[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — Katherine Miller Weber]

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njali Arondekar "examines sexuality's relationship to the colonial archive through its spectacularizations in anthropology, law, literature, and pornography from 1843 to 1920." She takes readers through a virtuoso performance of old-fashioned archival work, (post)colonial discourse analysis, queer and sexuality studies, and literary readings, with the cross-cutting category of sexuality in the colonial archive as the thread that links them all. Given the relative paucity of reliable material, her avowed project to "consider sexuality at the center of the colonial archive rather than at its margins" is an ambitious task.

Arguing energetically, Arondekar takes evident pleasure in being outrageous. Much of her subject matter (such as British colonial pornography) is patently obscene; many of her descriptions (of such items as the India-rubber dildo) are salacious; and much of her language is unspeakable—not for its sexual content but for its verbal excess and sheer convolutedness, which rivals the knottiest contortionism from the age of Derridean deconstruction. Nevertheless, those tortuous sentences are worth re-reading because Arondekar has something to say.

In 1994 Jacques Derrida famously identified a contemporary anxiety he named mal d'archive—archive fever. In her Introduction, Arondekar recognizes the potency of the fever and the persistence of the desire to recover the lost or submerged contents of the colonial archive, but also warns, following Derrida and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, of the impossibility of the enterprise, when the missing material leaves only a trace that is inevitably fictionalized to some extent. Instead of fetishizing the lost object, Arondekar proposes a new model of reading which allows for greater "thickness," by which she means historicized, material, multilayered, and interdisciplinary readings.

Arondekar seeks to "[engage] sexuality's recursive traces in the colonial archive against and through our very desire for access" (1). Declining a "recuperative hermeneutics" in favor of the deconstructive approach, she takes up Spivak's call for reading "without a trace" (in "The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives," 1985): "not a mandate against archival work, but rather a call to interrogate, without paralysis, to challenge, without ending the promise of a future" (4).

Focusing on British India in the nineteenth century, Arondekar locates herself at the intersections and in the interstices of queer/sexuality, postcolonial, feminist, subaltern historiography, and literary studies, pointing to blind spots and elisions in their various approaches to the colonial archive. "Even as the concept of a fixed and finite archive has come under siege," she notes, "it has simultaneously led to an explosion of multiple/alternate archives that seek to remedy the erasures of the past" (2). Although she acknowledges "the hunger for a recorded past," she charges that "the coupling of archive with minoritized knowledge formations—such as queer, postcolonial, and feminist in particular—has inevitably led to some simplistic and triumphant forms of empiricism" (2). South Asia scholarship, although it decenters the colonial archive, still assumes that this archive is the source of knowledge about the colonial past, and "still produce[s] a telos of knowledge production" (6). The Subaltern Studies Group, although making an important "shift to a new historiography that recovers subalternity as the focal point of its narration," falls prey to "the additive model of subalternity...where even as the impossibility of recovery is articulated the desire to add and fill in the gaps with voices of other unvoiced subalterns remains." Feminist scholars' demands for a "gendered understanding of the colonial archive [initiate] much-needed critique," but in their desire to write in a female subject, they persist in "holding on to the idea of an archive that will somehow yield proper subjects of study" (6).

As an alternative to these approaches, Arondekar proposes a different reading practice that shifts its focus from "the 'finding' of new archival sources to an understanding of the processes of subjectification made possible (and desirable) through the very idiom of the archive" (3). She draws upon subaltern historian Shahid Amin's notion of the "recalcitrant event," which requires a "move beyond the territory of the contested fact, the unseen record, from the history of evidence and into the realm of narration" (3). There is no guarantee of recovery; nevertheless, it remains important to recognize the complex stakes of the logic of recovery, given the political frames in which they are mobilized.

