Feeling Like A Child: Narratives of Development and the Hindu Child/Wife

Ishita Pande gives us a sneak peak of Chapter 3 in Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives.

By Ishita Pande

If the critiques of child marriage (in India) relied on ethnological, biomedical, and anatomical facts cited to prove the biomedical and eugenic damage caused to the person and the race by precocious sex, a curious defence of the practice had come to rest on the grounds of emotion. Increasingly, reformers too pointed to the emotional damage caused by precocious conjugality, the most important of which was a loss of childhood itself.

To capture the enormity of this loss, novels such as Ratanbai attempted to track the thwarted desires of a child forced into wifehood. But operating in a context where the wedge between child and wife was yet to be made firm, Ratanbai could only take an abbreviated form, with the years of formation between childhood and wifehood signalled as an absence of narrative in the novel. These ‘blank’ years were gradually detailed in a new genre – sex education for girls and adolescents – in the 1920s and 1930s. The ‘universal’ trajectory of formation articulated in the Bildungsroman, and the ‘natural’ narrative of personal development offered by sexology, were examples of the informal means by which a newly legislated separation of child and wife came to be disseminated. Sexological works formulated a seemingly universal narrative of age-stratified personal development to emphasize the contradiction between childhood and wifehood.

Ishita imageFrom Shevantibai M. Nikambe, Ratanbai: A Sketch of a Bombay High Caste Hindu Young Wife (London: Marshall Brothers, 1895).

A discourse of emotion was crucial to the parsing of the figure of the child/wife in the 1920s. The sexologist A.P. Pillay depicted educated emotions as a taming of childish instincts in a manner that was reformist in its intent, even if it was socially conservative in its promotion of monogamous conjugality. In her more radical critique of the gender/caste structure of Hindu society, Sumati Bai evoked emotion to promote marriages of partnership and to criticize marriages based on the other, more dubious imperatives of caste, money, or family. These distinct evocations of emotion relied on the contrast between the image of the child with uninhibited sexual instinct and the adult trained for conjugality by a proper education of desire. In other words, neither author depicted the course of personal development as one from innocent childhood to knowing adulthood, but as the very opposite – a move from uncontrolled instinct to controlled emotion. ‘Childhood’ in other words, was conceptualized in sexualized terms. Reformers in the 1890s, drawing on biomedical statistics, had amply documented that the child was not physically prepared for marital sex. In the 1920s, sexologists suggested that the child was not emotionally prepared for conjugal love. In doing so, paradoxically, they configured the child in highly sexualized terms.

The figuration of the child/wife thus offers some food for thought to historians of emotions, as well as those of childhood. For historians of emotions, the sexological casting of instinct and emotion points to their mutual imbrication. As the works by Pillay and Sumati Bai demonstrate, while the distinction between the sex instinct and conjugal love was rhetorically invaluable, it was frail: both authors spilt considerable ink placing sexual desire at the heart of happy conjugality and in educating their readers on conjugal love while insisting on its pre-discursive essence. Both also acknowledged the corporeality of emotion while insisting on its transcendence of the body. In contrasting natural instinct with reasoned emotion (instead of highlighting a duality of emotion and reason), these works stopped short of naturalizing conjugal love, even as they insisted on a stadial theory of human development. For historians of childhood, the figuration of the child/wife points to the epistemic co-constitution of sexual norms and ideas of childhood, and suggests that a discourse on ‘childhood innocence’ was constituted under the shadow of its other – the spectre of the sexualized child.

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