In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that have not received due attention.


Many disciplines that now seem primarily defined by progressive goals are often deeply problematic at their roots. Priya Satia’s Ambitious Book The Monster of Time: How History Makes History recently persuaded us to see the fundamentally imperialist design of the modern (particularly British) conception of the discipline of history. History is popularized by myth, argued Roland Barthes, to make certain stories natural, concealing unequal power relations. An example is the history of Western education in India, which has become one of the most controversial topics in the country. This education is often read as a place of historical and historiographical violence, the legacy of which dominates the nation to the present day. Educational reform in India has been an attempt, not always successful, to undo/unlearn colonial methods.

At Sanjay Seth’s Subject Lessons: Western Education in Colonial India is a valuable work that helps to explain why these frictions remain interminable. By far the most compelling book I have read on education and the cultural westernization of India, it shows us why educational reform is such a challenge. It is therefore regrettable that this powerful work of postcolonial studies which did not have the impact or the readership that, for example, the work of Gauri Viswanathan Masks of conquest: literary study and British domination in India (1989).

Seth opens his study with a sobering statement: “Western knowledge is no longer seen as a single mode of knowing but as knowledge itself, compared to which all other traditions of reasoning are but Unreason. , or earlier stages in the march towards Reason.” There is a deep historical irony in this perception in the Indian subcontinent, where this type of knowledge was neither indigenous nor evolved “through centuries of industrialization and the emergence of new disciplinary matrices of family, prison, school and factory”, but was inserted by the violence of colonial rule. This, Seth argues, limited the use of Western knowledge primarily to the professional realm, leaving the emotional, personal, and spiritual realms intact.

But why has Western education come to be seen as merely instrumental in the colonized nation? For Seth, asking the very question of purpose is pointless, as it presupposes a modern understanding of human subjectivity that did not exist in pre-colonial India. Despite its archival scope, there is a fundamental qualitative unity in Western epistemology that contrasts with the disorderly plurality of pre-colonial Indian knowledge systems. So, for example, the Hindu right’s imagination of a singular India appears as the perfect colonial project, an unconscious contradiction to the pre-colonial ideal it aims to achieve.

A crucial element of precolonial knowledge values ​​is recitation and memory – in relation to hymns and scriptures, but also to secular areas, such as arithmetic, grammar and rhetoric. The physical statement of such knowledge is inseparable from its “inner” meaning. The one who recites them, following the rules of enunciation, “understands” them differently from the one who submits them to a hermeneutic interpretation—if indeed understanding is the right word for this relationship. This is a stark contrast to Enlightenment notions of knowledge. AK Ramanujan, similarly, emphasized the contextual nature of pre-colonial Indian knowledge, as opposed to the universal and context-free aspirations of Enlightenment knowledge. The former shaped the entrenchment of musical ragas at certain times of the day as well as the deeply binding yoke of life, work and caste. A practice of self-delay in light of modern approaches, the Indian culture of rote learning is beginning to make historical sense.

Seth’s crux is that our very notion of self and subject cannot be rendered “into an empty form into which any content can be poured”, for that form always comes with some pre-filled content. The other categories aren’t blank slates either. An example is the understanding that religion is primarily a matter of “belief”. This understanding is the “product of a very specific European and Christian history”. “It is throughout the history of Christianity,” writes Seth, “and the debates surrounding it in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Europe that ‘religion’ and ‘creed’ emerge as mutually constitutive.” The result is a fundamentally misconception of non-Western religions, because the very Western notion of religion is a “modern invention” that has become globalized over the past two hundred years.

Practice, not belief. Enunciation, not knowledge. For the West, what belief is to religion is what subjectivity is to education. The most triumphant success of Seth’s book is the way it dismantles influential epistemological categories. These categories also include that of the modern Muslim and of the woman, especially as a battleground of the colonial struggle and its legitimacy. The moment of symbolic initiation of postcolonial education came when independent India’s first education minister, Abul Kalam Azad, reminded the nation that our education system was founded and controlled by colonizers. Today, as a militant Hindu revivalist state poses absurd but strategically targeted threats to modern education, Seth’s book offers us vital context to explain and counter these threats.


Saikat Majumdar is the author of four novels, the most recent, The middle finger (2022) — in the same way The scent of God (2019), Fire Bird (2015), published in the United States as gambling house (2017), and Silver fish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism, prose of the world (2013), a work of non-fiction, University (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays, The amateur critic (2019).

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