Book Review: Reimagining Nations and Rethinking Futures

Divya Anand,
Reimagining Nations and Rethinking Futures: Contemporary Eco-Political Controversies in India and Australia (Primus Books, 2019)

Reviewed by Haris Qadeer, University of Delhi

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

Controversies in India and Australia (2019) is an interesting and thoughtful intervention not only in the field of Indo-Australian studies but also in modernity studies, environmental studies, sociology, and political science. The book deals with many similarities between histories, topographies, ecology and fiction of India and Australia. It analyses the role that the different socio-political factors played in the respective journeys of the two countries towards modernity by delineating how the two modern nation states have more in common than just their shared lineage of the Empire. Divided into four chapters (excluding introduction and conclusion), the book juxtaposes and analyses case studies from both the nation and covers a wide spectrum of topics providing a cornucopia of knowledge and insight, and the individual chapters, in the book exhibit commentaries across varieties of critical viewpoints on the associations between both the countries. The author begins by using the notion of imaginary as a theoretical parameter to examine the idea of nation and its performativity and focuses on water, heritage, development, and public intellectual as the major four investigative axes on which the performativity of both the countries is scrutinised. The arguments are, further, substantiated through two case studies (one from India and one from Australia) in each of the four chapters of the book.

In her useful introduction, the author highlights the importance of studying the similarities between the pasts, the presents, and the futures of both the nation states by giving some interesting and crucial facts and details on how the association between both the countries goes beyond the history of the Empire. Drawing on Agnes Heller’s hypothesis of the three logics of modernity and the double bind of modernity, the author shows how the process of modernity is a continuous “dynamic condition” (2019: 05) that produces “alternative modernities” (05) and analyses the two crucial modern social reforms in the twentieth century: Liberal-democratic-capitalist societies and communist societies to demonstrate how both the societies shared “a common impetus towards growth and development” (07). The emergence of the modern nation state in the world is analysed as one of the manifestations of modernity and read in accordance with Hobsbawm’s understanding of historical evolution, Castoriadis’s refutation of single stand of modernity and Heller’s idea of multiple logics. The author compares and contrasts the theoretical and critical frameworks of Benedict Andersons, Anthony Smith, John Breuilly and other thinkers. The last section of the introduction traces the links between India and Australia which, Anand contends, were forged as part of the imperial regime.

The first chapter, ‘Water for Nation: The Tale of Two Rivers’, takes up the case studies of the rivers, Narmada (from India) and Snowy (from Australia), to reflect upon the discourses of development and changing trajectories of both the nations. The chapter focuses on how ‘rivers’ and ‘water’ are the main analytical categories to understand power and governance in India as well as in Australia. From the ancient “hydraulic civilizations” (Wittfogel) to “modern waters” (Linton) and the modern projects of dam building; water, according to the author, emerges as “major player in the narrative of nation state development and modernisation” (30). After tracing a brief history of the transnational influences on the water management in the world, the author uses a comparative case study of Narmada and Snowy, and explains how the potential of Narmada, as a source of development, was identified by the colonial government and how the birth of NVDP was the result of the dominant nationalist discourse in the India after its independence in 1947.Referring to some of tensions/intersections that exists between various visions of the modern India (Gandhian, Nehruvian and Amberkarite), the author describes how Saradar Vallabhbhai Patel, who is often portrayed as Nehru’s political rival, endorsed Nehru’s vision of “dams as the temples of modern India” (37). It takes into consideration the different phases of the Narmada project: changes in acquisition policy, the World Bank’s entry to finance, involvement of various Indian as well as international groups such as International Rivers Network, Environmental Defence Front, Friends of the Earth, Survival International, Amnesty International, and Association of India’s Development. In a very interesting analysis, the author not only studies the hybrid nature of the protests and the Gandhian influence on it but also reads it as a site of integration of religion, ideologies, class and caste — a site where people from the different ethnic and economical background protested against the project using their own indigenous ideas. The struggles and transnationality of NBA has been dealt with in detail to demonstrate the “counter-hegemonic” nature of the protest. In her case study of ‘Snowy’, Anand outlines the legendary status of the river by demonstrating how the river stands as “a metaphor for the mid-twentieth century” (66) Australia as it “connects with colonialism and immigration” (66). The author studies the history of the role played by the river in the nation’s development, and in the imagination of post-War nation: how the image of the river remained intact in the symbolic transformation from ‘bush national type’ to ‘Australian way of life’ and how it played a crucial role in mass production of new Australian identities by providing a space of assimilation to the migrant worker. The idea of multiculturalism is, further extended to the questions of citizenship, refugees and formation of the “Asian other” in Australia: Anand discusses Australian government controversial treatment of refugees (those arriving by boats) and links it to the “security threat from the sea” (67) and shows how the illegal refugees are imagined to “take over the nation from the seas”, and how they are also imagined “to circumvent the due process” to be part of Australia.

