This paper argues for reading late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century South Asian social reform novels in multiple linguistic traditions in conjunction with each other in order to gain a broader understanding of the novels’ articulations of women’s agency. I argue that Hindi novelist Munshi Premchand’s Sevasadan (1917) (The House of Service) critiques the institution of marriage, much like the Bengali widow remarriage novel Kishnakanter Uil (1878) (Krishnakanta’s Will) by Bankimchandra Chatterjee and Charitraheen (1913) (Characterless) by Saratchandra Chatterjee. Sevasadan draws on Urdu educational reform novels such as Nazir Ahmad’s Fasana-e-Mubtala (1885) (The Story of Mubtala) and M.H. Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Ada (1899) to evoke an alternative triangulation of sexuality, respectability, and femininity through the figure of the courtesan. However, reformist and nationalist anxieties about women’s sexuality prevent her from becoming a viable alternative. The novel then espouses a specifically Gandhian nationalist ideology, which opens up space for a new figure—the Indian woman, rather than the Hindu woman. Sevasadan, then, unlike the Bengali and Urdu social reform novels, offers a nationalist solution to the question of social reform. However, this solution remains unrealized within the scope of the novel for the birth of the nation is inhibited by the mores of Hindu society.


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pp. 272-288
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