imperial history

Historicizing Ghosts: Reimagining Realities in Nineteenth Century Popular Bengali Fiction

by guest contributors Senjuti Jash and Shuvatri Dasgupta

ghostsIn South Asian historiography myths, local legends, chronicles, and folklores function as primary sources for the writing of “history,” or itihasa, as Romila Thapar has illustrated. Within the broad genre of fiction, historians have traditionally used social novels or short stories, and have overlooked popular fiction dealing with ghosts and spirits. Residing in an alternative society to that of the anthropocentric one, in fictionalized narratives and anecdotes, ghosts represented the “other” of the Bengali “self” during the nineteenth century. In this piece, we explore ghost stories as texts which can inform a bottom-up approach to histories of the nineteenth-century Bengali mind.

Why did the spectral community find popularity in the fictional realm of the Bengali mind during the nineteenth century? The primary reason behind this are the cholera, malaria, and plague epidemics which wreaked havoc in villages and cities, wiping out more than half of the population in Bengal during the early nineteenth century. From 1839 onwards, these epidemics spread from Bengal to other parts of India, as John Hays has shown. As the number of discarded and diseased corpses increased, ghosts found a place in the Bengali psyche facing the realities of death in their everyday worlds. In this scenario, the discourses of science and medicine produced a space at the intersections of “rationality” and “spirituality,” and engendered these accounts, which were transmitted both orally and in print.

The category of “ghost” remained fluid: in some stories they were seen, while in some their presence was only felt. In the fictional narratives, an environment of phantasm was created with omens like black cats, moonlight, and veiled silhouettes. The spaces of deserted houses and dilapidated bungalows acquired a metaphorical organic significance in these discourses. In a Bengali proverb from Comilla (Bangladesh), roughly translated as “ghosts inhabit a broken-down house,” the house signified the human body crumbling under various incurable ailments, which attracted ghosts to make the ailing human one of their own.

Local legends from Rangpur (Bangladesh) dating back to the nineteenth century described the habitats of different types of ghosts in various kinds of trees, namely Palmyra, Tamarind, and Madar. Ghosts also inhabited trees like Banyan, Sand Paper, Acacia, and Bengal Quince. The allocation of habitats in the spectral world mirrored anthropocentric normativities associated with gender roles. For example, the male Brahmin ghost, namely the Brahmadaitya, usually inhabited tall evergreen trees like Aegle Marmelos, Peepul, and Magnolia, maintaining his social superiority over others even after death. Female ghosts inhabited smaller shorter bushes and shrubs like the Streblus Asper and others. The Brahmadaitya’s habitat in comparison with the female ghosts’ habitats illustrated not only his primacy on the social ladder, but also the gender normativities permeating into the “other” world from the human world. 

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An early 20th century edition of the Grandmother’s Tales. Image courtesy of GoodReads.

In a famous anthology of tales compiled in the early twentieth century titled Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma’s Bag of Tales), the narrator was an old woman entertaining her grandchildren, with a barely-disguised didactic tone. These tales reflected an element of moral speculation attached to the gender roles of the ghosts. Female ghosts like the widowed Petni were portrayed as attracted to fish, given the nineteenth century Indian tradition of widows living an ascetic life with dietary regulations. The construction of this ghostly image functioned on two levels: the reflection of the past married life on the widowed “self” of the narrator, and the articulation of these suppressed desires through the representations of the “other” widowed ghost. This dual self-projection of the narrator served a greater purpose, as it participated in the ongoing discourse about the issues of sati and widow remarriage, contributing to larger debates about the rights and privileges of women in nineteenth-century Bengali society.

With the colonial government’s criminalization of sati and legalization of widow remarriage, as Lata Mani has shown in her seminal article “Contentious Traditions,” women became sites of conflict for redefining “tradition.” There was a clear colonial preoccupation with the state of women as a benchmark for appraising civilizational standards. For the colonial masters, the injustice and oppression meted out to Indian women in the form of sati became a corroboration of “British modernity” and a moral platform on which their “civilizing” endeavor could be justified. The “feminine” hence provided a space for renegotiating what was “Indian” and what was “Western.” The female ghosts were clearly no different. While Indian women gradually unified over shared demands for various rights, the ghostly women from the other world expressed their solidarities for these reforms through the figure of Petni indulging in fish.

