In the Waiting-Room of History

Amit Chaudhuri

  • Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference by Dipesh Chakrabarty
    Princeton, 320 pp, £42.95, October 2000, ISBN 0 691 04908 4

I went to a Protestant school in Bombay, but the creation myth we were taught in the classroom didn’t have to do with Adam and Eve. I remember a poster on the wall when I was in the Fifth Standard, a pictorial narrative of evolution. On the extreme left, crouching low, its arms hanging near its feet, was an ape; it looked intent, like an athlete waiting for the gun to go off. The next figure rose slightly, and the one after it was more upright: it was like a slow-motion sequence of a runner in the first few seconds of a race. The pistol had been fired; the race had begun. Millisecond after millisecond, that runner – now ape, now Neanderthal – rose a little higher, and its back straightened. By the time it had reached the apogee of its height and straight-backedness, and taken a stride forward, its appearance had improved noticeably; it had become a Homo sapiens, and also, coincidentally, European. The race had been won before it had properly started.

This poster captured and compressed the gradations of Darwin’s parable of evolution, both arresting time and focusing on the key moments of a concatenation, in a similar way to what Walter Benjamin thought photographs did in changing our perception of human movement:

Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person actually takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious; just as we discover the instinctual subconscious through psychoanalysis.

The poster in my classroom, too, revealed a movement impossible for the naked eye to perceive: from lower primate to higher, from Neanderthal to human, and – this last transition was so compressed as to be absent altogether – from the human to the European. These still figures gave us an ‘optical unconscious’ of a political context, the context of progress and European science and humanism. Here, too, Benjamin has something to say. In a late essay, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, he stated: ‘The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time.’

‘Homogeneous’ and ‘empty’ are curious adjectives for ‘time’: they are more readily associated with space and spatial configuration. Certain landscapes glimpsed from a motorway, or the look of a motorway itself, might be described as dull and ‘homogeneous’; streets and rooms might be ‘empty’. My mentioning motorways isn’t fortuitous. When Benjamin was formulating his thoughts on progress and history, and writing this essay in 1940, the year he killed himself, Hitler, besides carrying out his elaborate plans for the Jews in Germany, was implementing another huge and devastating project: the Autobahn. The project, intended both to connect one part of Germany to another and to colonise the landscape, was begun in the early 1930s; it’s clear that Hitler’s vision of the Autobahn is based on an idea of progress – ‘progress’ not only in the sense of movement between one place and another, but in the sense of science and civilisation. In India, in other parts of the so-called ‘developing’ world, even in present-day New York, London or Paris, it’s impossible properly to experience ‘homogeneous, empty time’ because of the random, often maddeningly diverse allocation of space, human habitation and community. It is, however, possible to experience it on Western motorways and highways. Hitler was a literalist of this philosophy of space and movement: he wanted space to be ‘homogeneous’, or blond and European. Benjamin knew this first-hand; he was writing his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ as a Jewish witness to Nazism and one of its potential victims. Hitler’s anxiety and consternation at Jesse Owens’s victory in the 100 metres at the Munich Olympics in 1936 came from his literalism of space, his investment in progress and linearity. That idea of space was at once reified and shattered when Owens reached the finishing line before the others.

Benjamin had been thinking of history in terms of space for a while; and, not too long before he wrote about ‘homogeneous, empty time’, he’d posited an alternative version of modernity and space in his descriptions of the flâneur, the Parisian arcades and 19th-century street life. The Parisian street constitutes Benjamin’s critique of the Autobahn: just as the crowd, according to Benjamin, is ‘present everywhere’ in Baudelaire’s work, and present so intrinsically that it’s never directly described, the Autobahn is implicitly present, and refuted, in Benjamin’s meditations on Paris. The flâneur, indeed, retards and parodies the idea of ‘progress’. ‘Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades,’ Benjamin writes in a footnote to his 1939 essay on Baudelaire. ‘The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this space. But this attitude did not prevail; Taylor, who popularised the watchword "Down with dawdling!", carried the day.’ The flâneur views history subversively; he – and it is usually he – deliberately relocates its meanings, its hierarchies. As far back as 1929, Benjamin had explained why the flâneur had to be situated in Paris:

The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved. And isn’t the city too full of temples, enclosed squares and national shrines to be able to enter undivided into the dreams of the passer-by, along with every shop sign, every flight of steps and every gateway? The great reminiscences, the historical frissons – these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist. And he would be happy to trade ” all his knowledge of artists’ quarters, birthplaces and princely palaces for the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile – that which any old dog carries away.

