Nature and the Family in Colonial Bengal

The scholarly, artistic and popular imaginaries of late-nineteenth-century Bengal are inseparable from the emergence of a new model of the respectable family. Indeed, that fascination and the awareness of a problem – the conviction that respectability and novelty are both intertwined and in conflict within the family – have been markers of Indian, and perhaps especially Bengali, modernity. Satyajit Ray’s cinema and the literature on which it is based are only the best-known signs of this cultivated identity: immersion in the problem itself constitutes an ideologically desirable subjectivity. The Rabindranath/Bibhutibhushan/Ray discourse, in which recognizably modern women and men walk out of the ‘old’ family and into new arrangements that are less stifling, is however also a resolution of the problem of Indian domesticity. It gives us bhadralok families of quite diverse economic circumstances in which the patriarch is weak, the extended clan is threadbare, religious and caste restrictions are absent or obsolete, and men as well as women possess an undeniable individuality.

That essentially liberal resolution is obviously misleading, since a ‘universal’ Indianness, which underlies the appeal of Ray and even Rabindranath beyond India, can hardly be said to be hegemonic at any point in the history of modern India itself. Dipesh Chakrabarty has quite rightly argued that the modernity that emerged in nineteenth-century Bengal was substantially different, in its emphases, from bourgeois society in contemporary Europe.[1] Indian modernity, Chakrabarty pointed out, retained the patriarchal family at its center; the European insistence on the autonomous individual was anomalous in the bhadralok world. It cannot, however, be denied that this anti-reformist, anti-individualist nationhood, which reached a climax of sorts during the Age of Consent debates of the early 1890s, secreted considerable restlessness and, indeed, reform.[2] The patriarchal family of conservative nationalism was not an unreformed patriarchy: shaken by the economic, professional and political circumstances of colonialism, it was a house in disarray.[3] For patriarchal authority to remain hegemonic within that disarray, which was often characterized as sickness, it needed to adapt and improvise. Thus, the patriarch need not be imagined as an atavist bludgeoning every challenge to his authority. Nor is it necessary to imagine him as a decadent relic, sliding uneasily into obsolescence. Attempts to articulate a vital new familiality could come from within his troubled regime, or even from the patriarch himself.

This essay examines one late-nineteenth-century attempt to deal with the ‘sick’ patriarch and his restive brood. The defense of Hindu patriarchy in the nineteenth century has an established and impressive historiography, which generally agrees that even as respectable men – especially in Bengal –  sought to assert their masculine credentials and political agency, they marked the domestic domain as an inviolable site of their authority, firmly subordinating women, the young, servants and assorted dependents.[4] While this project is generally understood as conservative, I want to suggest that it was a more complicated attempt to engineer, within the domestic nation, an Indian family that was also recognizably modern, and in which the authority of the patriarch was reimagined: both reinforced and destabilized. Improvising a conservative didacticism that borrowed eclectically from indigenous, colonial and metropolitan notions of domesticity and nature, it would incubate and teach an essentially new idiom of health, in which to be healthy was to manage, rather than deny, individual claims on wholeness, dignity and happiness.

The Nature of a Pedagogy

In one of his examinations of change and continuity in the contemporary Bengali family, the nineteenth-century essayist Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay alighted upon the subject of family pets. The presence of animals in the household was not of course new in India, but keeping essentially useless animals as named, domesticated, affectively integrated members of the family – dogs answering to Tommy and cats not answering to Pussy – was a cultural novelty borrowed from the colonizers. Bhudeb expressed his support for the development: the household pet was not only a sign of human mastery over animals, but also an index of European power in the world.[5] He believed that animals obeyed Europeans more readily than they obeyed natives. (Colonial whites were convinced that the opposite was true.[6] Insecurities over the allegiance of pets deserve more attention from scholars of colonialism.) Indians, he argued, ought to cultivate domestic habits that would build up and also demonstrate their command over nature.

