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April 2021 Interview with Dr. Datta

In Conversation with Dr. Arunima Datta

By Tyler Holman


Arunima Datta headshot


Dr. Arunima Datta discussed the details of her new book published by the Cambridge University Press, Fleeting Agencies, with Tyler Holman, Career Path Intern in the ISU History Department.

What is Fleeting Agencies about? Fleeting Agencies disrupts the male-dominated narratives by focusing on gendered patterns of migration and showing how South Asian women labor migrants engaged with the process of migration, interacted with other migrants, and negotiated colonial laws. This is the first study of Indian coolie women in British Malaya to date.  In exploring the politicization of labor migration trends and gender relations in the colonial plantation society in British Malaya, [I] foreground how the migrant Indian ‘coolie’ women manipulated colonial legal and administrative perceptions of Indian women; their gender-prescriptive roles, relations within patriarchal marriage institutions, and even the emerging Indian national independence movement in India and Malaya. All this, to ensure their survival, escape from unfavorable relations and situations, and improve their lives. The book also introduces the concept of situational or fleeting agency, which contributes to further a nuanced understanding of agency in the lives of Indian coolie women.

What are the key points that you hope the readers will take away? That transnational history of the subalterns is possible, even if it is challenging. That focusing on gender and women’s history is beyond the adding and stirring of women and gender histories into pre-existing history, rather these new investigative lenses allow us to re-vision, re-conceptualize, and reveal complex and connected histories which have been overlooked. Finally, I hope readers take away an appreciation of the term and concept of situational agency which is not only relevant in understanding the agency of the subalterns in the societies of the past but remains relevant to date while studying the lives of the masses in any given context.

Does Fleeting Agencies relate to other scholarly works? How? Yes, it relates closely to other works on migration labor, colonialism, gender history, Indian Ocean studies, and scholarships engaging with the concept of agency. However, in many ways, it is different from the prevalent scholarships in these subfields, as it is the very first book that investigates the everyday histories of Indian coolie women in British Malaya. For decades, the history of South Asian women migrants in Southeast Asia has been ignored and this is a first step in the direction of correcting that incomplete history. Further, it complicates the understanding of the term agency by focusing on the everyday histories and the concepts of temporality and transience – something that has not been explored before. In fact, I introduced the term “situational agency” through this book.

Was this something that you always wanted to write about? Not really. I always wanted to write about South Asian women migrants but was not sure about which community and in what contexts. This interest developed during my MA when I was deeply disturbed by the silences in the scholarships about South Asian women and their contribution to transnational networks and colonial economy, particularly in Southeast Asia.

What was your research, writing, and editing process? Any transnational history is very difficult as most sources are scattered across various departmental files and scattered across various geographical spaces. I had to explore archives in the US, UK, India, Singapore, and Malaysia before I could write this book. It was very challenging, but also rewarding. What is even more challenging when it comes to investigating and writing the history of subaltern subjects is that the archival texts are themselves tyrannical as those in power wrote them. They actively muted and withheld the voice of certain subjects. However, taking a closer look at the documents, comparing them, and placing them in dialogue with alternative archives like pictures, census reports, newspapers, oral history archives allowed me to understand the coolie women’s muted voices.  Just like the process of finding the fragmented voices of the subjects in my research happened in breaks, the writing and editing also happened in fragments. Every time I wrote a chapter and then went to a different archive, I would find other useful files which meant I had to go back and keep revising the chapters I had already written. So, it was an accumulative process that happened in segments. A very challenging task for any transnational and world historian but also very rewarding.

Did you come across or learn anything that surprised you while working on your book? Yes, two things. First, how deeply connected and interwoven the histories of different regions in the world were. Second, how extraordinary the coolie women were in their ordinary everyday lives. Their voices, their fierceness constantly served as an inspiration for me.

What is the most interesting thing you learned while working on your book? That an empty archive can also be full. In other words, that we can question and have dialogues with the silences in the archives to uncover aspects of the past that have been shied away from. The archives were created by a tyrannical power, so any mention of the coolie women was from the voice of those in power. Thus, the voices of the coolie women appear to us in the archive but in a very muted way.  Through the deviant acts of coolie women found in nonconventional sources (photos, oral histories, and arrest records), I was able to establish a dialogue through multiple sources and negotiate the history of the coolie women presented by the traditional archives.

What were some of the triumphs you experienced? When I began my research, many scholars mentioned this project would never be possible. So, I believe my ability to beat all odds I encountered in the archives and to be able to publish a book with a reputable press (Cambridge University Press) is a triumph in a way. But also, the biggest triumph is what an ex-coolie woman told me when I read a few sections of my draft chapters to her, she said,

That to me is the biggest triumph and something that will always be a source of strength and courage for me.

Can you explain the scholarship you were rewarded? How did it help? I was awarded the prestigious Singapore Presidential Scholarship and the University of London, Institute of Commonwealth Fellowship during my PhD, which allowed me to engage with the very long and expensive research process and trips across the world. As you know, international trips are not cheap. My transnational trips to archives in the UK (7 times) + trips to India (5 times) + trips to Malaysia (9 times) and trips between Singapore and the US – would not have been possible with these generous awards. After my PhD, I was awarded multiple fellowships from the Asia Research Institute during my post-doctoral years, which helped me in my additional research that was required to turn my dissertation into a book.

Do you have any advice for your students? Be committed to your research. Don’t let silences in the archives scare you – engage with them and ask the important questions – whose voice are we hearing and why do the silences exist. Finally, always remember, history is more important than you know, as without the past, we are merely prisoners of the present!

What’s next? I am writing a book on the history of Travelling Ayahs and Amahs (nannies) who traveled between Asia and Britain multiple times while serving as caregivers to colonial families on ship voyages. One of the chapters recently appeared as a journal article in the Journal of Historical Geography.  

Book cover of Fleeting Agencies, Datta, 2021

Interested in hearing more? Come hear Dr. Datta talk about her book on April 22nd at 3 pm MT. Free, online, and open to everyone! Just register here!