ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

A Wide Gamut of Relationships

A Wide Gamut of Relationships

Sumanta Banerjee From the jacket of the book, the face of a woman stares out. Entitled Portrait of a Mogul Lady, it was painted by one Francesco Renaldi in 1787, and she is said to be

december 20, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly32A Wide Gamut of RelationshipsSumanta BanerjeeSex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empireby Durba Ghosh (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press), 2006; pp xi + 273, Rs 595. book reviewFrom the jacket of the book, the face of a woman stares out. Entitled Portrait of a Mogul Lady, it was painted by one Francesco Renaldi in 1787, and she is said to be “the companion of an Englishman”, as speculated by a modern art historian. Her large and limpid eyes are at the same time sad and accusing – evoking the history of the plight of those Indian women who, due to various reasons, were led into cohabitation with European men in the early years of colonial rule in India. Durba Ghosh explores this complex history by covering a wide gamut involv-ing the East India Company’s senior bureaucrats and army officers, foot soldiers and sailors, and the political winds of change and socio-economic currents that were defining sexual and family relation-ships between these members of the coloniser community and the colonised society during the Company’s regime here. She also describes the impact of the newly introduced judicial system on such liaisons, through which peep out the faces and voices of the Indian women who were their partners. In the course of her explo-ration, she reinterprets some of the accounts of such relationships from differ-ent parts of India, which apart from being interracial, often broke down the bounda-ries of the traditional Indian feudal upper class society.We are thus reintroduced to the stories of the liaison between William Palmer, a British soldier, with Faiz Baksh, the daugh-ter of a Mughal courtier of Delhi, and of James Kirkpatrick, another army officer, who as the British resident in Hyderabad, had an affair with Khair-un-nissa, the granddaughter of a nobleman of the Nizam’s royal court there, got her pregnant, and finally married her. Both these British characters have been recently romanticised by the English writer William Dalrymple (in his White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in the Eighteenth Century) as exemplars of a cosmopolitan-ism that could bridge two cultures through their intimate relations. But Durba Ghosh demystifies that image by rigorously examining the contemporary official records and their correspondence relating to their personal relationships, which lay bare their anxieties about race, social status and cultural behaviour which were generated by the tensions between the colonial administrative policies that they were required to follow and their hybrid family-base that they acquired in India.On the part of the Indian parents of these daughters (who became concubines or wives of the Europeanofficers),there seemed to have been a willing consent to such liaisons, so that they (courtiers of a declining Mughal regime) could worm their way into the favours of the new rulers. Ghosh’s findings about the Kirkpatrick affair confirm the suspicion ofa well-planned complicity between the British officers at the army camp, the Indian noblemen of the court and the women in the Nizam’s zenana. Sense of Responsibility Unlike the conjugal relationships of the Kirkpatricks and Palmers with the upper class “begums”, the sexual alliances between Europeans and plebeian Indian women (housekeepers, maidservants and slaves among others) were usually dictated by the rules of the master-servant contract. Ghosh finds that the status-conscious upper class Englishmen were more conflicted about their mixed-race children (like insist-ing on their either being sent to England for education, or brought up in India on the principles of the Christian religion), than their lower class countrymen who had “less reason to worry about the sorts of problems that interracial sex and misce-genation gave rise to in a colonial settle-ment”. But the fact that all these English-men showed a sense of responsibility to their Indian wives, concubines, or servants-cum-mistresses and their children (whom they could have easily rejected as collat-eral encumbrances, given their position as rulers) by leaving them property and providing education for their offspring, implies a variety of ethical norms