Bhudeb is reasonably familiar to social historians of colonial India.[7] A classmate of Michael Madhusudan Dutta and a (less dazzling) contemporary of Bankim, he wrote voluminously on the inner world of colonial Bengal, i.e., the world of family, custom and negotiations over cultural identity. He positioned himself as an observer of a troubled society; he also saw himself as engaged in a pedagogical enterprise that might be characterized as defensive but is, I think, better seen as a cautiously innovative conservatism.

As an Indian nationalist, Bhudeb believed the Indian nation was real, readily perceptible, lamentably colonized, comprehensively degraded and in need of restoration.[8] He did not care much for an independent Indian state; his national restoration was mainly a cultural project that could proceed within the political framework of colonialism.[9] He described himself as a conservative: literally, rakshansheel.[10] As the term suggests in the colonial-Indian context, he was hostile to meddlesome whites, and even more so to Indians who criticized Hindu society from positions associated with the Enlightenment or seemed to invite the colonial government to intervene in ‘social’ matters. He insisted that the ‘traditional’ Hindu family, in which there were clear hierarchies of age and gender, caste rules were observed, selflessness and deference were the norm, and attitudes towards conjugality, sex and celibacy were generally anti-reformist, was the key to national identity itself. At the same time, he was irresistibly drawn to discourses of efficiency, science and quantification, and sought to incorporate them into his conservative family. Much like Bankim, he was drawn to Comte and positivism, although his hesitations were more pronounced.[11]

Bhudeb matters not because he indicates the self-defeating contradictions of anticolonial reaction, but because he illuminates the viability and flexibility of a modern Indian conservatism, which – as much as the efforts of Brahmos and other liberals – supported the emergence of Apu, Charulata and their kin as modern Indians. He was not an apologist for the status quo, open to change only in ‘practical matters,’ as Tapan Raychaudhuri has suggested.[12] That is too literal a reading of Bhudeb. Not only did the ‘practical changes’ he desired rest on other desired transformations, the desire itself indicates that those transformations were already at an advanced stage. For Bhudeb, fairness, regularity and the potential for improvement mattered more than any rigid adherence to hierarchies of age or status when it came to the exercise of authority in the family.[13]  For those enjoined to submit to authority, he differentiated between good and bad subordination: whereas bad subordination was associated with colonial relations of power, the good variety was identified as self-discipline and racial discipline.[14]
       The family that Bhudeb had in mind was, of course, what is commonly understood as ‘joint’ (as opposed to ‘nuclear’). In theory, there would be a patriarch, presiding over a gaggle of sons, their wives and children, assorted widowed aunts, unmarried daughters, unemployed cousins, overstaying in-laws, and, of course, servants. The joint family was not a primordial or particularly stable institution in nineteenth-century Bengal; it was itself shaped by changes in landholding, migration from rural areas to cities, and the emergence of new patterns of bureaucratized education and respectable occupation that generated unprecedented constraints and opportunities.[15] Under the circumstances, although it was important for a conservative nationalist to point to the joint family as a locus of stable essence, it was also patently a dynamic arrangement, constantly and normatively renewed. That dynamism mattered to Bhudeb, who saw the joint family as a technology of civilization: it provided insurance against unemployment, illness and death, i.e., not only the dangers of man’s animal nature, but also the unpredictability generated by constantly changing circumstances.[16]

Bhudeb’s family was quite overtly a pedagogical institution. It taught its members subordination and the pooling of individually-earned resources.[17] Without that didactic and disciplining work, there could be no community. Affect, Bhudeb argued, did not grow on trees; it had to be produced, nurtured and shaped.[18] The joint family taught, moreover, the basics of administration. Within the joint household could be found taxes, budgets and a theory of social responsibility versus individual rights: both had to be taken seriously, although the former had to be prioritized. It was, finally, a mirror of the crisis of a colonized people whose peoplehood was constituted as much by decay as by resilience. Bhudeb admired, for instance, the frugality and self-discipline of the Marwaris of Calcutta, whose joint families were apparently more robust than that of Bengalis, but he noted that laziness and self-indulgence were proliferating even among the sons of Marwaris.[19] The ‘working’ family itself had to be an object of work, which might be described as management and continuous experimentation. Indeed, Bhudeb’s patriarch was more a manager than a king.
             As a writer of didactic essays, Bhudeb can appear to be out of step with the idiom of modern social commentary, not to mention social science. His writing has more in common, on the surface, with the modalities of moral and religious education, both Indian and European/Christian. In its ‘preachy’ tone and emphasis on the restraint of impulses and desires, it represents a strain within Victoriana that is relatively subdued in Bankim, but not in Gandhi. Bhudeb adapted the idiom, converting moral instruction into a variation on the secular advice column, which emerged in the colonial press – women’s journals in particular – at roughly the same time.[20] Bhudeb addressed primarily men, and he used the idiom to teach a sprawling vision of harmony within the family and in its surrounding society that was rooted in self-abnegation and devotion, most directly but not exclusively on the part of women.[21]

