Book Extract: The making of a nation

Joya Chatterji retells the history of the South Asian 20th century as a fraught project of ‘relentless nation-making’

The Darjeeling Himalayan toy train (Photo: Getty Images)
The Darjeeling Himalayan toy train (Photo: Getty Images)

Joya Chatterji

Title: Shadows at Noon: The South Asian Twentieth Century; Author: Joya Chatterji; Publisher: Penguin Viking; Pages: 864; Price Rs 1,299 (hardcover)


When my brothers and I were still young enough to be told what to do, my father would insist that we all travel en famille, by train from Delhi for 40-odd hours, to spend the summer holidays in the ancestral household. This was a sprawling set-up in north Bengal, in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas.

I looked forward to these visits as much as my mother dreaded them. For me the Hill Cart Road household offered freedom from the constraints of an urban nuclear family, with all its boring restrictions. ‘Oh no, you must never go out alone, you must never wander away in the park, the budhdha baba (scary old man) will take you away!’ our ayah never tired of warning us. ‘Do your homework! Change out of your uniform! Don’t pat stray dogs! Don’t eat street food!’ The list of my mother’s admonitions seemed endless.

The Hill Cart Road establishment—a large high-walled compound of adjacent houses of different sizes and styles, workers’ cottages, wells, kitchens, fruit trees, coconut palms and cowsheds—was for me brimful of pleasures.

The elders left a host of cousins, ranging from their early twenties to children just out of nappies, pretty much unsupervised. All my cousins played with me; none was too superior. […]

There were trees to climb (the jackfruit was my favourite) and quiet places to read. The household had its own milkman (goala) and cows, and no one stopped me when I petted the calves. I frolicked with Kanchha’s children and rode on his shoulders—Kanchha being the Nepali driver and gentle gofer of the household.

Book Extract: The making of a nation

Aunts (je-ma, pishima) and cousin sisters-in-law (bou-di) showered us with treats. The Brahmin cook gave us dough to play with as he set about making luchis for dinner. One special je-ma, her left eyebrow raised in a permanent look of scepticism, taught me how to make zardaa paan on the sly: […] very naughty indeed.

I never asked my mother why she didn’t look forward to these holidays, but sensed it had to do with the lack of privacy at Hill Cart Road. There was a level of constant scrutiny to which she, an Englishwoman, never got accustomed. The patriarch was my grandfather of swadeshi toddy-brewing fame, but by the time I was old enough to register intimate structures of authority, a stroke had paralysed him and my grandmother was de facto in charge.

Dudurani (our grandmother) put us up in an airy room with a cool marble floor and shuttered windows overlooking the courtyard. My parents slept in a vast carved four-poster bed covered with mosquito netting; we had cotton mattresses on the floor beside them. What they didn’t get was downtime for their gin and soda, time alone as a couple.

My mother spent her days with a throng of aunts, nieces, cousin sisters, cousin sisters-in-law, my grandmother, and the cook, sweating in the mud-and-thatch kitchen set at some distance from the more imposing main houses that faced the street, and took turns with the other women of the house to tend to my grandfather’s needs. Meanwhile my father and his brothers sat drinking fine Darjeeling tea (served to them by the bou-dis and the lovely Malati, a ‘domestic servant’) and chatted about politics. […]

Although she wore them elegantly, my mother’s saris were never quite as perfectly draped as my aunts’ saris; her cutting of rohu lacked finesse; she could not (and would not) blow the conch shell to welcome Goddess Lakshmi at dusk. I never heard her complain, but her stress showed in the tense set of her mouth.


From an early age, then, I registered that the South Asian household was riven with tension. Far from being the solid harmonious unit imagined by census-takers, it was divided and hierarchical, patriarchal and autocratic. It was not, and still is not, a unit of congruent interests. Children were indulged but daughters-in-law were not.

The latter seemed to work from dawn to dusk, cooking and serving meals in ritual order: first to the elders, then to the menfolk, then to the children. Only then would they bathe again and wash and oil their long hair, and sit down themselves to eat together. (This did not mean that they were friends. I got a hint that rivalries, even enmities, bubbled beneath the calm surface.)


But my grandmother was in charge: of that there was no doubt. With an enormous bunch of keys tied to the end of her sari, she controlled access to dry foodstuffs—sugar, gur, rice, vegetable oil and ghee. She added the final touches to dishes that her daughters-in-law had prepared; she watched the cows being milked; she pointed out the ripest coconuts, which little boys trained in the art brought down in seconds.


The household was not united by blood, a common hearth or even a common roof, even though the male Chatterjis and their children shared a common male ancestor. Their wives, and the small platoon of bou-ma, je-ma and visiting maternal cousins and aunts, did not. Kanchha, the driver, had his own little cottage; the Brahmin cook had his own shack; and the goala lived within the compound in a tumble-down manger with his family and the cattle.

Malati and her son Jugnu as well as Ratan—shy boys who swept, swabbed and cleaned dishes—lived outside the compound’s walls and came to work every day. Malati was almost certainly single—either widowed or abandoned by her husband.

Kanchha was a migrant from neighbouring Nepal who had settled in Bengal with his wife and children in a more nucleated unit within a larger one. I loved him dearly, but now it strikes me as odd (or typical of the times) that we called a grown man Kanchha: it means ‘boy’ in Nepali.

The milkman’s family lived on site so that my grandmother could ensure that the cows were well fed, and that the goala got no chance to add water to the frothing brass buckets of milk.

The cook was from a ‘lower’ Brahmin sub-caste than ours, which is why he served us. We called him daadamashay, ‘respected elder brother’. Ostensibly a term of esteem, this was in fact a signal that he was of lower status than us. He seemed indigent, and without close relatives of his own.

What united the household, then, was not blood, kinship or even co-residence: it was submission to the authority of its patriarch.


You might wonder what is uniquely South Asian about this. I suggest that many things are. Caste, for one: the milkman had to live in the household so that our milk was pure, and the cook was a Brahmin because we ‘could not eat’ unless served by Brahmins. Yes, even revolutionary Communists, and Congressmen like my grandfather, thought like this. Or were blind to the inequalities of caste.

Also, their received ideas about patriarchy were of a different order. The Chatterji clan of Hill Cart Road included men of seven generations, some unborn, some ancestors. This unit was the core.

All held the unit’s property for all, in line with their needs. Everything earned and owned by one male householder was the property of the unit. Even the karta, or patriarch, was in theory an equal shareholder, albeit one who administered the unit and commanded its respect. So the South Asian household was a mighty structure. (This holds true for large ‘upper-caste’ Hindu joint families, but Muslim elite khandaans are not that different.)

Women, even Chatterji daughters like me, were ‘outsiders’ even at birth, held in trust for their husbands’ households.

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