In these fictionalized narratives, living women—especially the ones who were pregnant or had long lustrous hair—were portrayed as more susceptible to ghostly encounters. Also, medical conditions such as seizures, epilepsy, multiple personality disorders, and schizophrenia in women were diagnosed by the quacks as being possessed or inhabited by evil or unholy spirits. These women then were subjected to the autonomy of the exorcists. They were sexually exploited under the pretext of exorcism and were sometimes even forced to marry the exorcist as a favor in return. Since most of the oral tales were produced by female narrators, they served as a space to articulate and in turn resist the threats women faced from the community of exorcists and failed to overcome in the human worlds.

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An exorcist confronting a “possessed” woman. Illustration from Bhutude Kanda, by Rabidas Saharoy (1962). Illustrations by Maitreyee Mukhopadhyay and Debabrata Gosh.

The influence of colonial race theories was also clearly detectable in the world of horror fiction, as they emerged as a significant premise for British epistemic exercises. Significant segments of British and European intellectuals, even during the age of the Scottish Enlightenment, considered Indians to be closer to black Africans, or black Malays, than they were to white “Caucasians.” As Swarupa Gupta comments, there was “selective adaptation, internalisation and re-articulation” of the basic tenets of imperial race theory, interwoven with prevalent conceptions of Hindu caste hierarchy within the Indian milieu, after the Census of 1871 (Notions of Nationhood, 112-13). While ordinary ghosts, both male and female, were described as dark-skinned, the Brahmin male ghost was portrayed as fair-skinned, tall, exhibiting saint-like feet, and wearing sandalwood sandals. On one hand, widowed Petni was depicted as a very dark-skinned figure; on the other, the ghost of the Muslim man, known as Mamdo, was also depicted with similar adjectives. Additionally, he wore a skullcap and featured an unkempt beard. The image of the Islamic ghost succumbed to colonial stereotypes, resembled its human image and position in society.

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Petni catching fish in a river. Image from Embellished Memories website.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s short story “Oshoriri” tells how a Bengali middle-class man from Calcutta mistook his low-caste dark-skinned Bihari servant in Ranchi for a “ghost.” The tale ends with a strong note on the social constructions of the aesthetic facade of a man in contradistinction to a ghost, and how this dichotomy was balanced on an understanding of Victorian notions of outward appearance. Hence, specific categories of low-caste ghosts were marginalized even in their death, as an expression of the powerful afterlife of the stringent specificities of “caste” and “religion” that even death could not transcend. Thus, the socioeconomic and political impact of colonial dominance was translated in the languages of the spectral world through the idioms of religious, social, and gender discrimination, and racial hierarchies.

Ghosts were not always scary or malicious. In some tales, like the Jola ar Sat Bhoot (The Muslim Weaver and Seven Ghosts), they emerged as benevolent figures helping poor peasants out of financial misery, while also representing the spirit of resistance against the oppressive British regime. However, the figure of the benevolent ghost was essentially limited to the sphere of rural narratives, since urban miseries appeared to be apparently incurable even by ghostly benevolence. In the urban narratives, the ghosts appeared more as a threat to the luxuries and comforts, such as electricity, enjoyed by the city dwellers. Socially constructed notions of hygiene associated with poverty, such as bodily stink and dirty fingernails, were regarded as threatening even to ghosts, let alone humans! The poor were outcast even in the domain of enjoying the privilege of ghostly attention in the fiction generated in elite and gentrified urban spaces.

Picking up the thread from where we began, these fictional tales hence remain an unexplored repository for the intellectual historian, portraying how the Bengali mind under colonial transitions revisualized worlds, relationships, normativities, and ideologies. These narratives, both orally transmitted in rural areas and through print in urban circles, generated alternative realities. On one hand, gender restrictions were subverted, on the other, racial hierarchies and rural-urban divisions were reiterated. Reflecting the transitions in a Bengali society caught in the middle of colonial ideologues and nationalist exceptionalisms, ghosts provided Bengalis the voice of hope, faith, and sustenance they needed at the turn of the century.

Shuvatri Dasgupta is a final-year master’s student at Presidency University. Her work revolves around locating the global in the local by analyzing the multilayered origins of cultural and political discourses—tracing their genealogies and contextualizing them in transregional frameworks.

Senjuti Jash is a postgraduate student in History at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her dissertation is about the global intellectual history of caste. She is interested in overcoming the barriers of time and space to discern the intricate webs of connectivities across polities, economies, and cultures in this global age.

