An Intimate History of Colonial Bengal: Negotiating the Problem of Sources
Panel:38 | The History of Emotions as a New Disciplinary Direction for South Asian Studies (In Memoriam Anne Monius)
Timeslot:07/28 | 15:50-16:10 UTC+2/CEST
As a researcher seeking to write a history of women’s lived experiences of heterosexual intimacy in the context of colonial Bengal, India, I was plagued by a paucity of sources. The present paper unfolds how this researcher negotiated the problem of sources in order to write this history. I had banked on the autobiographies and memoirs penned by women in this period, but I was disappointed. A woman writing her ‘self’, with one or two exceptions, seldom chose to expose the intimate aspects of her life to the reading public. They were, however, more candid and less inhibited about expressing their agonies and ecstasies on the pages of a diary. The proposed paper will closely look at a few diaries left behind by women in colonial Bengal, and examine how these unveiled their turbulent mindscapes, their emotions, desires and frustrations, and also their daily acts of contestation that were not quite in keeping with the ideal of passive, de-eroticised womanhood so zealously upheld in this milieu. Apart from diaries, fiction penned by women also provided me valuable glimpses into the interiors of women’s minds. The present paper will focus on a few novels by Nirupama Devi and Ashalata Singha, two eminent writers in early twentieth century Bengal, The personal pervaded their fiction, with a concomitant blurring of distinction between the fictional protagonist and her creator. My paper thus seeks to assess the importance of women’s fiction and diaries as keys to the intimate worlds of Bengali women in colonial Bengal and thus strives to find an answer to the problem of sources that invariably plagues a historian seeking to write a history of emotions in the context of South Asia.