Book Talk

Benjamin B. Cohen, In the Club: Associational Life in Colonial South Asia, 2015, pp. 211. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan. ISBN: 978 81 250 5908 0.

~ Nilanjana Sen, Independent Researcher

By the nineteenth century, in colonial India, attempts were made to bridge the distance between the political world of the colonial state and Indian society.  But this was also the period when the colonial civil society was developing in South Asia independent of the state. Benjamin B. Cohen in his book In the Club: Associational Life in Colonial South Asia, examines the domain of the social as opposed to the political world of the colonial state by presenting a “history in the clubs”. The scope of the book is limited to clubs whose institutional origins lay in India (4). Employing the extensive use of archival material, Cohen analyses the role clubs played in the making of the civil society by focusing on their internal composition and functioning.  At the heart of his study is the contestation of the dominance of race as the organising principle of social relations. Focused primarily on the making of the Indo-British civil society, this insightful study engages in equal measure with clubs that were racially exclusive as well as mixed clubs to make larger claims about the fluid nature of social interactions in colonial South Asia.

At the outset Cohen carefully disaggregates categories such as the public sphere, civil society and associational life more broadly. According to him clubs helped demarcate the public sphere and the nature of interactions within clubs shaped the nature of Indo-British civil society (13). He captures the uniqueness of clubs as associational forms by locating them between the home and the associational world at large (14). The location of clubs in the colony added flexibility to their everyday functioning and enabled members to overcome the particularities of social existence. Cohen examines the period after 1857 when there was a spurt in the growth of clubs in South Asia (10). He delves into the nature of colonial ordering in the public sphere and gives a compelling analysis of clubs as spaces where the strict divisions between coloniser and colonised were often blurred. While he is aware of the influence of racial considerations in identity construction, he provides a fascinating new way of re-thinking the development of identity in the Indo-British civil society. This he does by systematically elaborating on the networked nature of clubs. He engages with clubs as spaces where members developed alternative identities that were hybrid in nature (6).

The book presents the making of the Indo-British civil society by isolating the public sphere from the political world of the Empire. As a colonial transplant, the club continued to be enmeshed in global networks, but Cohen highlights the implications of its location in the colony and the role played by the local environment in identity construction for the members of the clubs. The central concern of the book is to break the hold of race and the constraints imposed by geographical fixity on clubs. By viewing the club as a networked entity as opposed to studying it in isolation, he grasped the nature of social relations that emerged from the complex interaction between networks that range from global, financial, logistical, to more intimate ones that were social and local nature. A notable feature of the book is Cohen’s ability to progressively link the existence of the club as an economic unit to more intimate bonds that existed within clubs, and in the process it captures the essence of associational life independent of categories such as subordination and hierarchy.

Periodisation forms an important component of the book’s overarching structure. Cohen navigates through various networks, interspersed with anecdotal references, and carefully crafted on a well-defined timeline, to present an alternative history of the creation of the Indo-British civil society. Apart from contesting the dominance of race and hierarchy, Cohen inserts additional categories such as gender to challenge the view that civil society in British India was an exclusive social space.

The transition into the twentieth century was accompanied by a growth in women’s clubs. Cohen captures the changing role of clubs by embedding social interactions in the changing local political landscape. By the twentieth century, the Indo-British civil society was shaped to a significant extent by anti-colonial nationalism. The world of women’s clubs is explored against this new social reality to suggest that the compulsions of anti-colonial nationalism did not always alter “civil” interactions characteristic of club culture in South Asia.

In the final chapter, the book transitions into postcolonial India and departs significantly from its central concern of analysing associational life in colonial South Asia. In this changed political and social milieu, associational life is examined by focussing on a new clientele that defined it existence in terms of class. Cohen does not study the emergence of postcolonial India as a political development. He inserts nationality as a defining feature of social relations, but the making of civil society continues to be isolated from the domain of the political.

Cohen has skilfully described the nature of associational life by the careful use of analytical categories such as race, networks, gender, hierarchy and nationality. The uniqueness of his study lies in his ability to find suitable categories that are mapped onto different time frames to explain the continuities as opposed to ruptures which define associational life in South Asia (18). But the reader would have benefitted if the book made occasional references to the political world of the empire and the postcolonial nation-state as factors that influenced the nature of associational life of clubs as well.

(This review was initially published in Society and Culture in South Asia, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (January 2017). It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the consent of the Editorial Board, Society and Culture in South Asia)

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