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Bindings and Bondings

Nandini Chandra

Edited by Indrani Chatterjee
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 302, Rs. 695.00


The family as an object of study has been mostly left to the sociologists and the anthropologists. That is why it requires the historian to tell us that the liberal distinction between private and public life does not apply if we go back just a couple of centuries to monarchical societies. Apart from common facts that the family acted as a public institution and the relations of kinship served as a model for social and political connections through matrimonial alliances and the adoption of heirs, the book under review also alerts us to the extent to which concubinage, spiritual kinships, dowager politics, affinal relations and the servant’s quarters determined the structure of the family. This gives the lie to any simple definition of the family as a patriarchal structure determined by consanguineous relations and a patrilineal blood line. The affinal was as crucial as the cognate.   Even though the representative sample consists of elite ruling families, the history of these ruling clans, the book seems to suggest, should be considered a necessary prelude to writing a domestic history of the peasantry and common people. This is because, back in those pre-modern days they weren’t all that paranoid about guarding boundaries. Guard they did, but the lower orders could manage to be absorbed through backdoors and other porous gates all the same.   The book then sets out to define the history of the family in South Asia in the transition from the pre-modern to the modern, when the family as we presume to know it today, starts to emerge. For this, it relies for the most part on official British records and indigenous courtly ones occasionally. Surely this implies a limitation, but this limitation too is sought to be circumvented through the unique premise that the family was a direct attribute of lordships, carrying with it the connotations of an accompanying entourage and military power. This assumption instantly alienates the notion of the family from its present day understanding of a basic conjugal unit, thus making the familiar unfamiliar (the title of the book). At the same time, it could also be seen as a vivid precursor of the militant parivar deployed by the neo-Hinduvadis, which has found a resonance not only in political rhetoric, but also in family soaps and the glorification of the almost purely fantasized Hindu undivided family of Barjatya films.   What the book under review ...

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