Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 166-167
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Beyond Hindu and Muslim:
Multiple Identity in Narratives from Village India
Beyond Hindu and Muslim: Multiple Identity in Narratives from Village India. By Peter Gottschalk (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000) 215 pp. $45.00
The author of this book spent fourteen months, in 1994 and 1995, living in the Arampur nexus of villages in Bihar. Here he put to good use his knowledge of Hindi and Urdu in an attempt to understand the "multiple identities" of Hindu and Muslim residents of the area. The result is a striking departure from the "village studies" practiced by previous generations of scholars. Gottschalk's book does not deal with caste, the jajmani system of labor relationships, problems of landownership, or any of the other bogeys of the traditional Indian village. Instead, it focuses on "a multicontextual analysis of local group identities" (66), on the relationship of "narrative" and identity, and on the notion of "group memory." The overriding aim of the book is to go beyond the facile and misleading categorization of Indian society in terms of two exclusive blocs of Hindus and Muslims, to "challenge the primacy of the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy" (8). Discarding a description of Indian village society solely in terms of religious identity, Gottschalk sets out to show "that group memories reflect how other identities compete with or complement those of 'Hindu' and 'Muslim'" (5). In order to accomplish this task, he takes his cue from such authors as Paul Ricoeur, Maurice Halbwachs, and Paul Connerton.
The substance of the book consists of an examination of local narratives or stories that depict an interrelated world "among the various identities of family, class, caste, gender, territory, nation, and religion found among Arampur residents" (11). Invariably, the target is what in South Asia is often called communal identity, a singular self-understanding along religious lines. Gottschalk also examines works of Hindi literature and school books as well as such physical objects as temples and shrines. He analyzes historiography itself as an element of group memory.
Western scholars who know India well through personal experience or the study of history (rather than through exposure to "sacred book" traditions) will probably agree with the main conclusions of Gottschalk's book. So will many Indians. They may prefer more emphasis, in the analysis of identity, on shared lifestyles among the Arampur residents, rather than on just narrative and memory, but this approach would only have provided more support for the author's argument. [End Page 166]
Two further questions remain unanswered in the book. One concerns the increase of communal antagonism between Hindus and Muslims that has been observed during the last decade or so. Gottschalk may not like the recent, uncritical American media attention given to the rhetoric of communalist politicians, but he himself writes of the "current upsurge in communal rhetoric and conflict not seen since Partition" (32), and of "a definite increase in communal polarization" (33). He elsewhere notes that "many Indians increasingly see one another as singular in identity, particular religious identity" (34), and that "recent reform and revival movements in north India reverberate in the Arampur area" (121). He makes other statements to this effect. Why has such a recent increase of tensions occurred? Fretting about "multiple identity" and "group memory" is of no avail. Strangely, the subject does not appear to interest Gottschalk much. Nor does he address the wider question of whether, as some have claimed, representatives of different civilizations have recently suffered increased alienation.
The final question concerns the extent to which Islamic identities differ from Hindu identities. This too is a subject of heated debate in the subcontinent, but it is barely mentioned in this book. It is understandable that Western scholars, in particular, are not eager to stoke the fires of communalism further, but the problem of reconciling differences will not go away by just pointing, as is usually done, at the inclusivism of sufism or, as in this book, pointing at the multiple identities of Indian villagers.