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Reviewed by:
  • India Inscribed—European and British Writing on India 1600–1800
  • Kamakshi P. Murti
Kate Teltscher. India Inscribed—European and British Writing on India 1600–1800 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995). Pp. 280. $24.95.

Given the recent upsurge of postcolonial studies, it is truly difficult to meet the challenge of writing something new that does not simply revisit what has been said before. It is to Kate Teltscher’s credit that she manages not only to offer new insights, but also to articulate familiar theories in a much-needed incisive and cogent manner. Teltscher asserts that she will chart “the emergence of a much less stable sense of European self; an identity that is shifting, various, and responsive to the demands of domestic politics and religious affiliation.” She also claims to take into account distinctions of historical context and genre that have apparently been neglected by previous scholars. These claims may seem, at first glance, to be extravagant, but it quickly becomes apparent that Teltscher backs them up meticulously with a wealth of textual evidence. As she states, “a concern with the diversity and historical particularity of representations runs through this study” (7). This is precisely what distinguishes her work. The variety of texts she examines, ranging from travel accounts, military memoirs, scholarly journals and histories, to novels and poetry, reveals “moments which unsettle the confident narratives of cultural description” (14). Beginning with seventeenth-century European writing about India, Teltscher proceeds to systematically map the multiple discursive territories that crisscrossed this vast subcontinent between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. She captures the enormous tension and ambivalence that characterizes all European attempts to interpret the East during these centuries. (It must be said in defense of Edward Said, whom Teltscher accuses of writing a much more “monolithic and homogeneous” account of orientalist discourse—a criticism that has often been leveled against Said—that he does respond to this criticism: “What I left out of Orientalism was that response to Western dominance which culminated in the great movement of decolonization all across the Third World” [Culture and Imperialism 1993, xii]).

Teltscher’s account of the visual relationships between Indian women and European men is particularly thought-provoking. Describing an encounter between the Moghul emperor Jehangir’s wives and Sir Thomas Roe, where Roe’s gaze is obstructed by the curtains of the royal palanquin, she argues that “normal visual relationships are overturned; the women are in the dominant position, looking at the man; for once the travel writer, more observed than observing, is made aware of his own exoticism” (42). Teltscher suggests that the veiled women find a moment of agency in being able to gaze on the man—a reversal of roles that is indeed empowering. Similarly, her description of the female superintendents of the harem as being the real sources of power subverts accounts of the harem as a predictable means of stripping a woman of her subjectivity. [End Page 115]

Teltscher’s analysis of the custom of widow burning, suttee is—interestingly enough—as ambivalent as the discourse she critiques and not any less compelling for it. She differentiates between precolonial and colonial representations of suttee. According to her, the former appropriates the widow into the symbolic environment of European literature, bestowing upon her the status of a tragic heroine, whereas colonial representations avoid granting the woman such agency as it would undermine the authority of the colonizer (63). Teltscher criticizes Lata Mani for describing the lot of the suttee as being uniformly that of a passive victim. She takes exception to Mani’s assertion that “the widow thus nowhere appears as a full subject. If she resisted, she was considered a victim of Hindu male barbarity. If she conceded, she was seen as a victim of religion” (63). Teltscher comments that by empowering the Indian woman to resist suttee, a writer of the seventeenth century like the French historian François Bernier “deflates the heroic image of the sati by stages: contrary to general opinion, sati is not the action of a devoted wife, but the result of female conditioning, and this, in turn, is simply a means of ensuring male control” (54). But even in...

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pp. 115-116
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