That self-abnegating harmony should not be mistaken for an aversion to material pursuits. Although Indian nationalist discourse has generally emphasized the spiritual superiority of India over materially superior Europe, the search for a viable and alternative materiality has also been persistent within assertions of Indian nationhood, and not for leftists alone.[22] From Bhudeb through the Ramakrishna Mission, Indian nationalists who wrestled with the question of the everyday life of the citizen understood that while asceticism was a useful critique of Europe, it could not be the substance of nationhood.[23] Bhudeb advocated self-denial not as a good in itself, but as an appropriate response to the deprivation and humiliation of colonial rule: self-indulgence and conspicuous display in such circumstances were fine for the English, but unseemly for Indians.[24] He put forward, accordingly, formulae for living in the world as a grihastha:  the propertied householder who was nevertheless not a bourgeois European, and who, while not an ascetic, was nevertheless restrained by self and society. The conservative family would teach the life of a better grihastha, one fit for the late nineteenth century.

Women and Children First

       Women were central to this vision of the restrained and restraining household. Remaining comfortably within the bounds of mainstream Victorian discourse, Bhudeb declared that whereas animal nature was a powerful determinant of manhood, women were relatively divine (daivya).[25] What set humans apart from animals was their capacity for shame, and shame was the basis of civilization; since women felt shame more readily than men, women were an essential civilizing force.[26] While this is easily recognizable as a version of the confining English narrative of the ‘angel of the home,’ it could recuperate other, arguably more egregious, confinements of women’s agency. In the wake of Vidyasagar’s activism in favor of widow remarriage, Bhudeb remained firmly opposed to such apparent violations of the permanence of the marital bond.[27] Clearly, while Vidyasagar had won the legislative battle, Bhudeb was on the winning side in the war over marriage and women’s bodies in colonial India.[28] A widow in the family should be kept under the personal supervision of the patriarch, he wrote, and if childless, should share her bed with any children the family could spare. While the arrangement was overtly intended to stimulate the widow’s maternal instincts, it is difficult to miss the implication that the loaned children would serve a policing function in her bedroom, preventing sexual mischief.

In a similar vein, Bhudeb waded into the politics of child-marriage and the legal age of consent. This time accusing reformers of being shallow mimics of European habits, he insisted that early marriage was essential to the development of a resilient conjugal bond. Societies with a high age of marriage, especially for girls, were also marked by high rates of failed marriages and divorce, he argued, providing statistics in support.[29] Similarly, he took the position that daughters should not directly inherit parental property (aside from dowry); that would only create disharmony within the family. Daughters, in fact, represent a marked tension within the new family and affect that Bhudeb was engaged in imagining. They undoubtedly had some claim upon their fathers’ wealth and affections, and Bhudeb cited Comte on the universal relevance of intergenerational bonds and responsibilities.[30] But he felt compelled to qualify Comte: daughters, who rightfully belonged to their husbands’ families, represented the past, to be looked upon with affection but also detachment (bairagya). Only sons carried the future in which one might invest emotionally or financially.
         Bhudeb’s conservative didacticism was very clearly a reaction to the tensions he perceived in the society around him: specifically, various kinds of mobility (economic, geographic, professional and ritual) that had exacerbated conspicuous expenditure and, concomitantly, anxieties about social status.[31] He was, for instance, ‘for’ dowry – already a contentious issue in colonial marriage-politics and the policing of infanticide, because of the burden it placed upon the fathers of girls – as a customary right of Indian parents, but it was a decidedly half-hearted endorsement. He called for restraint in demands and payments, noting wryly that colonial education and professions had turned dowry into a new field of social competition, threatening the status of families that were respectable but not rich: i.e., the core constituency of modern conservatism.[32] In this new context, the autonomy-seeking individual – with his lightened sense of responsibility but insistent demands – was a manifest threat to the beleaguered edifice of kinship. The conservative family might contain those dangers and also function as a refuge from them.

