Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.4 (2003) 691-692
[Access article in PDF]
In the Time of Trees and Sorrows: Nature, Power, and Memory in Rajasthan. By Ann Grodzins Gold and Bhoju Ram Gujar (Durham, Duke University Press, 2002) 403pp. $69.95 cloth $23.95 paper
In 1993, while conducting research in the former kingdom of Sawar, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, Gold and Gujar heard about the pigs that the king (or Court, as he is called in the book) in the period before independence refused to allow the peasants of Sawar to kill for devastating their crops. One day, a large group of farmers marched to the fort to demand permission to rid themselves of the pigs. The response of the Court varied according to who told the story. The farmer's story ended with the slaughter of the pigs. When the story was told by a high-caste Rajput, the king forgave a large portion of the grain tax but spared the pigs. In the version told by the untouchable, nothing happened until the king died.
The wild pig story was the catalyst for this book, leading to a dramatic change in focus; the authors' work evolved from an ethnography into a history. Though still a local study, the research was now framed around one overarching question: "What was it like for the poor farmers and herders and laborers during the time of kings (and empire)?" (5). Specifically, Gold and Guhar wanted to know what happened to the trees and pigs.
In order to make better sense of the answers, Gold (the primary author) had to retrain herself as a historian. Her research was prodigious and deep. Relying on the most recent theoretical work on peasant studies, the "subaltern school," she immersed herself in the literature on agrarian, political, and environmental history of India in general and Rajasthan in particular. As such, this book is as much about a journey through the historian's craft as it is an oral history. Gold's intensely personal reflections, which she shares through her diary entries and honest recollections of time and place, make this book a history of a different sort. This combination of oral interviews, historical interpretation, and personal insights culminates in a work that is both poignant and instructive.
Consider, for instance, the chapter entitled "Shoes," in which Gold and Gujar combine ethnography and history to provide a sharp analytical example not only of the oppressive hierarchical social structure of colonial Rajasthan but of the power of symbol and code. The chapter focuses on an oversized shoe kept in the fort, the purpose of which was to provide a beating for the rebellious and disobedient. Who gave the [End Page 691] beating (a caste Hindu or an untouchable) and where the beating was given (in the fort or the stable) defined the type of humiliation that the victim sustained. But the issue was more complex. "A shoe-beating, if administered, would destroy honor. But to resist a shoe-beating is to sustain honor and hence to rise in others' estimation" (106). Similarly, the wearing of shoes by the king or his agents, in a farmer's garden or kitchen, was a symbol of a power relationship that was impossible for the peasant to ignore.
In the process of tracing the disappearance of the trees, the authors describe the economic, social, and ecological realities of colonial Rajasthan, as voiced by the oldest citizens of Sawar. Nostalgia tempers some of the narratives, but the tales generally paint a grim portrait of oppression and poverty. The contemporary scene could well be described as a "time of deforestation and contentment." Although economic conditions have improved dramatically, the environmental picture is dismal. The jungles have been replaced by thorny mesquite, dismissively called simply "foreign" by the peasants. Gone too is the social bonding prevalent in earlier days; the authors note that "today simple sociability is moribund" (315).
This is a wonderful book, from its title to its final paragraph. With a marvelous clarity and refreshing lack of rhetoric...