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For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India


Anjali Arondekar considers the relationship between sexuality and the colonial archive by posing the following questions: Why does sexuality (still) seek its truth in the historical archive? What are the spatial and temporal logics that compel such a return? And conversely, what kind of “archive” does such a recuperative hermeneutics produce? Rather than render sexuality’s relationship to the colonial archive through the preferred lens of historical invisibility (which would presume that there is something about ...

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For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India

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Anjali Arondekar considers the relationship between sexuality and the colonial archive by posing the following questions: Why does sexuality (still) seek its truth in the historical archive? What are the spatial and temporal logics that compel such a return? And conversely, what kind of “archive” does such a recuperative hermeneutics produce? Rather than render sexuality’s relationship to the colonial archive through the preferred lens of historical invisibility (which would presume that there is something about sexuality that is lost or silent and needs to “come out”), Arondekar engages sexuality’s recursive traces within the colonial archive against and through our very desire for access.

The logic and the interpretive resources of For the Record arise out of two entangled and minoritized historiographies: one in South Asian studies and the other in queer/sexuality studies. Focusing on late colonial India, Arondekar examines the spectacularization of sexuality in anthropology, law, literature, and pornography from 1843 until 1920. By turning to materials and/or locations that are familiar to most scholars of queer and subaltern studies, Arondekar considers sexuality at the center of the colonial archive rather than at its margins. Each chapter addresses a form of archival loss, troped either in a language of disappearance or paucity, simulacrum or detritus: from Richard Burton’s missing report on male brothels in Karáchi (1845) to a failed sodomy prosecution in Northern India, Queen Empress v. Khairati (1884), and from the ubiquitous India-rubber dildos found in colonial pornography of the mid-to-late nineteenth century to the archival detritus of Kipling’s stories about the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
For the Record is a deft, at times dazzling, archival-based critical reading of the South Asian archives. Anjali Arondekar seeks not the lost objects of sexuality, but the colonial compulsions and disciplines that conjure their appearance and disappearance across time and space. In doing so, For the Record turns sexuality studies on its head with the breathtaking elegance of a master historian and reader.”—Elizabeth A. Povinelli, author of The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality

“In situating sexuality at the heart of the colonial archive, Anjali Arondekar in For the Record brilliantly magnifies the dynamics of recovery and occlusion, desire and emptiness, that attend any archival project. Arondekar inquires specifically into anthropology, law, literature, and pornography in British India, not only contributing to our understanding of the ways the colonial apparatus made sex visible but also pushing forward into questions of what the postcolonial politics of that visibility might now entail. She both quotes Derrida's oblique footnote and makes it urgent: ‘The question of a politics of the archive is our permanent orientation here.’”—Carolyn Dinshaw, author of Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern

“This engaging and inventive book is not a typical critique of the colonial archive: it depends on the colonial record even as it exposes its limits. This is a crisp and intelligent study that provides both an accounting of the traces of sexuality in colonial India and an excursus on the writing of such a history.”—Mrinalini Sinha, author of Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Anjali Arondekar is Associate Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Read an Excerpt


On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India


Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4533-6

Chapter One


Richard Burton's Colonial Anthropology

In India two roads lead to preferment. The direct highway is "service";-getting a flesh wound, cutting down a brace of natives, and doing something eccentric, so that your name may creep into a dispatch. The other path, study of languages, is a rugged and tortuous one, still you have only to plod steadily along its length, and, sooner or later, you must come to a "staff appointment." RICHARD BURTON, FALCONRY IN THE VALLEY OF THE INDUS

There is another element ... chiefly connected with what our neighbours call Le vice contre nature-as if anything can be contrary to nature which includes all things. Upon this subject I must offer details, as it does not enter into my plan to ignore any theme which is interesting to the Orientalist and the Anthropologist. RICHARD BURTON, "TERMINAL ESSAY"