Much of Arondekar's discussion of the colonial archive draws upon work such as Antoinette Burton's Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home, and History in Late-Colonial India (2003) and her edited collection, Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (2005); Betty Joseph's Reading the East India Company, 1720-1840: Colonial Currencies of Gender (2004); and Ann Laura Stoler's "Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance" in Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory (Blouin & Rosenberg eds., 2006). Like Stoler, Arondekar calls not for new archives but for new methods of reading the archives, attention to the processes of archiving and knowledge production. "Historical anthropologists such as Stoler," she writes, "argue that the turn to archival research remains largely 'extractive' [rather than ethnographic], particularly in studies of colonialism" (9), whereby students "of the colonial experience 'mine' the content of government commissions and reports, but rarely attend to their peculiar form and context" (Stoler, qtd. Arondekar 9).

The absent subject of Chapter One is Richard Burton's report on male governmental brothels in Karachi. General Charles Napier commissioned the report in 1845, soon after his annexation of Sind. (Napier was said to have announced the conquest with the word peccavi: "I have sinned/ Scinde." However, soon thereafter the story turned out to have been concocted by a reader of the popular magazine Punch.) Apparently the polyglot Burton, operating in disguise, investigated the brothels in question and issued a report whose scandalous content resulted in his summary dismissal and which was never seen again. Arondekar takes up the mystery of—and scholarly fascination with—the allegedly lost report, destroyed manuscripts on the same subject, and even the extant records whose content is obscured by Burton's illegible English scrawl. But she also argues that scholarly interest in Burton's missing report often elides the greater, coterminous scandal of the annexation (popularly called the "rape") of Sind, a region whose control was of strategic geopolitical importance to Britain but was never fully secured, and whose colonial archive is similarly muddled with lost and fabricated records. In calling attention to the political context of the report, she seeks to shift "the scandal . . . from the contents of the report to the murky entanglements behind its conception" (36), with this larger political frame enabling the reading of "the sign of the Karachi report...less as a marker of native pederasty than as a blueprint for potential British (im)morality" (41). Nonetheless, Arondekar amply explores Burton's extant references to "le vice" (pederasty), which, she argues, rest on "the founding myth [that it is a practice] specific to Muslims (of Afghani, Sindhi, and Kashmiri descent)" (44). When Burton finds instances of it among Englishmen or Hindus, Arondekar notes, his narration frames them as exceptions that only reinforce the myth. Thus, she concludes, the sensational traces of the report serve only to magnify the forbidden sexuality that is its barely concealed subject, while simultaneously shoring up the racial typologies of colonial anthropology and "promising the (impossible) success of colonial intelligence" (54).

Chapter Two shifts the exploration of sexuality in the colonial archive from government reports to the legal record, specifically Queen Empress v. Khairati (1884), a sodomy case that was repeatedly cited in subsequent cases even though the Crown lost it. According to Arondekar, the case serves so well "as legal evidence. . . [precisely because it] draws on a colonial archive that fixes sexuality as both loss and abundance, as (forensic) invisibility and (anthropological) hypervisibility" (17-18). In other words, even though the Crown lost the case on insufficient evidence, its continuing use as evidence reinforced the colonial criminalization of Indians as "habitual" sodomites.

In locating sexuality within a number of historical and discursive frames, Arondekar examines the vexed attempt to establish a colonial Penal Code using British law and morality to define Indian criminality. Treating English instances of sodomy as mere aberrations, the code reinforced colonial and class-based stereotypes by framing Indian sexuality as inherently perverse. In Arondekar's reading of Khairati, therefore, it was not a case permitting archival recovery in any simple sense but an example of how the language used to define (but not control) sexuality shapes law, evidence, and ultimately, meaning in the colonial archive.

Given the gendered and racialized nature of colonial power, it would be surprising if the colonial Other did not rear its head in the Victorian sexual imagination. In Chapter Three, Arondekar turns from law to literature, specifically to "the popular genre of mid-to-late nineteenth-century pornography." Mining pornographic journals such as The Pearl (1879-81), and books such as The Story of a Dildoe (1891), and Venus in India (1889), she treats the pneumatic figure of the India-rubber dildo as a heady symbol of colonial power. In an ambitiously wide-ranging discussion that tries to link pornography with archival desire "to trace a history of sexuality of colonial India" (97), she employs a Marxist historical materialism to explore the dildo as a product of the lucrative rubber industry; while holding Indian workers in brutal conditions of bondage, this industry dispatched its velvet-tipped commodities into Englishwomen's boudoirs. In addition, Arondekar uses the metaphoric figurations of Literary Studies to link the intricate process of manufacturing india rubber with the "creation of the perfect native subject," and then, with the aid of gender and postcolonial theory, she shows how colonial pornography desexualized the Indian male and marginalized him as an enabler or a passive observer.