Yet Bhudeb was far from being an absolutist against the transformations he observed. As a nationalist intellectual who was persuaded that nationhood required significant revisions within native subjectivity, he was more dedicated to artifice than to nature: not only had the artifices of colonialism already warped the nature of the native, the positive revision of nature was possible only through the deployment of artificial regimes of health and education.[33] That sensitivity and openness to modern artifice, indeed, is why Bhudeb can be considered one of the first Indian social scientists, although he never became entirely comfortable with the language of social science. (It was, after all, an alien narrative, inseparable from the disempowerments of colonialism.) Marriage, for Bhudeb, was not a natural institution. It was an antidote to nature, teaching modes of living that were resisted by the essentially selfish, undisciplined instincts of males as well as females.[34] A working marriage indicated the successful containment of the instincts, and the molding of new social individuals. The social scientist’s family was therefore open to intelligent interventions and adjustments. Bhudeb was particularly alert to the emergence of new norms of kinship, and to the need to improvise new norms for socializing with strangers as well as relatives, who were not always fully distinct.[35]

Wives (and husbands) were the most ubiquitous such stranger-relatives; it was here that the need to improvise and innovate was most acute. If we look below the surface of Bhudeb’s ‘confining’ vision of women in the family, it becomes clear that he was engaged in imagining confinement and liberation simultaneously. Bhudeb’s analysis of the notoriously contentious relationship between the wife and her mother-in-law, and especially the conjugal relationship, should be seen in the context of a new/changing family in which there were unmistakable new expectations of individuality in both women and men.[36] Wives had needs that went beyond the ‘social,’ Bhudeb acknowledged, and even widows, those diminished persons who might not remarry, were granted a certain wholeness. He did not demand that widows be shunned or subjected to the innumerable punishing restrictions; rather, he urged that they be treated by in-laws with affection and kindness, kept fully involved in household activities, encouraged to cultivate their domestic skills, protected from abuse and despondency, and taught Sanskrit.[37] While the last was intended as a means of shastric indoctrination, it also exposed widowed women to a substantially new educational possibility. Similarly, Bhudeb’s support for child-marriage was phrased in terms that are no different from the discourse of companionate marriage.[38] Marriages must be happy, he wrote; unhappy marriages made for unhealthy men and women. Happiness in marriage was possible only if husband and wife were linked by the deepest ties of affection and mutual understanding; such ties could develop only in childhood, among spouses who would literally grow together. Adults were too hardened for it, which is why marriages contracted in adulthood were more vulnerable to failure.[39]

       The template of conjugality that Bhudeb put forward was, of course, far from radical; it was not a vision of equality. The husband remained a figure of reverence, the wife committed to obedience.[40] Within those constraints, however, it was very much a vision of partnership. Bhudeb described the conjugal relationship as dampatya, which is a recognizably modern concept of being a ‘couple.’[41] There was considerable reciprocity. Bhudeb’s opposition to widow remarriage was balanced by his opposition to polygamy and the remarriage of widowers: those, too, were violations of dampatya.[42] And while his advocacy of celibate widowerhood sought its justifications in indigenous discourses of sannyas and vanaprastha, the wife for whom he advocated was not simply her husband’s shadow. She possessed a unique personhood that could not be replaced. That stance sat awkwardly with his conservatism, but it was consistent with his articulation of marriage as a permanent and exclusive emotional bond for both spouses.