In the final pages of his famous translation of The Arabian Nights, Richard Burton turns his attention to le vice contre nature, the unnatural vice: pederasty. It is here that the reader first encounters the scant but calculatedly sensational details of a secret government report on Karáchi's "three lupanars or bordels, in which not women but boys and eunuchs, the former demanding nearly a double price, lay for hire." Having recently "annexed Sind," General Charles Napier (the "Devil's Brother") had authorized the report in 1845, specifically requesting Burton, the only officer who could speak Sindhi, to "indirectly make enquiries and to report upon the subject." We are told that Karáchi is not more than a mile from camp, and that Burton agreed to undertake the project "on express condition that the report should not be forwarded to the Bombay Government." Disguised as a traveling merchant, Mirza Abdullah the Bushiri, Burton proceeded to infiltrate Karáchi's multiple sites of "porneia" to procure the "fullest details, which were duly dispatched to the Government House." Napier's departure from Sind soon after resulted in Burton's report (along with two other "sundry reports" he authored on Sind) being sent to Bombay by Napier's rivals. So scandalous proved the contents of the Karáchi report that its exposure resulted in Burton's "summary dismissal from the service." Burton provides no further details, neither on the report's contents nor on its current location. Or so the story goes. The mystery surrounding the explosive contents of Burton's lost report inaugurated a tale of archival losses that haunted Burton's entire career. Just as his career in India began (and failed) with the composition of an (allegedly) lost report on male homosexuality, his death forty-five years later was embroiled in controversies of lost records on the same subject. Burton, the story continues, became obsessed with translating the missing twenty-first chapter of The Perfumed Garden, reputed to be five hundred pages of Arabic, which was to appear unexpurgated as The Scented Garden, a staggering two hundred-page treatise on homosexuality with "882 pages of text and footnotes and a 100-page preface." Announcements of Burton's death in 1890 were accompanied by indignant accusations against Isabel Burton, his wife and the primary executor of his estate. The public consensus was that she had burnt copious and much awaited "Oriental" manuscripts in an effort to safeguard her husband's reputation against further criticism. In her own letter to the Morning Post in 1891, Isabel Burton fueled public ire, acknowledging the burnt materials as related to the same "certain passion" as that described in the Karáchi report: "His last volume of The Supplemental Nights had been finished and out on November 13, 1888. He then gave himself up entirely to the writing of this book, which was called The Scented Garden, a translation from the Arabic. It treated of a certain passion." In 1923, Norman Penzer, Burton's first bibliographer, chronicled the difficulty of even finding suitable library space for Burton's writings and personal collections, a difficulty made more painful by the fact that many of Burton's original "Oriental" manuscripts were previously destroyed by a fire in Grindley's depository.

Such mythologizations of lost writings and collections continue to be sustained, for example, in the most recent scholarly collection on Burton, fittingly entitled, In Search of Richard Burton: Papers from a Huntington Library Symposium (1993). Contributors to the collection range from bibliophiles to academics, from librarians to explorers, and their variety attests to Burton's circulation in multiple reading publics. Scattered throughout the collection are repeated references to Burton's lost writings, articulated variously in a language of endless lament or of possibility. On the one hand, much regret is expressed for the many manuscripts allegedly destroyed by overzealous relatives and numerous fires. On the other hand, much desire is also expressed for the innumerable Burton manuscripts yet to be found. Even as much of the Burton archive is irretrievably lost, even more arguably remains to be found. Complicating such a telos of loss and recovery is the added obstacle of Burton's "small and unreadable handwriting" that often forced him to hire an amanuensis for assistance. Alan Jutzi argues that Burton's handwriting appears to deteriorate, to literally disappear into itself, as a direct result of his need for secrecy during his much celebrated Mecca pilgrimage. Jutzi speculates that Burton "may have trained himself to fit a reduced script into smaller pieces of paper" and that the transformation in his handwriting thus happens somewhere between 1849 and 1853, when he went from India to East Africa. He also points out that Burton's handwriting is large and readable in the early writings on India and that it gradually fades into unreadability after his departure from that country. Jutzi's claims about the dramatic shift in Burton's handwriting in a four-year period are amply verified by even a cursory viewing of the available Burton papers and texts. For example, Burton's handwritten marginalia, penned just a few years after he left India, are indeed barely readable. Curiously, it is Burton's handwriting in English that lurches into unreadability; his handwriting in Marathi or Arabic, for instance, remains clear and eminently readable throughout his career. Thus even as more of Burton's lost archive is recovered, its contents still exceed readerly access, folded literally into a script of secret and compacted writing.

