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Global Histories of Empire:Interaction of Metropole and Colony

Global Histories of Empire:Interaction of Metropole and Colony

Atiya's Journeys: A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain edited by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Sunil Sharma (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp 352, Rs 599.

exercise two paragraphs later, they ask,

Global Histories of Empire:

“but what difference does it make if the traveller is a woman and a Muslim woman

Interaction of Metropole and Colony

at that?” (p 103). Their response reveals the significance of the content of the travelogue where Atiya’s Zamana-e Tahsil Asiya Alam “offers a gendered critique of imperial cul

M
ovement and voyages especially to foreign lands, were and continue to be an important experience of modernity in south Asia. The a ccounts of such voyages are available in various languages. Amongst them in Urdu is Atiya Fyzee’s (1877-1967) traveloguecum-diary, based on her stay in Britain in 1906-07, which was originally serialised in the Urdu journal Tahzib-e Niswan in the same years and then published in book form in 1921 as Zamana-e Tahsil (A Time of Education). Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Sunil Sharma have translated it into English under the title, Atiya’s Journeys: A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain and written a comprehensive introduction with an impressive 48 photographs to illustrate the text. The translation is especially laudable as several other important travel accounts in Urdu such as Saiyid Ahmed Khan’s visit to L ondon and Shibli Nomani’s journey to west Asia still await analysis and translation. Lambert-Hurley and Sharma’s Introduction provides an in-depth and incisive analysis of Atiya’s travel to Britain, locating it in the larger world of imperial history in which the interdependence of metropole and colony was a characteristic feature of the experience of empire.

A Life of Reform and Arts

Raised in an elite family belonging to the Tyabji clan in south Bombay, Atiya Fyzee was born in Istanbul where her father Hassanally worked as a merchant and was known as Hassan Effendi at the Ottoman court (p 18). She travelled to Britain in 1906 to study at Maria Grey Training College and later in life acquired renown as a supporter of women’s education, advocate of reform and a patron of the arts. The I ntroduction of Zamana-e Tahsil gives not just the family background and social circle of Atiya Fyzee, which includes a

book review

Atiya’s Journeys: A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain edited by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Sunil Sharma

(Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp 352, Rs 599.

commentary on her friendship with Muhammad Iqbal and Shibli Nomani, but also the wider global connections established within the elite Indian diasporic families in the high noon of imperialism. Reading about her family lineage, one learns that writing was not alien to Atiya Fyzee, for several members of the Tyabji clan kept accounts of everyday activities (called the Akhbar ki Kitab) at their respective residences (p 28). What is unusual is that friends and family were encouraged to write these notebooks upon their arrival and departure “with the effect that many passages offer a special insight into Indian and foreign travel” (p 28).

Besides an autobiographical tradition, the family was also involved in reformist efforts to further women’s education and actively engaged in the meetings of M uhammadan Educational Conference as well as the All-India Muslim Women’s Conference. Beyond a life of reform and arts, Lambert-Hurley and Sharma also mention briefly the marriage of Atiya Fyzee and of her two sisters, Zehra and Nazli, giving important clues to a family historian on how marriages were arranged or broken in the early 20th century.

An Insightful Travelogue

The purpose of the translation, according to Lambert-Hurley and Sharma, is “to recover the Muslim female subject as an a ctor in world history” and “to trace how Atiya’s journeys, temporal and metaphorical, were structured and facilitated by the international institution of British Empire” (p 102). Taking on the critique of this ture, stimulated by her experience of t ravel and expressed in the context of the most everyday of the activities” (p 103).

Analysis of everyday life, as cultural theorists and historians have argued, a ttempts to animate the heterogeneity of social life, the name for an activity of finding meaning in an impossible diversity. Lacking a singular theme, Atiya’s travelogue thus offers the reader a range of her experiences including sea travel, her impressions of her teachers and classmates, description of servants and their skilfulness, vivid accounts of food, home-décor, dress and jewellery, ceaseless invitations to parties and gatherings with its concomitant social circle, visits to gardens and other city attractions as well as her exposure to British music and theatre. What is revealing here is that certain themes that Atiya mentioned – especially dress, work ethic of subalterns, and descriptions of home-furnishings – were reoccurring i ssues in the discourse of Muslim social r eform in colonial south Asia. Atiya’s Z amana-e Tahsil thus provides another narrative of colonial reformist discourse against the backdrop of cultural and social landscapes of diasporic communities.

Moreover, the chapter on Atiya’s relation with Shibli and Iqbal containing personal letters offers unexpected insights into their views on women. While most of the chapter aims to quell gossip in literary circles about Atiya’s friendship with these prominent male intellectuals and highlights the intellectual companionship that they offered to her, it also comments on their views on women’s education. One learns that while Atiya favoured a separate curriculum for boys and girls, Shibli saw greater benefits in a single curriculum, which would be able to “reduce the distance that has emerged between these two groups” (p 53). But Lambert-Hurley and Sharma illuminate the question of r eform and education best in the chapters

January 29, 2011 vol xlvi no 5

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

following “Friendship and Notoriety, S hibli and Iqbal” by placing it at the intersection of nationalism and empire.

