Accepted Paper:

Aberration as the norm: representing the Christian converts in nineteenth century Bengal  


Dhrupadi Chattopadhyay (Heidelberg University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper shows how the biographies and autobiographies of first generation converts came to create normative individuals in a climate of 'representational excess' where they were often viewed as 'aberrations'.

Paper long abstract:

Christianity's arrival in Bengal coincided with imperial interests and hence has been the 'natural' suspect. Meanwhile, the nineteenth century with its premium on print had encouraged a new and powerful voice of dissent in the form of the satire. This new form,which heavily relied on 'aberration' for humour, in its myriad forms established Christianity as an undesired departure. These representations were constantly reproduced and their 'representational excess' was largely incommensurate with the actual number of conversions. Autobiography/biography (associated in the Indian context with the nineteenth century) is a form that relies on charting exemplary characters. Reacting to the representations that were consumed in the literary market of the day, missionary biographers of native converts took to fashioning heroes and in the process creating a parallel normative universe. This paper will seek to examine a few autobiographies and biographies of first generation converts in nineteenth century Bengal inter-texually. How do these tellings and re-tellings respond to the construct of the 'Christian convert' as the 'aberration'? In their layered response in the form of biographies and autobiographies do the converts themselves instead create new normativities? How does this 'representational excess' in effect create a dialogue between the two apparently disjointed forms of satire and the auto/biography?

Panel P47
Of saints, converts, and heroes: hagiographies and conversion auto/biographies across religions in South Asia