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The shame of it

books Updated: Dec 04, 2009 23:07 IST
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Humiliation: Claims and Context
Edited by Gopal Guru
*Oxford university press
Rs 595 * pp 324

This volume contains scholarly essays exploring the phenomenon of humiliation. Bhikhu Parekh defines humiliation, indicating that the State’s coercions can be reduced where dignity is accorded to the unique sense of being human. Upendra Baxi trains an intriguing light on B.R. Ambedkar as India’s “pioneering indignation entrepreneur”. Sanjay Palshikar analyses resilience, while Gopal Guru explores ideologies fostering self-respect in the face of shaming.

In a searing essay, V. Geetha identifies caste humiliation as “an ontological wounding”, where the body of those “dirtied” by the dirt of others carries with it shame and loneliness enforced by scripture and social practice. In an overly-minute critique of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, Valerian Rodrigues argues the continuation of filth in Indian public spaces reflects the failure of the State to protect some from the humiliation of cleaning for others.

Ashis Nandy’s essay twinkles with wisdom, pointing out that like tango, humiliation takes two. Nandy presents a discussion on the power to accept or negate humiliation, indicating that those at its receiving end can wield “legitimate manipulative power” over its practitioners. Nandy studies humiliation as a creative force and wonders whether social humiliations could be reduced by an acceptance of distances between different groups, by not forcing the pace of mingling.

The volume has much to offer, but with its powerful theme it could have been of far greater interest to ordinary readers.

Some examples that could have been analysed include the experience of dark-skinned women within the arranged marriage system, the dynamics of domestic labour or collegiate ragging, and interactions between the literate and illiterate. The book focuses tremendously on caste, thereby overlooking little, daily acts of shame.

Another absence is an investigation into the flip side of humiliation, valorisation. Why do people humiliate others? Aside from tighter editing, the volume could also have benefited from a greater engagement with Foucault and Dumont, these scholars’ respective works on power and hierarchy being greatly relevant in this context.