So as not to risk losing sight of her primary subject, Arondekar reflects briefly "on the checkered presence of pornography in the official archive" (98), notably in the large quantities of erotica discovered in the collection of eminent Victorian Henry Spencer Ashbee. Though some of this was destroyed, some was preserved for public viewing in the British Library and became the primary archive of pornographic materials in the nineteenth century. Yet, Arondekar cautions, these materials are not easy to classify or construe. Produced, reproduced, and circulated in ways that obscured authorship or copyright, many of them cannot be verified as "original texts." Accordingly, Arondekar discusses the India-rubber dildo (both as figure and as material object) in terms of substitution and supplementarity, making visible "the linkage between [its] sexual and colonial iconographies" (102). Along the way, she cites "the story of the India-rubber dildo" some 23 times (yes, I counted).

Beyond the production of archives and rubber, Arondekar treats the dildo as "metonym for heterosexuality," as it "'diversifies' and 'adds' to women's pleasures...just as the manufacture of india-rubber diversifies and extends England's economic powers" (122). She also associates this "substitute for the real penis" with "representations of Indian male sexuality as subsidiary to. . . English male virility (122-23). The India-rubber dildo, she suggests, exemplifies Derrida's concept of the supplement, an "imitation or representation" that prevents one from recalling the absence of the real.

In a final suggestive association of Victorian pornography and colonial conquest, Arondekar returns to her earlier reading of Venus in India. Here the ever-ready Colonel Devereux is rendered uncharacteristically impotent and weak after fighting and killing an Afghan for "buggering" a young Englishwoman. Nonetheless, he "ravishes" her himself. While dying, the Afghan fixes Devereux with a glare that haunts and unmans him. As Arondekar reads Devereux's weakness, the loss of his substitute, his Indian foil, demands his own presence, which in turn threatens to reveal his own supplementary status and force him to face the void (124). His malaise, she implies, recalls our own "archive fever," the desperate desire to recover the "real," so as to cover over our original loss.

In the near-obligatory chapter on Rudyard Kipling (Chapter Four), Arondekar shows how each of the five selected Mutiny stories exemplifies the supplementary or recuperative relationship of the literary text to the colonial archive. Citing Gautam Chakravarty's assertion that Kipling's "fantasy of complete surveillance...revises the Mutiny archive," Arondekar argues that "Kipling's 'imperial archive' smoothes over past failures of pre-Mutiny intelligence such that [it is driven by] the (successful) pursuit and control of native knowledge" (133). However, even as Kipling's texts rewrite the Mutiny archive, they struggle to elide these failures of colonial control, and the struggle both drives and threatens the narrative. This struggle parallels the logic of archival retrieval that Arondekar has been challenging throughout. That is, the desire for absent subjects or texts drives the exploration of the archive and seeks "the promise of presence as future knowledge" (134). The challenge for the critic—and this is Arondekar's own archival project—"lies in imagining a practice of reading that incites relationships between the seductions of recovery and the status of archival hermeneutics itself" (134).

