ArticlePDF Available

An Empire of Touch: Women’s Political Labor and the Fabrication of East Bengal: by Poulomi Saha, New York, Columbia University Press, 2019, 319 pp., $26.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-0231192088

Article

An Empire of Touch: Women’s Political Labor and the Fabrication of East Bengal: by Poulomi Saha, New York, Columbia University Press, 2019, 319 pp., $26.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-0231192088

NOTICE Warning Concerning Copyright Restrictions.
The copyright law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code) governs the
making of photocopies or other reproductions of copyrighted materials.
Under certain conditions specified in the law, libraries and archives are authorized
to furnish a photocopy or other reproduction. One of these specified conditions is
that the photocopy or reproduction is not to be "used for any purpose other than
private study, scholarship, or research." If a user makes a request for, or later uses,
a photocopy or reproduction for purposes in excess of "fair use," that user may be
liable for copyright infringement.
This institution reserves the right to refuse to accept a copying order if, in its
judgment, fulfillment of the order would involve violation of copyright law.
Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at
https://www.tandfonline.com/action/journalInformation?journalCode=rsoa20
South Asian Review
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rsoa20
An Empire of Touch: Women’s Political Labor and
the Fabrication of East Bengal
by Poulomi Saha, New York, Columbia University Press, 2019, 319 pp., $26.00
(paperback), ISBN 978-0231192088
Nafisa Tanjeem
To cite this article: Nafisa Tanjeem (2020): An Empire of Touch: Women’s Political Labor and the
Fabrication of East Bengal, South Asian Review, DOI: 10.1080/02759527.2020.1791453
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02759527.2020.1791453
Published online: 16 Jul 2020.
Submit your article to this journal
View related articles
View Crossmark data
BOOK REVIEW
An Empire of Touch: Womens Political Labor and the Fabrication of East
Bengal, by Poulomi Saha, New York, Columbia University Press, 2019, 319 pp.,
$26.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-0231192088
Poulomi SahasAn Empire of Touch: Womens Political Labor and the Fabrication of East
Bengal is powerful scrutiny of the history of touch, intimacy, tactility, porousness, and the
fabrication of gendered and racialized political bodies and labor in East Bengal over more
than a century. Drawing on literary texts, archival encounters, and other historical and con-
temporary artifacts, Saha brings the focus back to East Bengal that later transitioned to East
Pakistan and then the sovereign state of Bangladesh. East Bengal has been historically sub-
sumed under a romanticized and unified imaginary of Bengal.It is often ignored by the
dominant narrative of postcolonial history that focuses on the partition of the Indian sub-
continent as the singular defining political event. Sahas analysis is deeply inspired by post-
colonial studies, although she remains critical of the problematic aspects of the West
Bengal and partition-centric focus of anti-colonial struggles, the absence of the question of
Islam and Muslim experience, and the hegemony of development economics methodologies
for studying postcolonial Bangladesh.
Saha specifically traces the political labor of women, which has not been documented in
colonial as well as postcolonial archives that mostly look for womens participation only in
nationalist politics. She addresses archival limitations by examining autobiographies, family
histories, literature, songs, performances, religious tracts, and other historical and cultural
artifacts. She challenges the dominant tendency of subaltern studies to locate agency only
in identifiable structures that convert the subject as the individual.She subverts the theor-
etical and empirical limitations of the individual sovereign subjecthood by looking beyond
the liberal rights-based discourses of personhood and focusing on, for example, touch.
She examines different historical, political, material, and esthetical encounters of touch to
reveal how the local and intimate emphasis on touch can shine critical lights on the global
life of the empire.
