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Reading Lives Through Paper Trails


Lakshmi Subramanian

SUBALTERN LIVES: BIOGRAPHIES OF COLONIALISM IN THE INDIAN OCEAN WORLD 1790-1920
By Claire Anderson
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 219, Rs. 995.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 2-3 February/March 2013

Subaltern Lives offers us much more than what it initially promises. It is not just a prospographical analysis of individual convicts, or about recuperating lives of marginal groups transported across vast spaces of Empire under conditions of extreme regulation and punishment, it is about methodology and the challenges of reading archives. Animated by the suggestions of Stoler and Cooper about reading the archive and acknowledging the differences and markers colonial experiences produced, the book looks at transportation and penal settlements, at categories such as race that was formed in a very particular mode and moment in the space of empire and finally at regimes of labour and punishment that helps us configure spatial networks quite differently across the maritime spaces of empire. Finally by adopting micro and life histories approaches, the book tracks down lives of unusual men and women whose paper trails albeit fragmented and occasionally discrete, enable us to complicate the idea of marginality and subalternity. It proposes not so much to pursue the elusive authentic subaltern as to see subalternity as a social contingent process rather than a category and which in turn helps locate and understand the intersection of competing social identities—caste, status, ethnicity, even nature of offence—in the figure of the convict. This is done by tracking the life histories of key protagonists never forgetting the pitfalls of a biographical approach but accepting always and vigilantly the possibilities of allowing fragments to help piece a narrative on marginality within a colonial regime of labour and punishment. The strategy works to great advantage. The eloquence of shards makes a case for modes of colonial record keeping and the methodological challenges involved in engaging with the kind of material that is at our disposal. The chapter on Dulla, a convict from Etawah transported to Mauritius for cases of theft and murder takes us through the making of the convict subject, the ways in which his life was sorted, classified and put into boxes, put to labour on public works and in the process testifies to the actual ways in which colonial archives broke up experiences and froze them into categories. On the other hand, the life story approach also raises the importance of convictism as an important stream flowing into coerced labour. The chapter that follows looks at the life story of George Morgan who was shipped off to Burma and identifies the points of ...


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