Subalternity and Manhood: Male Caregivers in Late Colonial India

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 10:00 AM
Crystal Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta)
Swapna M. Banerjee, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
This paper examines the history of male domestic workers in India who have been short-shrifted in scholarly literature in favor of their female counterparts, the ayahs and the maids, dominating the profession in colonial and postcolonial times. Drawing on personal narratives of three women from different regions and periods – Ateet ki Chalachitra (1941) of the writer-activist Mahadevi Varma (1907-1987); the post-Partition memoir, Doyamoyeer Kawtha (2008) of Sunanda Sikdar (1951-present); and the second autobiographical narrative, Eshat Rupantar (2004) of a present-day domestic worker Baby Halder (1973-present), the paper brings to the fore the complex nexus of gender, caste, class, and religion that constituted family relationships in late- and post-colonial India.  Varma and Sikdar reflected on untold lives of non-kin male caregivers of different class-caste and religion who shaped their experiences of growing up; Halder, meticulously recorded her experiences with men from her own socio-economic and upper-class backgrounds that determined the course of her life.  By foregrounding the male workers and their socio-economic, emotional, cultural, and religious worlds in a changing spatio-temporal context, the paper addresses the question of affective labor, a theme that has not been explored wholeheartedly by South Asian labor historians.  It argues that just as working-class women were used as a foil to redefine the ideal model of women from the upper classes, the material and affective labor of lower-class male caregivers too were crucial for forging class and gender identities of the formidable Indian middle class.  An investigation into the microhistory of subaltern men in conjunction with their male and female employers in the domestic domain not only complicates our prevailing notions of domesticity but it also opens up the larger question of manhood and the many layers of masculinity as a critical component of class-caste and gender identities in South Asia.
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