Review: Shadows at Noon by Joya Chatterji
The book, which includes copious field notes, oral accounts, archival evidence and a deep engagement with secondary works, occasionally reads like an unputdownable novel
Joya Chatterji’s latest book, Shadows at Noon: The South Asian Twentieth Century is an unusual, genre-defying and immensely readable historical account of post-1947 India and South Asia. Each of her earlier works (Bengal Divided, 1995, and Spoils of Partition, 2007) and essays is rigorously researched, her prose is lucid and her analyses of the unusual evidence she gathers is deserving of the appreciation and plaudits it has garnered.
Her latest work, at times narrated by the author as an actor in and spectator of the events she describes, sometimes reads like a memoir. That doesn’t make it any less of a work of history as the copious field notes, oral accounts, archival evidence and the deep engagement with secondary works indicate. Conventional historical accounts (post-1947) usually confine themselves to political, economic and administrative affairs. More of a social history, this book also discusses art, theatre, cinema, sports, cuisines, family, household affairs, domestic help and their anxieties and vulnerabilities and slum-dwellers too. As someone, who has been teaching postgraduate courses on the history of India post-1947 and has had to deal with the scattered nature of the information available, this is a useful book.
Conjectures about the central concern as well as the work’s subtext can be gleaned from the choice of the title itself. There have been at least two novels with the same title: Martin Goldsmith’s speculative novel on what happens after Nazi bombing destroys New York appeared in 1943 while Margot Webb’s 2019 novel dealt with Nazi oppression as experienced by a 10-year-old girl. And then there’s Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel, Darkness at Noon, which exposed the Stalinist purge. Thus, the title forewarns us, not so implicitly, of South Asia’s rapid slide into electoral ethno-authoritarianism.
While the author doesn’t shy away from exposing the failings and atrocities of the colonial state, she is quick to add that the “post-colonial” South Asian states continue to be as oppressive, violent, discriminatory, and filled with the arrogance of power and ethnocentrism. She has rightly touched on the point that such factors generate regional imbalance and secessionism. The menacing phenomenon of competitive “subcontinental majoritarianism” inherent in the discourse around citizenship has also been well brought out.
The seven chapters in the volume include one devoted to migration, displacement and the diaspora, which is Chatterji’s special area of interest. While there is a lot of information here, there isn’t much focus on the “long distance nationalism’’ that feeds into the jingoism and xenophobia prevalent across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (Western historians prefer to call the region “South Asia”) and it leaves the reader wondering why emigrants tend to be more xenophobic.
In another chapter, Chatterji clarifies that the military preponderance in Pakistan emerged from the chaos of Partition. There were a mere 101 Muslim ICS officers of the colonial administration in the regions outside what was to become Pakistan. Of these, 95 opted for the new country. At Partition, only 1.5% of the Indian army was Muslim, mostly Pathan. In the newly created Pakistan Army, 72% were Punjabi though the ethnic group was 25 percent of the population; the Bengalis, who were 55% of the total population, had a negligible presence in the army, the consequences of which became evident in 1971. The civil-military composition, already skewed at birth, ensured that the army continues to dominate Pakistani affairs.
There are some inadequacies on certain themes in this 850-page volume. While Bangladesh’s performance in rural development, particularly through micro-financing has been brought out and the point has been made that the country has been doing well at alleviating rural poverty, India’s efforts at delivering social justice through affirmative action to historically oppressed communities (though far from satisfactory, it is better than others in the region) have been ignored.
Another point of contention through the decades has been the gender-related reforms in the personal laws of Hindus and Muslims in the three countries. When these were carried out in the initial decades after Independence, there was internal resistance from religious reactionaries, especially on gender issues. The book mentions this aspect only in passing.
In terms of interpreting the character of the nation and the state through Hindi films, some of the most crucial research in this area has gone unnoticed in the book. Another omission is the creative literature of the three countries since 1947. At least some of fiction in the major languages of South Asia could have been analysed in a segment.
A little more fact checking was also necessary. The myth of ₹55 crore to be given to Pakistan as one of the reasons for the assassination of Gandhi has crept into this book. On the Shah Bano issue of 1986, Chatterji maintains that imminent elections were the populist consideration before the Rajiv Gandhi-led administration. The fact is the quinquennial elections were over three years away. Hopefully, these errors will be taken care of in subsequent editions.
In sum, this is a valuable addition to the literature on the Indian subcontinent. Written in captivating prose, it reads like a novel that you just cannot put down until it’s finished. In a gloomy era when the region is fast slipping into ethno-retrogression with states writing ideologically sanitized history textbooks, an immensely readable text by a highly accomplished historian that appeals to students, teachers and non-specialist readers alike, is of great significance.
Mohammad Sajjad is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Indian History, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge).