Mrinalini Sisodia Wadhwa

Student, Columbia University
  • Columbia University
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About Mrinalini Sisodia Wadhwa

I am a student at Columbia University majoring in History and Mathematics, originally from New Delhi, India, and New York City. My research interests lie at the intersection of women's rights activism and anti-colonial movements in 20th Century South Asia. 

I am a/an:

Undergraduate Scholar

Area of Expertise

Humanities Law Mathematics Social Sciences

Research Topic

History Literature South Asian Studies

Laidlaw Cohort Year

2021

University

Columbia University

I am from:

India United States of America

I speak:

English Hindi Spanish

My hobbies/interests are:

Art Badminton Hiking/walking Meditation Politics & current events Reading Volunteering

I am open to participating in mentoring/buddy programmes

Yes

Intro Content

Poster Presentation Gender Studies History

"Truly, modern women are more alone": Mahadevi Varma and the 'Woman Question' in British India

Attached is a poster I presented at the 2021 Columbia Undergraduate Research Symposium, reflecting on my research for the first summer of the Laidlaw Scholars Program.

Influencer Of

Topics

Channels contributed to:

News & Events Arts & Humanities Social Sciences Research

Rooms participated in:

Columbia University

Recent Comments

Replying to Joanne Park

Week 4: 

Has your research or work in a community to this point introduced you to any new fields or topics that are of interest to you?   How, if at all, has your work narrowed since the beginning of the project?

Before my work at the ACLU, I did not know very much about governmental and consumer privacy, or the extent to which privacy impacted both civil rights and civil liberties. Since then, however, I learned that there are many intersections between privacy issues and other areas that I am more familiar with, such as racial and economic justice or reproductive justice, and that technological advances often make it more difficult to forward effective legislation in these areas. I have also learned that while California's legislature is generally progressive on most issue areas, it lags behind on privacy—particularly due to the lobbying influence of big tech. My work has narrowed in the sense that I have begun to develop deeper and more substantive knowledge of my issue areas; for example, while doing an analysis of new proposed regulations in existing California privacy law, I was able to do a deep dive on dark patterns and global opt-outs. I am excited to see how other issue areas I have been working on intersect.

Hi Joanne! I'm just encountering this now, but I just wanted to say that your work this last summer sounds super interesting-- especially to learn, through your research reports, about how even while we imagine California to be one of the more progressive legislatures, it lags a lot on privacy. In light of conversations we've had after the Dobbs decision / data privacy with regard to menstrual and pregnancy tracking, this seems especially crucial work to undertake.

Week 5:

Apologies for such a late final post! Due to a last-minute emergency, the conclusion of my Laidlaw work got postponed by a few weeks, but I am now at the end of my Summer 2022 project and wanted to respond to this final prompt. I have learnt so much from my research mentor! Working with her has taught me a lot about approaching archival research and public history—I am especially drawn to how, in the way she organized this project, she has sought to think of the women we study in broader networks rather than as isolated, one-off cases that are easy to marginalize (and I think this approach is immensely valuable in thinking about how to excavate the lives, activisms, ideas, and contributions of figures traditionally marginalized from history, esp. non-Western women). Even more importantly, though, I feel very grateful for how she always emphasized health and well-being first, making sure to check that I was taking breaks from the work, getting enough rest, and genuinely enjoying my time. She pointed out, during my first week, that in academic work especially this can be an issue— because it’s easy to continue thinking through a new source, lead, or research question well beyond ‘working hours’ and let it become all-consuming (something I have noticed I can sometimes be prone to)— and how it can be very important at times to step back and take a break, so that one can approach a research problem well-rested and with fresh ideas. This helped me so much during my last month, which felt more balanced than I have previously felt while working on a history project; I made sure to take out time to explore Oxford, go on long walks, and see former classmates, and in the process the time I did spend on research was spent far more productively — and meaningfully, and enjoyably — than I could have imagined when I first began. I will really miss the project and am grateful to the Foundation for supporting it!

Replying to Eva Brander Blackhawk

Week 2: 

If you are doing a leadership-in-action or community engagement project, how do you interact with community members, and what kind of conversations are you having? How do you connect with this community of people, and what common cause do you find?