It was consistent also with Bhudeb’s promotion of active financial roles for women in the household: wives should not only understand and manage household finances, but also influence and advise their husbands when it came to earning, spending and saving money. Bhudeb thus played a part in the development of a vital icon of ‘respectable’ Bengali femininity and social well-being: the housewife with the keys to the storeroom knotted to her anchal. But he arguably went beyond that, because by encouraging women to regard their husbands’ wealth as their own and to actively manage and increase that wealth, he not only put the Lakshmi in the grihalakshmi, he insinuated a notion of conjugal property that was ahead of the law.[43] What he called the grihakartri – effectively, co-master  – owed more to the late-Victorian discourse of the mistress of the house than to formulations of passive angels.[44] From her location within the patriarchal family, the wife became, in a sense, a home-owner and a semi-autonomous agent: an assistant manager, to extend a metaphor.

Husbands were themselves transformed by such ‘assistance.’ Bhudeb’s vision of a new Indian conjugality was, among other things, a hands-on, do-it-yourself domesticity in which husbands and wives were both less reliant on hired help. Husbands should possess basic carpenter’s and mason’s tools and know their use, he declared.[45] This is, perhaps obviously, a typical late-nineteenth-century protest against the novelty of what might be called the Charulata lifestyle, with its distracted husbands and frivolous wives: it suggests a desire to ‘return’ to a past when housewives actually did housework.[46] But the vision of respectable husbands with saws and hammers also foreshadowed Benoy Kumar Sarkar’s insistence that mistrification, or a mechanically-adept individuality across the classes, was a necessity of modernity and independence in India, both as a ‘spirit’ and as a useful capability.[47] Like Sarkar, Bhudeb was articulating a relationship with technology and efficiency that was both natural and new. He was also positing a notion of self-motivated work at home that liberated the native: men from the demoralizing, white-supervised work of the office, and women from suffocating anonymity and wasted personhood.[48]

The willingness to innovate familiality is highly visible also in Bhudeb’s vision of children and childhood. Children, for him, represented the pristine and not especially desirable nature of the human animal; they were, he wrote, the repositories of infinite selfishness.[49] For such animals, Bhudev reserved neither the sentimentality of mid-nineteenth-century Victorians, nor the indulgence of Indian worshippers of the child-God.[50] He was distinctly current and ‘global’ in his insistence upon the plasticity of the child, which qualified his ‘old-fashioned’ adherence to a Hobbes-inflected vision of juvenile wickedness.[51] As a set of norms, ‘respectable’ Bengali child-rearing was substantially reinvented in the second half of the nineteenth century, and disseminated by new forms of children’s literature and adult autobiography. To remember childhood as a life apart, distinct from the limited life of the colonized grown-up, became increasingly central to the imaginaries of adulthood and freedom.[52] The changes were fundamentally schizophrenic, framed by the expectations of continuity – articulated as culture – even as culture was itself redefined.[53] For Bhudeb, then, there was no stable child to conserve. The task, as with women, was to assert agency and ownership over unstoppable and not altogether unappealing changes.

Education was central to these transformations of Bengali childhood: not only did it teach a redefined culture, Tithi Bhattacharya has shown that it increasingly became synonymous with culture.[54] (Rabindranath, as a writer, educator, autobiographical child and cultural icon, remains the most impressive symbol of this convergence of concepts.[55]) For Bhudeb, children’s education was both all-encompassing and precisely targeted: it was diffused through the life of the child, and intended to produce better Indians.

In a racially based colonialism, the diffusion of culture cannot mean indifference to the need to compartmentalize. Bhudeb maintained a remarkable silence on schooling, which in his writings remains external to family life. Even as Rabindranath  experienced the Macaulayan curriculum as a torment that had invaded his domestic sanctuary, Bhudeb tried to build a wall between the native home and the colonial school. The wall, however, was full of holes, and by design. Bhudeb’s pedagogy was undergirded by a distinctly Utilitarian relationship of need between a society and its traditions.[56] His conservative emphasis on telling children what not to do was quite compatible with the new-fangled experiential teaching he claimed to disdain. Education must make the same student into two people, he wrote: one a policeman, the other policed, operating seamlessly and unobtrusively.[57] He evidently understood and valued the panoptic principle in modern schooling and subject-formation.

