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Liberalism and Difference in World History

Chris Chekuri


     I want to begin with a book I often use in my undergraduate class "India Since Gandhi". The book, Viramma: the Life of an Untouchable Woman, is a memoir of a dalit or lower caste woman, Viramma, in the Tamil-speaking south of India.1 The memoir reads as part ethnography and part biography for the obvious reasons that it was co-authored with two French anthropologists during the 1980s and 1990s. Viramma spent her life as an agricultural laborer, midwife, and mother and grandmother of several children until her death in late 2000. Viramma's memoir is a first person account of her recollections and views on topics as wide ranging as her childhood memories and adult traumas, marital life and work, faith and beliefs, and social custom, hierarchy and segregation. Her world is shared with spirits that live on trees, spirits and deities that cause disease, and have a role in life and death. In her daily routine, she appeases ghosts, worships some spirits, and offers food and other gifts. When just a newly-wed, her husband, with whom she still goes on to have a loving life and several children, rapes her. Of the twelve children, several die from what we can only surmise as lack of proper pre-natal and post-natal care. As a lower caste and economically impoverished woman, she lives a life on the margins of Indian society. Yet there is rarely a moment when she defines her own life as one shaped by dispossession, marginality, and lack. In fact, she accounts for the differences simply as "her" and "their" beliefs and practices. What is remarkable is that in the nearly three hundred pages of her memoir, she resolutely comes across as a person who has her own way of thinking about healing and well-being, action and causation, good and evil, and time and space.

     Viramma, following Trevor Getz ("World History For All?"), is the subject of history that has become the historian. Viramma's imaginary is that of the quintessential other and challenges a historian's perspective at every turn. Her views on religion, science, and society challenge and irritate my undergraduates, and I think for a good reason. They, the undergraduates, are trained to expect, whether implicitly or explicitly, a particular notion of the subject or agent of history. That implicit subject of history is someone secular, modern, and liberal in political and social thought and rarely includes a Viramma. A typical day in Viramma's life—a life animated by spirits and ghosts who compel action or inaction on her part—befuddles my undergraduates. The encounter between my students and Viramma is best characterized as a clash between a liberal modern self and a non-modern, non-liberal self. Faced with this encounter, my undergraduates seek to explain away her views on life through a series of lacks, which include the lack of modern education, lack of access to modern scientific and health infrastructure and the lack of liberally conceived political rights. For Viramma to register as a historical agent, she would have to undergo modernization, secularization, and liberalization, essentially stop being herself. But in her autobiography, Viramma does not appear to be dwelling on any of the concerns of my students. How, then, do we translate between the life-worlds of Viramma and those of my students? Or, turning the question around, how would a singular narrative of World History account for the difference in life worlds? How can we write a world history that does not foreground the liberal, modern, secular subject as the end goal of history? And, more importantly, how do we conceive of a history that does not require a conversion of Viramma?

     These are important questions for our times and the field of World History is well placed to engage them. The last three decades of historical debates in national and regional histories (particularly, South Asian history) have taken up this challenge to varying degrees. It now appears that these questions are just as central to the writing of world history. How we pursue the problem of difference represented by Viramma will determine the future of the discipline. The spirit of Viramma does not only reside as an untouchable woman in south India; instead, if you see her universe as running contrary to the values of liberal modernity, there are many such Virammas around us. There is a Viramma in the debates over the veil in France, in the debates over immigration, race, and empire in Europe and North America. There is a Viramma in the persistent problems faced by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a Viramma in the refusal by some members of the French Soccer team to sing the French national anthem. There is a Viramma in the utter untranslatability of an Iran or China in the U.S. dominated international system. There is a Viramma in the multiple approaches to how societies and individuals imagine the past.

     My undergraduates' concern over social justice issues is of course laudable. However, they (and I contend history as a scholarly practice) will embrace Viramma only through a translation of her life-world into ours and thus discipline a plurality of life-worlds into a homogenous history of modernity.2 Thus, while history brings many critical questions of class, gender, and caste to the fore, it has no place for the enchanted world of ghosts and spirits that give meaning to Viramma's life. Our only way to contend with that difference is to translate her life-world into our categories, to disenchant the enchantment of her life. Trevor Getz challenges us to explore difference in all its complexity and variety as we move from regional and national histories to global and world histories. He cautions us from seeking a singular narrative of World History and beckons us to work towards more inclusive histories of the world. I propose that, instead of mere inclusivity, we should strive for a way to embrace a plurality life-worlds—of the many Virammas of the world—in the writing of world history.

Chris Chekuri is an Assistant Professor of History at San Francisco State University and is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He can be contacted at


1 Viramma et. al., Viramma: Life of An Untouchable (Verso, 1997).

2 For a thoroughgoing discussion along these lines, see Dipesh Chakrabartty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2000), chapter 3.


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