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Lakshmi Subramanian

By Antoinette Burton
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp.202, Rs. 4450.00


The self-sufficiency of the official archive has in recent years, thanks to some forceful writings, come under scrutiny. This has meant that memory and oral history narratives are becoming a vital part of an alternative archive building process. ‘What counts as an archive is a question that has in different points of time agonized historians, especially of gender relations, and anthropologists, each bringing their angst to their attempts and answers. It is within this context that Antoinette Burton’s Dwelling in the Archive makes a powerful and eloquent intervention. For an apparently slim book, it asks many questions and is a critical addition to postcolonial studies in terms of conceptual enquiry and detailed analysis.   One can identify three broad sets of concerns each of which corresponds to three layers in the book. The first is simple and straightforward – a sensitive documenting of three texts by remarkable women who made use of their memory and their engagement with the intimacy and interiority of their homes to claim a place in history and history writing of nationalism and postcolonialism. Antoinette Burton uses these writings, namely those of Janaki Majumdar (1886-1963), Cornelia Sorabji (1886-1954) and Attia Hossain (1913-97) to interrogate both the status of the tradi-tional archive as well as of what constitutes the exclusive version of nationalist history. Janaki Majumdar was the daughter of the first president of the Indian National Congress. In her unpublished “Family History” (1935), she stages the story of her parents’ transnational marriage as a series of homes the family inhabited in Britain and India, the tensions between her parents and the travails of her mother, Hemangini who had to undergo a series of adjustments that in a sense were embodied in the frequent changes of residence she had to accommodate. The narrative provides a rare insight into the relatively unknown domestic aspect of 19th century Indian nationalism. On the other hand, the memoirs of Cornelia Sorabji, one of the first Indian women to qualify for the Bar provide a counter narrative to modernity, of which Indian nationalism was one expression. Sorabji was a life long advocate of the zenana and the pardanashin, which she projected as the quintessential emblem of India’s past and whose reform and reorganization she envisaged on very different lines. Finally, there is Attia Hossain’s 1961 novel, Sunlight on Broken Column which mirrors the violence and trauma of Partition through the biography of a ...

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