Again and again, as Arondekar notes, the Mutiny stories struggle to recover narrative control over the colonial past. "In the Year '57," published anonymously in 1887, directly thematizes the difficulty of making sense of the chaos of Mutiny papers until order is imposed on them by the force of a strong man's will ("J.L.," John Lawrence, the controversial figure dubbed "Saviour of Punjab" by the British). Located in "a billiard room, a sanctuary of male homosociality" (141) during the week-long siege of Arrah in 1857, "The Little House at Arrah" (1888) foregrounds the unreliability of Sir George Trevelyan's account of the siege and in so doing, "erases the distinctions between history and fiction" (144). Kipling privileges another account, that of an old khansama (house steward) whose story is also repeatedly flagged as unreliable. Yet fictional accounts, as Arondekar shows, can be more persistent than depositions or reportage. As we learn from Jenny Sharpe's Allegories of Empire (1993), which Arondekar cites, sexual crimes against Englishwomen were commonplace in Mutiny fiction despite being conspicuously absent from legal records and eyewitness accounts. Furthermore, many records were themselves fictions. In Fictions Connected with the Indian Outbreak of 1857 Exposed (1859), which Arondekar quotes, Edward Leckey notes that inscriptions written on walls by besieged Englishmen provided an "intense melancholy pleasure" despite their doubtful veracity (149). In his retellings of Mutiny stories, Arondekar suggests, Kipling simultaneously acknowledges and recuperates the loss of that "intense melancholy pleasure."

How then does sexuality figure in Kipling's imperial archive? Arondekar begins to answer this question by turning to "On a City Wall," where the little room of the courtesan Lalun on Lahore's city wall holds what most Englishmen cannot obtain: knowledge about India that can be gained through sex. "Lalun's body," writes Arondekar, "is. . . recast, desexualized, and made to produce information. . . on the native resistance movement" (154). The narrative focus, however, is not on Lalun herself, but on the "filial relationship developing between Wali Dad and the English narrator." The figure of Lalun enables the narrator "to lay to rest the brutal myth of the rebellion" (155); pleasant as they may be, her stories are patently unverifiable (156). In another early story, "The House of Shadows" (1887), Kipling's male narrator "takes on the role of the 'Oriental' female behind the purdah whose body, space, and text is invaded by the male presence who gazes at him but does not permit the narrator to gaze back. . . By the end of the story, he wants desperately to return the intruder's gaze" (157). This "dialectics of desire," Arondekar suggests, underlies the narration of many of Kipling's stories. They "linger" [Emily Apter's term] on the tortured ghosts of strong men with "crumbling masculinity and failed and/or thwarted heterosexuality. . . Englishmen whose only source of pleasure lies in each other and their native male companions" (159).

In "To Be Filed for Reference," the male narrator befriends McIntosh Jellaludin, an Englishman who has "gone native," married an Indian woman, and is dying of alcoholism. The manuscript he bequeath s the narrator on his deathbed, "The Book of Mother Maturin," turns out to be an "undecipherable" jumble that can only be "filed for reference." Interestingly, Kipling himself had written a story with this title narrated by the hybrid figure of a Eurasian, but he never published the manuscript. The dying Jellaludin hands his "baby" over to the narrator while his wife looks on, suggesting to Arondekar "the pleasures of narrative lingering" and a resistance to heterosexuality and narrative closure that must eventually be given up, just as the damned figure of Jellaludin must give up the ghost and the narrator shelve his manuscript (163), and just as "the Kipling text lingers on the difficult pleasures of writing, selecting, and transmitting archives, through narrative forms shared only between men" (19).

In a brief coda, Arondekar notes that even those who have recently sought to liberate India from its colonial-era laws against sodomy have turned to the colonial archive. In 2001, when the progressive Lawyers' Collective sought to overturn the anti-sodomy provision of the Indian Penal Code (section 377), their rationale mirrored colonialist logic in seeking to retrieve an indigenous (Hindu) tradition of same-sex behavior. "For sodomy to emerge," Arondekar concludes,

it must be corroborated, its form sedimented in a history of recall that neither the witnesses nor the evidence can sustain. We must know and not know the colonial record, not once, but twice. Such a reading radicalizes our understanding of the historical turn by recording the "cognitive failure" at the heart of both our past and present readerly attempts and by making the distinction between success and failure indeterminate. To archive such an account is to record a different history of sexuality. (178-9)

This "different history of sexuality" is precisely the new kind of archival practice that Arondekar models.

Related Material


Arondekar, Anjali. For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India. Duke, 2009. xii + 215 pp.

[You may wish to consult the materials on the Indian subcontinent (South Asia) in the Postcolonial Literature website.]

Last modified 24 July 2014