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A tryst with the ghosts of history

india Updated: Jul 22, 2006 18:28 IST
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It was indeed a heady cocktail: myths, history and memories blended to create a memorable evening celebrating historian Shahid Amin's book on the Chauri-Chaura incident that forced Mahatma Gandhi to suspend the non-cooperation movement against the British rule.

Ghosts of peasants, dubbed variously as 'rioters,' 'criminals,' 'victims' and 'martyrs,' haunted the mental landscapes of an eclectic audience that had gathered at the India Habitat Centre Wednesday evening to toast the publication (revised and reissued by Penguin India) of Amin's classic book Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922-1992.

On February 4, 1922, peasants who had enlisted in Gandhi's people's struggle against British colonial rule turned violent and burned down a police station in Chauri Chaura in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh, killing 23 policemen.

Gandhi was shocked by the sudden violence of volunteers and saw the event as a transgression of his ethics of non-violence and called off the non-cooperation event just when it was at its peak.

This event has been filtered and transformed in local and historical memory in conflicting ways and it is these diverse interpretations, combined with accounts of survivors that Amin weaves in his beautifully crafted book that reads like a novel.

"It's a rare pleasure to revisit that hyphen between Chauri Chaura," said Shuddhabrata Sengupta of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Commenting on Amin's method of historiography and his method of story-telling, Sengupta said that the larger aim of Amin's book was "to de-heroise the writing of South Asian history."

"We stand on the eve of a grand design to create heroes. The challenge is how to write non-heroic history," he added.

Publisher and critic Urvashi Butalia was all praise for Amin's "wonderful" book and recommended it to all those interested in 'history's contrived corridors,' to use TS Eliot's phrase.

In his pioneering interpretation of the Chauri Chaura incident in Event, Memory and Metaphor, - it won Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize in 1997 - Amin, a professor of history at Delhi University, combines "archival records with local memory to amplify voices of individual peasants and analyses varied ways in which events and memories are transformed in their re-telling.

The book also highlights problematic issues of historiography and the challenges of writing subaltern histories and shows how records are appropriated by different, sometimes conflicting, histories.

Amin's ear for rhythms and inflections of peasants' original speech brings them to life and imbues his book with a resonance missing in dry chronicles of that momentous event in India's freedom struggle.

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