At the same time, Bhudeb showed little interest in the formation of universal subjects. He emphasized a pedagogy that was explicitly racialized and anti-humanist, corresponding to colonial discourses of sahibs and natives: it took into account the effects of climate upon bodies and habits, the ‘great powers of memory and imagination’ of the native child, and his physical weakness and tendency towards cowardice. A racially-sensitive Indian education must produce good Indians, just like English education produces good Englishmen.[58] In other words, the policeman and the policed must both be Indian, and not just in a crude ethnic sense. He was, in this regard, in the vanguard of a political project that, in various permutations, would extend through National Education and the Anushilan Samiti to the Ramakrishna Mission and the RSS.[59] The reimagined conservative-bhadralok family was the most basic such project.

Family Health

                The children Bhudeb imagined were instruments of national progress, imbedded within a vision of self-improvement that would have been quite foreign to a ‘traditionalist.’[60] His desire for ‘more accomplished’ children (who surpassed their parents’ achievements) reflected not only the priorities of competition in colonial society, but also the seepage of Darwinian discourse into homely advice.[61] Progress and positive evolution could not be taken for granted. Bhudeb harbored a sharp fear of a general decline in native society brought about by an all-too-evident mismatch of power and circumstance: the subjugation of Indians to a foreign people at their historical zenith.[62] Indian institutions would atrophy from obsolescence and irrelevance, and English power would rub off on their subjects, degrading them racially even without pernicious intentions. Particular aspects of colonial life – such as new mealtimes required by office and school routines – were especially degenerative, having disrupted the natural patterns of native bodies and families.[63] Even as Bhudeb agreed with the premise of racial progress, he voiced his alarm about the ‘quality’ of contemporary youth, who, he wrote, were inferior to their predecessors in almost every way.[64]

           That anxiety about content and its value was part and parcel of the youth-worship that would become central to Indian nationalism a generation later, when swadeshi agitation fixed rebellion firmly in the schools and colleges of colonial Bengal. The conflicting discourses of a resurgent ‘Young Bengal’ and the effeminate native male were already well established in the 1880s, of course, and for nationalist adults, youth – the national Self, the national disappointment and a challenge to their authority to boot – were almost definitively déclassé.[65] For Bhudeb, the educational remedy could not be limited to textbooks; it had to encompass a much wider lesson about health in a colonized society. Healthy child-rearing, reproductive health and shastric exhortations  became connected in his prescription for a reeducated Bengal, with shastra functioning more as a source of justification than actual guidance. Guidance came from medical science. Thus, even when Bhudeb conservatively ‘taught’ child-marriage and early child-bearing, he articulated what was clearly a science of prenatal precautions, including instructions on the ideal spacing of pregnancies (four to five years).[66] Correct spacing would produce healthier children, healthier mothers and a healthy nation.

It is worth noting that unlike later nationalists who saw a growing population as a sign of national health, Bhudeb effectively recommended fewer children.[67] A Malthusian understanding of population is evident here, although it is better understood as a colonial-Indian adaptation of Malthus. While Bhudeb was highly aware of the extreme poverty of the nation (desh) and its connection to the crisis of national health, he was not driving explicitly at starvation in the family, or even the outstripping of food resources by a fast-growing population. He was, rather, outlining a notion of sufficiency: relatively few children were enough, just as the disciplined grihastha’s habits of consumption could express a sense of what was enough. Fewer children undergirded a new familiality that was consistent with both health and happiness. Within the avowedly joint family, thus, we see the emergence of quasi-nuclear tendencies, with children as the carriers of a national education.

