- Domesticity in Colonial India: What Women Learned When Men Gave Them Advice by Judith E. Walsh
This book reframes a familiar corpus of Bengali tracts written in the second half of the nineteenth century within a novel “global domesticity.” Thus we learn about the dialogic interlocution of bourgeois, European ideas on home and family and those of the educated, upwardly mobile social groups of colonial Bengal (and sometimes, of Maharashtra). Walsh admits to being puzzled by the coexistence of female lives of courageous ingenuity alongside a devotional style of enthusiastic subservience to a “new” patriarchy (Introduction, Chapter 7). She resolves this apparent anomaly by suggesting a greater allure of ‘romantic love’ and intimacy in heterosexual coupledom as against the rewards of filial obedience to the ‘traditional’ hierarchies of elder female guardians (Chapter 5). Though she is careful to signal that such ideas regarding love were not without contradictory and ambivalent self-positioning, Walsh successfully connects the emergent print culture of the nineteenth century with the emergent histories of emotion. She argues that the greater attraction of the “new” over the “old” patriarchy was mediated through the printed word, as English-educated bhadralok (respectable) men in and around Calcutta translated their newly learned ideas of romance, and domesticity, into vernacular manuals of advice, imagined conversations, letters and novels (Chapters 2–4). Only educated young women could access such ideas. Hence, access to literacy separated the space – and the dietary, sumptuary, sanitary and social rituals – of the “new” heterosexual couple from those of their older affines.
The attempt to establish the commonality of practice and precept (“a place for everything and everything in its place”) in Bengali, American, Anglo-Indian and British manuals (Chapter 6) is refreshing and opens up new questions regarding the global history of middle-class investment in domestic order. Yet, while intellectually stimulating, the author’s preference for “hybridity” over “hegemony” glosses over some of the real work that her sources performed. It takes only a little scrutiny to recognize that Mrs Beeton’s cookbook is marked by a resounding silence around the specificities of the colonial domestic; no vegetables and herbs (‘spices’) regularly used in Bengali cuisine, or approval for eating off plantain-leaves and with the hand can be found there. Hence it is likelier that the English-educated colonial Bengalis, attempting to locate themselves within the global domestic, generated a manual literature so peculiarly colonial and “respectably” Bengali. The extent of their success in nailing respectability down to a fine art might be gauged from another significant aspect about modern public culture: in a Kolkata bursting with sweetshops and cheap low-end eateries, there were no restaurants selling ‘respectable’ domestic cuisine till the end of the twentieth century. When the same social groups migrated elsewhere, they took the privatization of domesticity with them: unlike Chinese cuisine, Bengali middle-class cuisine was absent from “Indian” restaurants. Such histories of public culture perhaps emerge more readily if one attends to the silences within the dialogue on global domesticity.
Furthermore, if all notions were equally hybrid and equally derivative in the nineteenth century, the suggestion that “romantic love” originated in Western Europe – and then travelled into the colonies – is neither necessary to the argument, nor historically accurate. For Bhakti and Sufi romances, as well as mangal – kavya of the period, demonstrate that such notions (of intense dyadic committments) were fairly well known to many devotional audiences and assemblies. Furthermore, there is now sufficient evidence regarding the centrality of household-formation to the exercise of power and status from the sixteenth century (Abul Fazl imagined the Mughal empire as a household, after all) continuously into the nineteenth. Given this profusion of discourse on both “devotion” and “domesticity” in precolonial contexts, it appears likely that the prehistory of ‘companionate’ marriages desired by the Bengali bhadra social groups was darker than Walsh imagines.
Some of the darker prehistory is revealed in the explicit materiality of the domestic project. For the goods that ‘decorated’ the interior of a respectable home were often acquired through complicated negotiations...