Dipesh Chakrabarty

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Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book “Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference” is a critical discourse on Europe as the source of political and social modernity.


Dipesh Chakrabarty is a Bengali, social historian. His work focuses on theoretical issues in history, nationalism and postcolonialism. He received his PhD in history from Australian National University in 1984. He first taught in Australia at the University of Melbourne where he was the director of the Ashworth Centre for Social Theory. Here, he was also involved in public speaking for the Amnesty International campaign on human rights abuses in India.

Chakrabarty is considered one of the most influential scholars in Asian studies and is known for his work in modern South Asian history, postcolonial theory and its impact on how history is written and also politics of modernity. He has published many essays and addressed conferences throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia and South Asia.

Currently, Chakrabarty is a Faculty Fellow of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory and holds a visiting position at the Research School of Humanities at the Australian National University. He is the founding member of the collective editorial Subaltern Studies, co-editor of Critical Inquiry and editor of Postcolonial Studies. Also, Chakrabarty is recognized as the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations.

Chakrabarty’s current research is on the development of history in South Asia and its relationship to public life. He has also been working on changing forms of mass politics.

Literary and Historical Works

Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference

You can read hundreds of pages of this book through google books: Click Here

Chapter 5: Cruelty and the Birth of the Subject


Chapter Five, Comestic Cruelty and the Birth of the Subject, of Provincializing Europe by Dipesh Chakrabarty discuses a Bengali author’s, Kalyani Datta, article on “the oppression and marginalization they [women] suffered as widows” in Bengali society, as an example of the importance of the “will to witness and document suffering…” to modern Bengali people. This suffering took the form of acts of atonement for a woman’s implied indirect contribution to her husband’s death, brought about by the assumed inauspicious nature of women (p. 118). Many of these acts were intended to separate widows from the community, often with attempts by widows to make themselves unattractive through altering their dress, fasting, shaving their head, and becoming celibate. In some cases widows were left with no inheritance or hung.

Until British colonial influence the discrimination of the Bengali widows went largely unrecognized by the general public, but widowhood became a central concept to Bengali literature following British influx, and beginning in the 1870’s widows themselves began publicly sharing their stories. This spurred changes in women’s roles within society, an increase in the mean marriage age, and advancements in the education of women which contributed to women becoming less vulnerable to persecution (p. 118).

Using sympathy for the suffering of Bengali widows, Chakrabarty discuses several theories of the source of compassion between demographic groups, rather that between individuals.


Here Chakrabarty describes the natural theory of compassion (The Enlightenment Answer). He suggests that a person’s ability to feel sympathy is limited by “blindness induced by custom and habit” (p. 122). This blindness limits a person’s sympathetic feelings to only individuals or finite groups, unable feel empathy toward a more ambiguous collective of which those individuals are a part (p. 119). Through reasoned thought however, a person could release the inner compassion inherent to all humans, allowing him or her to feel compassion toward a more ambiguous group (pp 121-2). Rather than the observer’s sympathetic feelings toward a sufferer being due to a sense of connection to that person, a modern thinker can now feel beyond the finite situation before him or her and feel for the collective. What separates this from Chakrabarty’s next theory is that having learned the appropriate methods of reason and thought, ALL people have the ability to unlock this form of compassion.


Biographies of Rammohun Roy and Vidyasagar, two men known for their eighteenth century work in support of widows’ rights, propose the hriday (heart) theory (p. 124). Rather than their enlightenment, brought about by reasoned though, unlocking a form of compassion hided by social norms and traditions, these two men were seen to have a more evolved sense of compassion due to the hearts with which they were born. Here, these traits were unique to them, not universal and accessible to any person trained in reasoned thought.


Through the inclusion of the widow in modern literature, Bengali readers began identifying with the widows of the literary works (p. 142). Recognizing persons in their own lives as representing the widows of their literature, readers gained a broader sense of the scope of the issues facing Bengali widows. However, unlike in the works of European-bourgeois modernity, where one’s own familial (private) memories began to align with events readers witnessed in the public, social realm (p. 143), allowing an avenue for their personal compassion for a finite group to transfer more easily to a larger general populous, the two forms of memories in Bengal “remain much less aligned” (p. 144). Never the less, hearing the plight of Bengali widows, readers were still called to action to witness and document the subject of suffering, Bengali widow in this case (p. 145). Desiring to witness and document the oppression of a demographic such as the Bengali widow, as was done by Datta and other authors, while still recognizing their personal-private relations to sufferers as individuals, expanded the subject of Bengali modernity from that similar to subjects of European modernity to a multidimensional subject able to sympathize on both a personal and general level.

