Gunnel Cederlöf


© Gunnel Cederlöf

For many years, some of the small towns in south India were my second home. I still keep the experience under my skin. The sweet fragrance of dry red sand, steaming hot under the midday sun. The neighbouring factory-whistle waking me up at 5 in the morning, accompanied by the latest movie-songs at deafening volume from the metallic-sounding street-corner loud speakers. The evening bird-life mellowing with the milder temperatures when labourers return from work in the fields and the clinking-clanking sound revealing that the evening meal is soon ready. All are still part of my sentiments of “home”.

To this home in the south, a flow of visitors from faraway Northeast India used to come as students. I always wondered at their urge to get onto a train in Guwahati, Jorhat, or other stations on the line, and travel at cheapest rate for days to the other end of India. Tamil Naduwas like a foreign land they had to figure out. It was also a place where they could get their own experiences into perspective. Tamil Nadu in the 1980s and 90s were harsh on dalit labourers, men as well as women. “He bought the police with a chicken curry”, was a common way in the cheris to explain how labour protests could be put down. Raped women would do best not to report the crime at the police station. Many loose ends were tied up in conversations with students from the Northeast. Big politics of violent struggle and restricted rights merged with everyday issues of getting a job, facing drugs, non-functioning infrastructure, and living with insecurities.

© Gunnel Cederlöf

© Gunnel Cederlöf

It took two decades for me, from my first stay in India, until I went to the north of the country. In the south, the north was usually talked about as “Delhi”. Delhi was the place where there was little understanding of the south, where big agendas were fixed and politics were quite insensitive to southern needs. In the southern villages, I was occasionally asked if I was a foreigner. Old ladies who did not consider this alternative suggested I should use a seed that grew by the road side. If I grained it together with oil and used it in my hair, it would turn black again and I would not look so sick. But more often I was asked about being a foreigner. Yes, I replied. The question always followed: Are you from Delhi?

All along I have worked as a historian. To my mind, the present can only be understood when we enquire into the past. The past is a continuous flow of experiences by which we live our lives. Our concerns for the future mirror our rootedness in the past. Or lack of it. Disconnected decisions tend to lead to disaster. A society that does not value a serious engagement with the past in all its uncomfortable varieties, contradictions, and divergences undermines its foundation. My conversations with the students from Northeast India opened up new avenues to India’s pasts and brought out the complex textures of the country I had come to know from a southern viewpoint.

When I finally took my research in Tamil Nadu and confronted it with research on north India, it showed some striking dissimilarities. The taken-for-granted history of colonial India that I now faced did not match what I had come to understand in the south. I was then told that the south is different. Different from what, I wondered. What was the norm against which the south was measured and found to differ?

Perhaps the south is not all that different, I thought to myself; perhaps my questions stood out against some conventional knowledge. Or was there an idea of the Indian pasts that could not encompass such difference? Seeking to understand became one of the many reasons why I ended up in the Northeast.

My first visit is now long ago. But it has stayed with me as a reference point.

I missed the car that was to take me from Guwahati to Shillong. I wondered at my new-found Assamese friends’ worry about me, when they put me on a bus to travel on my own, after dark, away from the safe plains and into the dangerous hills. A police officer on the same bus, safely seated behind me, comforted them, while I noticed that his presence made other passengers uncomfortable. Arriving after dark meant arriving in an almost empty town. In the south, women avoided public spaces after dark, worrying about their (our) safety. Evenings in southern towns were male territories. Here in Shillong, the entire town seemed to stay indoors. I put on my usual hedgehog attitude for such situations and found my way to the guesthouse.

I arrived in the Northeast with a notion of entering a space of seclusion; a space beyond the boundaries of constitutional regularities, inner lines, and special permits. It was said to be marginal to ‘mainland India’. I thought something which is so harshly enclosed must be rare and crucially important to the heart of the country. Why otherwise bother to claim it as a treasure trove and keep it under lock and key?

The British knew exactly what they wanted some 200-250 years ago, when they traded along the Surma, the Barak, and the Brahmaputra and lay claims to the territories far beyond the rivers. There are some amazingly rich accounts of this, kept in the small district record room in Silchar. The very friendly and soft-spoken senior gentleman, who heads the archives, arranged a table for me where I could sit and read. While the well-organised documents on the open shelves slowly wither away when the monsoons set in, these little notebooks are wonderfully preserved in a large tin box, which is both air and water tight. The notebooks are as fresh as when the commissioners copied their outgoing letters onto the pages. The handwriting is as terrible as a doctor’s signature, but readable with some patience. Here and there I can see how a historian before me has tried her best to translate the scribbling into intelligible English. Page after page, the daily efforts to keep the administration going while putting out rising conflicts with a constant lack of resources and information arise from the text.

