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Monday, October 27, 2008

BOOKS: Colonial collection Shakti Kak

THE book under review is an anthology of writings by women of English, Scottish, Welsh, American and Canadian origins who lived in India during 1820-1920. It was a period when the Indian subcontinent was increasingly being subjugated as a British colo ny. The book is divided into various sections, ranging from “nautch girls”, “ayahs”, to “health”, “education”, “social reform”, “purdah” and other social issues.

The earlier writings excerpted include those of Mary Martha Sherwood, an army wife, Emily Eden, sister of the Governor-General of the time, Anne Katharine Elwood, wife of an army officer, Marianne Postans, wife of an army official of the East India Company, Julia Maitland, wife of a senior merchant with the East India Company, Fanny Parks, wife of a Company official, and Emma Roberts, an intellectual.

Mary Carpenter, social reformer, Saleni Armstrong Hopkins, a medical missionary, Mary Frances Billington, a journalist, Christina Sinclair Bremner, a traveller, and Flora Annie Steel, a novelist, are among some of the women who lived in or visited the subcontinent in the middle and later part of the 19th century. Also included in the anthology are later writers who wrote towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, including Annie Besant, Margaret Noble (better known as Sister Nivedita), Katherine Mayo and Maud Diver.

The writings provide an interesting insight into these women’s perception of “natives” and their social customs. Popularly addressed as memsahibs, they had varied interests and several of them were active in public life. They were part of the “civilising” process supposedly initiated through the colonial enterprise as the empire took control of the subcontinent. In this process, “natives” were “civilised” through intervention in the areas of personal laws, health care, education and, of course, proselytisation.

These women from varied backgrounds were in the colonies as wives, journalists, missionaries, travellers and writers. Their writings are in the form of letters, travelogues, memoirs, diaries and novels. A study of these source materials brings out the manner in which these women writers integrated the issues of gender, race, class and, in the Indian context, caste...


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