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  • Re-Orienting South Asia Studies:Sri Lanka, Gender, and World History
  • Shefali Chandra (bio)

Building on her vast expertise in transnational and feminist histories, Professor Kumari Jayawardena has once more produced a work of exemplary detail, sweeping across five hundred years of transregional interactions between Sri Lankan, Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, and British regimes to proffer an important model for studies of race, caste, class, sexuality, and nationalism. In the process, I believe she has successfully situated Sri Lanka as a crucial site in transnational history, subverted the India dominance of South Asian studies, and provided rich empirical detail on a range of social actors otherwise overlooked by global and area-based histories.

There are many reasons to write world history, and there are many ways by which to do so. World histories, or histories of transregional interconnections, promise to take us beyond simply assuming the emergence of the nation as natural and they foreground interconnections that bypassed the more obvious classificatory regimes of modernity. But accompanying all the potential, are the pitfalls. The immediate casualty is regularly that of gender. With rare exceptions, histories of interconnection across time and space regularly avoid accounting for the specific, culturally determined logic that constructs and maintains sexual difference. For those of us who work to foreground the reinforcing relationship between race, gender, and sexuality (and not merely the history of women as historical actors), the issue of relating world historical change while producing original historical analyses on gender as socially produced, creates an immediate impasse. Secondly, and despite the rapid strides made by scholars in foregrounding interconnections and flows, in general "world history" has at best worked to dislodge Euro-America from a somewhat smug historical isolation. Of course that is no insignificant task. Certainly, the most accomplished world historians have successfully integrated "Europe" into a wider history of colonialism and globalization; additionally, they might have explored the movement of "goods, peoples, and ideas" across time and space. But even at their best, these works neglect to produce substantively different historical knowledge for areas outside Euro-America. The agenda of world history provides scant original information about the sociocultural battles waged by historical actors outside Euro-America; in general, it locks all historical change within the well-rehearsed narrative of precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial developments. [End Page 248]

The hegemony of Europe has very ironically been compounded by world and transnational histories. The very excitement over world histories seems passé for those of us whose work has always been transnational. Every aspect of the history of South Asia has been recorded, related, and remembered in relation to panregional practices and beliefs; yet "world history" merely recenters Europe and at best, evokes "South Asia" as a convenient example that showcases the inevitable power of Europe. The pitfalls for those areas outside the much celebrated Euro-South Asian partnership are even more treacherous: either one of complete erasure, or simplistic portrayal.

Of course historians of South Asia have not shied away from the agenda of global and transnational history. Most recently, the diverse contributions by Chris Bayly, Sugata Bose, and Thomas Metcalf have worked to recenter "South Asia" as a crucial player in the history of global connections.1 However, the dominance of "India," continually portrayed as the endpoint of panregional South Asian histories, is striking. Simultaneously, these works completely overlook the production of sexual difference as a crucial mode of social and cultural struggle. For all their archival zeal and linguistic fluency, most South Asia world historians have blithely ignored gender (although all the aforementioned have some detail on women). Their work ultimately reframes the correspondence between the male, the public, and the political, deepening the sex/gender binary, and producing synthetic works that accept a very simplistic distinction between colonizer and colonized. Important exceptions lie in the work of feminist scholars such as Antoinette Burton, Mrinalini Sinha and Judith Walsh—all of whom have consistently explored the shifting parameters of gender in shaping India's long relationship with Euro-America.2

I believe Kumari Jayawardena has pushed further: swiftly taking us beyond the Britain-India partnership, her latest work presents a dense history of the multiple interconnections that shaped the racial and gendered...


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pp. 248-252
Launched on MUSE
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