This region was a centre of a commercial universe. Here were the veins to be tapped of the valuable goods that passed through the Silk Road network. It connected Empires in India and China, and fed the pockets of countless merchants and trading houses. Upper Assam, Manipur, and Chittagong were the bottlenecks through which the riches flooded. When reading the many letters to subordinate officers, revenue accountants, the Agent to the Northeastern Frontier, and the Governor General in Calcutta, I could see how bits and pieces were stitched together when colonial rule came into place. Controlling the switches, the customs points and markets came before most other interests of the early colonial merchants and officers.

© Gunnel Cederlöf

© Gunnel Cederlöf

As I come and go in Silchar, I see the new large highway coming up. Soon the lorries moving goods through Assam towards Manipur and the eastern borders will be making the trip at higher speed and shorter time. Two hundred years before, the British colonial officers also looked east. To them, this region was known as a frontier, marginal to Delhi but central to the government’s plans to conquer China’s markets. The idea was to make the Northeastern Frontier together with Burma and Yunnan the bridgehead in a global imperial market, centring on India. With such a view in mind, the British rulers began to institute regulations and put restrictions to people’s movements into place. They soon faced war and hostilities on all inner fronts of that vision. And now they had a treasure trove to guard.

The several large maps they made of the eastern and northeastern frontiers are now kept in Delhi, London, New Haven, and the many other places that host such documents. When I first saw them, I had to make a spatial leap in my own imaging of India. The dusty bulk-trade town of Silchar was also then on a highway, one made of water and hill passes. The rivers appear as fine blue lace in the colonial maps. The charts extend as far east of Silchar as the Brahmaputra runs in the map’s western limits. Suddenly I saw the margin of ‘mainland India’ appear as a centre.

I have moved in this past for a long time now and I am beginning to broaden my views, reaching time-depths unknown to me. The space called “India” has grown larger. I can suddenly sense the shades and fragrances of the past at any street corner.

© Gunnel Cederlöf

© Gunnel Cederlöf

My sense of “home” is slowly changing. It has grown to include the Delhi metropolitan attitude to pretend not to observe the foreigner on the metro; the shy but noisy hornbills in Delhi’s gardens; and the suburban shopkeeper’s friendly “not to worry, ma’am, your pickles will arrive on Monday, surely.” “Home” also embraces chatting in cars that manoeuver at strolling-speed through roads that look shell-shocked from lack of repair; the almost weekly procession for a saint or a goddess that can close down a town in a mellow festival mode; and fish markets that would make any fish seller around the world jaw dropped.


GunnelCederlofGunnel Cederlöf is a professor of history at Uppsala University in Sweden. At present, she works mainly at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and is a Visiting Professor at Shiv Nadar University, UP, India. Her work in Indian modern history is primarily focused on environmental and social history. Her first monograph enquired into the transformation of agrarian bondage in modern south India and social mobilisation among landless dalit labourers. In Landscapes and the Law she studied the formation of land law during conflicts over territory in the Nilgiris under early colonial rule, and her most recent work researches the clash between nature, commerce and sovereign rights during colonial conquest of Bengal and Northeast India.
Among her publications are Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers, 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity (Delhi 2014), Landscapes and the Law: Environmental Politics, Regional Histories, and Contests Over Nature (Delhi 2008), Ecological Nationalisms: Nature, Livelihoods, and Identities in South Asia (Delhi and Seattle 2006), and Bonds Lost: Subordination, Conflict and Mobilisation in Rural South India c. 1900-1970 (Delhi 1997).


Filed under Moohi, Non-fiction


  1. Gourav Lama

    The uniqueness of India is its diversity. The Northeast India is one of most culturally rich region in India. It must have been a great experience for you to experience different shades and cultural diversities that exist from south to north to northeast states. I appreciate your endeavour and effort to work on north east part of India, as the mainstream historiography in India does not reflect much upon the region. The strategic, economic and social past and its importance of the region is rarely known outside the geographical boundaries of the region and is largely alien to the conciousness of the general masses even in Delhi. It is a sad story that the core issues and the problems of the region are generally snubbed away and is not given much priorities in New Delhi. The region thus occasionaily complains against the step motherly attitude of the centre. Researching and seeking its past and trying to construct its importance, thus can be a way out to bring a change.
    Thank you

  2. Gunnel

    I agree, Gourav, it is an incredibly rich region in all ways we may think of and at the same time under immense pressures from historical and present injustices. These experiences need to be told and the general histories of India and the even larger region have to be rethought in ways that will allow for diversity to remain diverse.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s