For NAVSA Seminar: "Thinking Justice Across the Imperial Divide: Narrating Anglo-India"

I've organized a seminar for the NAVSA (North American Victorian Studies Association) conference that is coming up next week in Bethlehem. The seminar is called "Thinking Justice Across the Imperial Divide: Narrating Anglo-India." I've asked participants to briefly introduce their research interests in the topic; below is my own account.

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I wasn’t trained primarily as a Victorianist – and indeed, I’ve never been to a NAVSA before! – so my status here as facilitator might seem a little unusual. But I have, I hope, a couple of good reasons for organizing this seminar.

One is that the various digital projects I’ve been working on for several years have all circled around a concept that I think most people in the room will intuitively grasp – the implications of the Archive Gap on our understanding of cultural history. We have an extraordinary imbalance between the voices of British writers, journalists, and state-preserved documents and those produced by Indian colonial subjects. That imbalance influences our slant on major historical events, the language we might use to describe those events (i.e., whether 1857 was a “Mutiny” or a “War of Independence”), and even whether a given event should even be deemed “major.”

Specifically in the classroom and working to present open-access materials in digital format, I’ve been interested in the question of whether and how we can use digital collections as frameworks for trying to rebalance the narrative and tell a version of literary history (and perhaps just history) that is more equitable and inclusive. Perhaps we don’t need to center the white / British narrators of Empire as much as we have? Could we conceive a version of 19th-century Indian literature/history that centered Indian voices? (Would we start by calling it something other than the “literature of the British Raj” ? How does “British-occupied Indian literature” sound?)

The Kiplings and India started out as something a little different, but over time it became a project focused on some of those questions. I’ve also been working on a ‘corpus’ of Colonial South Asian Literature (1853-1923), which essentially aims to collect everything available online into a single folder, the good, the bad, and the ugly (in effect: everything from Krupabai Sattianadhan, to Flora Annie Steel, to Talbot Mundy)

Another issue, which will probably be well-known to people who have worked in this space, is that the Indian voices we can most readily access tend to be upper-caste Indian men. Women are few and far between in the print culture, and lower caste and Dalit voices are nearly absent. In my own work, I have not made much progress on inclusivity with respect to caste (I am curious about work others have been doing along those lines), though it is definitely possible to bring the voices of more 19th-century Indian women to the table.

Starting Points: the Kiplings; periodical studies

Admittedly, the questions I’ve just put forward are not at all where I started out – my point of entry into this material was Rudyard Kipling, specifically the India-based stories, Kim, and of course The Jungle Book. Edward Said’s rather appreciative account of Kim in Culture and Imperialism, and terminology from postcolonial theory helps make sense of the discomfort one feels about Kipling as a writer fascinated with India as a site of adventure, hidden knowledge, and esoterica, who also seems to feel – from the beginning! – a deep contempt for actual Indian people. Charles Allen’s book Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling (2007), gives a richly detailed account of Rudyard Kipling’s Indian experiences, especially his early experiences working at the Civil & Military Gazette of Lahore and his emergent career as a fiction writer publishing stories with A.H. Wheeler’s Indian Railway Library publishing company.

What Allen shows us is that the newspaper was Kipling’s first publication venue and in many ways his experience as a journalist gave him the opportunity to gain a broad education about the lives and cultures of British colonial India. Kipling published much of his early poetry in the Lahore-based newspaper The Civil & Military Gazette as well as the short stories that would later be compiled as Plain Tales from the Hills. Kipling’s family was also of course a factor – it didn’t hurt that his father, John Lockwood Kipling, was also a veteran of British India with longstanding columns published weekly in multiple newspapers over many years. Rudyard also had a gifted literary sister, who co-authored short stories with him (several of the short stories in Plain Tales as originally published in the CMG were actually authored by her). And the four Kiplings living in Lahore put together eccentric collections of verse and short stories in 1884 and 1885 – Echoes and Quartette. (Not entirely coincidentally, Rudyard used the CMJ’s printing press to self-publish those early collections!)

