July 26, 2020
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Word Power On A Leash

A history trapped in polemic

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Word Power On A Leash
Words To Win
By Tanika Sarkar
Kali For Women Rs 350, Pages: 266
Ahouse of subversion often stands on a foundation of words. Words which have been snatched from where they lay - with God - in peace and quiet, in the process disrupting sacred 'peace' and bringing forth a profane turmoil to bear upon the world.

Politics of the word has been significant though subtle in making and mapping history. Tanika Sarkar, in Words To Win, sets out to explore that complex process by studying Amar Jiban (AJ) - the first published Bengali autobiography and the first to be written by a woman (Rashsundari) towards the turn of the 19th century.

For an established historian like Sarkar, who's had to operate within the confines of institutionalised historical scholarship in India, it's been a rather bold step. Considering that Indian history, despite radical academic practices like the Subaltern Studies project, perceives the study of texts and, consequently, little traditions, as something that is not real History.

However, despite being bold, the author's endeavour stops short of being fundamentally transformative. Sarkar's dissection of the text - the autobiography of an upper-caste East Bengali widow from a family of landlords, who teaches herself to read and write in secrecy as it's a taboo to do so - yields a cracking yarn of social history. But that's little solace for a reader who begins the book expecting a Hercule Babin: The Memoirs of a Hermaphrodite by Michel Foucault or Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms. Words To Win remains merely a narrative of social history. An excellent one maybe, but nothing more. Though Sarkar doesn't promise anything of the kind to begin with, one tends to believe - on reading the first few pages of the book - that a staggering insight in terms of a new way of studying history is in the offing, a hope that expires prematurely when one realises that her entire exercise is an attempt to locate AJ "within the history of Rashsundari's class, caste, religion and localities", as also "against the new currents of women's education and writing". Consequently, Words To Win is only about close encounters with the exotically implausible feudal mores of 19th century Bengal, the inhuman plight of women then, Chaitanya's socially subversive Vaishnavism and its consequent appropriation by the Brahminical orthodoxy, the questions of women's education and reformism versus revivalism in contemporary Hindu society. Sarkar's arguments with the revivalists, the subalternists and feminists, though sophisticated, are unable to outgrow their polemical moorings.

Sarkar is unable to construct a new historical narrative out of the text. Her writing is bogged down by an orthodox concern of locating AJ in a given history. She fails to use the intellectual tools at her disposal to construct a new narrative - like Roland Barthes or other members of the structuralist movement. Though she mentions twice that AJ doesn't posit a new vision of the world (contrasting it with Mennochio the Miller's worldview in The Cheese and the Worms), she hints at Rashsundari talking in terms of a linear history - in contrast to the Hindu cyclical concept of time - and in terms of "Bharatbarsha" instead of her immediate surroundings. These are dead giveaways for an ace detective out to unravel a historical case and formulate a new discourse.

But Sarkar is hardly inspired by her intellectual forerunner, Ginzburg. The latter in The Enigma of Piero studies three works of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca to build a new contemporary historical understanding.She's also untouched by his work on Nicodemites - heretics who professed orthodoxy by the day - despite the striking parallel between them and Rashsundari who adhered to the script of a 'good, domesticated' housewife while simultaneously learning the alphabet in hermetic secrecy.

Rashsundari, Sarkar's protagonist, might have won words ("Aksharjit") but Words To Win misses that chance by a letter.

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