'Exalting' the Pre-Modern
Sudhir Chandra, The Oppressive Present: Literature and Social Consciousness in Colonial India, OUP, Delhi, 1992, pp. 192, Rs. 240.
In this erudite monograph, Sudhir Chandra unravels the process of the formation of social consciousness in the late nineteenth century in India, through a meticulous discussion of literary works in several languages. The significance of the document lies not merely in its scholarly treatment, but also in the quest to understand the tradition that weighs so heavily upon us in the current period, or in his own words, 'persistence of a dominant structure of social consciousness*. Chandra seeks to understand the 'world of tradition in its own terms' and sets before the English-educated Indians the task of excavating the buried 'vernacular mind'. The importance of the study cannot be overemphasised since, as he correctly points out, what is discussed in this book 'remains the more-or-less unarticulated base of our own consciousness*.
The intelligentsia of the late nineteenth century, faced with the colonial presence and a total decay of thgir own society, 'betrayed moods, attitudes and tones within which were fused escapism and romantism, idealism and realism, passive deliberation and a determined exploitation of the little space available for action'. An alien presence, politically subjugating the nation, conceived as socially superior, led, on the one hand, to a celebration of 'the liberating and egalitarian ideas brought to them by new knowledge', and on the other, the desire for independence and national pride which led to invocation of the ghosts from the past.
The complexity of the response was further compounded when faith in colonialism, despite an understanding of its exploitative nature, was coupled with the idea of a glorious past which had been mutiliated by the presence of another 'alien', the Muslim. The Muslim as the other 'alien' responsible for the downfall of the glorious tradition was a stratagem, and maybe more, which obviated the necessity of an internal critique and systematic study of the past.
In a situation of colonial exploitation, oppression and cultural destruction and paralysis, the arduous task of cultural recreation and
Social Scientist, Vol. 19, Nos. 9-10, October-November, 1991