The modern family thus became the nursery of the healthy nation Bhudeb imagined. Health was a sign of triumph over nature; it was, as such, a measure of civilization. He therefore placed an unmistakable emphasis on the medicalization of everyday habits and predicaments. Fasting and caste-based restrictions on promiscuous touching and eating, for instance, were now rendered not as superstitions but healthy precautions against disease.[68] Eugenic advantages justified the consideration of caste in marriage.[69] The statistics of mortality were deployed to defend the preferential treatment of sons at home: girl children were hardier than boys, Bhudeb claimed.[70] At a time when bhadralok families were beginning to force their sons into wrestling akharas,[71] Bhudeb emphasized physical exercise for both girls and boys, although he also warned that exercise should not be such that it hardened female bodies or endangered child-bearing.[72] (Exercise for girls could take the form of domestic chores like sweeping and husking, he added helpfully.)
Three intertwined projects are evident in this health-conscious family. One, as noted earlier, was articulating a national population. Health could not be a narrowly ‘private’ concern in a time of growing public alarm over malaria in Bengal, where, after the 1860s, new railway lines had destroyed natural patterns of drainage and produced a plague of fever and mortality.[73] Bhudeb’s polemic shows a keen awareness of the devastating effect of malaria upon ‘the race’ (jati), and of the wider contests over public health and sanitation in British India.[74] Forms of power were needed that compensated for the dangers faced by a population seemingly constituted by unhealthiness itself. Bhudeb advanced, here, an alternative morality of procreation and celibacy. In spite of his acceptance of a link between enhanced health and fewer children, having children remained a moral imperative, and refusing to marry and procreate (like some Englishmen) carried the taint of selfishness and indiscipline.[75] Celibacy – for a few – was a source of moral power, in a clear nod to the indigenous discourse of brahmacharya. That power was vicariously available to grihastha society, but householders – in the process of reifying their nationhood – nevertheless had to regroup as a population, salvageable through statistics and healthy new habits.[76]

The second function of family health was political competition with the white power, which in the later nineteenth century was itself tied up with the authority of an increasingly disciplined allopathic medicine.[77] Indians of Bhudeb’s class and educational background now commonly brought white doctors into their homes to treat sick family members. They understood, however, that this not only violated a sanctuary of their sovereignty, it also amounted to an admission of defeat in the politics of knowledge in the colony. Doctors making ‘house calls’ were often supercilious, unwilling to leave their racial status at the door. For Indian patriarchs, dealing with white doctors could thus be highly charged with issues of dignity and humiliation. Conscious of those dynamics, Bhudeb recommended a mode of interaction that was both confrontational and cooperative. He was, he wrote, so rational, systematic and self-possessed, not only in his own treatment of the sick relative but also in his role as an informant to the visiting doctor, that the doctor’s arrogance usually gave way to a grudging admiration.[78] Thus, Bhudeb neither closed the door against the doctor nor sulked in defeat; he sought, instead, to assert control over what he recognized as an effective and desirable resource in the pursuit of a healthy family.

That was consistent with Bhudeb’s vision of colonial rule as a confrontation but also a negotiation between two forms of government: a government of the state (alien, oppressive), and a government of society (national, legitimate), which had systems of knowledge, law, judgment and punishment that were distinct but mutually comprehensible.[79] It amounted to a medical posture that, while domestic in its scope, was nevertheless scientific and enumerative; it was, moreover, semi-alternative, contributing its own body of eclectically-derived diagnoses, causes, therapies, restrictions and allowances. In these determinedly moral narratives of health and sickness, Bhudeb again underlined the importance of self-discipline on the part of care-givers, who must be brave, patient, self-sacrificing, and above all self-controlled, not letting their own distress show, and balancing the knowledgeable fear of contagion with love and courage.[80] There is, here, a foreshadowing of Gandhi’s (and Günter Grass’) vision of nursing as an alternative medical practice: partaking of the authority of doctors and hospitals, but also distinct from the masculine priorities of a public domain.[81]

Accordingly, the third part of Bhudeb’s project was the establishment of the Indian family as a scientific institution. He urged detailed record-keeping in household expenses by husbands as well as wives, and gave financial advice with easily recognizable Victorian middle-class overtones, emphasizing self-reliance, responsibility, delayed gratification and saving money. [82] Marriage itself was a science, he insisted.[83] He recognized the value of science as a method, an idiom and an iconography: references to Darwin and Newton pepper his writing.[84] He came out strongly and provocatively in favor of sex education for children. The content of this education emphasized restraint, but was framed almost completely in terms of health, scientific validity and the importance of accurate information.[85] Vyasa and Darwin were both referenced for support. Bhudeb was quite aware that he was proposing something novel, a transformation that went beyond the knowledge of birds and bees. He knew, for instance, that the sex education that he had in mind – and that his wife apparently encouraged him to give their children – involved a reimagined, more intimate, less formal, parent-child relationship, as well as a modern conjugal partnership.[86]