Most of my work is quite removed from community members because we're focused on bringing in new members to the community network and increasing engagement it's mostly been emailing people and finding people to email. That being said the ultimate goal is to have more people coming to our "think in" events which are events that emphasize conversation especially between experts, our editors, and audience members. Most of our work is increasing participation for later events that we won't actually be at, but it's been really interesting to go to the think-ins and hear experts and audience thoughts on topics like NFTs, batteries and sustainability, what slow news looks like, and if democracy works. I can definitely see how having more people at these conversations would be interesting for everyone. 

A big part of my work is also trying to think about how to connect with these people, and get them to want to come to events and redeem free subscriptions to the news service, so thinking about how I and we connect is a big part of the job. Something I've been thinking about is what we actually offer to these community members, which are people who can't otherwise afford memberships or are coming in through partnerships with charities. While I think it's something the company itself is trying to work out exactly, I think it's important to center these people's experiences and needs if we want to have higher engagement. 

Hi Eva,

Your work this summer sounds like it must have been fantastic! :) In particular, the "think-in" events seem really interesting-- I'm curious about how it is to have experts, editors, and audience members in direct conversation, since it seems like so often when we bring in experts/guest speakers for panels, things remain more hierarchical and the conversation feels more structured or between the panelists and the hosts (rather than also bringing in the audience). Really excited to hear about what it's like to organize these "think-ins," and how they can help foster organic conversation between audience members, the editors, and the experts. The range of topics you're covering sounds amazing as well!

Week 4:

My research thus far has introduced me to a new topic that I hope to learn more about—the Anglo-Indian community (a term I use to refer to Britons who had settled in India during the colonial period, not to people of mixed-race descent). As I was parsing through St. Anne’s College registers from 1891-1940 (five volumes!), I watched for any student whose birthplace was listed as India to follow-up on their name and background (the registers would share their birthplace, addresses, father’s name and employment, coursework, and eventual career). In the process, I was struck by the number of Anglo-Indian students—by just how many women were born in India, their fathers’ work tied to India in some way (generally colonial government or private sector work). I noticed that the majority of these women completed their high school education in Britain, and only had British addresses listed. Upon asking my professor about this, she spoke to me of how most Anglo-Indian families would send their children “home” to the metropole, enrolling them in British boarding schools and having them stay with relatives living in mainland Britain during the holidays, because of their mass fears of the ‘dangers’ of the ‘native’ Indian environment for their children (even if their own work, such as that of European educational missionaries, involved working with Indian children). Even then, a recent body of historical scholarship has discussed how many of these children struggled to fit in (something we even see in literature— cf. Sara’s character in A Little Princess, a book I grew up reading!) with their metropolitan British counterparts, and how much of their journey “home” was fueled by race-based anxieties about preserving the distinction and superiority of Anglo-Indians over Indians. Not all of these families, moreover, could even afford to send their children “home,” including a number of lower-class Anglo-Indians who settled for sending their children to European-only schools in India. I received the student file of one such woman—an Anglo-Indian woman who lived the first twenty-five years of her life in erstwhile Bombay, before coming to Oxford on a government of India scholarship—and am working on some writing about her case, drawing on scholarship about the Anglo-Indian community and using the information I have gathered in my database on St. Anne’s students.

