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Abstract

The scholarship on the history of family, marriage and sexuality in India has proliferated in the last two decades. The child – as the presumed target of health care, education or family law – haunts these histories, but rarely comes into focus. In contrast to the careful historicization of ‘woman’ as a subject of law, or the vehicle for various political ideologies, the child has, by and large, been treated as an a priori category of analysis, or an object without history. This essay considers how the figure of the child-wife might be historicized by foregrounding age as a category of analysis, on the one hand, and points to the important theoretical and methodological insights that feminist historiography can offer to historians of childhood, on the other. In revisiting the ‘incidental’ histories of childhood produced by the feminist historiography on the child-wife, this essay hints at some directions for the history of childhood by turning to Michel Foucault's provocative argument on the need to include the child as a key figure upon which modern sexuality was conceptualized, and by attending also to his muted suggestion that we “listen to the child.” It argues that the very issue of sexuality drives a wedge between what might be described as the discrete accounts of children and childhood in history. The two histories – of “real children living in the time and space of particular societies,” on the one hand, and of ideologies of childhood or the “the ideational and figurative force of their existence,” on the other – part ways as a result of a profound paradox in pursuing the subject of sexuality with regards to the child, whether in the legal courtroom or the colonial archive: any attempt to listen to the child's testimony on these matters runs against the grip of childhood as a normative category that signals incapacity, vulnerability and innocence.