Timely Histories

South Asian nights: A history

Nitin Sinha (Principal Investigator)

Historically, work is seen as part of the day and the night is assumed to be the passive time for sleep. This assumption has led for long to the neglect of the history of the night, at least in the South Asian case.

Studying night as part of a social history of time poses a few fundamental questions: Was nocturnal temporality different than diurnal, and if yes, for whom and how? If control of time expressed exercise of power, how did the night confirm or configure the power established during the day? Was it necessarily the time of subversion and transgression? And finally, did the night mean the same for different social groups and along different spatial sites, primarily rural and urban?

The unit will explore the meaning of the nocturnal time, and the changes therein, at an interrelated cluster of sites that include work (prostitution and ‘nightsoil’ removal), crime (patrolling the city in the darkness), law (the role of the night in the making of the rule of law), and leisure and pleasure. The anxiety and fear of the night probably re-inscribed darkness as the colonial state from very early on tried to regulate nocturnal mobility and sociability. This aspect is of specific importance as it shows a crucial role played by the night in the conceptualisation of the ‘rule of law’, a point so far not made in South Asian legal history.

The legal regulation of the night in aspects of work and sociability, and crime and mobility must also be complemented with the examination of the moral and social articulations on the night. What was the night’s role in the making of the entity called private space or private time? While the growing use of street lighting in Europe from the 18th century extended the period of the night, did South Asia go through a similar change? My hypothesis is that the history of darkness was different between Europe and South Asia. The extent to which street lighting developed beyond presidency cities is a subject of future research. Following this, the unit will comparatively use sources – archival and literary – to compare nights in the rural and urban settings under the hypothesis that it was not just the social groups and hierarchies, technology and the state that interacted to give meaning to the night but night also was shaped differently in different spatial sites. This strand will move the story beyond the state into the realm of social engagement with the night along ideas of transgressions, romance, separation, and supernatural.