There are lucid descriptions of tobacco in folklore, down to the chronicling of riddles. Try this one for size.

"First it's green, but then it is not a parrot
Then it turns black, but it is not a crow.
Sprouts everyday, but it is not a betel creeper.
Hangs upside down, but it is not a bat.
What is it?"

If the ode to coffee and tobacco are twinned, there is an equally interesting exploration of the cartoon and autobiography as genres. Chalapathy is insightful on the political role of the Tamil cartoon, differentiating it from Bengali ones, which are more social. The essay on autobiography then unravels the different stages in the appropriation of this genre.

Yet, even for an anthology, this is quite an uneven collection. Some of the essays on language and terminology are nuanced but politically conventional, caught in the history of anti-Brahminism.I have only two complaints: one wishes there was a more central essay reflecting on the problems of culture, and secondly, some of the articles tend to end abruptly as if they have run a furious lap and collapsed in a sudden heap. However, these are minor comments on an interesting work of scholarship, an acute celebration of politics and culture, and an intellectual scooter ride one enjoyed.

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