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In Session: Views on Colonialism in South Asia
'Plain Tales,' Bare Truths: The Memory of Prostitution in Late Colonial India
Monday, March 22, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
University of Chicago, United States
Historians of prostitution in South Asia have benefitted from a growing richness of sources that include manuscripts and literature alongside colonial and official records. However, there is one substantive source base capable of imparting considerable knowledge of historical prostitution meriting greater attention: memory and its testimony. This paper utilizes an illuminating but untapped oral history collection from the 1970s known as ‘Plain Tales from the Raj,’ which contains the recorded testimonies of British men who served in the Indian military during the late colonial period (1920s-1940s). “What about the prostitutes?” was a simple question frequently posed to former soldiers that elicited numerous kinds of responses ranging from becoming taciturn to talkative to reflective. Stories of violence, desperation, and trauma populate many of the memories recalled in this remarkable sound archive that documents intimate knowledge about urban and regimental prostitution from the perspective of a significant group of European clients in Indian sex markets. Parsing these testimonies not only opens a window into the quotidian life of prostitution and its transnational backdrop within a colonial setting, but also offers us a way to interrogate reflections on guilt and violence as expressed by the soldiers from the vantage point of time. These recollections, or ‘plain tales,’ on prostitutes, soldiers, and institutions help shape our knowledge on multiple experiences of prostitution in twentieth-century India. Moreover, they also lay bare aspects of everyday colonial life pertaining to sex and power that are central to the history of the British Empire in Asia.