The Ruins of Memory: The Writing of Brahmin Self in South India

Talk by Dilip Menon, University of Delhi. 4/11/08.

Autobiography in India was seemingly late in emerging as a genre in India. As with capitalism, revolution or modernity, the enigma of non-arrival seems to be problematic within which Indian histories and forms of imagination have come to be framed. After a hesitant beginning in the late 19th century, we have had a respectable corpus of autobiographies only by the mid 20th century. This leads us to another problem. These autobiographical and biographical narratives were of men and women who had made a name for themselves in the making of modern India: political figures, social reformers and the like. The narratives of “selfhood” seem to be “trapped” in the emergence of community and nation rather than explicating moments of individual epiphany and introspection. To recast that apodictic prophet, Jameson, we could argue that perhaps it was third world autobiography, rather than the novel, which was national allegory.

Thus we have Kanipayyur, writing his three volume autobiography in the 1970’s apologetically questioning the value of narrating his “life”, saying that he had achieved nothing of the order of Gandhi or a Nehru. Are we speaking of a diffident selfhood, or an inability to conceive of individuality which then in the manner of good Indologists and anthropologists we could trace to a deep cultural tendency. We could argue, fatuously, that along with capitalism, revolution and realism in cinema the individual never really arrived in India. What if we were rather to look at the economy of these narratives and engage in an immanent reading of the rendering of the self? When Kanipayyur says that he is writing his autobiography what exactly are his procedures and protocols and would it not be besides the point to measure his achievement against Augustine, Rousseau or Gandhi?

Moreover, what is the role that photographs (of objects and customs); descriptions of railway stations and cinema houses; and reflection on history play in the revelation or concealment of identity?


Dilip Menon is Reader in Modern Indian History at the University of Delhi. Recent Publications include Saraswativijayam  (Translation of Potheri Kunhambu’s novel of 1893 from Malayalam with Afterword), The Blindness of Insight: Essays on Caste in Modern India, “A Place elsewhere: lower caste Malayalam novels of the nineteenth century”, India’s Literary History: essays on the nineteenth century, “Things Fall Apart: The Cinematic Rendition of Agrarian Landscape in South India” (Journal of Peasant Studies), “Look back in anger: authenticity and radical identity”, Refiguring Culture: History, Theory and the Aesthetic in Contemporary India.

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Duration: 43:19

Published: Friday, April 11, 2008