One challenge I am facing is simply the dearth of available information about the women I am studying in this research project. After going through student registers from St. Anne’s College archives in my second week, I spent this week organizing and following-up on students with ties to Empire—Indian students, other Asian students, as well as British students who were born in a colony due to their parent’s work and/or travelled there after Oxford to work as missionaries, teachers, or in other roles. The registers themselves only give limited information about each person (name, birthplace, father’s name and employment, course of study, employment, terms kept), and sometimes, even after following-up on individual students to see if the College still has their student files, there are gaps in there stories that we cannot fill with the available archival materials. We have to, in turn, become very resourceful with finding additional sources of information that can help us make sense of these women’s narratives—to try and reconstruct the social networks they partook in, how they engaged with one another (for instance, I am quite curious about how Anglo-Indian students and Indian students engaged with each other once in much closer quarters at Oxford—considering how central it was in colonial India to the British Raj to keep them apart from each other as separate racial ‘categories’). We’ve been in touch with a number of different archival collections, including some outside of St. Anne’s (as the college archive, sadly, was closed for my final two weeks here, because it is a smaller collection), including colonial conference papers, Oxford Committee debates on the status of ‘Colonial and Foreign Students,’ and a range of other women’s colleges (St. Hugh’s, Somerville, etc.). This experience is really teaching me to carefully look for, and follow-up on, every possible research ‘lead,’ to be able to piece together the stories and socialization of these women—as well as how to navigate around contingent challenges like the St. Anne’s archive being closed. 

Replying to Anna Nuttle

Week Four:
What challenges and/or difficulties have you encountered and how did you go about resolving them? Speak to a specific challenge you have encountered and some of the ways that you tackled the problem.

Navigating Problematic Sources: 

One specific challenge I have been facing is contextualizing the sources I am reading with the background of the author, especially when the author is not a member of the Marshallese and/or lived in the Marshall Islands for reasons connected to the US government. An example of this was a detailed book about Marshallese culture written by a Peace Corps volunteer who was later expulsed from the Marshall Island community which he had joined. The book provided some useful information for me about community structures in parts of the Marshall Islands, but ultimately understanding the background of the source helped me realize that I don't want to use the source as a significant part of my research. 

My mentor has been helping me identify problematic sources and understand larger arguments in discussions of reparations for the Marshallese and different perspectives at play in understanding the historical and current situation. 

Has your research or work in a community to this point introduced you to any new fields or topics that are of interest to you?   How, if at all, has your work narrowed since the beginning of the project?

My project so far has touched on VERRY big topics such as the Pacific War, history of the US Military-Industrial Complex, tribally-organized communities, nuclear testing/disasters specifically in the Pacific islands, and the Marshallese resistance/independence movement. I have learned so much from this project already, and I am currently deciding to zoom in on one of these topics: gender dynamics and women's rights in the Marshall Islands, Marshallese resistance/independence movements (music, political organizing), or the history/arguments surrounding the movement for reparations for the Marshallese. 

Hi Anna,

Your project this summer sounds so interesting! I was quite struck by the point you made about 'problematic sources'-- it seems like when studying indigenous and other non-European communities, these can be the most accessible sources of material to us (I was also noticing due to language and preservation of these materials), and yet convey outsider 'Western' biases in how these communities are represented. I was recently reading about something similar in the context of the Guiding movement for my research last week (the Girl Guides, female equivalent to Boy Scouts), where the researcher found that most descriptions of indigenous Guide troops in Canada had been written by British women from outside the community, often eliding important details that we now might not have access to. It makes a lot of sense to think about how to critically examine these sources—and the impact they have had—rather than accept them on face value! Your idea for what you will specialize in look amazing. Can't wait to hear what you end up deciding to work on! :)

Week 2.5: 

Hello! Since my Laidlaw Second Summer is running on a slightly shortened timeline—for a total of ~5 weeks instead of 6—I’ll aim to respond to both the Week 2 and Week 3 prompts in this post.