Anti-Imperialist Publications and Suspended Disbelief: Reading the Public Materials of the League Against Imperialism, 1927-1937

by guest contributor Disha Karnad Jani

“Why We Appear”: so begins the September-October 1931 issue of the Anti-Imperialist Review, the official journal of the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence (LAI). This organization was founded in 1927 and brought nationalists, Communists, socialists, and sympathizers together under the direction of the Communist International (Comintern) to organize a complex solution to a complex problem. Based in Berlin, then London, but arguably led from Moscow, the organization would disintegrate by 1937, despite the fanfare that accompanied its arrival in the anti-imperial spaces of the interwar period. Their inaugural sessions at the Palais d’Egmont in 1927 had resulted in an organization tasked with bringing empire to its knees, through the cooperation of all those who considered themselves “anti-imperialists.” As the attitude of the Comintern towards non-Communists and national bourgeois leaders hardened, the LAI turned away from this avowedly inclusive agenda. The socialist origins of the organization, when combined with the nationally-circumscribed aims of many involved, meant that the League’s rhetoric and activities reflected the complexities of a negative association such as “anti-imperialist.” These were the years during which men like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Hatta, Achmed Sukarno and J.T. Gumede met and forged links that contextualized and strengthened their decades-long struggles for freedom.

A historian seeking to understand this organization—and the tremendous significance of this moment for the long decades of nationalisms and decolonizations to come—will likely ask some basic questions. What did the League Against Imperialism look like? Who were the participants? How did this organization function? How did its members make decisions? What did it set out to do? To whom was it appealing?

Luckily, the answers to these questions lie in the LAI’s official publications, journals, and resolutions. Take the first piece in the Anti-Imperialist Review‘s September 1931 issue:

We are faced at the present moment with the need to draw up a concrete and detailed programme for the international anti-imperialist work in the spirit of the principles and organizational lines led down by the second World Congress and by the recent session of the Executive Committee [of the League Against Imperialism], a programme that will serve as a mighty weapon in the struggle for integrity of principle and against national reformism. This journal will systematically prepare for the working out of such a programme by free and open discussion. (Anti-Imperialist Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 5, author’s emphasis).

This publication is very clear in its aims and its desired audience. No national reformists or members of the bourgeoisie need read this journal. Only those truly committed to the liberation of the “struggling masses in the colonies and the revolutionary workers in the imperialist centers” need read further. The Review—as well as news bulletins, resolutions, and policy briefs emanating from Friedrichstrasse 24, Berlin between 1927 and 1933—present themselves as fostering a genuinely robust community of revolutionaries from all oppressed nations in order to bring about an end to imperialism and capitalism.

These statements of intent and organizational success do little for us, however, when we read them in concert with surveillance documents, correspondence, state archives, and the private papers of the people involved in decision making—such as the Executive Committee mentioned above. As Fredrik Petersson’s research has shown, the Communist International had a heavy hand in LAI proceedings, while the Eastern Secretariat in Moscow influenced the financial and ideological direction of the organization. The German Communist Willi Münzenberg had organized the initial meetings and later facilitated the LAI’s reorientation in policy towards a more hardline, anti-bourgeois stance in 1931. These goings-on highlight the often-chaotic shifts in larger forums that affected the way this purportedly international organization functioned.

But what was it like to be a part of an organization like this one, taking what its leaders said about free and open discussion and resistance led by the colonized at face value, without having access to the kinds of archives a historian can rely on to tell the behind-the-scenes story? If you learned about the LAI sometime in 1928, for example, at a meeting of one of its affiliated groups, how were you meant to remain connected to the larger struggle against imperial injustice? One way was through engaging with the language and rhetoric of the LAI’s circulated resolutions and its “official organ” the Anti-Imperialist Review. Once the conference in Brussels, Frankfurt, or Berlin was over and one went back home, participating in this grand project meant receiving things in the mail and reading them, and writing back.

Knowing this, is it possible to read the “official” publications coming from the central offices not as a façade to be torn away, but a material and intellectual facet of what it was like to see yourself as part of a transnational project of resistance?

