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India's Technological Imaginary
The history of technology is more than a history of material objects and physical processes. It is equally an inquiry into the exercise of the human imagination. Just as the formation of modern nations or the conceptualization of a region as vast as India can be fashioned by the ways in which people, individually and collectively, think about such things, so is the history of technology molded by the ways in which people identify with particular technological goods, skills, and processes, or, conversely, seek to distance themselves from them. Technology can inform visions of the future, shape expectations of the present, and color interpretations of the past. Technology can serve the articulation of the self and the determination of the other.
In a pioneering statement of technology as the imaging and expression of imperial power, Michael Adas argues that, in the wake of its expansion from the sixteenth century onward, Europe moved from an initially appreciative attitude toward the technology of the non-Western world to an increasingly negative one in the age of industry and empire. Machines became "the measure of men," the standard by which Europe came to understand its uniqueness and superiority, and, by contrast, interpreted the backwardness and inferiority even of civilizations, like India and China, once held in high regard. Adas offers a cogent argument for a cultural reading of technology in the imperial era, but his argument also suggests the possibility of alternative readings. Indeed, one can embark on a discussion of everyday technology in India by inverting his argument and asking not how Europe imagined its technological other but how that other—India under colonial rule—imagined itself. Adas observes that the "extent to which African and Asian peoples acquiesced to European domination out of respect for the colonizers' self-proclaimed technological superiority is hard to determine," but he does not pursue the point. It is possible to shift the burden of the argument onto Indian actors without thereby ignoring the opportunities and constraints European colonialism introduced. In order to suggest the diversity and fecundity of the Indian technological imaginary, we can begin with that imaginary at its most visionary and utopian.
In 1905 Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, then a little-known writer, published a short story entitled "Sultana's Dream." In the story the author falls asleep in a chair in her bedroom and dreams that she is being taken by her friend Sister Sara on a visit to Ladyland. In this imaginary world men no longer control the state or rule the home. On acceding to power thirty years earlier, the queen of Ladyland ordered that all women should be educated and banned early marriages. Women now run the universities for which Ladyland is famous, just as they manage factories, laboratories, and observatories. With men reduced almost to irrelevance and confined in purdah (secluded as their wives and daughters once were), women also cultivate the fields and attend to agriculture. Wise women have brought an end to warfare through a device that concentrates the sun's rays and, directed against the enemy, renders them powerless. Having no time for idleness and quarrelling, women have turned to science and technology to control the clouds, regulate rainfall, and prevent floods: water for domestic purposes is heated by solar power and piped into every home. Women have constructed "aerial conveyances" that make roads redundant and railroads obsolete. Having eliminated traffic, the accidents and inconveniences it once caused no longer exist. The author is finally taken to visit the queen in an "air-car" propelled by two "wing-like blades" and operated by electricity ... and then wakes up to find herself at home alone in her own room.
With its systematic inversion of the customary roles of men and women, "Sultana's Dream" has rightly been seen as a pioneering feminist tract and Ladyland as a "feminist utopia." Rokeya Hossain subsequently made a name for herself as a social reformer, especially among Bengal's Muslims, and "a boldly controversial writer on women's emancipation." But what is equally striking about "Sultana's Dream" is its insistence on science and technology as a means of achieving female emancipation and the conjuring up of a future, alternative world in which scientific knowledge and mechanical inventions prevail. Ladyland is "a utopia where science, technology and virtue work together in perfect harmony." The exact source of Rokeya's inspiration is unclear, and the sultana herself confesses to Sara, as she struggles to comprehend the solar-powered gadgetry whirling around her, that her "scientific knowledge was very limited." It is not difficult, however, to find it in the science-fiction novels of Jules Verne, in the utopian essays H. G. Wells published a few years before "Sultana's Dream," and in the Indian newspapers and journals of the time, with their reports of astounding new machines that could fly, talk, cook, or sing, and more generally in what has been called the "technological obsession of the Indian middle classes." Remote as Ladyland might appear to be from the actuality of India (and especially of women's lives in India) in 1905, it demonstrates nonetheless that such imaginings were beginning to enter the everyday world and quotidian consciousness of the Indian people.
