Double lives with a single aim

The New Cambridge History of India, Volume IV.2
February 13, 1998

Indian women's history is the site of the innovative recovery of women's lives and vigorous, often contentious intellectual debate that seeks to reformulate the overarching paradigms of modern Indian history. Geraldine Forbes, a pioneer in this endeavour since 1970 when she obtained a copy of the unpublished memoirs of Shudha Mazumdar, a Bengali social reformer and political activist, has crafted here a sensitive overview of the history of women in India from about 1800 to now.

Her synthesis opens with the 19th-century efforts of elite Indian male reformers to modernise the roles of women of their own social class. The second chapter concentrates on education for women, which Forbes argues was crucial for enhancing women's agency despite the self-serving goals of Indian men and British men and women. Then come richly detailed chapters on the emergence of women's organisations, campaigns for women's legal rights, and women in the nationalist movement. Uneven in coverage but trailblazing are chapters on women's work in colonial India, women during the transition from colonial rule to independence from 1935 to 1947, and women in independent India.

Reflecting the state of scholarship, elite women occupy centre stage although lower-class women emerge in the last three chapters.

Individuals are used to illustrate broad trends, regional diversity and personal paradoxes. The author is to be commended for her inclusion of women, men, associations and episodes from throughout India despite the prominence of the historiographical literature on women in Bengal. In her examination of female education, Forbes delineates the projects of four women who founded schools for widows: Pandita Ramabai, the celebrated Maratha who converted to Christianity, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and Mataji Maharani Tapaswini in Calcutta, and Sister Subbalakshmi in Madras.

These educators, a second generation of Indian women who took over leadership from Indian men and British men and women, exhibited striking ambiguities in their careers. Begum Rokeya maintained purdah or seclusion at her school to attract respectable Muslim girls while simultaneously writing essays highly critical of this practice and a satirical utopian short story where men are secluded. Sister Subbalakshmi ran her school in close accord with orthodox Hindu customs while rebelling against the prescribed role for a Hindu widow.

Forbes contends that these women were idealistic but shrewdly willing to compromise on practice to achieve their ultimate objective of educating young widows to be economically independent.

Although this volume is now the best introduction to its topic, its broad scope inevitably means that some areas receive less attention than specialists might want. For the author, as for many scholars, modern India means British India. Although clearly subordinated to the British raj, Indian princes were internally autonomous within two-fifths of Indian territory, but the women who lived in the princely states are rarely mentioned. Moreover, while Forbes integrates insights from postcolonial, poststructuralist analyses into her account, she does not provide a comprehensive critique of their contribution to our understanding of women in India. More importantly, her clear, vivid narrative is infused with deep sympathy for her subject and prolific scholarship.

Barbara Ramusack is professor of history, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, United States.

The New Cambridge History of India, Volume IV.2

Author - Geraldine Forbes
ISBN - 0 521 26812 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 289

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