- Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century India: The Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness by Ruby Lal
By Ruby Lal
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 247 pp. Cloth $72.28.
Disrupting the linear historicist assumption of space and time, Ruby Lal’s book challenges the chronologically bound “habits of historical narration” by adopting a presentist perspective (4). Extensive interviews with a living shraif (respectable) woman, Azra Kidwai, and her unpublished reminiscences act as a “guiding voice” for Lal in understanding the critical yet restrictive role of physical spaces and literature in the making of a girl-child and a woman in nineteenth-century northern India (3). A “prelude” justifies the author’s engagement with a living subject and is followed by five chapters that historicize female lives by locating them in paradigmatic spaces such as the forest, the school, the household, and the rooftops. Critical to Lal’s analysis is the analytic principle of “playfulness”—a non-utilitarian concept of joy, a feminine and feminist conceptualization of enjoyment, and a characteristic feature of women’s/ girls’ lives irrespective and outside the exclusive domain of men.
Through an analysis of eclectic literary sources that include fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, and didactic texts, the book offers two major arguments: (1) in the course of the late nineteenth century, compelling pressures of modernity and “respectable life” diminished freedom and creativity for upper-class women and girls, increasingly constraining the latter by fixed notions of community, caste, and religion; and (2) the transition from girlhood to womanhood, which Lal calls “becoming woman,” was a complicated process of active negotiation fueled by women’s and girls’ agency and creativity and by complex articulations that challenged the received wisdom that the “making” of a “woman” was a male project, conceived and promoted in terms of a male universal (30, [End Page 148] 33). The arguments are not startlingly new in the rich field of women and gender history in colonial India. What distinguishes this work is its unique methodological innovations and creative investigations into lesser-known (e.g., the tale of Rani Ketki by Insha, 1802) and well-known (e.g., Rokeya Sakhawat’s Sultana’s Dream, 1906) sources.
Lal’s discussion of the existing historiographical debate on the nineteenth-century woman question in chapter 1 and her reading of Insha Allah Khan’s early nineteenth-century rendition of the tale of Rani Ketki in chapter 2 not only establish the spatial dynamics of the forest and the palace, but also foreground female subjects through their distinct stages of life and expressions—childhood, girlhood, womanhood and their articulations of duty, aspiration, fantasy, and freedom—the stages and expressions that were blurred in the course of the late nineteenth century. The chapter’s simultaneous treatment of texts of various linguistic traditions demonstrates the fluidity and intermingling of Hindu-Muslim cultures and collapses the sharp distinctions between Hindu and Muslim women.
Raising pertinent questions about girls’ educational curriculum and the institutionalized space of the school and the household, chapters 3 and 4 scrutinize the motivations of a school inspector for selecting specific texts and the increasing importance of men as arbiters and mentors of women in the previously homosocial space of the home. An important theme missing in current literature but highlighted by the author is the prominence of fathers in managing their daughters’ lives and choices. One must mention here that this domineering role of fathers was not restricted to daughters alone but extended to sons as well. The idea of playfulness gets its full-blown treatment in chapter 5, which draws on women’s recollections, memoirs, and experiences across regions, times, and cultures. The chapter further deploys the “rooftops” as a liminal space and a “conceptual tool” to think about “unusual ways of women’s worlds, their aspirations, their criticisms” (171). It was not through extraordinary acts of defiance, but through ordinary simple acts that Lal recuperates the agency of the girl-child/woman.
Lal’s avowed intention was not to “overwhelm the reader by listing and analyzing everything” that exists on the respectable Muslim...