It would not be hard to demonstrate from a wide range of other literary and historical sources how far the machine had infiltrated, often very positively, the middle-class Indian imaginary of the period. In "Sultana's Dream" it is the visibility and utility of the technology that is most evident, but elsewhere it is the audacity, the brashness, the lyricism, and the stylishness of the machine that captures the Indian imagination. Nirad Chaudhuri, a generation younger than Rokeya Hossain, recalled hearing as a child, while staying in his mother's village in east Bengal, the sound of steamers on the River Meghna at night. "This machine-made noise," he wrote in his autobiography, "was perhaps the least dissonant sound we ever heard at Kalikutch. The siren seemed to be the voice of that gorgeous and noble river, speaking to men in the stillness of the night. There was a touch of awe in it." At a town in Mymensingh District a few years later, Chaudhuri was startled by the arrival of a European riding a noisy motorbike. This "novel object" was rapidly adopted by a young Indian as well, "so that we very soon had two of these self-advertising machines in the town." The ability of the machine to advertise itself, as Chaudhuri puts it, or as one might say to advertise the self, was among the qualities that propelled it from the realms of dreams into the sphere of everyday life.
It was shortly after the first appearance of "Sultana's Dream" that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, still resident in South Africa but acutely aware of political unrest in India following the partition of Bengal in 1905, published his now celebrated tract Hind Swaraj ("Indian Home Rule"). Despite also being sometimes characterized as utopian, Gandhi's vision of a future India could not be more different from Rokeya Hossain's. Rather than machines being a means of liberation, for Gandhi railroads, trams, automobiles, and flying machines are the epitome of all that is harmful and oppressive in "modern civilization" and the soulless, avaricious modernity that threatens to overwhelm and further impoverish an India already sapped of its wealth by colonial rule. In order to save themselves from this false "civilization," Indians are urged to return to their old ways—abandon the English language, eschew doctors and lawyers, travel by bullock cart rather than by train. If the utopia of Gandhi's imagining is a land innocent of modern machines, the dystopia that threatens to engulf it is essentially machine made. As he puts it: "Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization: it represents a great sin." Or again: "It is necessary to realize that machinery is bad. If, instead of welcoming machinery as a boon, we would look upon it as an evil, it would ultimately go."
Only one machine, the hand-operated spinning wheel, or charka, barely alluded to in Hind Swaraj but central to Gandhi's thinking from the early 1920s onward, seemed entirely acceptable. In his view it supplied the basic need for human clothing, was a source of subsistence and employment for India's poor and unemployed, and challenged the supremacy of the textile mills, half a world away in industrial Britain, that were destroying India's capacity to feed and clothe itself. Self-rule—the ability of Indians to rule themselves in both a political and a personal sense—is otherwise unobtainable. In fact, Gandhi's attitude to machines underwent some modification over the course of his lifetime, and in the mid-1920s he went so far as to accept the Singer sewing machine as "one of the few useful things ever invented." He also saw some role in the late 1930s for electric power—if it could be made freely available to India's villages. But, despite these concessions, Gandhi's basic hostility to machinery remained and even intensified in the 1930s as the threat of the machine to daily life in India and internationally seemed to be increasing.
If we take these two near-contemporary tracts together—Rokeya's "Sultana's Dream" and Gandhi's Hind Swaraj—we are likely to be struck by the contrast between them. In style, content, and purpose they are very different works. And yet they do have in common a shared concern for technology and its role—whether as the articulation of a desired modernity or as a profound civilizational delusion—in any future India. Where Rokeya Hossain deployed a technological imaginary apparently derived from novels, news reports, and popular scientific literature, Gandhi looked instead to Western critics of industrialization, such as John Ruskin and Edward Carpenter. His vision of India, like that of Leo Tolstoy in late imperial Russia, was for a rural, decentralized society in which technology would match the human scale and measured pace of village life. For Rokeya, by contrast, machines offered a path to female emancipation and the transformation of society at large. They were an aid to such everyday tasks as heating water, growing crops, and traveling, and to more ambitious objectives, such as stopping wars or controlling the weather. But, above all, machines underpinned a radical change in gender roles. For Gandhi only the simplest, smallest, and most essential machines—like the spinning wheel, but not even the bicycle or typewriter—could justifiably belong in an India groaning under colonial exploitation and in dire need of employment, not labor-saving devices.
However, what we can discern in both Rokeya and Gandhi is the centrality of the machine and of technology generally in Indian thinking about past, present, and future. What is striking, too, is that many of the concerns expressed in this technological imaginary—about good and bad machines, to put it starkly as Gandhi does in Hind Swaraj—were being articulated in the decade or so before World War I, between about 1905 and 1914, a period that can be described as marking, in both imaginary and material terms, India's technological watershed. One possible explanation for this timing is the impact of the swadeshi movement, whose significance will be examined in chapter 4. This campaign to buy Indian goods and boycott foreign ones arose in response to the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon's administration in 1905, though it had precedents. The swadeshi cause fostered a new technological awareness in which machines and the commodities they produced became a major site of contention for the Indian nationalist struggle. But Rokeya's tract predates the formal start of that movement (if only by a few months) and expresses a gendered, rather than nationalist or anti-imperialist, understanding of modern technology's transformative powers. It is more realistic to argue that, although India may not have been touched by such a compelling sense of technological modernity as emerged in Europe and North America between 1880 and 1914, it was still both elated and perturbed by the onrush of the machine age.