However, the key factor in the advent of Rudyard Kipling’s career – what made his career different from his father’s or his sister’s – really seems to be his engagement with Anglo-Indian newspapers. So one takeaway might be that the areas of inquiry followed by Priti Joshi in her recent book Empire News are especially important.

Frustrations with the Kiplings: the case of Rukhmabai

As I worked on a digital collection of materials related to the Kiplings (with a team that included Sarita Mizin, who is here with us today), I became frustrated with the gaps and biases I saw in their accounts.

For example. Throughout the 1880s, many Anglo-Indians seemed preoccupied with the Rukhmabai case. Rukhmabai was a Marathi woman who had, as per custom in India at the time, been entered into an unconsummated marriage by her parents at age 11. As she reached maturity, she (with the support of her stepfather) sued to have the marriage rendered void under English law. The initial judgment in the Bombay court went in her favor, though a later judgment went against her, citing the gap between English law and Hindu law. (Ultimately, her husband agreed to relinquish his claim on the marriage after Rukhmabai’s family paid him off. Rukhmabai would later study medicine in London, and return as one of India’s first western-trained practicing physicians who were women.)

The case involved a number of players, including English-educated Indian lawyers, English missionary educators who had taught Rukhmabai, as well as Anglo-Indian journalists like Rudyard Kipling who covered the case with a strong bias for Rukhmabai’s claims and against Hindu marriage practices. In terms of British colonial history, the case pointed to the confusing gray area that existed between Indian religious practices and traditions and the increasing emphasis on English legal and social norms in British India. The case later led the British to implement a new Age of Consent Act in 1891. The constellation of issues raised falls nicely into Gayatri Spivak’s ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ dynamic, and might also be seen loosely as an echo of the earlier 19th century debates about the practice of Sati that have been discussed by historians like Antoinette Burton and Lata Mani, among many others.

Out of all this, it became clear to me is that if one only reads what Rudyard Kipling has to say (essentially parroting the official British line: that Hindu child marriage is barbaric), one is missing many important facets of the story. Helpfully, in this case, Rukhmabai herself authored a number of important documents supporting her claims and position. But there are others too, including other Indian voices not widely cited. In the end, we made a partial collection of different primary accounts of the Rukhmabai case and collected them here. (Sarita Mizin wrote the biographical note and summary.)

[We could, in truth, go further – one thing our work lacked is representation of the issue from newspapers written in Indian languages. My sense is that it’s in those venues that one would find stronger criticism of the British perspective on the case.]

Another point of frustration I experienced was the absence of significant coverage of the many famines that occurred in British India during the second half of the 19th century. The most significant of these being the Madras Famine of 1876-1878, which may have killed as many as 10 million people. Lockwood Kipling was writing regular columns for the Allahabad Pioneer throughout this period while living in Lahore, and scarcely mentions the famine.

Just at the beginning of Rudyard’s career – and again in response to popular outrage, there is a major shift in how the British colonial state would handle famines – new famine codes were introduced in 1883, as was a famine insurance fund. Rudyard had a couple of brief pieces in the CMJ dealing with some of these policy shifts; later, he alluded to famine policy in his short story, “The Enlightenments of Pagett, MP.” His later (post-India) story “William the Conqueror” dealt with famine more directly. (I later published an article in South Asian Review dealing with these questions: “Beyond the Archive Gap: the Kiplings and the Famines of British India”)

But in various ways, all of these accounts are frustrating and incomplete – none of them give any indication that Rudyard Kipling understands the human costs of famine on Indian people. Instead, it’s background – for a romance between two white colonials, or for political point-scoring against soft-hearted liberals (“Pagett, MP”).

Along those lines, the most powerful, personal Indian account of the Madras Famine I’ve found is by the influential reformer Pandita Ramabai – her essay, “Famine Experiences,” which describes the death of her parents and the way it shaped the early lives of her and her brother.