- Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home, and History in Late Colonial India
A book concerned primarily with mapping three twentieth-century Indian women’s preoccupation, in their writings, with “house and home [as] central to their social realities and the cultural forms through which they experienced national belonging,” Antoinette Burton’s Dwelling in the Archive is a sustained meditation on why “home can and should be seen not simply as a dwelling-place for women’s memory but as one of the foundations of history “history conceived of, that is, as a narrative, a practice, and a site of desire” (4). The three women this book focuses on are Janaki Majumdar (1886–1963), Cornelia Sorabji (1886–1954), and Attia Hosain (1913–1997). To enable her close readings of their writings, which exist in a mix of genres “the family history, the memoir, the letter, the official report, the oral history, the novel” (16) Burton, in general, draws upon, and indeed contributes to, a whole range of complementary contemporary theoretico-critical discourses. Among the discourses Burton draws upon and/or deploys are those which address: 1) representations of material and mental/psychic spaces as ideologically charged productions; 2) feminist, poststructuralist, and postcolonial interrogations of conventional practices of (and discourses about) history that rely on a singular, unproblematized notion of the archive as a source of objective evidence; and, following from these interrogations, an implicit argument for 3) the consonance between history and literature, based especially on their shared deployment of narrative structures, which makes history amenable to analyses in ways similar to those employed for (and by) literature. In terms of her theoretical framework, Burton has tapped into a rich seam, producing a work that should be of interest to several different constituencies of readers and scholars.
Specifically, Burton situates these three women’s preoccupation with “house and home” alongside, and as counterpoints to, public debates in late colonial India that had rendered them “highly charged ideological categories” for both British imperialism and Indian nationalism. For the British colonizers and Victorian feminists, the zenana (secluded women’s quarters), “pathologized as dark and unhygienic,” was a marker of India’s lack of modernity, which, in turn, was read as Indians’ “incapacity for self-rule throughout the nineteenth-century.” For the Indian nationalists, however, “house and home,” for which the zenana is a metonym, was the site of India’s authentic identity, to be both protected from the depredations of colonialism and, paradoxically, re-formed so as to reflect Indians’ access to modernity and, thus, to their capacity for self-rule. By the time the three women whose work Burton examines came to the project of “mak[ing] home the archive for their accounts of the period,” then, the “Indian home” and its correlative, domesticity, had been transformed from being a gendered representation of women’s space into “the very centerpiece of public debates about the promises and limits of all manner of reform agendas” (10).
In the individual chapters devoted to each of her protagonists’ writings, however, Burton’s salient interest is in disclosing not so much the “promises” as the limits of reforms initiated mostly by males. Burton, in other words, discloses the “challenge” these women’s writings “represent . . . to claims that ‘British civilization’ and Indian nationalism could deliver Indian women from the backwardness of zenana existence and the prison-house of domesticity” (16) by tracking, through their work, the “contradictions [and costs] of living as Indian women in the context of colonial modernity” (5). Their focus on domestic interiors, thus, yields what Burton characterizes as a counter-archive that gets little play in “elite” male accounts of Indian nationalism.
In the individual chapters devoted to the three women, Burton maps varied negotiations of domestic space, contextualizing them through her keen awareness of the specific exigencies and interests that impinge on them. Thus, Janaki Majumdar’s “Family History” is a daughter’s account of the 1880s and 1890s (years during which Indian nationalism emerged) not by focusing on...