A typical day in my research project can vary a lot based on what we are up to! During my first week, I met daily with my professor, who gave me some secondary literature to read that I went through and took notes on to find “leads” for our archival work: I would spend the days working at Oxford’s Radcliffe Library (both absolutely stunning and also their history library, so it has been a dream to work in), or in a nearby cafe, reading these books and documenting the names of archives, individuals, and sites at Oxford or in other universities that could lead us to more information about the women who came from India to study here. We would then follow-up on these leads—especially the direct connections to Oxford—to see if we could access the corresponding archival materials (for instance, today, I am going to the Brasenose College archives to see the papers of Apa Pant, an Indian student who founded the ‘Namaste Society’ at Oxford in the 1920s, whose name I encountered in a book called The England Returned that I was reading last week!). Since last week, we have spent time in the archives themselves, beginning at Somerville College, and moving to St. Anne’s College. My professor would coordinate with the respective colleges’ archivists, and we would generally meet with them in the morning, and be directed to a room in their libraries, where we would be given the colleges’ registers from the 1890s to 1940 (generally, due to privacy reasons, they cannot give us student registers after 1940). We would go through the registers to scan the information of all students who were of Indian origin, as well as Anglo-Indian and missionary students (part of these imperial networks of education that linked India, Britain, South Africa, and other parts of the British empire). Then, I would go through our scans, type up the list of names of students we wanted to follow-up on, and we would share this with the archivists, so they could see if they had student files for these students (since so much of the early work has just been naming the students whose names have not otherwise been recorded). Last Thursday was my first time flying solo in the St. Anne’s archive, where I spent about four hours going through the last two student registers, listing names, and reviewing the papers of an Anglo-Indian student who came to Oxford on a Government of India Scholarship. After finishing this archival work, I generally get some lunch in the area, and spend the evenings doing some more work on transcribing student files (when we have them),  developing a list of names, and following-up on connections these students have to other institutions or government programs in India, Britain, and elsewhere in the British Empire or in the world. I usually try and take a long walk in the evenings—it’s absolutely beautiful here, though last week was quite hot—and fit in time to explore Oxford, visiting local museums, little stores, restaurants, and cafes. 

My main project this week have been developing an online database of the names of Indian, Anglo-Indian [i.e. British children born in India, generally the children of Indian Civil Service Officers, other merchants/tradespeople, etc.], Eurasian [i.e. people of mixed Indian and British/European heritage], and Asian/other non-European students (I get to deploy my love for the online platform Notion in the service of research!). The idea is for this information to eventually be turned into a digital exhibit on these international, imperial networks (quite likely on a digital map of some kind, which my professor seeks to get funding to create through the Oxford Faculty of Geography, her department)—it also just makes our research easier as it offers a means of gathering and organizing information on individual students and consolidating their names in one place, since the St. Anne’s College registers have not been digitized and are all hand-written. In addition, through archival work last week, I am hoping to write an essay about a really interesting source I came upon last week—the student file of an Anglo-Indian woman who appears to have come to Oxford on a Government of India Scholarship (something I was surprised by, both since the GOI rarely funded women, based on the secondary sources I read, and also since they decided to fund a British woman specifically when these scholarships were generally framed as a means of providing education to Indians), who was evidently sent here to train to become a teacher and return to India to teach, but instead, decided to remain in Britain and lost an extension of her scholarship. It has made me think a lot about the kinds of liminal identities and communities I have encountered in this archival work. While I am not conducting ‘outside participation’ through interviews—since these women, born in the late 1890s/early 1910s, have passed away by now—there is a strange sense of connection one feels to them when reading their extensive, often deeply personal correspondences with the St. Anne’s principal, their struggles to find employment, to win the funding to remain at Oxford and pursue their desired course of study, or to secure passage to/from the colonial ‘metropole.’ When we find names in the college registers, we often have to go by sparse clues to decide whether to follow-up on this individual student by asking the archivists for their student files. I found plenty of British women born in India [Anglo-Indians], whose education and lives were spent entirely in Britain, since their families would seek to send them back “home” to be educated, viewing India as a dangerous place to raise children; I had not originally thought much of following-up on them, viewing them as ‘British’ (with my focus being on Indian students), until I came upon this particular woman’s file. It made me realize the kind of unstable, liminal identities that are formed through empire—the unequal relations of power, given that Anglo-Indians were meant to assert their superiority over Indians within the subcontinent, but also the liminality of their existence, since they would be treated as outsiders when they returned “home” to the metropole. This was compounded by the fact that travel was so expensive, and out of reach for the children of low-ranking ICS officers (or other lower-class Anglo-Indians), so perhaps a scholarship to Oxford was the only way for this woman to secure her return “home”—only under the condition that she return to India to serve as a teacher (upholding the colonial project of producing ‘civilized,’ English-educated Indian subjects, and thus serving the GOI’s interests), when she desperately wanted to remain in Britain with her family. This is all to say, I do feel myself coming through in the research, by the very fact that, with only a few pieces of information (a woman’s name, her birthplace, her father’s name and profession, and the names of her referees), I decide who to ‘scan’ and add to this database, and whose papers to ask for (if the papers are there at all)—a process that has made me highly sensitive to thinking about who falls through the cracks of the categories and binaries (British versus Indian, Christian versus Hindu versus Muslim, ‘elite’ versus working-class, and so forth) that we are trained to think in and sort these names into. I hope to explore these issues more this week, by delving into Anglo-Indian identity some more (and how they might have related to Indian students at Oxford), and am also glad to continue the archival work—we’ve found two Indian women who came here to study Sanskrit, which I have loved studying at Columbia, and wrote doctoral theses on the status of women in ancient India (which I am very excited to read this week!).

