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3 c h a p t e r 1 At Home in the World Feminist Agency in the Late Nineteenth-­ Century Social Reform Novel On one of my forays into Cornell’s Kroch Library I found Rabindranath Tagore’s Nashtanir (The Broken Nest, 1901), a short novella about a young woman, Charulata, confined in a stifling marriage to an older man.1 Charulata falls in love with Amol, her husband’s young brother, whose intellectual conversation and playful jests provide her with much-­ needed companionship. When Amol gets married, Charulata is heartbroken. Yet, at the end of the novel, she does not leave her husband in search of true love but remains married to him. As I was gripped in this heartbreaking tale of passion and unfulfilled desire, it dawned on me that here was a woman whose desires did not seem to fit into any nationalist or imperialist theorization of the nation. Conservative nationalists would never condone Charulata’s frustrated sexual passion, yet her desire to break free of her marriage could not be framed as a proto-­ feminist attempt at “modernity” either, for at the end of the novel she reconciles herself to home and hearth. How do we read Charulata’s subjectivity in the context of her own time, when social reform movements attempted to articulate a new definition of Indian womanhood? This book is invested in understanding women’s subjectivities that were both shaped by social reform movements and—­ in their desires and longings—­ exceeded their ideological demarcations. I focus primarily on social reform movements that negotiate the intimate relations between men and women in Hindu and Muslim society, namely 4 ❘ At Home in the World the Widow Remarriage Act in Bengal (1856) and the education of women promoted by the Aligarh movement (1858–­ 1900). These reform movements were launched in response to colonial criticisms of the low status of Indian women, which the British used as a justification for empire. The reformers countered the British view that Indian women were bound in sexual slavery to Indian men by suggesting that women’s place in the home made them repositories of a unique spiritual culture , uncontaminated by colonialism. Since the conjugal relation most closely resembled the colonial relation, social reformers argued that while the colonial male’s submission to his master was based on fear, the wife’s submission to her husband was based on love and was thus far superior to the colonial relation. In this the social reform project was also a nationalist project, as the social reformers were determined to prove the superiority of Indian culture by reforming the material and social conditions of women’s lives while requiring them to retain their unique Indian spirituality. Both the widow remarriage movement in Bengal and the education of women movement in northern India were ostensibly invested in recovering women as “respectable” subjects for the Hindu and Muslim nation, where respectability connotes asexual spirituality. Yet the domestic novels that emerge from these movements are ideologically fraught texts that grapple with articulating a coherent reformist agenda that can reconcile women’s sexuality with their spirituality. Thus no widows are remarried in the Bengali widow remarriage novel, while education enables the respectable wife of the Urdu novel to circumvent the codes of veiling even as it enables the immodest courtesan to observe them. The title of this book gestures to the relation between Indian reformist men and the women they set out to reform: wives, widows, and courtesans whose troubling sexuality needed to be explained and accounted for by the reformist project. It also refers to the relation between reformist men and British Victorian discourses of ideal womanhood—­ the woman as the proverbial “angel of the house.” I argue that the reformist elite did not respond to British critiques simply by inverting colonial binaries but rather that through the social reform novel they struggled to articulate a coherent vision of the reformed Indian woman. The dissident subjectivities represented in the Bengali and Urdu social reform novel exceed the ostensible agenda of reforming women to make them signifiers of the spiritual, asexual, and therefore apolitical South Asian nation. As both a literary form and a vehicle for At Home in the World ❘ 5 reform, the novels work to articulate these dissident subjectivities, in which the sexual-­ spiritual is part of the political, and in the process gesture to the emergence of a new South Asian modernity. Intimate Relations participates in the inauguration of a new comparative literature by...


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