There’s an implicit critique of the imperial city, and the imperialist aesthetic, in this description of Rome, with its ‘great reminiscences’ and ‘historical frissons’, and in the contrast of ‘national shrines’ and ‘temples’ with the ‘touch of a single tile’. Benjamin is not alone in using these metaphors; both Ruskin and Lawrence (who probably took it from Ruskin) use Rome as a metaphor for the imperial, the finished, the perfected, as against the multifariousness of, say, the Gothic, the ‘barbaric’, the non-Western. Benjamin doesn’t quite romanticise the primitive as Lawrence at least appears to: instead, he comes up with a particularly modern form of aleatoriness and decay in the ‘weathered threshold’ of a Parisian street.

Of course, the flâneur was not to be found in Paris alone. There was much wayward loitering in at least two colonial cities, Dublin and Calcutta. This – especially the emergence of the flâneur, or flâneur-like activities, in modern, turn of the century Calcutta – would have probably been difficult for Benjamin to imagine. Benjamin’s figure for the flâneur was Baudelaire, and for Baudelaire – and, by extension, for the flâneur – the East was, as it was for Henri Rousseau, part dreamscape, part botanical garden, part menagerie, part paradise. Could the flâneur exist in that dreamscape? Dipesh Chakrabarty, the author of Provincialising Europe, whose meditations on the limits of Western notions of modernity and history are impelled by Benjamin but who also has the word ‘postcolonial’ in his subtitle, was born in Calcutta. His inquiry is partly directed by the contingencies of being a South Asian historian in America, and also by being a founder member of the subaltern studies project, which attempted to write a South Asian or, specifically, Indian history ‘from below’, by bringing the ‘subaltern’ (Gramsci’s word for the peasant or the economically dispossessed) into the territory largely occupied by nationalist history. But the inquiry is also shaped by the Calcutta Chakrabarty was born in, much as Benjamin’s work is shaped by the Paris he reimagined and, to a certain extent, invented. From the early 19th century, the growing Bengali intelligentsia in Calcutta was increasingly exercised by what ‘modernity’ might mean and what the experience of modernity might represent, specifically, to a subject nation, and, universally, to a human being. Chakrabarty’s book is not only an unusually sustained and nuanced argument against European ideas of modernity, but also an elegy for, and subtle critique of, his own intellectual formation and inherit-ance as a Bengali. The kind of Bengali who was synonymous with modernity and who believed that modernity might be a universal condition – irrespective of whether you’re English, Indian, Arab or African – has now passed into extinction. Chakrabarty’s book is in part a discreet inquiry into why that potent Bengali dream didn’t quite work – why ‘modernity’ remains so resolutely European.

Chakrabarty’s writing is not without irony or humour; the cheeky oxymoron of the title is one example. At least a quarter of Chakrabarty’s work was done, and his challenge given an idiom, when he reinvented this terrific phrase, which was probably first used with slightly more literal intent by Gadamer. According to Ranajit Guha, who is or used to be to subalternist historians roughly what Jesus was to the apostles, the ‘idea of provincialising Europe’ had ‘been around for some time, but mostly as an insight waiting for elaboration’ before Chakrabarty articulated and substantiated it so thoroughly. The ‘idea’ itself is set out and argued for in the introductory chapter. Chakrabarty begins with a disclaimer: ‘Provincialising Europe is not a book about the region of the world we call "Europe". That Europe, one could say, has already been provincialised by history itself.’ The essay has two epigraphs: the first, from Gadamer, seems to speak of Europe as a ‘region of the world’; the second, more tellingly, from Naoki Sakai, describes the ‘West’ as ‘a name for a subject which gathers itself in discourse but is also an object constituted discursively’. What Chakrabarty wants to do with ‘Europe’, then, is in some ways similar to what Edward Said did with the ‘Orient’: to fashion a subversive genealogy. But instead of Said’s relentless polemic, Chakrabarty’s book features critique and self-criticism in equal measure. For me, Chakrabarty has the edge here, because for Said the Orient is a Western construct, an instrument of domination: he doesn’t – and never went on to – explore the profound ways in which modern Orientals (Tagore, say) both were and were not Orientalists. Chakrabarty’s work suggests, I think, that the word ‘Eurocentric’ is more problematic than we thought; that, if Europe is a universal paradigm for modernity, we are all, European and non-European, to a degree inescapably Eurocentric. Europe is at once a means of intellectual dominance, an obfuscatory trope and a constituent of self-knowledge, in different ways for different peoples and histories.

