chapter 1 Alap
1 ‘‘Association, intercourse, speaking, conversation, discourse, enumeration
of the question in an arithmetical and algebraic sum; modulation or rising
of the voice in singing, tuning up and prelude to a song. Alap chari is tun-
ing the voice preparatory to singing. In Hindi, turned a verb called alapna
and that means to tune the voice, to run over the notes previous to singing,
to catch the proper key, to pitch or raise the voice, to cry with pain, moan,
groan.’’ (John T. Platts, ed., Dictionary of Urdu,Classical Hindi and English,
2nd Indian edition [Delhi: Munshi Ram Manohar Lal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.,
1988]). Alap in colloquial north Indian usage simply means ‘‘introduction.’’
2 (Burra) sahib is a Hindi vernacular term from the colonial period which
loosely translated suggests ‘‘master/ruler/gentleman.’’ Burra translates
loosely as ‘‘big.’’ In the colonial period, it referred explicitly to a Euro-
pean, Briton, or English person. In postcolonial India, sahib (like its femi-
nized counterpart, memsahib) connotes upper-class/caste, urban,Western-
ized status. Burra sahib is less common than the generic salutation of sahib.
In the contemporary plantation, burra sahib refers explicitly to the senior
manager or planter, who is contrasted to his assistant manager, the chota
3 Mahasweta Devi, ‘‘Little Ones,’’ in Bitter Soil: Stories by Mahasweta Devi,
trans. Ipsita Chandra (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1998), 2.
4 Jatra refers to the folk theater of rural Bengal. My use of it here encom-
passes this meaning as well as the hybrid adivasi (noncaste, non-Hindu) and
non-Bengali dance gatherings in the plantations of north Bengal.
5 Kichdi is a vegetable and lentil dish, mixed together with rice. It suggests
culinary confusion, a mixing of what should otherwise remain separate in
the rites of cooking, consumption, and commensality. I deploy it to connote
a purposeful categorical hybridity.
6 As a way to highlight the central presence of these three women who were
my primary interlocuters, I do not use pseudonyms for them. I use their
ﬁrst names and their family surnames or ‘‘titles’’ as a way to mark their cen-
trality in the narratives which follow. Rita Chhetri, who appears later in the
book, also goes by her real name. The politics of naming is an important