2 November 2012

Book Review: Sunlight on the Garden

A short review I did for Time Out:

Beteille's French grandmother with his father, Maurice.
André Béteille: Sunlight on the Garden  
Penguin Viking, Rs. 499

André Béteille, the distinguished sociologist, has written a rare and delightful memoir. By limiting the book to his “childhood and youth”, Béteille frees himself to explore the first 26 years of his life in wonderfully observant detail. He begins with a memorable description of his two grandmothers, one Bengali and the other French. Both were widows “in straitened circumstances” who lived in the small French-Bengali town of Chandannagar – but they never met. His paternal grandmother was the child of French indigo planters. She married a French colonial official who died of cholera, leaving her with a young son and no money. She spent a lifetime keeping up appearances, and felt shamed by her son’s marriage to “a native woman”. Béteille and his siblings were not welcome in her house; he describes with acuity their childhood fascination with this mysterious place, which they passed every day, but did not enter.

But even here, remembering things that must have been profoundly affecting, Béteille is his restrained, observant self: “Perhaps my peculiar childhood has made me unusually sensitive to the processes of social exclusion...”, he writes, before moving on to his other grandmother, a Bengali Brahmin widow who was as close as the other was distant. His portrait of her is deeply affectionate, but never shies away from the uncomfortable detail. His fond memories of her morning Ganga snaan and her simple, wholesome cooking do not prevent him from a clear-eyed recounting of her “pride of caste”, embedded in such tiny things as her calling his childish temper “the rage of a Chandala”.

It is this sort of constant, quiet contextualising that makes this book so enlightening, even when speaking of the most commonplace things. And yet Béteille’s sociological eye never swamps the individual. The temperamental mismatch between his parents, for instance, is given cultural heft by contrasting their different attitudes to privacy – “My mother, like most Indians, did not distinguish between privacy and secrecy, regarding them both as evils of the same kind” – but not explained away by it.

In general – whether discussing his own family or the middle class Bengali families of his friends, whether analysing the institutions of his formal education or the ’40s North Calcutta neighbourhood where he gained an informal one – Beteille turns upon the world a gaze that is thorough and unsentimental, unsparing yet always sympathetic. He is, in the best possible way, a participant observer in his own life.

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