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Reviewed by:
  • Unfamiliar Relations: Family and History in South Asia
  • Durba Ghosh
Unfamiliar Relations: Family and History in South Asia. Indrani Chatterjee ed. ( New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 302 pp.).

An ambitious and original set of essays, Unfamiliar Relations extends the study of the history of the family into South Asia. Once the purview of European history, where the rise of the nuclear family was linked to industrialization, the emergence of the bourgeoisie, and the rise of various disciplinary bodily practices, this volume demonstrates the ways in which concepts of the family can be understood on the Indian subcontinent in the early modern world.

The volume makes two important interventions. The first is to break down the assumption that the family's dynamics can be contained within a private space that is cordoned off from the public. In reminding us that family politics were often tied up with questions of dynastic succession and governance, particularly in the houses of ruling elites, several of the essays in the volume follow in the fine tradition of, for instance, Leslie Peirce's The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Ramya Sreenivasan's contribution is a highly original and thoughtful essay arguing that narrating family genealogies was a way of establishing political authority in precolonial Rajasthan, while Sumit Guha's contribution examines the ways in which family feuds were negotiations over political power in eighteenth-century western India. William Dalrymple's account of the affair between James Kirkpatrick, a British political representative, and Khair un nissa, a young noblewoman of the court at Hyderabad, shows how theirs was both a romantic and political attachment between competing groups in an open and fluid political landscape. These three pieces elaborate the ways in which women were central to precolonial politics in the ways that they managed the different stages in their lives and negotiated the demands made of them.

The other important contribution of this volume is to argue that the idea of family needs to be historicized and understood within an embedded set of local practices. This aim of the volume is admirably demonstrated. Thus, Sylvia Vatuk's essay about judicial contests over inheritance in south India both complements and contrasts Michael Fisher's essay on the ways in which one woman's family was made in north India at around the same moment. Both emphasize the ways that definitions of kinship and familial ties were always in the process of being made, often to extend or rationalize one's best interests under an emergent British colonial government. Pamela Price's piece expands on this theme by explaining how one family's genealogy became highly contested as it tried to [End Page 514] establish its claims to a certain type of caste purity. Alongside Vatuk's argument, Price's essay shows in the ways that colonial rule of law reshaped family practices and forms.

Many of the essays rely on archives and documents that are indigenous or in the vernacular, which is an important achievement in a field in which much historical research remains dependent on colonial archives. Sreenivasan's and Indrani Chatterjee's essays address these questions explicitly, bringing about some brilliant insights into how local narratives, both in what they silenced and in what they expressed, shaped how families understood and represented themselves. In closing, one of the most innovative aims of the volume opens up a (perhaps, unresolvable) contradiction. If one of the ambitions of the volume is to suggest that the history of family, as has been commonly understood (with Europe and north America as its assumed model), needs to be historicized more carefully and contextualized to the specific concerns of South Asia, this goal grates against another premise which is to suggest that the idea of family can be flexible enough to be transported across regional spaces and historical time. Chatterjee's rigorous introduction announces what a more expansive and historically grounded history of the family might look like. Her vision of the history of the family includes questions of law, labor, commerce, governance, sexuality, and archival practices, but one wonders whether the rubric of the history of family...


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pp. 514-515
Launched on MUSE
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