Book review: Anglo-Indian women in transition: Pride, prejudice and predicaments

Sudarshana Sen, Palgrave MacMillan, 2017, 202pp.

ISBN 978-981-10-4653-7 (hard cover), ISBN 978-981-13-5192-1 (softcover)


By Vishwajeet Deshmukh    7 July 2020

Anglo-Indian Women In Transition by Sudarshana Sen is a monograph of Anglo-Indian women and the intersectionality of social constructs of gender, ethnicity and social class. The accounts of this feminist writing have been constructed from political, historical, anthropological and sociological spheres. Sen’s attempt to explore the subject has been heavily dominated by sociological research methods. The women’s subjective experience of marginalisation both within and outside the Anglo-Indian community has been realised through interviews conducted with 100 Anglo-Indian community members in Calcutta. (p.31) She asserts that patriarchal notions have impacted generations of Anglo-Indian women. (p.30).

Sen in the Introduction claims the area of Anglo-Indian women studies to be unexplored. (p1) The subject area is not as unexplored as Sen claims it to be; the accounts by (Alison Blunt, 2011) ,(Rochelle Almeida, 2017), (Warren Brown, 2010), (Indrani Sen, 2002), (Noel Pitts Gist, ‎Roy Dean Wright, 1973) and (Mary A. Procida, 2002) have conducted these explorations from various methodologies similar and beyond Sen’s study.

The book is divided into 5 distinct sections: the general idea of an Anglo-Indian woman (p.45), educational of Anglo-Indian women (p.85), the social kinship of Anglo-Indian women(p.113), social interaction within and outside the community (p.141) and lastly the social security of such women in the Raj and beyond. (p.161).

Anglo-Indians as an ethnic minority in a largely majoritarian nation it is a recognized minority in India. Their ethnic, religious and linguistic identity has forced them to occupy a dispositioned marginal position in the Indian spaces. The impact of the same marginalized status forces women to be caught between the contradictory demands of representing both their community and abide by their national identities. Sen mentions, “Anglo-Indian homes were of a lower status and poorer than those of the British elite in India, Anglo-Indians’ upbringing and lifestyle reflected a masculine, middle-class, imperial heritage aligned to British rather than to Indian norms of domesticity. This represents a clear inclination towards the powerful paternal ancestry and a disregard for the Indian maternal ancestry.”(p.67). This highlights the preordained position which was set in the early emergence of the Anglo-Indians which continued further. The idea perceived by one identity as a model for femininity was rejected by another sphere of identity. (p.69). The colonial historical analysis to the gendered aspect of the community is an exploration in the intersectionality of Anglo-Indian women.

Sen in her comparative gender studies approach takes into account autobiographical notes such as “Coming to Full Circle” by Dolores Chew (p.31) from the 1970s and accounts from different sources of women who grew up post the 1970s. This methodology provides for an account of assimilation in the Indian sphere and the realization of their distinct identity. The assimilation of women was witnessed at a large scale amongst women who grew up post 1970s however, such women were aware of their cultural distinctiveness. (p.144).

Sen’s perception on Anglo-Indian women and their space in the educational sector precedes with advantages and disadvantages. Sen argues that; “Anglo-Indian women were a significant part of the Anglo-Indian education system from the latter half of the nineteenth century on. As in other parts of the world, notably in Britain, the education of the young was deemed an extension of the nurturing role of women and, therefore, a legitimate sphere of ‘public’ activity for them. The over-representation of women at the lower (primary) levels of education of boys and girls is a common pattern, and in Calcutta a significant proportion of primary teachers in English medium schools were, until fairly recently, women from the Anglo-Indian community.” (p.86). The perception of women with primary education and the advantage of being fluent in English placed them in an advantageous position. However, post-independence, the emergence of national languages in the curriculum in schools placed them at a disadvantage. (p.92).  She also suggests that women’s limited representation in administrative and managerial roles both in Anglo-Indian schools and in the Council that oversees these schools plays a role in their professional marginalisation. (p.113).

The legal definition of Anglo-Indian in the Anglo-Indian Women In Transition is inaccurate. The actual definition of “Anglo-Indian” as embarked in The Indian Constitution in Article 366(2):

an Anglo Indian means a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident therein and not established there for temporary purposes only.”. Although Sen’s understanding of the socio-legal aspects of Anglo-Indians is sound. Her understanding of policies and legal provisions do not reflect sufficient analysis.

Sen provides an elaborate description of Anglo-Indian cultural traditions and lifestyle particularly as they relate to the home decor, family life, courtship and marriage. (p.133-134). These practices enable Anglo-Indians to retain a sense of distinction before their Bengali neighbours and reiterate their alignment with the West. (p.137). The same has passed from one generation to the other. Sen argues that the position of such Anglo-Indian women was that on a sword-edge. One aspect of their identity was Western and the other was more national. The tangible aspects of their culture included balls, use cosmetics, wear European clothes—none of which conform to Hindu or Mulsim society’s notion of becoming feminine modesty and propriety. (p 69). This led to certain stereotypical names to emerge such as “tash” (p.76) and ” burra memsahib” (p.46). It cynically symbolized how Anglo-Indians, though born and brought up in India, looked up appreciatively to anything that was European.

In conclusion, the book seems to explore the intersection of the Anglo-India community through the lens of not only the gender but also a minority perspective. However, apart from the minor ethnographic account mentioned through the interviews with community members, the book does not explore any supplementary analysis and does not contribute to the views of the existing literature.

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