Also: I wasn't able to figure out how to include a picture in this post, but the database I linked has some pictures/scans of the materials I've been working with :) 

Week 1:

Hello! Let me first say that it has been amazing to hear about everyone’s work this summer—reading the posts and replies on this page makes me very grateful for our cohort and Laidlaw community, even as we are all scattered across the world this year, rather than meeting as a cohort in-person.

I am now a week into my second summer of Laidlaw work (having started much later, because of study abroad!), so I’ll begin by describing my project. This summer, I am working with Sneha Krishnan, an Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford, on a project called “Intimate Internationalisms” (that falls under the umbrella of the Oxford and Empire Network and Unstable Archives Project, which was where I first learnt about Prof. Krishnan’s work and reached out to her). The aim of this project is to trace networks of middle-class Indian women who came to Oxford to study in the early twentieth century—roughly from the 1910s-1940s, with an emphasis on the interwar/late colonial period, the 1920s-1930s. We are looking at archives of these women’s correspondences (as well as Oxford periodicals, registration lists, and magazines that might help us track down more individuals and out more about their activities here), housed within individual Oxford colleges they attended: primarily St. Anne’s College, but also Somerville College (where a few elite Indian women famously attended, including first law graduate Cornelia Sorabji and first female Indian PM Indira Gandhi), Lady Margaret Hall, and a few other places.

Until I spoke with Prof. Krishnan about this work, I had no idea that these informal student networks existed at all. My Laidlaw research last summer, on the Indian educator, poet, and activist Mahadevi Varma had caused me to develop a certain ‘mental picture’ about what it meant to be an ‘educated woman’ in early twentieth century British India: a time when perhaps less than one percent of Indian girls and women were literate, and when even if girls were educated, it was in Hindi and other ‘vernacular’ languages, within the home or in a local educational institution. Mahadevi wrote (in Hindi) about how the “modern woman [adhunik nari]” was so “alone,” belittled by educated men, and distinct (by virtue of her education) from her fellow Indian women. My project this year links some of these questions about women’s education in colonial India to some broader questions in international history, about networks of education that arose during the British empire: British educators coming to colonies such as India to found colleges and schools, and Indians from elite (and some middle-class) backgrounds winning scholarships to continue their undergraduate and postgraduate study abroad, primarily in Britain in schools such as Oxford. We are seeking to bring Indian women into this international history project, arguing that even though many official channels to Britain were closed to them (they were prevented from obtaining India Office scholarships), some middle-class women still made it to Britain through informal networks of women (from wealthy patrons, to missionaries, to educators) who would pitch in the funds and connections to bring them to places like St. Anne’s College, Oxford. How did these women see themselves—did they feel similarly isolated, as Mahadevi wrote, or did they perhaps take solidarity in these informal networks? What were their aims, in coming to Oxford—and how can we understand their contributions upon returning to India vis-a-vis those of more famous ‘England-returned’ Indian [and here I mean British India, including present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh] men, such as Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Jinnah, Bose, and others? These are some of the questions (building on the questions I explored last year) that I am seeking to explore through our work, which involves going through secondary and primary sources to produce scholarly writing, as well as, eventually, a public exhibition for St. Anne’s College on these women’s papers.

