Glittering nostalgia

Book Review: Non-fiction
Glittering Decades by Nayantara Pothen,
Penguin /Viking, 268 pp; Rs499 (Hardback)

For majority of the people, the transition time of Indian independence was not filled with the glittering moments. The cunning British bureaucracy, which drove the mass spirit to ultimate low, could be hardly recalled in soft terms by those who vividly feel the trauma of past. However, a class devoid of similar feelings and those who were carrying the legacy of ‘colonial hangover’ had somehow genuine appreciation for the attributes of British rule, which were offering seclusion from ‘dogs and Indians’!

Otherwise, such practices are untenable in our democracy, but still ghost-structures like, Gymkhana club etc reminds about the exclusionary tendencies, which see better prospects in artificially constructed objects and relationships, rather allowing humanity to blossom. But also possible is to look on the aristocracy with fascination but without actively endorsing its mainframes.

Nayantara Pothen does something on the same line with her book on Delhi’s passed aristocratic decades. Her memories are largely borrowed through the anecdotes and rests around her family’s prominence in the elitist circle. This remained continued in post-independence era too-perhaps the book has wider aim to establish, why that kind of club supremacy is on wane? Also, why it’s equally true with edifices?

The sense of privilege and loss is the basis, on which Nayantara mostly relies for her ‘aristocratic historiography’. With missing ‘social links’, her claim to call this book, a work of ‘social historiography’ seems little strange but it’s equally true that her research is interesting, even-though it’s meant for targeted readers only who have some kind of attached nostalgia. The book talks about the elite people, manners, and institutions in the hay days of colonial era and of little later.

The author relates those passed time with the presently existing affluent culture of Delhi, which is different and in certain sense, appears subversive. That part of ‘fall’, as this book corresponds is coming through India’s democracy, which is based on inclusive principles and notionally not allows the Club enlisted citizens to be seen by others as radically different from them.

The believers of democratic principles find it more appealing, rather relooking on the dying over-aged Clubs for ‘false wisdom’ and ‘real exploitative instincts’. The goodness about India lies in its amazing diversity, and the opposite one can confront by denying that most essential reality. The idea of social history writing in India is quite established now and the practitioner of this discipline can easily distinguish those texts, which have lesser leaning for it.

Here, the author of this book should understand these practicalities. In detachment, it’s very hard to write the history of India’s capital, which has been charged with the dynamic events and changes. The sense of entitlement through family’s connection is only giving the secondary inputs to Nayantara, so her offering of vision to look into that chunk of history lacks the proper degree of seriousness. It would have much better to read the reasons, which replaced those alarmingly elitist procedures but book keeps silence over that.

Over the decades, India has established itself as a matured functional democracy and it’s not without the active participation of its citizens. Flaws are very much intact here, but also faith is withstanding. So, hope is from the present and the time to come, rather looking back on the discriminatory system that was good for few. In recent times, Overseas Indians have written on India through alien eyes and westerners have dwelt on the same theme with ‘false local understanding’.

Unfortunately this has made the whole historical recollection exercises dubious and unauthentic. Though in patches, Glittering Decades, offer solace to the lovers of Delhi’s power corridors where mannerism matters more than any other specialties. The book itself does not define the lifestyle of affluents, though it engages strongly with that wherever it finds the space to proceed. The history can’t be written without having a certain sense of nostalgia, its utmost essential as emotional connect.

The book secures this quality. A certain amount of social overtures would have given this book a much needed broadness. In absence of that, this project has greater individualistic leaning. But the history cannot be interpreted through the single set of narration, so this kind of book also has vital rational to exist. With distinct take on the history of Raj, and in simpler narration, Nayantara forwards hope to see on some eventful decades.

The book is good read, if it would be not taken to attain any specific aim. For the enthusiasts of modern India, it could be of more interest. Hope with feedbacks and through self impulses, Nayantara will make her next book on India, more social and inclusive!

 Atul K Thakur is a New Delhi-based journalist, literary critic and editor of ‘India Since 1947’/Niyogi Books. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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