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Shuchi Kapila. Educating Seeta: The Anglo-Indian Romance and the Poetics of Indirect Rule. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1126-7. Price: US$39.95

  • Sukanya Banerjee

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  • Sukanya Banerjee
    University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Logo for Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

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Historians have long provided accounts of the indirect nature of British rule in India, wherein (especially in the so-called native princely states), the British ruled more by proxy rather than direct assumption of state power. Shuchi Kapila’s Educating Seeta adds a fresh literary angle to this discussion by analyzing the narrative tropes through which the complexities of indirect rule were mediated. As becomes evident, Kapila’s reference to indirect rule applies not only to the British policy in princely states but also to the broader compunctions of colonial liberalism. By focusing on depictions of interracial family structures–involving Britons and Indians–Kapila examines how the affective sway of family romance provided a key idiom for representing these relationships and also textualizing the fantasy of liberal rule in nineteenth-century India. In keeping with the expansive referentiality of romance in general, the family romance functions as an “allegory of indirect rule,” highlighting its modes of consolidation as well as its limits (2). Those familiar with Doris Sommer’s work on the efficacy of family romances in consolidating nationalist consciousness in nineteenth-century Latin America will appreciate Kapila’s deft appropriation of this framework to study the legitimation of a purportedly benevolent imperial structure in nineteenth-century India. For Kapila, the definition of family romance widens to refer to the “interracial love between an English man and an Indian woman” as well as to the “political conflict represented as [interracial] domestic drama” in which Indian women appear as wives, daughters, or widows (2).

That the empire variously insinuated itself into the literary and cultural production of Victorian Britain has been widely acknowledged by now. By focusing on Anglo-Indian romances, however, Educating Seeta emphasizes an aspect of literary representation which is often overlooked. In contrast to the many Victorian novels in which the empire appears as a deus ex machina that enables several plot lines to be reconciled before being banished to provide narrative closure, Kapila points to the Anglo-Indian family romance “as a necessary supplement to the Victorian novel” because by focusing on interracial alliances, such novels posit the empire as the starting point for the narrative (9). The Anglo-Indian family romance, therefore, offers a sustained consideration of the “linguistic and cultural osmosis” that characterized nineteenth-century imperial culture (9). In so doing, it foregrounds the realm of the intimate, which has been critical in illuminating the multiple negotiations underpinning colonial rule. By drawing attention to the genre of family romance, Kapila offers an important literary site for reading colonial intimacies in terms that are fraught but non-agonistic and, therefore, possibly more nuanced.

The two chapters that comprise Part One highlight how interracial conjugality was common in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. A brief preface documents how interracial liaisons between East India Company officers and Indian women were not subject to official sanction, as indeed they were in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion when more segregationist measures informed Anglo-Indian life. One of the merits of the preface lies in Kapila’s caveat on the question of hybridity. While acknowledging the theoretical efficacy of the concept, Kapila’s argument makes clear that although it is tempting to herald a hybrid culture (and offspring) as challenging discrete identity categories, a hybrid identity borne of interracial alliances simply did not gain political force in colonial South Asia. Instead, by focusing on “an analysis of the tropes of family as they encode moves of assimilation, collaboration, and resistance” (31), the argument looks more to the tapestry of interracial domesticity for the multiple maneuvers and affiliations that can get glossed over by the rubric of hybridity.

The first chapter examines the domestic life of William Linnaeus Gardner (1772-1835) and his aristocratic Muslim wife, Mah Munzalool nissa Begum. Kapila reconstructs the negotiations underpinning the domestic arrangement of the Gardner household through an analysis of the letters Gardner wrote to his cousin. More specifically, she points to the influence exerted by Gardner’s wife, stating how in Gardner’s letters, “the romance of empire [lies in] the sharing of domestic power between an English man and a Muslim woman” (50). Even as such an arrangement leads Kapila to note that the shared, syncretic domestic arrangement therefore “presents a critique of the idea of British benevolence as the core of the romance of Anglo-Indian life” (50), one also wonders if the circulation of such explicit models of equal partnership was instrumental in sustaining the romance of that benevolent narrative.

The next chapter shifts attention to Bithia Mary Croker’s novel, In Old Madras (1913), which Kapila places within the Anglo-Indian romance genre that held sway in Britain and the colonies from 1880-1930 (54). Significantly, this novel departs from the genre’s usual conventions by accommodating the Indian woman within English marital and domestic space in terms of kinship. While more contextualization of the early-twentieth century ramifications of this narrative shift would have been welcome, Kapila does note how the novel makes this radical move only by combining familiar elements of the Gothic with that of domestic fiction (77). The observation about the layered use of Gothic convention is insightful, and what is equally of note is the novel’s evident use of Gothic tropology to highlight the marriage anxieties assailing young Englishwomen venturing to India in the hopes of securing their futures through judicious alliances. Such extended moments, in fact, could have given further pause to consider how the Anglo-Indian romance builds upon and reformulates the marriage plot that takes center stage in Victorian domestic fiction.

In Part Two Kapila discusses the overtly political significance of the familial tropes used by British officials and their “dependents,” the rulers of princely Indian states (10). An introductory section outlines the policies of annexation, including the doctrine of lapse, through which princely states variously came under British control or supervision. Chapter Three focuses upon four Indian states that came under British purview in the mid-nineteenth century upon the death of their male rulers and in the absence of a male heir who was acceptable to the British. Providing details of the vexed negotiations between the British Resident—who often adopted the role of a firm but benevolent guardian—and the widowed queens of Satara, Sambalpur, Nagpur, and Jhansi, respectively, the chapter nicely underlines the various rhetorical maneuvers that the queens deployed to bolster their imperiled position. However, the chapter could have been developed further in terms of highlighting the broader implications of these negotiations when studied in their specificity, especially in terms of how they affected the representation of these queens in both the popular and liberal political imagination. The discussion of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi was somewhat disappointing. Given Lakshmibai’s iconic status after the spectacular role she played in 1857, Kapila makes an excellent point by noting that Lakshmibai’s relation vis-à-vis the British was not anomalous when seen in light of the negotiations of her female contemporaries. The analysis of the actual correspondence between Lakshmibai and the British, however, does not sufficiently substantiate–or point to the nuances embedded in—this promising line of inquiry.

The strongest chapter in the book comes next and provides a fitting corollary to these themes. It reads Philip Taylor’s memoir, The Story of My Life (1874), alongside his letters to his cousin, mining both for depictions of his problematic relation with the spirited Rani of Shorapur. But while Taylor’s dealings with the Rani often put his paternalistic role under erasure, his novel Seeta (1872) reconfigures that role by representing “the education of its eponymous heroine as an ideal colonial subject, creating an elaborate allegory of colonial government” (108). In contrast to the more uneven development of the Rani of Shorapur as a subject of colonial liberalism, the project of educating Seeta–who marries the English collector of Noorpur–follows a more satisfying trajectory. But the irony, of course, is that it is a trajectory that has to be, quite literarily, plotted, therefore highlighting the crux of Kapila’s argument about the importance of romance narratives to the liberal fantasy of empire.

While one would have liked some commentary on how homosocial or homoerotic affiliations affected the framing of family romances, the study is important in pointing to the instrumentality of the idealized depiction of the Indian woman, who mediated the contradictions of colonial liberalism but also brought it to crisis. Kapila’s readings are embellished by her attentiveness to a range of scholarly sources culled from South Asian studies and Victorian studies, and this book offers a multi-faceted analysis of the nineteenth century British empire. Those working on nineteenth century Britain and its empire, with particular attention to the novel and Victorian liberalism, will find it a rewarding read.