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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Rebel Time Forgot

In recovering the life of an Indian suffragette, this biography is not political enough.

Written by Urvashi Butalia |
February 28, 2015 1:41:55 am

Book – Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary

Author – Anita Anand

Publisher – Bloomsbury

Pages – 432 pages

Price – Rs 599

In a wonderful book entitled Women on the Margins (1995), the historian Natalie Zemon Davies seeks out three disparate women from the pages of history and recreates their lives. In the ‘Introduction’ to the book, she grapples with what she is trying to do as the three women come to her and berate her for yoking their histories together. Who are you, they ask, to put us together?

The business of recovering women’s histories is not an easy one. Early writers had to battle not only with the paucity of material but also with the very real possibility of a hostile market for which women’s lives were trivial. Who would want to record them? Or read about them?

Anita Anand’s Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, however, enters the market in very different conditions. Women’s writings are no longer seen to be trivial, the exploration of their lives is now a legitimate enterprise. But paucity of material on women’s lives, as the reader discovers in this otherwise richly documented book, is still an issue.

Anand opens with — for feminist readers anyway — an almost heart-thumping description of a moment in the history of women’s rights, with the suffragettes readying for battle, and zeroes in on a brown face, that of Sophia, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh of Punjab.

But then, there’s a slight letdown, at least in feminist expectations, to which I wholeheartedly admit, and it takes more than half the book for us to meet Sophia or indeed the Suffragettes properly again.

A political journalist and television and radio presenter, Anand writes with economy and elegance as she takes the reader through the bloody history of Anglo-Punjab relations, the two Anglo-Sikh wars, the plunder, loot and injustice and then to the presence of Duleep Singh, more playboy, less maharaja, and his family (Sophia was his daughter) in England.

Sophia’s story appears some distance into this narrative, and follows her through her life as a princess, absorbed in dogs and travel, and gradually becoming more politically aware to her growing involvement with the Suffragettes. Throughout, Sophia remains loyal to England and it is only later that the cause of India’s independence begins to matter to her.

Her sister Bamba, on the other hand, seems made of more political stuff, and insists on going off to study medicine in the United States, a short-lived enterprise as US colleges decide to shut their doors to women wanting to study medicine. And then she returns to India to live out her life in Punjab.

But, in a narrative otherwise rich in context and detail, Sophia’s story remains elusive, almost as if it is unable to carry the weight of the story the author has chosen to tell.

Anand is not unaware of this and in the end she poses an important question: Sophia was an important member of the Suffragette movement, enthusiastically involved in all their activities. But history has — predictably — had scant respect for her. But what of the Suffragettes? Why did they not celebrate Sophia?

Anand’s speculative  answer to her own question is, to me, not political enough — like much of her book. For the Suffragettes’ laying down of “arms” in the interest of patriotism, and their almost wilful blindness to the realities of Empire, would surely have made them reluctant to value brown faces and give them their due, no matter how important they were.

And perhaps that’s the real question: for if women are marginalised even in women’s narratives, then where will they find a place? For this, if for no other reason, Anand’s fluent and absorbing book is worth a read.

Urvashi Butalia is the publisher of Zubaan

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