That the archival myth surrounding the Karáchi report takes center stage in this iconography surrounding Burton's lost works is abundantly clear. The report as archival object comes into existence, after all, only through its loss-a paradoxical archival emergence that can only be sustained through more stories of the lost report. Much scholarly energy has been spent on the location of this report, and the mystery surrounding its disappearance or existence has spawned endless debate and speculation. Several biographies of Burton concur that Napier sought Burton's linguistic and spying skills for a singularly important report in 1845 and provide different theories of its existence and circulation. Scholars such as Fawn Brodie contend that Burton's wife burned the report along with all the other "peculiar" Burton manuscripts, while Edward Rice and Glenn Burn suggest that the report, if there was one, was an oral one that never existed as a written document. More hagiographical accounts, such as Christopher Ondaatje's Sindh Revisited, zealously retrace and attempt to relive Burton's formative years in India in the hope of finding the infamous report. A second analysis goes so far as to meticulously point out that speculations around Burton's particular brand of participant observation (a skill that earned him the epithet "Dirty Dick") must be laid to rest, as he was clearly "uncircumcised" when he visited the Karáchi brothels and thus could not risk participation for fear of exposure. In other words, the report's contents may well have been scandalous, but stories of Burton's own participation in the brothel's activities must be drastically revised. Others such as James Casada are less generous and caustically conclude that the details of the report were "nothing more than figments of Burton's fertile imagination."

The available official records tell an equally perplexing tale of the report, of Burton's relationship to its existence, and of its deleterious effects on his army career. Burton spent seven years in India, from mid-1842 to mid-1849, serving variously as an army field surveyor and an intelligence officer in the province of Sind. His last year in India was spent recovering from sickness in Goa, after which he was forced to return to England. In Sind he served under Napier, who was the governor of the province until 1849. In 1843 Burton was appointed regimental interpreter and commissioned with the Eighteenth Bombay Native Infantry to Sind, which had recently and brutally been acquired as a British possession. Burton's service records indicate that he was a model officer and contain no mention of any scandal or unbecoming behavior on his part. On the contrary, he is lauded for his fine efforts as a linguist and a surveyor of the Bombay army. Burton may well have narrated his entire India career as a professional failure, but it is a story not corroborated by the official records of the colonial state. Casada even makes the point that Burton may have simply "forfeited his commission for overstaying his leave" in Mecca (he was asked to return to India no later than March 1854), and Burton acknowledges as much in A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El Medina and Mecca.

In fact, Casada is not alone in questioning the veracity and substance of Burton's various accounts of his years in India. Most of Burton's accomplishments were subjected to divergent readings, some openly hostile, others aggressively hagiographical in his own time. Casada's conclusions merely echo the earlier disbelief of some of Burton's contemporaries who rejected less the existence or content of the report than the inflated claims that lead up to its production. One anonymous reviewer of Francis Hitchman's much touted biography, Richard Burton, K.C.M.G. (1887), expresses sheer incredulity at the accounts of Burton's feats in India: "Sir Richard Burton has unconsciously been led into overstatement. The brief period of seven years [in India] would hardly suffice for the study of a single Oriental religion. In the case of Sir Richard Burton, if we are to accept this account precisely as it stands, it was sufficient for the study of eight languages, for a searching investigation into the mysteries of three creeds, for the discharge of official duties, for a number of journeys over unfrequented parts of India, and for a considerable quantity of sickness. All this, it seems to us, is a good deal more than could be crammed into the time even if Sir Richard could have dispensed altogether with eating, sleep and recreation."