As an exercise, I found it helpful to read at face value the materials put out by the League and disseminated through its national sections and sympathetic friends. At least some of the people reading the materials the LAI put out likely believed the image they provided of the state of world revolution (though the profusion of qualifiers here indicates, I hope, my discomfort with assuming the intentions of these people). What can be learned from reading this organization’s so-called “propaganda” as intellectual production, as a genuine desire to work through the problems of anti-imperial struggle? Whether or not the Comintern was coordinating its efforts, and whether or not its organizing capabilities and financial situation were up to the task it claimed, the LAI’s official public materials presented an upwardly-striving, robust, diverse, and yet united revolutionary entity. That means something, whether or not it was a strictly accurate depiction, since the language and affect associated to this day with the cosmopolitan and radical and transnational 1920s and 1930s were predicated on this sort of source material.

Allow me, for a moment, to consider the LAI’s policy or outlook in the year of its founding by reading sincerely the 1927 resolution of the LAI. This document was produced as a summary of the decisions made at the first meeting, and was widely circulated in the LAI’s affiliated circles. The involvement of so diverse a group of nationalists, pacifists, Communists, and socialists lends an institutional unity to the League’s proceedings, smoothing out divisions born of specific national and colonial differences. Since these resolutions were discussed and agreed upon in Brussels, once might consider these documents an amalgam of the least objectionable viewpoints of key actors, since the LAI operated at the beginning with a culture of consensus. There was little evidence at that moment of open, recorded controversy—everyone involved was at least an “anti-imperialist.”

In 1920, the relationship between communist elements in colonial countries and the national bourgeoisie and their revolutionary movement (for independence, justice, or dominion status) was still being worked out. A somewhat open and exploratory stance continued to evolve after Lenin’s death. By 1927, the LAI believed the time was right to proceed in a manner indicative of the planning stages of the prospective world revolution.

According to the LAI, it employed three main categories of person in 1927: the home proletariat, the oppressed people(s) and the toiling masses (“Statutes of the LAI, 1927,” League Against Imperialism Archives, International Institute of Social History, Int. 1405/4). The home proletariat was the class of workers in the imperialist country, who also suffered from imperialism. They suffered, the League argued, because the exploitation of cheap colonial labor through industrialization lowered the standards of living of the workers in the imperialist country. This was the main thrust of the League’s argument for the cooperation of this sector in the anti-imperialist struggle. This group was supposedly accessed and represented in the League by European trade unionists, left-leaning social democrats, and socialists more broadly.

This is the easiest category to “define,” because it is clearly delineated in terms of nationality and class. The categories of “oppressed people(s)” and “toiling masses” are a little more troublesome. They are indicative of the complicated relationship between socialism and nationalism in the context of the League’s aims. “The oppressed people” (singular) is usually used with a national qualifier, for example “the oppressed people of India.” “Oppressed peoples” indicates a plurality of national groups, and each national group is by definition taken as containing a single “people.” Toiling masses was a term used to distinguish the European proletariat from the colonial one, and the colonial national bourgeoisie from the colonial national proletariat. The “toiling masses” in the context of anti-imperialism in 1927 was likely a distinction reserved for the unorganized colonial worker, while the same stratum in the imperialist countries is referred to merely as “the workers” or “the proletariat.” This underscores the fact that Europe-oriented socialists (i.e. socialists from the imperialist countries) did not consider the “masses” of the colonial world to have realized their proletarian character.

The complexities and assumptions contained within these terms can explain the shifting and contextually circumscribed stakes of world revolution. Who were the actors in the kind of world revolution the LAI wanted? Its resolutions contain categories that overlap and describe courses of action that are at times complementary, and, at others, mutually exclusive. The messiness of this struggle, and the ways in which the men and women involved related to one another and to the groups they claimed to represent—the workers in imperial nations and the oppressed masses in their far-flung colonies—these most basic categories are potent ones. Is reconstructing a realistic narrative always the goal of the historian? In the end, perhaps. But during the long process of archival work and the necessary selection and omission of information, if only for a moment, it might be useful to believe our subjects when they make a claim we know is false, or at the very least, much more complicated. Widening the lens to include state surveillance, correspondence, private papers, and other organizations’ collections may provide a more accurate portrayal of what the LAI looked like and how it worked. But sometimes suspending disbelief at a claim as outlandish as one to “free and open discussion” in Communist circles in 1931 can yield a degree of clarity as to the lived experience of participating in such a project.

Disha Karnad Jani is a Ph.D student in History at Princeton University.