Said’s great study takes its cue from the many-sided and endlessly absorbing Foucault, in its inexhaustible conviction and its curiosity about how a body of knowledge – in this case, Orientalism – can involve the exercise of power. Much postcolonial theory, in turn, has taken its cue from Said and this strain of Foucault. Chakrabarty’s book comes along at a time when this line of inquiry, which has had its own considerable rewards and pitfalls, seems one-dimensional and exhausted. In spite of the ‘postcolonial’ in the subtitle, it owes little to the fecund but somewhat simplified Foucauldian paradigm. Instead, its inspiration seems post-structuralist and Derridean, and it rehearses a key moment in Derrida: the idea that it is necessary to dismantle or take on the language of ‘Western metaphysics’ (which for Derrida is almost everything that precedes post-structuralism and, in effect, himself), but that there is no alternative language available with which to dismantle it – so that the language must be turned on itself. For Derrida’s ‘Western metaphysics’ Chakrabarty substitutes ‘European thought’ and ‘social science thought’:

European thought . . . is both indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through the various life practices that constitute the political and the historical in India. Exploring – on both theoretical and factual registers – this simultaneous indispensability and inadequacy of social science thought is the task this book has set itself.

This is not very far from Derrida, who writes at an important juncture in Writing and Difference of

conserving all these old concepts within the domain of empirical discovery while here and there denouncing their limits, treating them as tools that can still be used. No longer is any truth value attributed to them: there is a readiness to abandon them, if necessary, should other instruments appear more useful. In the meantime, their relative efficacy is exploited, and they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces. This is how the language of the social sciences criticises itself.

Derrida is reflecting here on Lévi-Strauss, who when confronted with South American myths finds the tools of his trade obsolete but still indispensable. The idea of Chakrabarty registering a similarly self-reflexive moment about thirty years later, in relation to Europe, modernity and ‘life practices . . . in India’, is poignant and ironic: he belongs to the other side of the racial and historical divide; to a part of the world that should have been, at least in Lévi-Strauss’s time, and by ordinary European estimation, the object rather than the instigator of the social scientist’s discipline. It would have been next to impossible for Lévi-Strauss to foretell that something resembling his anxiety about the social sciences would one day be rehearsed in the work of a man with a name like Dipesh Chakrabarty.

And this, of course, is the crux of Chakrabarty’s book. ‘Historicism – and even the modern, European idea of history – one might say, came to non-European peoples in the 19th century as somebody’s way of saying "not yet” to somebody else.’ To illustrate what he means, he turns to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and On Representative Government – ‘both of which,’ Chakrabarty says, ‘proclaimed self-rule as the highest form of government and yet argued against giving Indians or Africans self-rule.’

According to Mill, Indians or Africans were not yet civilised enough to rule themselves. Some historical time of development and civilisation (colonial rule and education, to be precise) had to elapse before they could be considered prepared for such a task. Mill’s historicist argument thus consigned Indians, Africans and other ‘rude’ nations to an imaginary waiting-room of history.

The ‘imaginary waiting-room of history’ is another of Chakrabarty’s compressed, telling images. I don’t know if he picked it up from the German playwright Heiner Müller, who uses it of the ‘Third World’ in a 1989 interview; but he employs it to great effect. The phrase has purgatorial resonances: you feel that those who are in the waiting-room are going to be there for some time. For modernity has already had its authentic incarnation in Europe: how then can it happen again, elsewhere? The non-West – the waiting-room – is therefore doomed either never to be quite modern, to be, in Naipaul’s phrase, ‘half-made’; or to possess only a semblance of modernity. This is a view of history and modernity that has, according to Chakrabarty, at once liberated, defined and shackled us in its discriminatory universalism; it is a view powerfully theological in its determinism, except that the angels, the blessed and the excluded are real people, real communities.

