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Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century India: The Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness By Ruby Lal, Cambridge, Rs 895

Ruby Lal’s engaging new book is an experiment in history writing. She carries out, very consciously, the experiment at two levels. One is in her choice of the theme. She deliberately chooses a subject about which sources, in the conventional sense that historians view the archive, are entirely absent. She has not consulted official files and records, the staple of the historian. The other is the way in which she treats chronology. Historians’ notions of time are almost by definition linear. This is how historical narratives are constructed. Lal does away with the standard chronological framework and moves from the second half of the 20th century into the beginning of the 19th century.

At the heart of her analysis is a marginalized entity — the figure of the woman. Using the margins as her location, she traces how women negotiate the structures of power into which they are born and in which men attempt to keep them. The margins, Lal asserts, are realms of the possibilities of playfulness.

Playfulness is of critical importance in Lal’s analysis. What does this mean or entail? Playfulness is seen by the author as “a characteristic feature of women’s/girl’s lives — it is an art that combines the social and the sexual without asserting authority or disciplining other forms of self-expression.” Is playfulness often a vehicle of subversion? Playfulness is also the repository of female agency. The concept of playfulness also serves for Lal as an interpretive move that allows her to unpack the texts that she reads.

This book is also an exercise in the reading of a variety of texts. The point about the absent archive has already been made in the opening paragraph. She counters the absence by looking at a variety of 19th-century discourses — manuals, novels, textbooks, readers, stories, reformist treatises and so on. This reading leads her to argue that “there are only certain kinds of books or stories — and certain kinds of female figures and subjects (girl-child, girl, woman) — that have survived in our more recent histories and memories.’’ This propels her backwards in time to a tale of the early 19th-century. This break in chronology shows that there were elements in pre-modern times that resist the classificatory urges of late 19th-century disciplines and reform projects.

Much that Lal writes forces the reader to think with her about the ways history can be written. History, as we understand it, seems elusive here, always inconveniently slipping through the readers’ fingers and hard to pin down. Against the grain of Lal’s text and its intentions an attempt can perhaps be hazarded to recover “history’’.

Lal’s point of departure is not a corpus of texts but an identifiable human being. Her name is Azra Kidwai, a scholar, teacher, mother born in 1945, who has lived in Delhi since her marriage in 1966. She hails from a sharif landowning background from the outskirts of Lucknow. She was brought up in a highly literate environment and is well-read in literature. She also kept a diary (as yet unpublished). Lal draws on Azra Kidwai’s reminiscences, oral and written. Lal thus came upon what most historians would consider a treasure trove — a body of memories with the ring of truth. It is this and the conversations she had with Azra Kidwai that set her off on her quest. Azra, as Lal writes, “opens the door’’. Azra Kidwai’s memories pertain to the second half of the 20th century but they enable Lal to interrogate the 19th century past. This is emphatically not an exercise in extrapolation from the 20th century back into the 19th. Lal writes, “Azra’s life, and her telling of it, provides an arc that enables me to think about the place and production of girl-child and woman in the nineteenth century — giving clues to an understanding of the past and of our present in complex and deeply contested ways.’’

Azra Kidwai said to Lal, “The world of books gave me access to worlds outside my own. Unwittingly my father gave me these books. My horizon grew from there. Some kind of idealism was created.’’ This was the beginning of Azra Kidwai’s journey in which Lal became a self-conscious fellow traveller. This is part Azra Kidwai’s narrative overlaid by Lal’s own questions, interpretations and reconstructions. This is history twice-told as it were, a mirrored narrative.

A key phrase in this book is “opening up’’. Azra Kidwai opened up a world for Lal. Azra Kidwai’s own world was opened up to other horizons by her father, who gave her books to read. Lal, in turn, opens up her readers’ worlds by persuading them to question their assumptions about the girl child, about what lies at the heart of history and about history itself.

This is, by no means, an easy book to read. Lal invites her readers to come with her, to question and explore with her. Reading history becomes an exercise in participation. Readers might make ineffable bonds of trust and comradeship with Lal and through her, with Azra Kidwai. After such gifts for reading, what gratitude?