The Sexual Life of English

Languages of Caste and Desire in Colonial India

The Sexual Life of English

Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies

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Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: Published: May 2012

Author: Shefali Chandra

Asian Studies > South Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > Asian History

In The Sexual Life of English, Shefali Chandra examines how English became an Indian language. She rejects the idea that English was fully formed before its life in India or that it was imposed from without. Rather, by drawing attention to sexuality and power, Chandra argues that the English language was produced through conflicts over caste, religion, and class. Sentiments and experiences of desire, respectability, conjugality, status, consumption, and fashion came together to create the Indian history of English. The language was shaped by the sexual experiences of Indians and by native attempts to discipline the normative sexual subject. Focusing on the years between 1850 and 1930, Chandra scrutinizes the English-education project as Indians gained the power to direct it themselves. She delves into the history of schools, the composition of the student bodies, and disagreements about curricula; the way that English-educated subjects wrote about English; and debates in English and Marathi popular culture. Chandra shows how concerns over linguistic change were popularly voiced in a sexual idiom, how English and the vernacular were separated through the vocabulary of sexual difference, and how the demand for matrimony naturalized the social location of the English language.


"The Sexual Life of English poses a significant challenge to modern Indian history, which has tended to take the links between language and culture and the gendered colonial self for granted, when engaging the latter at all. From now on, it will be impossible to grapple with liberalism, education, women, domesticity, class and caste, conjugality, nationalism, sexuality, and so much more without reckoning with Shefali Chandra's cogent, subversive arguments." — Antoinette Burton, author of Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism

"Shefali Chandra's rethinking of cultural theory and modern Indian history is remarkable. Her major thesis, that Indian English has a brutal and loving social history of sexualization, will set a model for analogous studies in other national traditions. Her breakthrough argument is that English acquisition produced male cultural authority through the installation of biosexual difference. The point, then, is not the phallogocentrism of English as English but rather the installation of a 'native' phallogocentric power in the processes of colonization and postcolonization. All those who have found wanting the orthodox position in the historiography of subaltern studies will find The Sexual Life of English an exhilarating read." — Tani E. Barlow, author of The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Shefali Chandra is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, the International and Area Studies Program, and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Note on Transliteration and Spelling ix

Part One

1. Learning Gender, Knowing English: An Introduction 3

2. "The Prudent and Cautious Engrafting of English Upon Our Female Population": Pedagogy and Performativity 29

3. "The Language of the Bedroom": Mimicry, Masculinity, and the Sexual Power of English 57

4. "A New Generation of Hipless and Breastless Women . . . To the Forefront in Europe and America": Literature, Social Class, and the Wider World of English 83

Part Two

5. "I Shall Read Pretty English Stories to My Mother and Translate Them into Marathi for Her": Widowhood, Virtue, and the Secularization of Caste 117

6. "Why Had I Ever Begun to Learn English?": Desire, Labor, and the Transregional Orientation of Caste 137

7. Dosebai Jessawalla and the "March of Advancement in the Face of Obloquy" 157

8. Epilogue: "I Am an Indian. I Have No Language": Parvatibai Athavale and the Limits to English 175

Salaams 191

Notes 195

Bibliography 245

Index 267
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5227-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5260-0
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