One of the worries I have, with this research, is a question of how much we will find about these women—a struggle I faced last summer as well, given that they have been almost completely left out of official national and international histories, and official archives. I worked on conducting a literature review this week, and noted how it was rare for secondary sources to name any of these female students directly: to find their names or archives that might lead us to them, I often had to go through the footnotes and bibliographies of these secondary sources, which could provide leads into resources at Oxford that we could draw upon. Within the colleges’ archives, which we are going to start looking at this week, my professor was mentioning how these women’s papers (with the exception of a few, well-known elite Indian women who studied here, like Sorabji or Gandhi) are often not considered important enough to document, scan, and digitize, meaning that we might be going in blind in a few cases, not entirely knowing what we will find, or how much material there will be (even with the help of the colleges’ archivists). At the same time, I think there might be something beneficial about explicitly recognizing this current sense of uncertainty about what we will find. It reveals the important gaps within the conclusions drawn by official histories (which is why I am so excited about this project, and the chance to bring together my interests in interwar international history and Indian women’s education). Moreover, it also speaks to the limits of what history-writing can accomplish—how we, as researchers, draw on imagination and experience to implicitly fill in the gaps left by official histories and archives. I have been thinking a lot about these questions this week, especially with regard to my own place as a researcher—I’d never been to Oxford before, but in some ways, wonder if my desire to come here this summer was partly born from a curiousity to think about what it means to be an Indian studying Indian history from Britain, to re-trace some of these women’s paths to the colonial metropole, while being temporally and spatially removed from them.

Replying to Bryley Williams

Week 1:

Hi everyone! It has been so great to read about the amazing things you are all doing this summer! I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, last week and am finally getting over some intense jet lag. I am participating in a program for undergraduates run by the Center for Khmer Studies, and I have enjoyed getting to know the other participants, exploring Siem Reap, and eating delicious food. Through this program, I am aiming to directly continue the research I begun last summer by conducting field work in Cambodia. For me, I am less concerned about saying something that has already been said and more concerned about not being able to effectively conduct meaningful research because of limitations that include a language barrier, the time restraints, and my perspective as an outsider, which all makes me feel a bit overwhelmed and inadequate. I am studying Khmer Buddhism, which is so deeply ingrained in Cambodian society that, although I have studied the topic extensively, I know that I have not ascertained all of its intricacies. I find myself being concerned about misunderstanding something and saying something wrong in a way that is damaging to the culture and society that I am studying, or reaching a conclusion that is utterly obvious to anyone who lived through the post-Khmer Rouge era.  I think that this is part of studying cultural history, though: approaching what may be “obvious” through an analytical lens, but also knowing that such “zoomed in” history is difficult to approach and must be handled carefully and thoughtfully. I think that it is vital to think about and address my presence as a researcher and my own outsider perspective and potential blind spots, so my concerns are productive and necessary in this sense. I am also always thinking through a comparative lens, often considering the similarities and differences between Khmer Buddhism after Democratic Kampuchea and Judaism, the religion and culture that I did grow up immersed in, after the Holocaust. I find this comparison really interesting, and I think that it has been quite constructive in pushing my research further, so this could be another way my insecurities about my perspective may be used to my advantage.

Hi Bryley!

Your work this summer sounds amazing—I am so glad to hear that all worked out and that you made it to Cambodia this year, to continue with the interesting research questions you had taken up last summer. Your thoughts on feeling like an ‘outsider’ in studying this cultural history, and the need to simultaneously analyze what we take to be ‘obvious’ historical conclusions while recognizing your own position as a historian in Cambodia, really resonated with me—while my project looks at Indian students so there might be less of a language/cultural barrier, I have moments where I feel like being removed in time, and coming from an American education, certainly does make one feel a bit like an ‘outsider’ in coming to a new place to conduct historical research. It also is so interesting to hear about how you have been thinking comparatively, relating your research back to your own religious and cultural background—which seems to me to be a useful means of working through some of these questions of ‘zooming in’ to conduct an in-depth historical analysis while simultaneously considering how your own perspective and background shapes the way you engage with your location, people, and primary sources. I hope things progress (or have progressed, as this is rather late!) wonderfully in the coming weeks :)

- Mrinalini