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  • Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity by David Arnold
  • Pratik Chakrabarti (bio)
Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity. By David Arnold. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 224. $30.

This book is about small technologies in India. In particular, it focuses on several factory-produced goods that became embedded in the everyday lives of Indians. Through these goods, David Arnold narrates the story of Indian modernity and the making of its various utopias. He identifies the period between 1905 and 1914 as India’s “technological watershed” (p. 20), marked by the influx of various new machines, such as sewing machines, [End Page 1017] gramophones, typewriters, bicycles, cameras, clocks and watches, and the beginning of industrialization and the rise of the Swadeshi movement, which fostered a new technological awareness in India.

Two narrative threads run through the book: first, how small technologies came to occupy a “significant place in the daily lives of people” (p. 3). Then, Arnold argues, these became part of the Indian imagination of its modernity—“the centrality of the machine and of technology generally in Indian thinking about past, present, and future” (p. 20)—the development of which forms the second main narrative. The book examines this technological imagination in the works of a spectrum of Indian thinkers, including M. N. Saha, P. N. Bose, M. K. Gandhi, and P. C. Ray. It also explores this in literary works by Rokeya Hossein, Nirad Chaudhuri, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Mulk Raj Anand, and Arundhati Roy. Full of anecdotes and insights, the work is a tour de force of India’s tryst with machines and modernity.

Three items in particular are studied—sewing machines, typewriters, and rice mills—as shapers of modern Indian aesthetics, labor, diet, and travel. With great mastery, Arnold narrates the history of “acculturation of technologies” as a social history of the subcontinent, doing so in terms of gender, race, and nationalism. Sewing machines became part of the changing roles and activities of Indian women, symbols of women’s new status, providing respectability to women’s labor as well as opening new opportunities of livelihoods for them.

Naservanji Mervanji Patell, the main Singer agent in India, acted as the go-between for foreign companies and Indian society. Here Arnold avoids the current historiographical celebration of colonial intermediaries. Patell targeted the large community of Indian tailors, persuading them to adopt Singer, instead of the older Wheeler and Wilson machines. Yet his indigenous methods of sale, display, and marketing were often disapproved by Western perspectives of aesthetics and enterprise and he was subjected to racial and cultural prejudices. This discussion on gender, race, and machines would have been enriched by an engagement with caste, for its close associations with labor.

As machines became part of everyday life, they were also resisted. Rice mills were subjected to dual criticism, from the Gandhian perspective of replacing traditional technologies and occupations and from the modern scientific viewpoint of reducing the nutritional value of the Indian diet. Yet at the same time, the whiter machine-milled rice became popular among consumers.

One enduring issue in the book is that it accepts the conventional divides between small and big technologies and their associated industries. Arnold focuses on small technologies “as a much-needed corrective to the excessive emphasis on large-scale technological systems that has dominated the discussion of technology in relation to India” (p. 173). This is an [End Page 1018] important historiographical intervention. However, it is also an ideological choice, as Arnold sees small technologies as “primary”: “It is rather that small things can be ‘godly’ in the sense of being of primary, even paramount, importance when it comes to daily lives” (p. 173). In such a preference for small technologies, Arnold extends the Gandhian perspective, which, as he shows, viewed big machines as “soulless” as opposed to the charkha (spinning wheel), which was seen to have a soul (p. 18).

This distinction and the links between small technologies and “everyday” are not analytically established. It can be argued that the so-called “big technologies,” against which this narrative is posited, did become part of the everyday experiences of those who built...