and emotional nuances that probably played a part in each instance. They ranged from the desire to replicate the colonial order in the domestic sphere by being a “British father as patriarch over a native woman and her children” as suggested by Ghosh in some cases, to sheer affectionate attachment that overcame the colour or religious bars in some other cases.The narrative also recovers the voices of the Indian female partners of these European settlers, who “were both strate-gic and resistant when they recorded their subjectivities in final testaments, letters, and political negotiations”. Ghosh takes up the stories of the much written-about Begum Samru (originally a dancing girl named Farzana who became the consort of an Austrian mercenary soldier Walter Reinhardt, and rose to become the ruler of Sardhana) and the less known Begum Bennett (Halima, the daughter of a Mughal courtier, who became the companion of a French mercenary soldier Benoit de Boigne – but unlike Farzana, ended up in a one-room house in the south of England, where she died in much reduced circumstances). Ghosh narrates stories of even the less privileged Indian women, who were vic-tims of domestic violence by their European masters (either employed as slaves or servants, or “kept” as mistresses), but who made use of the newly introduced judicial system which granted them some agency to make claims against their exploiters.Broader Context Although her specific area of investigation is interracial cohabitation between British men and Indian women in the early years of colonial rule, Ghosh could have located the issue in the broader historical context
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 20, 200833of sexuality, where adultery, incest, concu-binage and other forms of dalliance were fairly common even within the European community in those days. The acceptance of such practices among the British settlers in India could be traced to their parental society in contemporary England. As one later day English official while describing the habits of his countrymen in India, was to observe: “We do not expect to find purity in the lower waters of a stream which is tainted at its source, and the beginning of the 18th century was the nadir of our morality” (C R Wilson – Early Annals of the English in Bengal). The children born of the interracial liaisons in these environs of a licentious culture faced different futures, depending on the options chosen by their European fathers. Ghosh describes how some among those sent to England, adopted new names and merged with the British mainstream, and others who remained in India were well taken care of, thanks to the patriarchal benevolence. The fate of the less fortunate who were reared in India by their indigent Indian mothers and whose descendants grew up to lead a ghettoised existence – known as “Anglo-Indians” in common parlance today – is another story. In her conclusion, Ghosh touches upon an interesting facet – the nationalistic discourse/fiction that, she feels, over- looked the issue of mixed-race relation-ships, by sustaining the “image of a pure indigenous culture uncorrupted by miscegenation or interracial sex”. In fact however, indigenous and vernacular sources (which are not “scarce”, as Ghosh complains) give ample evidence of the tensions suffered by the Indian national-ist elite over such relationships. The descendants of Eurasian parents occupied an ambiguous space in the nationalist discourse. In 19th century Bengali culture for instance, we find two different pictures of them. One is a stereotyped object of ridicule as a “half-breed” in farces andbelles lettres (in Bankim Chattopadhyay’s Lokarahasya for insta-nce), a representation of – what these writers perceived as – the corruptionof their culture by such miscegenation. Ironically enough, the other picture is etched permanently in Bengali culture by a young Anglo-Indian poet, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio who during his tenure as a teacher at the Calcutta Hindu College, was worshipped by his Bengali students as an idol. He sowed the seeds of radical nationalism among them by his teachings, and his poem To India, My Native Land written in 1827 – reminding them of the loss of their freedom under the colonial yoke. A hunt across the vernacular sources (primary and secondary literature in Urdu, Hindi, Bengali or other languages – reference to which is absent in the bibliography) could have yielded more information to further enrich this otherwise excellently well-researched and thought-provoking