In the second chapter ‘Remembrance of things past’, the author looks at the politics of heritage making, and categorises both Australian Ningaloo and Indian Sundarbans as the “vernacular heritages”, a “third term” between formal history and micro-histories. Through these two case studies, the author reflects upon the process of “heritage making” of these two sites as experiences that “intersect religious, racial, gendered, political and ecological categories” (123). For exploring the “performance and play of heritage” (81), the author looks at multiple levels at which heritage is both construed and contested in modernity. The author carefully looks at the history of Aborigines in Australia and transformation of the nation from “Pioneer pastoralism” to “Squatting age”, and the emergence of pastoral as a national heritage is linked with Stuart Hall’s idea of “double inscription” (89), Anand shows how the pastoral heritage narrative of Australia was exclusive domain of the white-settler, and how the heritage of Aboriginals (post-1788) was largely ignored by the setter’s version of Australian heritage. She reads the “pastoral industry” as a site assimilation — a “shared contact zone of cross cultural encounter” (122). In the sections on the Sundarbans, the author traces the history of transformation of the place to a site of “World heritage” from a being a “wasteland”, by elaborating on the history and the politics of refugee-settlement and also of various proposals for the development of the area such as proposal for building up a nuclear plant and Sahara India’s proposal for ecotourism. In a very interesting analysis, Anand reveals how the new-found occupation of prawn collection among the women of Sundarbans, and the substitution of the Bon bibi, the local forest goddess with Kali, the Hindu goddess, demonstrate “an alternative modernity” (118) and can also be read as “narratives of counter-subalternity” (119). The reinvented folklore by the women of Sundarbans have been studied in the chapter as illustrative of the changing cultural representation of tiger-human relationships in the area.

In the third chapter ‘The two faces of Development: Tasmania and Kerala’, Anand study the “strong history of environmental movement” of Kerala and Tasmania and show how the debates of environment versus development were influenced by the movements. The notion of “egalitarian development” of Kerala as an “alternative model” is dismantled by bringing forth how various sections of the society were excluded from it and how both the political parties (the Congress and the Communist) endorsed corporatisation of the state. The struggle and organised resistance movements of the local communities of Dalits and Adivasis against the investments and industrialisation and how ‘water’ occupies an important position in the debates of development has been dealt with in the chapter. A parallel has been drawn between the marginalisation or the“othered status” (168) in the socio-political histories of both Kerala and Tasmania. The author looks at the paradox — the subnational position of Tasmania in relation of other states of Australia in the narratives of development — how Tasmania as a settler colony serves dual purpose of both a resource and a disability.

The fourth chapter ‘The writer as public intellectual: fiction as environmental politics’ is a well-argued and structured chapter demonstrating the roles and interventions of public intellectuals in the environmental politics by using examples of four literary narratives of authors such as Arundhati Roy, Amitava Ghosh, Tim Winton and Richard Flanagan. Anand explains how the idea of public sphere and role of public intellectual in the society has changed with times — especially with the advent of new media: “the playing field of the public sphere has also changed from the cafe and coffee houses to nineteenth-century England to the comfort of any place with an Internet connection and a supportive device” (175).

Acknowledging the political agency of the fiction in documenting the experience of time and space, understanding the global reach of the novels and identifying the impact of the novelist on public sphere, Anand examines Roy’s The God of Small Things as a political novel dealing with various “transgressions” and the issues of gender, ecology, class, and caste is read as a social critique of the ‘Kerela model’. Winton’s Breath is studied as a representative of strong echoes of the author’s stand during Ningaloo campaign — the novel’s focus on beaches and the consequences of the beach development has been used as arguments by Anand to locate the novel as a example of Eco-political fiction. Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide captures many contradictions of Tasmanian experience represented by the protagonist, Aljaz Cosini who becomes a metaphor of in-betweenness in the novel. Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungy Tide digs deeper into the buried history of the Sundarbans and demonstrates “the contractor sensibilities at work in the conservation efforts at the Sundarbans” (218). Anand shows how both in their “writing and involvement with social causes”, (226) all the four authors engage in various ways with “local, national and the transnational as public intellectuals” (226), and how the role of the public intellectual and the public sphere are not “separate but contiguous and symptomatic of modernity”(228). She outlines how the national and the transnational are not mutually exclusive and how public intellectuals can globalize dissent in the space provided by the technological advancements and secularisation.

The individual chapters in the book, at times, seem to move in too many directions, and the units of analysis, though absorbing in themselves, remain discrete and appear disconnected from the overall argument. That aside, Anand’s Reimagining Nations and Rethinking Futures: Contemporary Eco-Political Controversies in India and Australia offers a fascinating interdisciplinary study of the role of nature in the imagination of nations. She provides convincing arguments about the eco- political controversies in India and Australia and has managed to reevaluate the role of water in the formation of nation state in order to trace the trajectory of modernity in India and Australia. She boldly argues the transformation of public sphere and impact of new media on it, and investigates the role of public intellectuals in contemporary times.

One thought on “Book Review: Reimagining Nations and Rethinking Futures

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Revolution Today, The New Authoritarians, Into the Tempest | thesis eleven

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