Chakrabarty’s thesis might seem obvious once stated; but the ‘insight waiting for elaboration’, to use Ranajit Guha’s words, must find the best and, in the positive sense of the word, most opportunistic expositor. In Chakrabarty, I think it has. (The urge to provincialise Europe has, of course, a very long unofficial history. It’s embodied in jokes and throwaway remarks such as the one Gandhi made when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ Shashi Tharoor is having a dig at historicism when he says, in The Great Indian Novel, ‘India is not an underdeveloped country. It is a highly developed country in an advanced state of decay.’) Chakrabarty has given us a vocabulary with which to speak of matters somewhat outside the realm of the social sciences, and to move discussions on literature, cultural politics and canon formation away from the exclusively Saidian concerns of power-brokering, without entirely ignoring these concerns.

In the light of Chakrabarty’s study, Naipaul’s work begins to fall into place. Here is a writer who seems to have subscribed quite deeply to the sort of historicism that Chakrabarty describes. From the middle period onwards, in books such as The Mimic Men, A Bend in the River and In a Free State, Naipaul gives us a vision – unforgettable, eloquent – of the Caribbean and especially Africa as history’s waiting-room. Modernity here is ramshackle, self-dismantling: it exists somewhere between the corrugated iron roof and the distant military coup, the newly deposed general. The ‘not yet’ with which Forster’s narrator indefinitely deferred, in A Passage to India, the possibility of a lasting friendship between Fielding and Aziz are also the words that describe Naipaul’s modern Africa. The opening sentence of A Bend in the River (which so exasperated Chinua Achebe) – ‘The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it’ – owes its tone less to religious pronouncements than to a belief in what Benjamin called ‘the march of progress’ in the ‘homogeneous, empty time of history’. Naipaul’s theology stems not so much from Hinduism, or the brahminical background he’s renowned for, as from Mill. It was Mill, as Chakrabarty points out, who consigned certain nations to a purgatory, in which, in different concentric circles, they’ve been waiting or ‘developing’ ever since. In fiction, the greatest explorers of this Millian terrain have been Naipaul and Naipaul’s master, Conrad.

Chakrabarty’s study also helps to clarify the ways in which we discuss and think of the ‘high’ cultures of the so-called developing countries: not only the ancient traditions, but the modern and Modernist ones as well. This is an area of self-consciousness, and a field of inquiry, that is potentially vast, important and problematic; it also happens to be one that ‘cultural studies’ has largely missed out on, being more concerned with popular culture and narratives of resistance to empire. Yet for almost two hundred years, in countries like India, there has been a self-consciousness (and it still exists today) which asks to be judged and understood by ‘universal’ standards. It isn’t possible to begin to discuss that self-consciousness, or sense of identity, without discussing in what way that universalism both formed and circumscribed it.

In some regards, then, cultural studies is hostage to the kind of historicism that Chakrabarty talks about: it can’t deal with the emergence of high Modernism in postcolonial countries except with a degree of suspicion and embarrassment, partly because of the elite contexts of that Modernism, but partly, surely, for covertly historicist reasons, such as a belief that no Modernism outside Europe can be absolutely genuine. Take the Bengal, or Indian, Renaissance: the emergence of humanism and modernity in 19th-century Calcutta. The term ‘renaissance’ was probably first applied to this development by the eminent Brahmo Shibnath Shastri; it was later employed by historians such as Susobhan Sarkar. Marxist and, later, subalternist historians have with some justification raised their eyebrows at the term. They have tried to dismiss it as intellectually meaningless, mainly because they see it as an elite construct, an upper-middle-class invention that raises too many questions, and which, while identifying too closely with British ideas of ‘progress’, was also an instrument of vague but voluble nationalist blarney. All this is true. But it ignores the fact that a construct can be a crucial constituent of an intellectual tradition. The European Renaissance is a case in point: we now know that it is largely a 19th-century invention, but that doesn’t reduce the role it has played in the drama of European intellectual and cultural history – it only problematises it.