On the other hand, another equally spirited reviewer expresses profound outrage at any such interrogation of Burton's accomplishments and instead calls for an appropriate recognition of his labors by the Queen's office. For this reviewer, Burton's eccentric methods and loci of information retrieval in India are precisely what the colonial administration must standardize to maintain control over the native populace. In invoking the primal site of colonial rebellion, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the reviewer marks the first of many connections between Burton's labors and their importance to colonial governance structures: "Since the Mutiny arose from the administrative ignorance for all those things for which Burton showed a devouring passion, it might have been thought that no one's services would have been more eagerly utilized there, after the calamity, and as soon as he was available." There are, of course, many more such heated responses to Burton's labors, from a sheer dismissal of his efforts to an exuberant acceptance of his views and theories. Burton was and continues to be a figure who elicits a passionate following among readers, especially men.

I should state here that I am concerned less with the veracity of Burton's recall or the account of his experiences than with the structures and content of their recovery in his work. My interest in recounting the story of the Karáchi report and its dissemination lies not so much in debunking the articulated theories of its absence or presence but more in understanding what is at stake by continuing to do so. Indeed, what I hope to underscore are the grids of colonial intelligibility within which the report's claims around pederasty are strategically staged. In other words, what happens if we shift archival attention from the ultimate discovery of this report to understanding the compacted role its evocation plays? What if we were to consider the report, for example, less as a lost archival object and more as an embedded sign whose evidentiary status (as an official technology of state intelligence) decisively connects questions of sexuality, governance, and colonial anthropology? The salacious detail, after all, is lodged not in a marginal footnote but in the body of the text, in an official form that mandates legitimacy and attention. What would it mean, then, to abandon our fascination with the contents of the report and to turn our attention to the secrets encrypted in the sign of the report itself?

One must remember here that the scandal of the Karáchi report lies in the promise of its explosive contents, in its exposure of the most covert and unspeakable of activities: male-male sex and, moreover, English male-native male sex. While scandal in the metropole (and, relatedly, in the colonies) in the nineteenth century did not necessarily concern sex, William Cohen argues that "in its quintessential and paradigmatic form it focused on sexual transgression," particularly sodomy. But, Cohen warns, even as a scandal, such as that of the Karáchi report, "recasts secret activities into a public story of exposure, it makes questions about truth impossible to answer, however deliberately it mobilizes truth-determining institutions." Any conclusive demonstration of the truth of the scandal, Cohen deftly argues, "is inimical to a scandal's sustenance" and to its circulation as a constantly unfolding narrative. Burton's strategic invocation of the Karáchi report and its later notoriety do largely follow such a movement. The constant debate around the report's existence certainly sustains the myth of male brothels in Karáchi, even as the report's existence and its contents continue to remain unverifiable. Our fixation on the report's existence (contested or otherwise) further obfuscates its coincidence of loss and emergence by temporally producing a narrative of presence first and absence later. While such a reading of the report as sex scandal may indeed be viable, what if the fixation on pederasty (native and British) is read here not as the secret that risks exposure but rather, following Slavoj Zizek, as a "fetishist misrecognition"? What if the report's attachment to homosexuality/ pederasty functioned as "a reified fetishistic screen" whereby we return over and over again to pederasty as the familiar metonymy of colonial excess? Under the sign of a formal record, the contents of the report testify to the triumph and reach of colonial empiricism, whereby no landscape, however elusive and transgressive, exceeds the mappings of colonial calculations. Even in its absence, or because of its absence, the report holds out the promise of what the empire could, and ostensibly did, record.


Excerpted from FOR THE RECORD by ANJALI ARONDEKAR Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction: Without A Trace 1

1 A Secret Report: Richard Burton's Colonial Anthropology 27

2 Subject to Sodomy: The Case of Colonial India 67

3 Archival Attachments: The Story of an India-Rubber Dildo 97

4 In the Wake of 1857: Rudyard Kipling's Mutiny Papers 131

Coda: Passing Returns 171

Bibliography 181

Index 205

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