Telling Lives in India: Biography, Autobiography, and Life History

David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. 323 pages.

Telling Lives in India: Biography, Autobiography, and Life History is edited by David Arnold (professor of South Asian history) and Stuart Blackburn (research associate), both of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. The intellectual contributions of the editors and nine other distinguished scholars, all of whom belong to a range of academic disciplines, make this collection of eleven essays a remarkable and highly readable work on life histories – biographies, autobiographies, and oral accounts – from India. This volume grew out of the “Life Histories” project established at SOAS and out of various workshops held between 1998 and 2000 at SOAS, the London School of Economics, Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the British Library.

In their well-thought-out and written “Introduction,” the editors explain why this volume was published. According to them, for a very long time the life history approach has been gaining wide acceptance among scholars belonging to various disciplines, such as women’s studies and black studies, due to a “growing distrust of ‘meta-narratives’” and a firm desire to “move towards a more nuanced, multi-stranded understanding of society and a greater recognition of the heterogeneity of human lives and lived experience” (p. 5). Life histories provide an alternative, individualized, and culturespecific version of “truth” that can problematize and counter any of the naïve truth claims of meta-narratives.

However, until recently, scholars of India have been comparatively “neglectful” (p. 1) of life histories, although they are central to Indian religious texts, literature, and history. In general, South Asian scholars seldom employ the life history form as “genres worthy of systematic analysis” (pp. 3-4). According to Arnold and Blackburn, this general reluctance can be attributed to the paradigm of “collectivity,” which was largely shaped by the nineteenth-century Orientalist approach and colonial ethnography that dominated South Asian scholarship for several decades.

From this perspective, India was always imagined as a society deeply conditioned by ties of caste, kinship, and religion, one in which notions of self and individual agency, as well as their literary expressions, were “subsumed within larger social and cultural domains” (p. 5). These essays explore a wide range of biographies, autobiographies, diaries, and oral stories in an attempt to counter this imagination and to analyze the interaction and negotiation there between collectivity and individuality. Life histories are valuable social documents for understanding notions of self, individual practices and intentions, and the importance of collectivities in South Asia.

The essays are organized into three parts based on their form and intent. The first part, “Confronting Modernity,” contains three essays on the written life histories of “modern” individuals who were actively engaged with colonial modernity. Arnold’s essay examines prison narratives, especially those written by Gandhi, Nehru, M. N. Roy, Jogesh Chandra Chatterji, V. D. Savarkar, and C. R. Rajagopalachari. According to him, the prison experience gave middle-class men and women who had been jailed by the British a unique opportunity for individualistic self expression.

In another essay, Francesca Orsini focuses on the writings of Mahadevi Varma (1907-87), a modern Indian woman who was eager to conceal her personal identity and reluctant to write about herself. Through her stories of other people’s lives, however, we obtain a fragmented account of her own life history. Sudipta Kaviraj’s essay explores the autobiography (atmacarit) of Sibnath Sastri, a nineteenth-century Bengali writer and religious reformer. Sastri’s autobiography is a literary expression of a “modern” individual’s invention of a private life.

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