The opening of Susobhan Sarkar’s Notes on the Bengal Renaissance, which first came out as a booklet in 1946, makes clear the unease that historians felt on first using the term:

The impact of British rule, bourgeois economy and modern Western culture was felt first in Bengal and produced an awakening known usually as the Bengal Renaissance. For about a century, Bengal’s conscious awareness of the changing modern world was more developed than and ahead of that of the rest of India. The role played by Bengal in the modern awakening of India is thus comparable to the position occupied by Italy in the story of the European Renaissance.

Whether these claims are true or not is open to debate; but they’re disabled by their uncritical investment in the idea of Europe as the source, paradigm and catalyst of progress and history, both in an earlier and in the colonial age. The habit, in the context of Indian culture, of not only invoking Europe but making it the starting point of all discussion, was inculcated by 19th-century Orientalists: the translator and scholar William Jones called Kalidasa, the greatest Indian poet and dramatist of antiquity, the ‘Shakespeare of the East’. To do this, Jones had to reverse history – Kalidasa preceded Shakespeare by more than a thousand years. Jones is not so much making a useful (and supremely approbatory) comparison as telling us inadvertently that it’s impossible to escape ‘homogeneous, empty time’: that as far as Kalidasa is concerned Shakespeare has already happened. This language persisted in the subsequent naming of periods in culture, and of cultural figures; and educated Bengalis followed the example of the Orientalist scholars. Thus Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, India’s first major novelist, became the ‘Walter Scott of Bengal’. Both Scott and Chatterjee wrote historical novels, but when the comparison was first made, on the publication of Chatterjee’s first novel, Chatterjee claimed he’d never read Scott. Even if he had, to call him the ‘Walter Scott of Bengal’ is subtly different from, say, Barthes remarking, ‘Gide was another Montaigne,’ where a continuity is being established, a lineage being traced. In the phrase that describes Chatterjee, however, an inescapable historicism refuses a literary continuity, and turns Chatterjee into an echo. Walter Scott in Bengal is Walter Scott in the waiting-room.

The ‘first in Europe, then elsewhere’ paradigm that Chakrabarty speaks of – what is now the developmental paradigm – is what made the process of modernisation in non-Western countries seem to many, European and non-European, like mimicry. ‘We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World,’ Naipaul’s narrator, Ralph Singh, says in The Mimic Men; Chakrabarty’s friend, the exuberantly impenetrable Homi Bhabha, has an essay on mimicry and colonialism, ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’, that has long been part of every postcolonial primer. In it he tries, using Lacan and referring in passing to Naipaul’s great, intractable novel, to complicate and even rescue the idea of mimicry, to make it subversive: mimicry undermines the coloniser’s gaze by presenting him with a distorted reflection, rather than a confirmation, of himself. Some of the essay’s formulations about mimicry – ‘almost the same but not quite’; ‘almost the same but not white’ – are close enough to the kinds of problem Chakrabarty addresses. Once again, though, as with Said, I think Chakrabarty’s work gives us a richer, more penetrating language to deal with modernity and the colonial encounter. There’s a barely concealed utopian rage in Bhabha against the compulsion towards mimicry, and also an unspoken nostalgia for a world in which mimicry isn’t necessary. For Chakrabarty, ‘Europe’ is a notion that has many guises, and these guises have both liberated us and limited us, whichever race we belong to. There is, therefore, a valuable element of self-criticism in his study: to provincialise Europe is not to vanquish or conquer it – that is, provincialising Europe isn’t a utopian gesture – but a means of locating and subjecting to interrogation some of the fundamental notions by which we define ourselves.

Despite its title, it might be more productive to read The Mimic Men with Chakrabarty’s book rather than Bhabha’s essay in mind. Ralph Singh, a failed politician from the Caribbean island of Isabella, now retired at the age of 40 to a boarding-house in London, and writing something like a memoir, is not so much disfigured by ‘mimicry’ as haunted, even entrapped, by the language called ‘Europe’. It’s not a life story he wishes to compose. ‘My first instinct was towards the writing of history,’ Singh says, and he returns again and again to an analysis of a way of thinking and seeing. ‘I have read that it was a saying of an ancient Greek that the first requisite for happiness was to be born in a famous city,’ he writes. ‘To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder.’ ‘Second-hand’, like ‘half-made’, is a word weighted with the historicism that gives Singh his sense of being a failure from the start, and Singh’s creator much of his pessimism. Even memory, the site of renewal for the Romantics and Modernists, is deceptive: ‘My first memory of school is of taking an apple to the teacher. This puzzles me. We had no apples on Isabella. It must have been an orange; yet my memory insists on the apple. The editing is clearly at fault, but the edited version is all I have.’ The orange exists in the waiting-room. Its historical and physical reality counts for little; Ralph Singh’s memory is ‘discursively constituted’, and has its own truth; and, at the time of the narrative’s composition, it is all he has of Isabella.