book, which makes an original contribution to the academic discourse on colonialism and gender relationship.Email: suman5ban@yahoo.comBooks ReceivedAkram-Lodhi, Haroon A and Cristobal Kay (2008): Peasants and Globalisation: Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the Agrarian Question (London and New York: Routledge), pp xi + 347, price not indicated. Alternative Survey Group (2008): Alternative Economic Survey, India 2007-08: Decline of the Develop-mental State (Delhi: Daanish Books), pp xx + 319, Rs 295.Babu, Ramesh B, ed. (2008): From Varna to Jati: Polit-ical Economy of Caste in Indian Social Formation (Commemorating Scholar and Revolutionary Martyr Yalavarthi Naveen Babu)(Delhi: Daanish Books), pp xvii + 141, Rs 150. Balasubramaniam, R (2008):Marvels of Indian Iron Through the Ages(New Delhi: Rupa & Co), pp xxvi + 283, price not indicated.Bhagwati, Jagdish (2008): Termites in the Trading System: How Preferential Agreements Undermine Free Trade(New York and Delhi: Oxford Univer-sity Press), pp xviii + 139, Rs 295.Bhatt, V V (2008): Perspectives on Development: Memoirs of a Development Economist(New Delhi: Academic Foundation), pp 135, Rs 595.Bijlani, Ramesh (2008):Back to Health through Yoga (New Delhi: Rupa & Co), pp xvii + 329, Rs 295. Chakrabarty, Bidyut and Rajendra Kumar Pandey (2008): Indian Government and Politics (New Delhi, Los Angeles: Sage Publications), pp xxviii + 359, Rs 295. Chandra, Satish (2008):State, Pluralism, and the Indian Historical Tradition(New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp viii + 196, Rs 595. Chaturvedi, Gitanjali (2008): The Vital Drop: Commu-nication for Polio Eradication in India(New Delhi: Sage Publications), pp xviii + 319, Rs 750. Chronic Poverty Research Centre (2008): The Chronic Poverty Report 2008-09: Escaping Poverty Traps, London, pp xii + 148, price not indicated.Fisman, Raymond and Edward Miguel (2008): Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations(Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press), pp 240, $24.95Flood, Finbarr Barry (2008): Piety and Politics in the Early Indian Mosque(New Delhi: Oxford Univer-sity Press), pp lxviii + 274, Rs 695.Ghose, Ajit K, Nomaan Majid and Christoph Ernst (2008): The Global Employment Challenge (New Delhi: Academic Foundation), pp xiii + 290, Rs 1,295.Gupt, Bharat (2008): India: A Cultural Decline or Revival? (New Delhi: D K Printworld), pp xviii + 236, Rs 300.Haq, Khadija and Richard Ponzio, ed. (2008): Pioneer-ing the Human Development Revolution: An Intel-lectual Biography of Mahbub Ul Haq (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp xvi + 266, Rs 595.Hasan, Hadi (2008):Mughal Poetry: Its Cultural and Historical Value (Delhi: Aakar Books), pp 80, Rs 450.Hirschmann, Edwin (2008): Robert Knight: Reforming Editor in Victorian India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp xii + 272, Rs 795.Jain, Ravi Kumar B and A K Sohani (2008): Central Banks: Roles, Functions and Challenges (Hyderabad: ICFAI University Press), pp ix + 272, $18. Jamaat-E-Islami Hind (2008):A Guide to Uplift Minor-ities,New Delhi, pp xiv + 207, Rs 100.Joshi, Jagat Pati (2008): Harappan Architecture and Civil Engineering (New Delhi: Rupa & Co), pp xxxv + 218, price not indicated. LOCOST (2006):A Lay Person’s Guide to Medicines: What Is in Them and What Is Behind Them,Low Cost (LOCOST) (Baroda: Standard Therapeutics), pp 600, Rs 250.Ministry of Agriculture (2008):Agricultural Statistics at a Glance 2008(New Delhi: Academic Founda-tion) in association with Directorate of Economics & Statistics, Department of Agriculture & Cooper-ation, Ministry of Agriculture, pp 377, Rs 595.Mishra, Dinesh Kumar (2008):Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters, People’s Science Institute, Dehra Dun and South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, Delhi, pp xii + 208, Rs 595.Panda, Sanjay Kumar (2008):Corporate Social Responsi-bility inIndia: Past, Present and Future (Hyderabad: The ICFAI University Press), pp 373, $ 23.Patnaik, Prabhat (2008):The Value of Money(New Delhi: Tulika Books), pp x + 253, Rs 500.Prasad, Anirudh, Ramkrishna Mukherjee and Beni A Ekka, ed. (2008): Social Research Methodologies in Action (Vol I: Conceptual and Theoretical Concerns in Social Research),Xavier Institute of Social Service, Ranchi, pp 302, Rs 999. – (2008): Social Research Methodologies in Action (Vol II: Strategies of Development Research),Xavier Institute of Social Service, Ranchi, pp xxv + 327 to 612, Rs 999.

Dear reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top