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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 50, Dated 15 Dec 2012
    CULTURE & SOCIETY  
    BOOKS

    What We Talk About When We Talk About India

    Ananya Vajpeyi’s first book, she tells Shougat Dasgupta, is about the intellectual tumult from which a nation emerged

    Ananya Vajpeyi

    Examining the ingrained Ananya Vajpeyi

    Photo: Shailendra Pandey

    THE FIRST gurglings of what will doubtless become a fullthroated chorus of praise for historian Ananya Vajpeyi’s first book, Righteous Republic, have already begun to emerge. Picking it as one of his books of the year in The Guardian, Pankaj Mishra writes that Righteous Republic “radically advances our understanding of political traditions in a major nonwestern country”, that country being India. Vajpeyi’s publishers, Harvard University Press, awarded her book their annual prize for a first manuscript “that is judged outstanding in content, style, and mode of presentation.” She has since been on a lap of honour, circling history departments across the United States.


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    Righteous Republic
    Ananya Vajpeyi
    Harvard University Press
    342 pp; Rs 995

    Having earned her doctorate at the University of Chicago, taught at the likes of Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Vajpeyi has moved back to Delhi where she is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). We are talking in her roomy ground floor apartment, she submitting to the TEHELKA photographer’s relentless search for the ideal angle. Later that evening, she is due at the India International Centre to launch Righteous Republic alongside her eminent CSDS colleagues Ashis Nandy and Rajeev Bhargava.

    Righteous Republic is subtitled ‘The Political Foundations of Modern India’, but this is a feint, a dropped shoulder that lulls the reader, like some dozy fullback marking a tricky winger into thinking he knows what to expect. Vajpeyi takes what we think we know — terms like ‘swaraj’ and ‘swadeshi’, men like Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar — and makes it strange, showing us that for all the volumes of analysis, there is much we don’t know and haven’t considered about the ideas that form the plinth on which our nation so precariously stands.

    Take her initial parsing of the word ‘swaraj’, which offers a microcosmic glimpse at her philological method. “The ligature between ‘self’ and ‘sovereignty’,” Vajpeyi writes, “is swaraj.” She continues, “Most of the history of India between the creation of the Congress in 1885 and the birth of India and Pakistan in 1947 is written precisely as a history of India’s search for its ‘freedom’ — its political sovereignty, its power to rule itself.” But Vajpeyi finds herself drawn to the first syllable in ‘swaraj’: “The entire weight of the historical exercise could just as legitimately be put upon the self as it could be — and has been — upon its sovereignty.”

    The search for a national self and the attempt by five men (Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore and his nephew Abanindranath) to articulate that self, to, indeed, construct that self is the subject of Vajpeyi’s inquiry. “We hadn’t produced any histories, really,” she says to me, in between sips of coffee, “of the search for the self. I became interested in swaraj because I started teaching modern Indian and South Asian history in a history department for the first time, and one of the texts that I taught was Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. The more I read it, the more I was convinced of its importance and curious about the context of ideas from which it emerged and in which it had a role to play.”

    What emerges from Righteous Republic is a sense of the intellectual ferment in India from the turn of the 20th century up to Independence; the sense of men, not just the five in the book, thinking up and imagining a country, rather than just being handed one by the British. The book is as much literary and art criticism as it is history, requiring of Vajpeyi some agile reading. She makes connections her five principals themselves may not have made, particularly in her excellent chapter on Abanindranath Tagore, making us consider afresh men and ideas to which we seem to have become inured.

    Vajpeyi tells me she moved back to Delhi to be “part of a conversation”. It is conversation, an immersion in ideas that vivifies Righteous Republic and forces readers to acknowledge the moral impulses that spurred the creation of India. Vajpeyi won’t be drawn into a comparison with the present day, insisting that “alternative ideas continue to thrive in small, ignored pockets”. The reader, despairing at venality and cynicism, must hope she’s right.

    Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.
    shougat@tehelka.com


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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 50, Dated 15 Dec 2012
 

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