Book Review: Miniya Chatterji’s ‘Indian Instincts’ is explains how India is overshadowed by her personal story

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Published: April 8, 2018 1:37:41 AM

What ails India? Is it the institutions, the people, or its history? Sociologists have tried their best to pinpoint and, even if they seldom concur with each other’s views, there is a consensus that it can’t be just one thing.

book review,  Miniya Chatterji, indian instincts, essays, sociologist

What ails India? Is it the institutions, the people, or its history? Sociologists have tried their best to pinpoint and, even if they seldom concur with each other’s views, there is a consensus that it can’t be just one thing. Following a Marxist perspective, they often find an entry point and try explaining others within that perspective. Miniya Chatterji is no different; she focuses on institutions as the entry point of India’s problems bound by the weight of history and the attitude of the people. But unlike regular sociologists, she presents it as a first-person account, taking readers through the journey of her life, as also the journey of India. Indian Instincts: Essays on Freedom and Equality in India is her account, via 15 essays, detailing concepts such as democracy, love, nationalism, freedom, values, money and aesthetics of a diverse country with a multiplicity of cultures. Although there is no set pattern to her writing, there is a common thread that runs through each of the stories, and that is the life of Chatterji. The author starts with the topic of survival, detailing the commonality of our ancestry. But rather than it being a perspective of Indian life, with parts of her story, it goes the other way round. Chatterji does pack some interesting analysis on matters of love, religion and procreation, but it somehow gets muzzled in the experiences that she presents. Being well-travelled, and having worked across the world, Chatterji offers a vivid account of her experiences. Unfortunately, there is nothing new that one would notice, as the problems she highlights have oft been a subject of discussion and debate.

Packed with enough clichés and that too in Bollywood style (“strong roots do not mean trees cannot have branches that reach the sky”), the saga becomes a bit too dramatic at times. More importantly, the author, sticking to a liberal perspective, often falters in her approach of presenting a complete picture of the problems. For instance, the essay titled Decibels does attempt to explore what we have lost regarding freedom, which may be right, but does not present a complete picture of our society. Given that the author has no problem in finding faults with society and present and past dispensations, there is not enough evidence to show the support that freedom advocates like her have found within society. In another case, while she blames the government and institutions for creating clones, many would call it the making of the capitalist process rather than a creation of Indian institutions. The same is true for many problems that are made out to be India-specific, but are rather faced by all nations going through evolution. The statement, “socially liberal societies do not tolerate rape, violence against women, child molestation and sexual harassment, which are all rampant in India”, is erroneous. No community, no matter how repressed, would tolerate these social evils. There are some critical points that the author does raise, but there is not much regarding solutions. There is often confusion that abounds books written from an author’s perspective. While they try their best to offer a first-person account, more often than not, it becomes an autobiography. In trying to valiantly explain what ails India, Chatterji delves more into her life than her perspective, presenting a convoluted story of both. While some essays are easy to go through, one has to trudge through others. Grammatical mistakes—not the author’s fault—make matters worse. There is a trove of information that Chatterji possesses, given her experience; if only she had concentrated on one of the issues and expanded on it. The autobiography, on the other hand, would have made for another exciting read. The writer is a former journalist

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