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The Bazaar and the Bari: Calcutta, Marwaris, and the World of Hindi Letters

  • Author(s): Parson, Rahul Bjorn
  • Advisor(s): Dalmia, Vasudha
  • et al.

The Hindi literati of Calcutta will always boast that Bengal was the starting point of the various paths taken by Hindi prose and publishing. The admixture of colonial, orientalist, missionary, compradore, and nationalist forces gave rise to a lively Calcuttan Hindi press from the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth century. It remained in constant dialogue with the Hindi-speaking publics beyond Bengal, while staying grounded in the socio-economic world of Calcutta's Barabazar. However, toward the end of the twentieth century, Calcutta's Hindi legacy was by most accounts moribund; scholars lamented that the lack of institutional support and interest had desiccated Hindi literary production in Calcutta. But then, along with other upheavals and ruptures that attended the liberalization of the Indian economy beginning in 1991, a spate of Hindi novels emerged on the scene; they came from an unexpected portion of Calcutta's demographic - Marwari women. This dissertation discusses the 200 year tradition of Hindi in Calcutta, exploring the continuities from the inaugural phase to contemporary novels, and how Marwaris, who had their own language and script, and as a merchant community from Rajasthan not previously known to produce literature, had come to make the language their own and publish in it.

The first part of the dissertation (chapters 1-3) acknowledges the overlooked contribution Calcutta (Kolkata after 2001) and its diverse population made regarding the development of modern Hindi. The majority of scholarship regards Calcutta as squarely Bengali in terms of literary activity. I give special attention to the cultural and material conditions that gave rise to a confident Hindi print community. This process would play a major role in the promotion of Hindi as a national language. Print Hindi required, for its survival, the establishment of bonhomie with Marwaris and other upcountry merchants. Therefore the press called merchants to tie their fortunes to the Hindi movement for numerous reasons. It was the language of the market, the new technology of knowledge, and in time became implicated in nationalist projects to which Marwaris were summoned. The press extolled the religious virtues of switching to Nāgarī since Jain and Hindu scriptures (Prakrit and Sanskrit) were often in that script. Lastly, Marwaris could also identify with the supralocal character of Hindi, as they were themselves a diaspora with all-India ambitions.

In the first three chapters of this dissertation I explore the politico-historical and social forces that shape the Marwari community and summon its literature into existence. Part two (chapters 4-6) discusses a new wave of Hindi writing. It engages with the novels of Alka Saraogi (b. 1960), Prabha Khetan (1942-2008), and Madhu Kankaria (b. 1957), three Calcutta-based Marwari women writers. The proliferation of Hindi novels from Marwari women signals a historical and political liminality as they confront issues of identity, belonging, gender, and class in a patriarchal social and literary milieu. This spate of Hindi prose literature coincides with neoliberal economic reforms in the Indian state, compelling writers to reflect on the consequences of globalization and late-capitalism in Calcutta at the close of the twentieth century. The writing is decidedly Calcuttan and urban in themes and influences, acknowledging a shared cultural space with Bengali while presenting a sensibility of Hindi-speaking migrants. This dissertation undertakes to contextualize the significance of this writing in the broader scope of one hundred years of social reform movements, women's issues in particular, and reconciling tradition with modernity. The novels circumvent the mainstream and majoritarian narrative of Calcutta and its history, yet are nourished in the concrete environment and cultural richness of the city.

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