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Female Subject and Pursuit of Playfulness

M. Raisur Rahman

By Ruby Lal
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. xvii 229, Rs. 895.00


In her remarkable work, Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India (Oxford University Press, 1999), Gail Minault speaks of the ‘daughters of reform’ who contributed in multiple ways to the social and political movements in India, more than most acknowledged earlier. She goes on to show how significant an agency women exercised in the social world of South Asian Islam. Ruby Lal broadens this canvas with the trope of ‘playfulness’ with which the ‘girl-child’ in the nineteenth century negotiated ‘the structures of power’ within ‘the margins of history, and politics, of the school and the household— as of all regulated machines—that the greatest possibilities of play lie’ (p. 207). The figure of the girl-child and woman, shows Lal, was at the helm of the women’s question. She argues that the ‘making’ of the woman was ‘a male project, regularly conceived and promoted in terms of a male universal’, but the ‘becoming’ a woman ‘was always a product of a greater negotiation’ (p. 23). Contrary to normative projection in a maledominated world, the girl-child did not always transform to become a woman—docile, disciplined, and silenced. She transgressed. Her becoming woman was far, far away from that trajectory. It was not a linear progression, as the colonial discourses would have it. Lal meticulously examines the literary corpus and persuasively shows ‘the pauses, interludes, and intervals in the production of feminine figures, as well as historical females, spaces and cultures’ (p. 34). Mostly exploring the nineteenth-century northern India, Coming of Age foregrounds the idea of ‘playfulness’ in rethinking about the girl-child/woman, largely construed ‘in keeping with the feminist position of rethinking selves that implies social and sexual interaction without asserting authority, and allowing forms of self-expression and literary creativity that are not dependent on masculinist definitions of fulfilment’ (p. 39). Coming of Age is bold and creative. It does what all professional historians desire but very few essentially do. It makes history come alive by adopting a presentist approach that bridges the gap between the past and the present. The book begins with a prelude containing the recollections of Azra Kidwai (born 1945) who having grown up in an Urdu-speaking north Indian ashraf culture could glibly converse about her upbringing that correlates unswervingly with the subject of the book: the girl-child, playfulness and the becoming of woman. Thinking about the theme through Azra’s childhood enables the author to convey ...

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