Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Once upon a Time in the West? Stories of Migration and Modernity from Kerala, South India./Il Etait Une Fois Dans l'Ouest? Histoires De Migration et Modernite Dans le Kerala (Inde Du Sud)

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Once upon a Time in the West? Stories of Migration and Modernity from Kerala, South India./Il Etait Une Fois Dans l'Ouest? Histoires De Migration et Modernite Dans le Kerala (Inde Du Sud)

Article excerpt

Introduction: ethnography/theory/stories

The 'real', according to Taussig (1997), is just the really made-up, such that everything comes down in the end to stories. Taking a more cautious line, a focus on narrativity and the tropes shared by different forms of narrative might help us bring into the same analytic space daily life and high theory, personal and social concerns, experience and experiencer. Popular histories, myths, and life-stories are particular types of stories which we might be able to use to connect to other, bigger, stories. This also seems to be a comfortable way of using data, rather than chopping them up into tiny 'ethno-bites'. How often as ethnographer does one ask a respondent a question, to be treated in reply to a lengthy narrative in which the respondent, his or her relatives, the local landlord, a deity, and countless others appear in a complex drama which will certainly throw light upon the ethnographer's question, but also communicate context, history, moral force, and a whole lot more (Carrithers 1995)? Here we follow these methodological suggestions towards a discussion of how members of an ex-untouchable, 'backward' community (1) of South India--the Izhavas of Kerala--represent and make sense of their entanglements within 'modernity', bringing Malayali narratives about 'tradition' and 'modernity' together with sociological meta-theories. We hope to do this in a more nuanced way than simply using, for example, the life-history to 'read off what it tells us about a particular phenomenon. Debates on Indian modernity have been informed by classic sociological writings assuming unilinear and universal processes of modernization, the latter too often confused with or made to stand for modernity itself. Indian experiences of modernity have then been made to appear defective, blocked, still in transition, fundamentally 'other'--and therefore beyond the scope of modernization theory--or schizoid--split between different arenas of experience, modern at work and pre-modern at home (following Singer 1972). We will pit ethnographic narratives against such analyses but also explore problems with recent attempts to posit multiple or alternative modernities (see Eisenstadt 2000: 23-4). Informants' life-stories suggest a different framework for analysis, pointing towards modernity as a singular--unified and global--phenomenon which is multicentric and locally nuanced (see Sivaramakrishnan & Agrawal 2003).

Over the last century, Izhavas experienced some degree of social mobility, partly taking impetus from their caste reform movement and from sporadic militant action. Their struggle has taken place concomitantly with the flowering in Kerala of modern institutions and a self-conscious wider regional commitment towards 'modern' consciousness and away from an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century past commonly characterized by Malayalis as 'feudal'. It is through stories about such processes taking place during the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century that we can approach an understanding of ways in which modernity has been figured and experienced. The Izhava story--recounted at greater length elsewhere (Osella & Osella 2000a)--is specific and unique, (2) but also exemplary. It represents one possible configuration of modernity in a place at the so-called (semi-)peripheries which is actually a central topos of a global story in which all of us are implicated and in which we are best advised to pay attention to complex networks of mutual entanglement (Tsing 2000, 2004). Such entanglements may reside, for example, in colonial and migratory histories which bring people together and move them around (Gardner 1995: 269ff.), in the cosmopolitanism of 'local cultures' (Osella & Osella in press; Piot 1999: 21), or in parallel and connected histories unfolding contemporaneously in different sites (van der Veer 1998: 290). We admit as real the possibility of accepting modernity as a chimera (evidenced by the impossibility of agreeing on its defining characteristics or time-scale--see, e. …

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