What is remarkable, too, in looking at "Sultana's Dream" and Hind Swaraj side by side, is the contrasting role assigned to the state. Where Rokeya Hossain envisages a utopia in which women have taken control of the state and the technology that sustains it, Gandhi's opposition to the modern state is almost as intense as his resistance to modern technology. This contrast touches upon one of the fundamental dilemmas of India's technological imaginary: Was the introduction and dissemination of modern technology to be largely dependent upon the operations of the state, or would it occur in defiance of the state? Did modern technology exclusively serve the colonial state, or could it be better deployed in the service of the nation?
The centrality of the state in the imagining of technology can be exemplified by reference to a third visionary—Meghnad Saha. Born in Bengal in 1893, Saha was trained as a physicist and had become a seminal influence in India's scientific community by the mid-1930s. But he also became convinced that India could only be freed from the burden of poverty and disease by the vigorous and systematic application of science and technology. This inevitably brought him into conflict with Gandhi. In the first issue of the journal Science and Culture that he launched in 1935, Saha wrote:
The great success of Gandhism is due to the fact that it expresses genuine sympathy with the victims of an aggressive and selfish industrialism, but we do not for a moment subscribe [to the view] that better and happier conditions of life can be created by discarding modern scientific technic and reverting back to the spinning wheel, the loin cloth and the bullock cart. On the contrary, we hold that if the discoveries of science are properly and intensively applied they will offer far better solutions to our bewildering economic, social and even political problems.
Saha's argument about technology was also an argument about the state. Drawing inspiration both from Soviet state planning and from the Tennessee River Valley Authority in the United States, Saha called for large-scale irrigation and flood control measures across eastern India, further elaborating this into a scheme for rapid Indian industrialization through state-directed planning. He saw this as a practical agenda and not an idle vision, remarking in 1943, with a further dig at Gandhi, that India's leaders, like those of Russia before them, should "chose the cold logic of technology over the vague utopias of Tolstoy." In 1938, at Saha's instigation, the Congress, the political arm of the Indian nationalist movement, set up a planning committee, under the chairmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru, to draw up a practical schema for India's economic regeneration and future self-sufficiency. Even while India remained under colonial rule, the prospect of using science and technology to advance national well-being was already being systematically proposed. Saha's secular views and scientific vision of India's future underscored the appeal of modern technology, as state-led, monumental, and hugely transformative.
The contrasting views of Gandhi and Rokeya Hossain early in the twentieth century, like those of Meghnad Saha thirty years later, were part of a vigorous and wide-ranging debate in colonial India about modern technology—technology not merely in the abstract but as an increasingly quotidian presence. To appreciate the intense, if contradictory, nature of this technological imaginary we need to backtrack to reflect on the technological ambitions and assumptions of India's colonial regime and, reverting to Adas's argument, to consider the ways in which, under colonialism, machines had become "the measure of men."
Throughout the nineteenth century the British adhered to the view that India was in urgent need of "improvement." A concept with roots in Britain's own capitalist evolution, and in its agrarian and industrial transformation, "improvement" was an empire-wide ideal, but one that had a particular moral and empirical significance for India in view of its apparent technological backwardness. The poverty of India and the recurrence of widespread famine were understood as the consequence of a primitive, technologically inefficient agricultural system, one that was unable to supply the populace with its basic subsistence needs. In colonial thought as in nationalist aspiration, poverty persistently framed the problem of Indian technology, shaping the manner of its imagining as much as the material solutions proposed for its resolution. For the colonialists, this critical disposition can be traced back to the devastating Bengal famine of 1770, the creation of the Permanent Settlement in 1793, and the belief that reforming landlords (the zamindars created under the new agrarian dispensation) would, as in Britain, provide the impetus for a dynamic and enterprising rural capitalism. But organizations like the agricultural and horticultural societies of India (the first of which was established in Calcutta in 1820), and the need intermittently expressed for white settlers to force the pace of technological change through a rapid injection of energy, capital, and expertise, were also part of the wider scheme of agrarian improvement.
Excerpted from EVERYDAY TECHNOLOGY by DAVID ARNOLD. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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