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  • The Sexual Life of English: Languages of Caste and Desire in Colonial India by Shefali Chandra
  • Sukanya Banerjee (bio)
The Sexual Life of English: Languages of Caste and Desire in Colonial India, by Shefali Chandra; pp. 275. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012, $44.75, $24.95 paper, £63.00, £15.99 paper.

The study of English education in India invariably points to a reading of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education (1835). Shefali Chandra’s The Sexual Life of English: Languages of Caste and Desire in Colonial India, however, interrupts this familiar analytical framework by emphasizing the highly gendered logic undergirding the transmission and adoption of English in nineteenth-century India. Chandra’s focus is not so much on “mimic men” (the term most often used to describe English-educated native subjects) but on what such “mimic men” taught their wives and womenfolk. As Chandra contends, in most accounts of English education or colonial education policy in India, “women and English appear as natural, self-evident categories” (11). By complicating the gendered coordinates of English education, Chandra’s study focuses on native actors, thereby bypassing an all too predictable encounter between English bureaucrats and Indian subjects in which the latter’s recalcitrance, subversion, or collusion occasion somewhat overdetermined readings of the colonial exchange. Instead, the cast of characters here includes Indian male reformers, particularly those who lived in late nineteenth- to early-twentieth century Bombay and Poona and who variously undertook the task of female education as a sign of their earnest embrace of modernity. [End Page 722]

While this particular pedagogic dynamic is also fairly familiar in a colonial context, Chandra braids it with an insightful analysis of the ways in which English emerged as a strategic tool in native knowledge-power regimes by reinforcing caste hierarchies through the reproduction of gender difference and sexual desire. In other words, as Chandra cogently argues, in the nineteenth-century Bombay Presidency (the locus of her study), the project to teach women English contributed to upper-caste and upper-class efforts to maintain cultural and political sway through the production of the “normative gendered subject” (23). It is through this reification of caste and sexual boundaries that English was disseminated, domesticated, and became, in fact, “Indian.”

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1, comprising four chapters, focuses on institutional efforts to establish and control English education. Pioneering institutions such as the Alexandra Native Girls’ English Institution, the schools of the Students’ Literary and Scientific Society, the Poona Native Girls’ High School, and the Indian Women’s University are brought into focus, as are the exchanges and debates between male figures such as Manockjee Cursetjee Shroff, Vishnushastri Chiplunkar, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Dhondo Keshav Karve, among others. Whereas part 1 examines school reports and government documents on native-managed schools, as well as newspapers, plays, and other cultural artifacts, part 2, also comprising four chapters, provides a more detailed analysis of book-length sources, such as biographies, autobiographies, and novels, which are either authored by or feature English-educated women. Such women include the young widow, Avadibai Bhide; Ramabai Ranade, wife of the prominent nationalist Mahadev Gopal Ranade; Dosebai Jessawala, reputedly the first Indian woman to learn English; and Parvatibai Athavale, who, despite valiant attempts, failed to learn English but did travel alone across the United States from 1918 to 1920.

The study interweaves two related strands of argument. First, key to Chandra’s analysis is her contention that the disciplinary power of English in the hands of native men can be attributed to their own perceived emasculation as mimic men. Since their re-formation as Western educated subjects entailed emasculation, mimic men in turn looked to the domestic space for recompense. Imparting an English education to their wives (and other women) achieved this objective because it shored up native masculinity without foregoing the perceived values of an English education. But because such a pedagogical exercise was coterminous with schooling Indian women into an appropriately domestic and sexual role, English-educated native men revealed the extent to which the colonial ensemble of mimicry actually fed into a “revitalized Indian hetero-nationalism” (80).

Equally important is...


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