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Playfulness and Female Subjectivity in the 19th Century

Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century India: The Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness by Ruby Lal (New York: Cambridge University Press), 2013; pp 247, $95.00

Studies on literature and gender in south Asian historiography have often highlighted politics of domesticity, language and religious reform and explored how projects of “emancipation” in the colonial period were coterminous with increased consciousness, within a particular community. In her book on girl-child and women in the 19th century, Ruby Lal eloquently engages with these issues and tracks the transition in literary and cultural representations of the figure of girl-child/woman in Hindi and Urdu texts published in the 19th century.

What is critical in Lal’s intervention and also much-needed in the study of colonial and reformist literature of south Asia is that she begins her investigation in early 1800s. This ensures that earlier voices on female subjectivity are retrieved and examined vis-à-vis later writings on social reform and respectability. Specifically, it helps Lal to draw attention to the diverse forms of being/becoming that were marginalised, lost or forgotten once the thrust for “women’s education” and “social reform” from late 19th century onwards reimagined the “woman” largely as an object of instruction and advice. This also distinguishes Lal’s analysis from most scholarship focusing on social reform, which either begins in late 19th century or concentrates on the nationalist implications of reformist literature. As Lal says,

going back to an earlier time reveals debates and figures (daughter, wife, mother, lover, friend, matriarch, queen) that are complex and fluid, and that pose a challenge to the idea of the already known respectable woman of traditional India (p 33).

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