Sahas first chapter titled Virgin Suicidesexcavates the colonial, nationalist, and post-
colonial meaning-making process involving the body and memory of Pritilata Waddedar, a
twenty-year-old school teacher and member of a revolutionary group called Jugantar who
committed suicide after leading a raid on the Pahartali Railway Institute in Chittagong,
East Bengal in 1932. Saha argues that Waddedar, through her body, act, and writings,
refuted familiar gendered and colonial narratives as she marked her act as an iteration of
sati but then disengaged from the pyre and rewrote its social text as a form of political pro-
test. Waddedar also presented herself as a male, Muslim, and non-Bengali when she com-
mitted suicide. She performed as a rebel drag(63), who evaded the disciplining colonial
gaze by establishing the mutability of her colonized body and transcending the familiar
colonial narrative of becoming a victim or the goddess. In response to Gayatri Spivaks con-
cern about Can the subaltern speak?,Saha proposes that Waddedar, in fact, spoke herself
as a resistant female subject who lived locally, imagined transnationally, and offered an
alternative to the Gandhian nonviolence within and despite a masculinist economy
of protest.
The second chapter The Fetish Touchturns toward the sight of the fetish, which Saha
defines as a material object of colonial life .a technology of historicism, making visible
SOUTH ASIAN REVIEW
socially embedded histories of violence and valuation(115), through a reading of
Rabindranath Tagores songs, essays, and exchanges with Mahatma Gandhi. Comparing
and contrasting the sound, sight, and touch of fetish as articulated in various narratives of
Tagore and Gandhi, Saha reveals two very different ways of responding to the colonial vio-
lence. For Gandhi, the symbolism of spinning thread at the charkha (spinning wheel) and
covering the nationalist body with khadi (hand-loomed cotton) were significant for binding
an Indian collectivity through labor and touch. Tagore, however, was an intense critic of
Gandhis form and function of political protest and his proposed fetishistic attachment
with nationalist labor. Tagore argues that this fetishistic attachment strips workers of their
humanity, turns them into material objects, and threatens the very self-determination it
promises. Tagore, in contrast to Gandhi, envisioned a humanistic, affective, and deterritori-
alized ethico-political collective that he called samaj(the society). Samajis based on the
ethos of the global liberal humanism but deeply committed to a localthats not limited by
physical geography or by the state as an organizing principle.
The third chapter, Oceanic Feelings,explores the encounter between psychoanalysis
and colonialism that stretched beyond literary imagination and was staged in the public
politics of Bengal. Sahas discussion on the character of Bimola the young housewife of
Tagores novel The Home and the World”–is particularly useful in understanding how
Sigmund Freudsdark continentof female sexuality can be reimagined not as the limit
of psychological knowledge but as an alluring threat to the homosocial rationalism of polit-
ical modernity in the guise of nationalism(119). Along the way, Saha claims that colonial
psychoanalysis and anti-colonial nationalism simultaneously produce counterimagineries as
Bimola declares herself as the motherland who is not a mother and who does not have any
militant son to save her, which recognized the new form of feminine labor of the
Swadeshi movement.
The fourth and the fifth chapters move away from the articulations of the gendered pol-
itical desire of colonized women to a discussion of how materiality and touch produced the
lives and labor of women in postcolonial Bangladesh. In the chapter titled Archive
Asylum,Saha examines oral accounts, government documents, and a documentary film to
go beyond the popular use of oral history as a counter-historical method and take a critical
look at the positivist commitment of knowledge production undertaken by the state arch-
ive. She specifically traces the life of the rumor that archival traces of the wartime rape of
Bangladeshi women have been burned. She carefully examines what role this rumor played
in determining what can be known about the birangonas (heroic women) a political term
deployed by the government of Bangladesh to transform violence into evidence of heroism
without specifically naming sexual violence, by whom and what kind of knowledge might
circulate and how.
The fifth chapter, titled Machine Made,examines how NGOs serve as intermediaries
between state-based citizen services and private mechanisms for Bangladeshi women. It
specifically traces the socio-historical life of the Singer brand of the sewing machine from
the Gandhian Satyagraha movement to the Bangladesh governments initiative of rehabili-
tating survivors of wartime sexual violence. It then shines a light on the process of trans-
formation of nakshi kantha an embroidered quilt archetypical of a feminized folk esthetic
into a consumer good. Saha extends the discussion on nakshi kantha to reflect on fair
trades gendered neoliberal fantasy of bridging the distance between artisan in the Global
South and consumer in the Global North through a fictional, commodified, personalized,
and sentimentalized shared touch and promise of progress. Lastly, she ties the historical
and social lives of muslin, khadi, and nakshi kantha with the contemporary ready-made
garment. The ready-made garment is often perceived as devoid of human touch as it erases
2 BOOK REVIEW
the feminized body through its mass industrialized production and mechanized anonymity.
