Shadows at Noon: The South Asian Twentieth Century by Joya Chatterji - review by Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani

From Bengal to Bollywood

Shadows at Noon: The South Asian Twentieth Century


The Bodley Head 864pp £30

Writing a history of South Asia covering a period of a century and addressing everything from politics and the family to food and Bollywood films is a monumental challenge. Joya Chatterji is particularly well placed for this task, being one half of the power couple that has led the study of South Asian history at Cambridge for some fifty years. She and her spouse, Anil Seal, have at different times presided over Cambridge University’s Centre of South Asian Studies, the scholars associated with which are responsible for much of the research that underpins this book. Its underlying argument is that the Indian subcontinent has more that unites it than conventional narratives, which focus on divisions, allow.

Chatterji blames narrow doctrines of nationhood for the partition of colonial India in 1947 and the violent ethnic cleansing that followed. She points to schemes for a united confederation, ranging from the Lucknow Pact of 1916, agreed between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, to the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1945, which might have squared the circle of democracy and minority rights. She does not shrink from blaming their failure predominantly on the majoritarian, Hindu-dominated Congress led by Gandhi and Nehru.

Chatterji attempts to portray the rival nations of the subcontinent as mirror images of each other in many respects. This model works well in relation to the attempts of India and Pakistan after partition to stem major refugee flows across their borders and, when these had failed, to resettle

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