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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: December 2009

6 - The private


The proliferation of personal writing

In many parts of the world, the social transformations brought by colonialism and postcolonialism were bathed in an outpouring of personal writing – letters, diaries, memoirs and sentimental fiction. Dipesh Chakrabarty (1992, 2000) speaks of a proliferation of such writing among the middle classes in Bengal from the middle of the nineteenth century. In Samoa, letter-writing began to be adopted as a vital new art in the 1860s, while in Nepal love-letters became a central feature of courtship – allowing young men and women to pour out their emotions with unprecedented freedom – only in the 1990s when girls' literacy rates rose high enough to support the trend (Ahearn 2001). In many places, including Africa, new personal genres were produced and circulated not just by and among the highly-educated and publicly visible figures that dominate political histories, but also by people excluded from the elite or obscure aspirants to elite status: clerks, village headmasters, traders, wage-labourers and artisans.

Across the colonial world, there were people who engaged in marathon feats of letter writing; and people who made detailed daily entries into their diaries throughout their lives. Amar Singh, a Rajput nobleman and officer in the Indian Army, kept a diary for forty-four years, from 1898 when he was twenty until his death in 1942. He wrote entries for every day except one, “the day his horse threw him and he lay unconscious”, producing, in all, well over 70,000 handwritten pages (Rudolph and Rudolph 2002: 3).

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The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics
  • Online ISBN: 9780511619656
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