‘Things Indian’

…is a book by William Crooke, first published in 1906. It fully lives up to its sub-title ‘Being Discursive Notes on Various Subjects Connected with India.’

William Crooke served in the Bengal Civil Services. He spent 25 years in active service in India.

Aside from his duties in this service, his major contribution was in research and documentation as an ethologist and folk-lorist, deeply studying traditions, practices and stories of many parts of India. His contribution to the study and documentation of ethnology and folklore is acknowledged by scholars across the world.

 He published several academic papers and edited journals.

As well as this, he wrote books–a huge output including:

  • A Rural and Agricultural Glossary for the N.W. Provinces and Oudh.
  • An Ethnographic Handbook for the N.W.P. & Oudh. Allahabad.
  • An introduction to the popular religion and folklore of northern India.
  • An introduction to the popular religion and folklore of northern India, in 2 volumes
  • The tribes and castes of the North-western Provinces and Oudh, in 4 volumes.
  • The North-Western Provinces of India: their history, ethnology, and administration.
  • Things Indian: being discursive notes on various subjects connected with India
  • Natives of northern India. A Rural and Agricultural Glossary of the NW Provinces and Oudh.

I have not read any of his other works, but ‘Things Indian’ which has been on my bookshelf for many years, which I just picked up, is a testimony to his scholarship. And also, to a fairly (for the time) non-judgmental perspective on things Indian, written with understanding, empathy and appreciation.

The book covers topics as diverse as Agriculture and Bazaar, Camel and Curry, Polo and Precious stones, Wine and Wood carving.

He records such practices as: ‘When a widower marries again, his second wife wears an amulet, which she calls the ‘crown of the co-wife.’ Or the annual game of tug–of-war of the Khasis in Assam in which ‘..one side represents the village and the other a gang of demons…with the intention being that the evil spirits may lose and quit the neighbourhood.’ Or that ‘Opprobrious names are often given to a baby after its parents have lost elder children, in the belief that, when the child bears a ridiculous name, it is less liable to be attacked by the Evil Eye or other uncanny influence.’ (My grandmother suffered thus, named Picchamma (pichhai=begging in Tamil), following as she did two siblings who died at birth).

He refutes sanctioned colonial wisdom in many instances, for example when he says: ‘Much ill-informed criticism has been directed against the methods of the India farmer’, and goes on to counter many criticisms of farming methods by quoting the logic and reasons given by farmers which he agrees with. He pays respect to the weaving of India, saying ‘it is impossible to discuss the numberless products of the Indian loom’, and laments how the introduction of aniline dyes have brought down the quality of dyed products.

He notes with delight that in kathputli performances ‘..all well-known members of native society and, in particular, the Sahib and the English lady are freely satirized.’

By quoting a report on the contents of the stomach of a gharial shot at the time, which consisted of ‘About a dozen large bunches or pellets of hair, probably human; sixty-eight rounded pebbles; one large ankle-rink; twenty-four fragments of Churis or glass bangles; five bronze finger-rings; a sliver neck-charm; a gold bead; thirty small red coral beads’, he tries to dispose of the belief of the time that gharials did not prey on humans.

Eclectic in his choice of topics, the book is a delightful browse—with both solid documentation and gems of quaint information.  And a tribute to a curious and meticulous mind.

Sure, Crooke was part of the colonial machinery. But to make a distinction—there were those among them who contributed in various ways, going beyond the call of duty. He was one of them.

–Meena

An allied reading is ‘Beyond the Call of Duty’, V. Raghunathan. Harper-Collins.

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