In Bengal in the late-nineteenth-century, the patriarchal home at the heart of the nation was transformed by the ‘conservative’ experiments in health and education, articulated in terms of everyday matters like work, record-keeping and simply living. Mealtimes, for instance, were described (or rather, prescribed) by Bhudeb as occasions of cultural negotiation: the development, within the joint family, of healthy new patterns of congregating, conversing, sitting, serving and eating, quite apart from the question of the food itself, which interested him also.[87] As domesticity became a curriculum, its privacy was fatally breached. Snippets of Bhudeb’s own family life kept finding their way into the public domain through his essays, serving a didactic purpose. He was, in a sense, living didactically, theatrically.[88]

A remarkable feature of the essays Bhudeb wrote in that didactic mode is the frequent interpolation of dialog. He would narrate conversations he had supposedly had with whites, as well as imagined conversations with Indians. His partners in conversation were typically skeptical or resistant to his advice and analyses, although not unwilling to listen and learn. Other Indian nationalists of the period – most famously, Gandhi in Hind Swaraj – did this too.[89] Reminiscent of melodramatic novels, such exchanges might be read as attempts to conjure up dialog within a racially-enforced silence. They are ‘unnatural,’ but that only reflects the unnaturalness of the subjectivity that anti-European moralists sought to project in the colony. Bhudeb tells us that when he wrote in English (with some difficulty), he would find himself writing in the voices of his imagined critics, as his own enemy.[90] Colonial prose could be an out-of-body experience, alienating the speaker from himself. Yet that alienation was not something to abjure. It was to be confronted and wrestled with, as part of a process of the re-naturing of the native.

Indian responses to colonial rule in the final decades of the Victorian era necessarily included a reformulation of the human relationship with nature. The nature of the native could not simply be ‘natural’: to compete with the power of imperial Europe, it had to demonstrate a mastery over nature itself. Nature, then, had two levels; one innate, and one transcendent. The family was the site at which these levels were manifested and reconciled. That reconciliation was based on an intertwined understanding of ‘health’ and ‘tradition.’ The traditional family, which was the sovereign space of the nation, was reimagined as an artifice that set the civilized and self-liberated Indian apart from animals as well as from Europeans. Bhudeb suggested that while all civilization was founded on the production of artifice, tradition was the production of specific artifices that would both reflect and constitute the nature (health) of the race.[91] As the basic incubator of tradition, the ‘conservative’ family had to be a healthy, dynamic and teachable institution.

The family had to be teachable because the society in which it was imbedded was not standing still. Much of Bhudeb’s polemic is about confronting the effects on Hindu society of a subjectivity and norms that had been irrevocably transformed by colonial rule.[92] Conservatism must therefore begin with self-awareness, i.e., the recognition that you have already been altered. You could then adapt intelligently. He believed such self-conscious adaptation was possible: he admired Jews as a race that had tied self-awareness to the maintenance – not ossification – of traditions, and thus conserved themselves even without a country of their own.[93] It was not a coincidence to him that Jews were ‘clean’ and ‘hygienic.’[94] To be healthy was to comprehend your nature and take control over it. Indians had to recognize that colonial subordination was self-reinforcing: it derived from disempowerment itself. The weakened native had to compensate institutionally, morally and physically.[95] That compensation enabled the continuities that are the most obvious aspects of conservatism. Bhudeb remained determined to defend a vision of governance in which the national ‘community,’ with or without the support of the state, policed the errant individual. It was precisely because that control was precarious in the context of alien rule and a rapidly changing society that individuality came close to being errant in India.[96] The individual was not, however, rejected in all circumstances. If acknowledged, individuality could be subordinated and dedicated to the well-being of the community.[97]

June 26, 2014

Work in progress - endnotes redacted