Saha connects the historical politics of consent and political subjectivity in the sati regula-
tion with a critical reflection on how a liberal, depoliticized conceptualization of safety and
security frames the consent of Bangladeshi women garment workers to work at factories
under unsafe conditions as the failure to choose(237).
A historical project based on dense archival research doesnt often have the scope of
expanding critical details, which doesnt necessarily hurt the chain of core arguments but
could have offered more nuances. For example, Saha recognizes in her Introductionthat
positing the term East Bengal may be read as prioritizing cultural references termed as
Hinduand reaffirming Indias hegemony over the state of Bangladesh. She argues that
her analysis explores the state-making process by taking a critical look at the nature of co-
constitutiveness and contingency in the relationship between East and West Bengal
(1314). Nevertheless, the first three chapters would have benefited from juxtaposing the
analysis with the Muslim experience, especially given that the Muslim East Bengal/
Bangladesh has been historically shaped by a relatively egalitarian, local, sufi-mysticism
influenced Islam, which is very different from the contemporary dominance of the Wahabi
school of thought in Bangladesh. Saha, in fact, briefly touches upon the influence of folk
Baul tradition combining Vaishnava and Sufi forms and Lalon Fakir, a famous indigenous
Baul poet and singer from East Bengal, on Tagores work (162). Further analyses like this
on the Muslim East Bengal/Bangladesh would have enhanced Sahas already rich analysis.
In her discussion on the unintended consequence of the gynecological state intervention
to address sexual violence after the Bangladesh independence war in 1971, Saha briefly
refers to the radical transformation of the state of reproductive health that involved wom-
ens increased access to contraceptives offering possibilities in economic and intimate lives.
Her analysis would have further benefited from Michelle Murphys critical reflections on
how the government of Bangladesh and local and international NGOs deployed a govern-
ance mechanism through the widely popular family planning and population control pro-
grams in the 1970s and the 1980s. These programs determined which lives were worth
living and worth saving based on market rationales, thereby legitimizing the exploitation of
racialized, female, working, and disabled bodies (Murphy 2017).
Yet An Empire of Touchis a powerful call for reconceptualizing what constitutes the
political labor of women. It is much-needed scrutiny of how laws, labor, the psyche, the
archive, and the global market have shaped the institutional and discursive colonial and
postcolonial political order. Through rich archival research, Saha conclusively demonstrates
how women have never been outside of this political order and how they offer radical pos-
sibilities for transforming the world through their labor and touch.
Notes on contributor
Nafisa Tanjeem is an Assistant Professor of Global Studies and Gender, Race, and Sexuality
Studies at Lesley University. Nafisas research and teaching interests include transnational fem-
inist theories, critical race theories, transnational social justice movements, globalization and
feminist politics, and South Asia Studies. Her current book project examines transnational
labor activism and activist discourses developed in relation to the deadliest garment industrial
disaster in human history the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, a factory building housing five
garment factories in Savar, Bangladesh. Drawing on two-year-long physical and digital ethno-
graphic observations, her project reveals how creative transnational feminist praxis in virtual
and physical organizing spaces can uncover histories and struggles of women workers and
grassroots labor organizers, thereby transcending benevolent regimes of neoliberal trans-
national labor organizing.
SOUTH ASIAN REVIEW 3
Reference
Murphy, Michelle. 2017. The Economization of Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Nafisa Tanjeem
Global Studies and Womens, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Lesley University, MA, USA
ntanjeem@lesley.edu
ß2020 Nafisa Tanjeem
https://doi.org/10.1080/02759527.2020.1791453
4 BOOK REVIEW
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Nafisa Tanjeem Global Studies and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
  • Michelle Murphy
  • Ma
Murphy, Michelle. 2017. The Economization of Life. Durham: Duke University Press. Nafisa Tanjeem Global Studies and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Lesley University, MA, USA ntanjeem@lesley.edu
The Economization of Life
  • Michelle Murphy