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Reviewed by:
  • Vernacular Medicine in Colonial India: Family, market and homoeopathy by Shinjini Das
  • Neshat Quaiser
Vernacular Medicine in Colonial India: Family, market and homoeopathy
By Shinjini Das. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Scholars studying South Asia's Indigenous medical traditions and their troubled relationship with Western medicine during the colonial period have predominantly focussed on medical practices such as Ayurveda and of late Unani and to some extent Siddha. Homoeopathy has received little attention from the scholars of South Asian medicine, despite the fact that India became the largest consumer of homoeopathic medicine. The reason is obvious that despite being of Western origin, homoeopathy was not a British colonial medical project like Western medicine/English medicine/allopathy/doctory, which had become an integral part of the larger colonial machination of domination. As such, the Indigenous medical traditions were faced with perceived and real threats of domination, denigration and extermination by the colonial structures of power. As a result, "the domain of medicine was, perhaps, the most compelling site for the articulation of sentiments against the claims of superiority of Western knowledge," as this reviewer has elsewhere argued.

Thus, the book under review was much needed. The book primarily deals with the ways in which homoeopathy was "reconstituted as vernacular medicine" in colonial Bengal. This concern is explicated through a study of "how medicine, family and market were interconnected in British Bengal" (2).

The book is divided into five chapters, a fairly long introduction and a conclusion (epilogue). The introduction outlines the significance of families, market, and the vernacular in colonial Bengal and explores the question "How does homoeopathy lend a useful lens through which to study the institution of family?" (6), and consequently its relation with the market and colonial state. This question is analysed with reference to salient features of the South Asian family as well. Chapter I deals with the question of a heterodoxy between the institutions with reference to bureaucracy, the print market and family firms. Chapter II analyses the biographical writings of a homoeopathic family linking it with the biography of science and medicine, the Hindu way of life and the ways in which homoeopathy was made a familiar vernacular science. Chapter III deals with the question of science in translation with reference to medicine, language and identity where the question of the Hinduisation of homoeopathy is brilliantly discussed, and homoeopathy in rural settings is also brought under discussion. Chapter IV finely outlines the issues relating to the questions of Indigeneity, self-help and the Hindu joint family. Chapter V relates to the making of a homoeopathic public with reference to elections, public health and legislation. The conclusion is a fine summing up.

Thus, using homoeopathy as a point of departure, the book is an important signpost as to how new social, cultural, scientific, educational and political landscapes propelled by colonial contexts were effected and the ways in which these were responded to and appropriated by different sections of Indian society with rather conflicting vantage points. Thus, the book reconceptualises certain key issues such as caste identities, vernacularisation and Hinduisation of homoeopathy, discovering new Hindu identity, new commercial interests and ventures, the crucial role of the Bengali print market and culture and the intrinsically linked relationship between certain homoeopathic family firms, the colonial state and emergent nationalist politics. Through and against these dimensions and context, the book very competently deals with the new arts and science of negotiations with the politics of Western science, medicine and notions of modernity through homoeopathy that the different sections of people developed in colonial Bengal, having wider implications.

Vernacular medicine is the key concept of the book. According to the author homoeopathy as vernacular medicine in colonial Bengal emerged through the processes of translation, domestication and Indigenisation through which it was reconfigured (246). But importantly, the author traces the vernacularisation of homoeopathy through "manifestly religio-cultural idioms of Hinduism in colonial Bengal" (27). However, there could be other factors, in addition to its not being part of and patronised by the British colonial state, that made homoeopathy vernacular and familiar medicine even in Bengal. Of these, predominantly the absence of surgery in homoeopathy was a crucial factor that made it...


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