- Telling Lives in India: Biography, Autobiography, and Life History
Addressing the presumed universality of life histories, David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn's edited volume focuses on difference—differences in the genres of biography, autobiography, and life histories (a more collective genre) in historical periods, geographically diverse areas of India, and between Indian life writings and Western versions of life writing genres. While this presupposes an imaginary monolithic Western paradigm, the issue of the nature of the narrative motive—individualism or collective social identifications of the narrator—dominates this book. Too little study has been given to the life writings of non-Western cultures, a lack that is quickly being repaired, however, for many national, ethnic, racial, and geographic populations. (For Indian life writings, Geraldine Forbes was a major innovator in using these texts for historical research.) The authors of this volume are historians and anthropologists whose methods and queries offer much to scholars of literature, who dominate the study of life writings. The essays here offer a wide range of perspectives, narrators, and communication venues, including written, oral, Hindu, Muslim, male, female, historical/traditional, and contemporary. These contexts also include histories of life writing genres native to regions or religious and caste groups, such as hagiographic modes or heroic stories.
Among the editors' assumptions is that life histories should be considered as "genres worthy of systematic analysis," not simply as sources of information (a point clearly addressed to social scientists), because "accounts of personal lives reflect culture specific notions of the person or self," demarcating spaces outside Western genres and for diverse life writings differentiated by caste, religious sect, and region (4). The book focuses on life histories—a term embracing written and oral histories—of ordinary people, not famous figures, because such lives have "value as social documents, as insights into the ways in which individuals (or the societies around them) sought to present their versions of 'truth'" (5).
The authors resist the impulse to meta-narrative. The essays' themes of kinship, family life, colonialism, nationalism, religion, and gender are examined through stories that borrow from and recast circulating histories and life stories, sometimes from pre-modern India, of Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist lives, epic poetry, genealogies, and even horoscopes. These essays reveal a wide variety of "narrative strategies and presentational techniques" from diverse circumstances and models. The authors have their own disciplinary purposes, and generally argue that all life stories are incomplete, requiring "supplementary evidence about their provenance and purpose" (10). [End Page 375]
Several authors address the difficult question of silences, especially in women's life stories and oral stories of Dalits (Untouchables). Several also address generational differences that mark changes in regional, caste, and gendered lives from mid-century (post-1947 Independence) to the present. The editors note that "many Indian life histories owe more to ongoing social processes, to popular reinterpretations or the cultural accretions of generations, than to an actual life as lived or defined in a single work" (12). Under the shadow of such accretions, the authors look for "those moments when there is a departure from convention (or from reticence and discretion) that might reveal more about the individuality of our subjects or how their own choice of words and idioms sheds light on their social world" (13). Such intentions and the theme of reticence threading through the essays foreground the authors' social science disciplines to emphasize a dialectic between narrators' lives and "larger frames of reference, especially those of family, kin, caste, religion, and gender" (19) in a "continuum of selfhood" (21).
The underlying dichotomy between individualism and collectivity, a rather colonial presumption the editors seek to examine, fortunately does not drive these essays, which examine life writings and oral life histories in new, refreshing ways that open up the study of life writings to historically and culturally specific inflections outside this dichotomy. The editors' organization is along another dichotomy of modern and traditional: the first three essays are grouped as "Confronting Modernity...