Eugene Irschick deftly questions the conventional wisdom that knowledge about a colonial culture is unilaterally defined by its rulers. Focusing on nineteenth-century South India, he demonstrates that a society's view of its history results from a "dialogic process" involving all its constituencies.
For centuries, agricultural life in South India was seminomadic. But when the British took dominion, they sought to stabilize the region by inventing a Tamil "golden age" of sedentary, prosperous villages. Irschick shows that this construction resulted not from overt British manipulation but from an intricate cross-pollination of both European and native ideas. He argues that the Tamil played a critical role in constructing their past and thus shaping their future. And British administrators adapted local customs to their own uses.