Connecting the two halves of Chakrabarty’s study – the first largely a self-reflexive appraisal of social science writing, the second a critical engagement with modern Bengali culture – are not only the themes of historicism and modernity, but the figure of Benjamin. Chakrabarty picks up the key insight about the ‘homogeneous, empty time of history’. The phrase was made current in the social sciences by Benedict Anderson in his classic discussion of the rise of the nation-state, Imagined Communities; but Chakrabarty’s usage of it, concerned primarily with the European notion of modernity, is Benjaminesque in spirit. Yet the references to Benjamin after the introduction are relatively few. This is an interesting and intriguing elision: perhaps Chakrabarty needs him to be an invisible presence. In the second half of the book I sensed him most powerfully in the chapter ‘Adda: A History of Sociality’; and it might have been enriching to have the connection made explicit, or to know whether Chakrabarty himself was fully conscious of it. ‘The word adda (pronounced "uddah") is translated by the Bengali linguist Sunitikumar Chattopadhyay as "a place” for "careless talk with boon companions” or "the chats of intimate friends” . . . Roughly speaking, it is the practice of friends getting together for long, informal and unrigorous conversations.’ Never was adda so theorised and romanticised as it was in Calcutta, as both a significant component and symptom of Bengali bourgeois culture in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Even the usage of the word is different in Bengali from Hindi, say, where it means a meeting-place not a practice. Chakrabarty goes on:

By many standards of judgment in modernity, adda is a flawed social practice: it is predominantly male in its modern form in public life; it is oblivious of the materiality of labour in capitalism; and middle-class addas are usually forgetful of the working classes. Some Bengalis even see it as a practice that promotes sheer laziness in the population. Yet its perceived gradual disappearance from the urban life of Calcutta over the last three or four decades – related no doubt to changes in the political economy of the city – has now produced an impressive amount of mourning and nostalgia. It is as if with the slow death of adda will die the identity of being a Bengali.

The figure who comes to mind when I read this is Benjamin’s flâneur; and, though Chakrabarty doesn’t explore the correspondence between flânerie and adda, the resemblances are striking. Both adda and flânerie are activities whose worth is ambivalent in a capitalist society: they rupture the ‘march of progress’. Flânerie is ‘dawdling’, and adda a waste of time which, at least according to one writer, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, ‘virtually killed family life’. Neither flânerie nor adda is a purely physical or mental activity; both are reconfigurings of urban space. The flâneur, as Benjamin saw him, walked about the Parisian arcades of the 19th century, but as Hannah Arendt pointed out, he did so as if they were an extension of his living-room: he deliberately blurred the line dividing inside from outside. Something similar happened with adda in Calcutta in the 20th century; it either took place in drawing-rooms, in such a way as to disrupt domesticity and turn the interior into a sort of public space; or on the rawak or porches of houses in cramped lanes, neither inside the home nor in the street. For historical and social reasons, both activities are largely the preserve of the male; there are few female flâneurs and, as Chakrabarty points out, female participation in an adda is exceptional.

Benjamin’s relationship to the flâneur and his subterranean affirmation of daydreaming in his meditations on flânerie lend his work an odd poignancy and ambivalence; given that Benjamin was a Marxist, the flâneur could never be wholly legitimate either outside or inside his work. Some of Chakrabarty’s concerns in this book – modernity, adda and the shadow of Benjamin’s flâneur – occupy a similarly ambivalent position in relationship to his provenance as a subalternist historian. The subaltern is certainly an interloper in this book (especially in a terrific essay, ‘Subaltern Pasts, Minority Histories’), but the modern is an equally problematic one: they both challenge the historian, in this case the subalternist historian, with the limits and responsibilities of his discipline. It is the ambiguity of Chakrabarty’s own position as both a critic and archivist of modernity that gives his study its poetic undertow and its intelligent irresponsibility.