Intellectual “Entanglements” and the Status of Modern British History

by Emily Rutherford

In my post about the History Manifesto last week, I wrote that one of the things I want to explore on this blog is the “crisis” in which the national history of modern Britain has found itself in the last fifteen or so years. As the historical discipline has become increasingly global in its outlook, British history rightly no longer enjoys the disproportionate emphasis it once had in North American departments. Now that it is no longer professionally viable for graduate students to focus in this one national field, and thanks also particularly to the theoretical interventions of subaltern studies and new methods in imperial history, it is much rarer to find a North American historian who will take the risk of specializing in British (rather than imperial, comparative European, or Atlantic World) history. (Given its status as the national history, the field is not in anything near the same level of decline in the UK.) Furthermore, it is harder to justify the relevance of studies which focus on actors who had little awareness of themselves as imperial subjects, whose lives were lived largely within Britain and shaped by distinctively British cultural and social factors. I write about people who, while they often corresponded with Europeans, Americans, Indians, and others, lived their professional lives in the Oxbridge-London triangle, rarely spoke other living languages (Latin and Greek were another matter), and only left the UK very occasionally for a lecture tour in America or a holiday in the Alps. It’s all a bit… parochial.

Still, I’d like to say a little about a new, very global, even anti-British-history, book that unexpectedly offers some opportunities for historians concerned with telling stories about intellectual cultures distinct to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain. Kris Manjapra’s Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals across Empire, published by Harvard last year, undertakes an exciting experiment in deciding deliberately to leave Britain out of a story of encounters between German and Indian intellectuals in the period roughly 1880-1930. Indeed, argues Manjapra, Indian and German intellectual relationships in a variety of fields, from experimental science through philology and psychoanalysis to visual art, were formed in explicit opposition to a perception of British hegemony around the globe (9). He traces significant and surprising connections among both left- and right-wing ideas, which eventually had major consequences for European and world politics. German Orientalist scholarship produced in collaboration with British imperial agents was adopted by the Nazi ideology of Aryanism; an anti-imperialist discourse in which German and Indian Marxists participated had unintended consequences in fascist theories of Lebensraum. But before the rise of the Nazi Party, German “post-Enlightenment” thought and Indian collaborations carried the possibility of a third way for imagining the global order, between Western European liberalism and Soviet communism—potential that was eventually firmly eclipsed by the the Cold War’s binary division of the world and the rise of a “Third World” discourse to which India was consigned (276, 290). Manjapra deftly maps these rapidly-shifting political stakes through the first decades of the twentieth century, in the process making a good case for intellectual history’s ability to demonstrate how the unintended consequences of ideas can bear a causal relationship to world-historical events.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid how Britain as a national category and British actors who helped to broker connections between Indians and Germans haunt Manjapra’s account. There were two particular examples that grabbed my attention. First, the famous German philologist and Sanskritist Friedrich Max Müller took on Indian students and played a pivotal role in founding an academic school of German Orientalism whose fate in Germany and India Manjapra traces throughout the book. But Max Müller did his work in England, in Oxford, surrounded by English as well as German and Indian students and colleagues, in a rich intellectual and cultural context that bore a closer and more complicated relation to British imperialist, anti-imperialist, and simply-apathetic-to-imperialism thought than Manjapra seems to want to let on. Second, in a smaller episode, Manjapra describes Freud’s correspondence with the Indian psychoanalyst Girindrasekhar Bose, who along with other Indian psychoanalysts infused Freud’s ideas with classical Indian philosophy, creating a new form of psychoanalysis with a particular nationalist valence. But Bose did not know German: he and Freud corresponded in English, using not Freud’s own jargon but the English translations James Strachey had created, such as “id” and “ego,” and in the process telling the historian a great deal about what a British or English intellectual context might have to do with this Indo-German encounter.

In the story of Freud and Bose, Manjapra says that English functions merely as a “trade language” (225), but there is much more than this to be said about the role of a distinctively British intellectual context and actors who operated in relation to it. Manjapra and other historians have redrawn maps of geopolitics and intellectual encounters that destabilize uncritical assumptions of Britain’s centrality and relevance, but there’s no reason that British historians should not regard this as an invitation to reformulate and strengthen claims for the relevance of the British context to understanding transnational episodes in intellectual history such as the late-nineteenth-century development of philology or psychoanalysis. In the process, my suspicion is that it will become clearer how British historians’ rich understandings of the cultural milieux in which such ideas were developed can aid in understanding their movement across borders; what forms of intellectual and cultural exchange were practiced between British and German writers and academics (an under-examined topic in this period); and perhaps also what relationship there is between imperial might and less hierarchical forms of international intellectual relationships like those Age of Entanglement seeks to describe.