Blood defines the very essence of the history of South Asia. In the form of the modern nation-state of India, its omnipresence has become ubiquitous not only the victims and their families, as well as the perpetrators, but also to readers of news reports and social media users. Many would be forgiven for thinking this is a recent outbreak, and, somehow, a deviation from the past.
Here is a book, however, that reminds us that the phenomenon extends into the past, and even shapes the idea of the nation we call ourselves the citizens of.
“If myths nurtured and affirmed a society’s sense of being, how was one to reconcile the apparent violence of myths and the notion that India was a land of spirituality, tolerance, and non-violence?”
Part of the trend of historians writing for non-academic audiences – quarantining the footnotes – My Son’s Inheritance by historian-academic Aparna Vaidik is a clarion call to boomers and non-boomers alike to understand some of the things we must accept as our inheritance, because they cannot be wished away.
A secret history, but why?
My Son’s Inheritance might appear as a surprise to most casual readers of history, or those interested in the past. What was so special after all, which isn’t covered by conventional textbooks?
It is exactly in this field of granting vision to previously erased events that the book meticulously places itself. While it includes personal anecdotes from Vaidik’s family past, it also delves into the specific context of early modern North India, with the spreading of Vaishnavism and the settling of its roots in modern-day Rajasthan.
The Rajput tryst with Vaishnavism was characteristic of this period, with a powerful relationship forged between faith and power. As it turns out, it was part of a much larger process, which Vaidik demonstrates by jumping to the emergence of the Cow Protection Movement under the guidance of the Arya Samaj with its gaurakshini sabhas. It is in this space that the violence unleashed upon marginalised groups in society is revealed.
As a counter to this, Vaidik also invokes tales of the non-Aryan past are talked about; most notably the tale of King Bali and the Vamana Avatar of Vishnu. It is through this lens that she sees the writings of Jyotiba Phule, BR Ambedkar and countless other Dalitbahujan leaders is seen: the voices and rebuttal of the victim of blood violence and lynching.
These are the same voices which aimed to demolish the bogeyman constructed over centuries surrounding the supposedly “natural” brahmanical society of South Asia. An interesting comparison undertaken by Vaidik in her book also accounts for the voices of African American individuals from across the Pacific, who by a significant extent faced (and continue to face) oppression as marginalised groups in society – much like the Dalitbahujan communities of India.
The scrapping of conventional periods
As far as the teaching and learning of history goes, formal methods neatly divide the past into sometimes-arbitrary categories along the lines of ancient, medieval and modern (with hybrids like early medieval or late ancient). What flows from this is an exaggerated emphasis on political histories, be they feudal monarchies or democratic heads of state. In this regard, My Son’s Inheritance tries to step out of this tangled representation of the past to forge a more coherent, fluid narrative that transcends the course of several centuries with remarkable success.
“My grandfather clasped my hand to steady himself. As I held his frail hand in mine, a whole new meaning of the word ‘history’ unfolded before me. A history without chronology, without a beginning and an end, and one without kings and queens. This history was about us, how it separated yet conjoined our lives.”
This narrative style is particularly apt for a book such as Vaidik’s, for it comprises far more than a simple history: it offers the meta narrative of blood justice and lynching in the land which became India, alongside a more personal tale – one connected to the author’s own family.
This thread stretches into a mythic past: to the character of Bharmall, her ancestor, passing through her grandfather and herself, until finally flowing into the present the form of her son, addressed as “babu” throughout the book. In essence, the distant background of the bloody past is brought closer by tying it to the more proximate foreground of the present.
New sources, new histories
Again, in a manner characteristic of Vaidik’s style of writing, My Son’s Inheritance uses visual and oral sources to break the boundaries of what has traditionally consisted of the brick-and-mortar from which history has been written, resulting in something of an obsession with texts, texts and more texts; court chronicles, inscriptions, epics.
This book, however, dares to do, successfully, what art historians have stated for decades – it uses art to read and use as a lens through which to peer into the past. Case in point: the analysis of images found in magazines of “gaurakshini sabhas”, showing cows representing the different echelons of society. This is extended to images from Hindi magazines such as Chand to unravel and analyse the savarna gaze towards the oppressed dalit-bahujan communities of India and the normalisation of casteist behaviour that extends well into the present.
“A person born out of an Aryan and non-Aryan union was in violation of this misalliance. Even the etymology of Barbareek’s name shows how everyday language, that is, casual words used to describe an individual while appearing not to do so can dispossess the person, erase their identity, their community, and their labour.”
After the narration of a visit to Rajasthan and the village of Khattu Shyamji, Vaidik also delves into the oral nature of myths that can be traced back to the Puranas. One such myth is the case of a warrior named Barbareek, who faces a tragic death at Krishna’s hands in the Mahabharata. As the text points out, the very name Barbareek looks down on individuals falling outside the four-fold varna hierarchy – a warrior rivalling Arjuna could simply not be allowed to live, for he challenged the superiority of the dvija, the twice-born upper castes.
Print then, WhatsApp now
Much as the past is interesting to study, My Son’s Inheritance draws many parallels between what once was, and what once more is. The detailed analysis of blood justice following the emergence of cow protection movements is shown to have eerie parallels with the present situation of India. An even more interesting example is shown to be the emergence of printing presses as essential to the spread of radical ideas much faster than before – making it difficult for the state to control even if it had the will to do it.
Eerily similar to family, neighbourhood and school WhatsApp groups, right?
Much like the images, accompanying texts are shown to be pivotal in the forging of a greater-than-life Hindu community in order to create the “other” out of minority communities which had lived on the same land as the majority for generations.
“Print created a new public culture of debate, dialogue, and controversies akin to social media today. Different communities were printing and disseminating their religious texts, opinions of their leaders, and propaganda materials.”
While the narrative of blood justice focuses especially on sectarian conflict, My Son’s Inheritance is also sharply critical of a reading of the violent events of the past and present as a supposed result of the “infiltration” of religion by politics. Religion has always been political and politics has rarely ever not drawn on religion, its symbols or its vocabulary, argues Vaidik – they have always shared a symbiotic relationship.
In a skilful move, Vaidik sheds light on Phule’s writings with his iconic work Gulamgiri, which created ripples for its attack on the brahmanical narratives of Hinduism. As it symbolised perhaps the only antidote to this entrenched violent narrative of India’s past, the Ambedkarite movement was ostracised by savarna political movements, for it proposed a supposedly overzealous reform of Indian society. A message implied by Vaidik’s book, perhaps, is the need for a Dalitisation of Indian society as stated by Kancha Illaiah in his seminal work, Why I Am Not a Hindu, three decades ago.
The audience for My Son’s Inheritance is Babu, the author’s son. Just as Barbareek and Bharmall both represent versions of India’s past, they also represent the fork in the path in front of the next generation of Indians: taking one branch involves recognising the violence permeating – and preceding – our times; taking the other means throwing those at risk under the bus and ignoring the blood on our hands.
My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History Of Lynching And Blood Justice In India, Aparna Vaidik, Aleph Book Company.