Alternative histories

CAN we find India's colonial past disguised in the ledgers of personal history? Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home, and History in Late Colonial India seeks to do just that. Analysing the writings of Janaki Majumdar (1886-1963), Cornelia Sorabji (1886-1954), and Attia Hosain (1913-1997), Antoinette Burton provides an archive of personal memory. She interrogates the status of the "traditional archive", which often conjures up the image of a repository laden with dusty records and brittle newspapers, and, instead introduces the lives of three major writers. Remarkably, she does this without invoking the official archive. In this way, she presents a refreshing alternative to official and political histories of modern India.

Burton responds to the rise of the genre, now widely referred to as "life-writing". Women's memoirs, their jeremiads, testimonies, letters, diaries and travel journals swell the category, blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, history and memory, truth and imagination. Burton's contribution lies in transcending the boundary between home and history, for she provides an insight into how women writers like Majumdar, Sorabji and Hosain used the domestic space as an archival source to construct their own histories.

The skill with which all these three writers used their memories of house and home as archival sources sets them apart from the humdrum of fiction writing. They were able to do so owing to their social background, their transnational linkages, and the spaces they created to reach out to a wider English-speaking world. Their cosmopolitan lifestyle shaped their view of house, home and history and lent weight to their critique of the coercive strands in nationalism and modernity.

The Cambridge-educated Janaki Majumdar, the daughter of the first president of the Indian National Congress, W.C. Bonnerjee, chronicled her Family History, in 1935, rather than celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian National Congress. Set against the physical spaces of home, she chose to portray the "domestic narratives of both her mother's own life and, eventually, her own", and focus, in particular, on the travails of Hemangini, converted from Hinduism to Christianity. The self-effacing mother struggled to set up a stable home for herself and her children amid the upheavals of temporary exile in England. In her narrative, Majumdar subordinates her father's distinguished public career. She also relegates to the background the political narrative of Indian nationalism. What she highlights, however, are her mother's suffering and vulnerabilities.

Cornelia Sorabji illustrates another strand in Antoinette Burton's narrative. The Oxford-educated barrister and adviser to the Court of Wards, created, for the colonial state, an archive of zenana life. In her memoirs, India Calling (1934) and India Recalled (1936), now being analysed for the first time from a different perspective, the zenana emerges as a quintessential symbol of home, as an architectural wonder, as an archival evidence of "authentic India", and as a site of British control and reform.

Sorabji's life story, vividly captured by Burton, points to the anxieties and aspirations of a modern professional woman under British rule. For the Lucknow-born Attia Hosain, however, the experience is of a different nature. Unlike Sorabji, she is born in a small town and nurtured in a feudal family. Her anxieties are therefore markedly different. For her, home is a living symbol of attachment and rupture, a witness to the most catastrophic event and memory of violence: the Partition of 1947. Her novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column, "may be read as an effort to lay claim to home as a legitimate, persuasive, and irrefutable partition archive". Moreover, "as an alternative archive of partition, Sunlight reshapes the landscape of historical imagination, offering a modest corrective to local and national history." Burton also makes a case for using Hosain's BBC archives, based on her broadcasts, to trace her relationship to partition and her diasporic longing for home.

This is, indeed, a valuable intervention, and perhaps the first serious analysis of Attia Hosain's remarkably candid portrayal of the mounting tension within a family over the future of the subcontinent. Yet, Burton's argument about expanding the notion of archive for a reappraisal of partition is all too familiar. Already, some recent works have critiqued the official archive, and challenged, on the basis of a wide variety of non-official sources, the earlier perspectives on the history of partition.

In sum, one would recommend this book as a serious social history written with a difference. Its strength lies in foregrounding the inner recesses of house and home as critical sites of history. What is more, this book reveals the ambiguities of Majumdar, Sorabji and Hosain in negotiating with feminist issues, nationalism and modernity. Indeed, Antoinette Burton uses the historian's craft well to redraw the boundaries of modern Indian history.

Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home, and History in Late Colonial India, Antoinette Burton, OUP, 2003, p. x+202, Rs. 445.

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