Faulty memory syndrome

Indian Society through Personal Writings
May 21, 1999

Why, M. N. Srinivas wonders, are autobiographies and novels not used more in sensitising social analysts to other cultures? Because, the octogenarian doyen of Indian social anthropology answers, they feel that what they really need is "quantification and mathematisation". This collection of essays - most of which were first published between 1952 and 1973 - packages the question of "the sociology of the self" as a novel and pressing issue.

Collectively, they hang loosely together. Individually, they can be read for their charm, some limited autobiographical insight, and some vivid (albeit familiar) ethnography of rural Karnataka.

All the essays bar one have been published before and - extraordinarily - three of the essays on village disputes have been anthologised in another recent Oxford University Press Srinivas compilation ( The Dominant Caste and Other Essays , 1987). Understandably, while the provenance of other parts of the book is acknowledged, the recycling of these essays in other Oxford volumes is unremarked. This might be excusable if in this new context the essays contributed to a different kind of book. But the current volume remains a loose collection, not least because it lacks a coherent introduction that says anything new or significant, or that tries to place them as significant examples of an experimental personal voice and textual style that prefigures recent developments in US cultural anthropology.

Srinivas's autobiographical account skates so quickly over a fascinating life that one ends it frustrated to have discovered so little about so many interesting issues. One yearns to hear more of his Gandhian friends' objections to his anthropological interests and is intrigued by a passing reference to G. S. Ghurye's study of the "sex habits of clerks in Bombay". Conversely there are some great stories, particularly concerning his arrival at Tilbury (en route to a DPhil at Oxford) wearing his only pair of spectacles in which remained a single, cracked lens. Srinivas only occasionally writes in a passionate voice, most notably in his conclusion that had he stayed in Oxford, he would have experienced an "emotional and spiritual desiccation which would have affected my work as well as my relations with those whom I came into contact".

The accounts of disputes all date from the 1950s and are rich and detailed, sometimes unfolding dialogically through the juxtaposition of extracts from field notes, impressionistic first-person reflections and fragments of original legal documents.

His montage of remembered images conjures up an enchanting lost world of leafy bungalows, opinionated newspaper editors and irascible pony-and-trap drivers who insisted that their passengers continuously shift their buttocks to keep the vehicle balanced.

The final four chapters of the book are drawn from his earlier The Remembered Village (1976), the calm sensitivity of which will encourage readers to return to the original, and it is this which is the chief virtue of the volume. The village had to be "remembered" as a consequence of arsonists' incineration of his processed field notes. That book opened with a quote from Marcel Mauss suggesting that the anthropologist has "to be also a novelist able to evoke the life of a whole society", and in the dedication Srinivas thanked the arsonists for their contribution to the style of the book. In the current volume, disappointingly, Srinivas has no more to say about the relationship between memory, ethnography, and the written text, noting only that the outcome was "a collection of facts recollected when the mind was far from tranquil" and that "some purists may ask whether it is ethnography at all". An extended discussion of Srinivas's perception of why this question might be raised, and his own responses to it, would have enhanced this book tremendously.

Christopher Pinney is senior lecturer in material culture, University College London.

Indian Society through Personal Writings

Author - M. N. Srinivas
ISBN - 0 19 564560 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £9.99
Pages - 245

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