Key Points

An Indian Widow Leaps into the Flames Joining Her Dead Husband on the Funeral Pyre
  1. After the death of a husband, the Indian widow experienced an unfair treatment of torture and oppression. It was believed they it was in a sense partly their fault for their husband's death, so society forced punishments upon them. People would watch and accept the oppression and even killing of widows.
  2. Before British colonial rule there was not writing literature sympathizing with the oppression of the widow, but the customs were accepted and used regulate the widow's lives.
  3. The ability to notice and document the suffering of others from the view of an outsider was a characteristic of modernity.
  4. One who suffers because they have sympathy for the other (secondary sufferer) and then documents this suffering to try and bring about societal change holds the position of a modern subject.
  5. Compassion for others is natural for all human beings.
  6. Reason allows the release of the natural feelings of sympathy and compassion, which may be withheld due to tradition or societal norms.
  7. Some use Rommohun and Vidyasagar as an example of people who recognized suffering attributing it to hriday or heart. Others contribute it to role that the Enlightenment the British brought freeing them from the blindfold of custom and allowing their reason to express their natural compassion.
  8. The emergence of Bengali modernity cannot be attributed to one such cause. It was neither just British reason nor solely hriday (heart). The combination of the two seems to have produced an emergence of Bengali modernity.
  9. Since Bengali modernity emerged during the time of British colonial rule, the timing ensured that historians could always attribute the emergence to British rule.

Key Passages

Kalyani, praying in a temple. From the movie Water that depicts an eight year old Indian girl who has just lost her husband. See the trailer on Youtube

- "Stories recounted since the nineteenth century reveal the element of torture, oppression, and cruelty that often, if not always, accompanied the experience of widowhood" (118).

- "Pre-British Bengali literature and writing concerned itself with many aspects of women's lives [...] but seldom, if ever, did the problems of widowhood receive attention. Colonial rule changed all that" (118).

- "The capacity to notice and document suffering (even if it be one's own suffering) from the position of a generalized and necessarily disembodied observer is what marks the beginnings of the modern self" (119).

- "A critical distinction also has to be made between the act of displaying suffering and the that if observing or facing the sufferer. To display suffering in order to elicit sympathy and assistance is a very old [...] practice [...] The person who is not an immediate sufferer but who has the capacity to become a secondary sufferer through sympathy for a generalized picture of suffering, and who documents this suffering in the interest of eventual social intervention-such a person occupies the position of the modern subject" (119).

- "Reason, they argued in effect, was what could release the flow of the compassion that was naturally present in all human beings, for only reason could dispel the blindness induced by custom and habit. Reasonable human beings would see suffering and that would put to work the natural human capacity for sympathy, compassion, and pity" (122).

- "The natural connection between their vision and feelings of pity was blocked by habit. If this could be corrected or removed, the sheer act of seeing a woman being forced to die would evoke compassion" (122).

- "Reason did not produce the sentiment of compassion; it simply helped in letting sentiments take their natural course by removing the obstacle of mindless custom" (124).

- "What made it possible for [Rommohun and Vidyasagar] to see the suffering of women, which sometimes even the women's parents did not see? What made them compassionate? The biographers typically gave two different answers. One was the Enlightenment answer: the role of reason in freeing vision from the blindfold of custom. But they also had another answer, which was hriday (heart)" (124).

- "For whom did sight generate sympathy of compassion? The answer could be the Enlightenment subject, or the subject who, as a rare gift, possessed the quality called hriday. The fact that we come across these two different answers in the same body of text suggests that they did not displace each other but existed in a relationship of mutual supplementation to constitute an intertwined strand in Bengali modernity" (129).

-"I am not claiming that this idealized subject of kinship was necessarily a modern construction. What is modern is the way the coming of a public sphere opened up a space in public life for the modern subject of extended kinship alongside, say the sphere of intervention made possible by law and the idea of the rights-bearing individual" (147).

-"The very colonial crucible in which Bengali modernity originated ensured that that it would bot be possible to fashion a historical account of the birth of this modernity without reproducing some aspect of European narratives of the modern subject-for European modernity was present at this birth" (148).

In the Context of Modernity

Without the more recent approach to compassion Chakrabarty discusses in the essay, the Bengali widow would have faced much different challenges in resisting discrimination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This approach, while likely influenced by the hriday theory of compassion and native Bengali thinking as well, would not have developed in the way that it did without the influx of British thought and reason brought about by their colonial influence. It was this British colonial influence that utilized the idea of modernity as a justification for colonial rule. So, without the expansion of British thought, made possible through the justifications of modernity, the Bengali widows’ last few centuries would have been quite different.

Relationship To Other Literary Works

Rammohun Roy wrote Brief Remarks Regarding Modern Encroachments on the Ancient Right of Females in 1822, one of the first arguments in modern India in favor of women's right to property. Dipesh Chakrabarty sites Roy's work as an example a non existential view of suffering.

A photocopied version of an actual copy of the book published in 1822 can be read online here.

Using Dipesh Chakrabarty's work one can look at Tagore's Broken Ties. Throughout the novel the reader sees the suffering on widows and the extreme oppression they must deal with from society. Only the outcast atheists in society helped the suffering widow, Noni, and she even committed suicide due to the stress of the oppression. Also, the reader constantly sees the narrator, Srivilas, document the suffering of multiple women throughout the story. This relates to Chakrabarty's position that the documentation of another's suffering is a modern.

External Links

  • Trailer for Deepa Mehta's OSCAR-nominated film WATER. A film that showed the world of an eight year old girl who has just lost her husband. YouTube: Water
  • Preview Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference using Google Books
  • A photocopied version of an actual copy of the book Brief Remarks Regarding Modern Encroachments on the Ancient Right of Females published in 1822 can be read online using Google Books.