Emphasising Global Implications

Perhaps the most important discovery in all the themes of everyday life that Atiya’s account presents us is the acquaintances made and relationships sustained by her both within the Indian diaspora as well as her English circle of friends and serves to make her travelogue, according to the translators, “an imperial tale with global implications” (p 101), demonstrating “the creation of a global network in the imperial era in which this Indian Muslim woman was an active participant” (p 66). This emphasis on the global implications of the travelogue due to its location in a transnational context is, I think, the most fruitful reading of the document and contains the potential for subverting some established conventions in south Asian historiography.

Much of the scholarly work on modern reform movements has focused on social transformations and colonial reason in isolation from global actors and international events. It has emphasised how reform was implicated in the ideology of nationalism, often at the cost of marginalising important transnational networks and connections that nourished these processes of reform. Looking closely at the travelogues especially from the colonial era can help counter this gap and provide a more comprehensive account of local national processes in a larger global context. As Catherine Hall (2002) has argued, “in order to understand the specificity of the national formation, we have to look outside it” (p 9). The imperative of placing metropole and colony in one analytic frame has become the edifice of several histories of empire especially in the work of Frederick Cooper, Ann Stoler and Catherine Hall and although studies of global history for colonial south Asia do exist in Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities, Antoinette Burton’s At the Heart of Empire and Mrinalini Sinha’s Specters of Mother India, travelogues can become a valuable archive in this direction and add crucial interpretation.

Contradictory Imaginations

Atiya’s Journeys looks briefly at British politics during the years of Atiya’s stay in London and also touches upon her encounters with Indian enthusiasts for the cause of female education. Emphasising these encounters for global history, Lambert-Hurley and Sharma argue that “relationships were being forged in the imperial capital between women activists from the opposite sides of the Indian subcontinent – specifically Bombay and Bengal – that could, in future, boost a national women’s movement in India” (p 74). Another important detail is that Atiya Fyzee was a member of the National Indian Association (NIA) which, according to Lambert-Hurley and Sharma, was an organisation “founded in 1870 with the explicit aim of spreading knowledge of India in England and promoting education and social reform in India, while also fostering friendly relations between Indians and Britons” (p 69). Atiya’s social life of the NIA in Britain enabled her to meet not just reformers but also important politicians and litterateurs like Abdul Qadir, Muhammad Iqbal and M A Ansari. The study of individuals, including Britons returning from India and Indians visiting Britain, who occupied spaces like that of the NIA, can therefore reveal the mutuality of metropole and colony demonstrating, as

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Lambert-Hurley and Sharma argue, that “even at the heart of imperial metropolis at the height of empire, the rigid oppositions between ‘west’ and ‘non-west’, coloniser and colonised, could be blurred” (p 68).

In addition to diasporic relationships, Atiya Fyzee’s impressions about the British society further reveal the inter-dependency of metropole and the colony. Repeatedly throughout the travelogue, Atiya remains overwhelmed and overawed by the efficiency and discipline of the English. Her reactions included amazement (“the capability of the people here amazes me” (p 130)), enthusiastic admiration (“God knows how these people learn everything”, (p 136); “I saw an excellent example of what all a clever race can do” (p 169)) to racism (“truly, if this nation did not have these virtues, then half the world wouldn’t be in their control” (p 191); “truly this country is worthy of such a vast empire” (p 192)). At the same time, Atiya also remained critical of Orientalism prevalent in English society saying that “if they meet an Indian who does not meet their fixed views, they become totally flabbergasted” (p 135) or of British high society complaining that there was an “artificiality and silliness mixed in the air of England” (p 212) compared to the sombre atmosphere of Germany. The polarity of these responses demonstrates the contradictory imaginations of the coloniser that the colonised developed, especially when they were closely exposed to the empire’s achievements in the metropole. It also indicates that the colonised subjects relentlessly negotiated the gap within the imperial i deology of civilisation versus savagery.

Atiya’s Journeys could prove useful to students interested in gender, empire, r eform/nationalism, travel, biography and global studies. What remains somewhat unclear, however, in Zamana-e Tahsil is the “Muslim female subject”. A lot of Atiya’s interaction was with non-Muslim I ndians and there are hardly any expressions of her piety in reference to Muslims. As a text by a south Asian Muslim, Z amana-e Tahsil can therefore be employed to theoretically destabilise the category of “Muslim woman”, significantly questioning our assumptions around it.

Thus, the archive of travelogues does not simply constitute ethnographic accounts of one culture observing and writing another but also involves self-transformation of the writer through the act of travel. Such reflections, at least in the colonial era, precipitated new ways of being and thinking which provided the catalyst for enormous social and intellectual transformation of Indian society. Scholarship on travel writing can thus help to reorient local stories globally and Lambert-Hurley and Sharma’s Atiya’s Journeys therefore is a significant contribution to studies of colonialism and i mperial history.

Asiya Alam (asiya.alam@gmail.com) is at the Department of Asian Studies, University of Texas, Austin.

Reference

Hall, Catherine (2002): Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

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