History professor, Dr. Arunima Datta has managed to stay busy since the release of her book Fleeting Agencies: A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya published by Cambridge University Press in 2021. Recently, Datta has appeared on a BBCSounds podcast, been awarded Fellow status by the Royal Historical Society (UK) for her contributions to historical scholarship, and now her book has received the National Women’s Studies Association’s (NWSA) Whaley Book Prize.
The NWSA awards the Sarah A. Whaley Book Prize to a work that “addresses women and labor from intersectional perspectives.”
“I almost couldn’t control my emotions,” Datta said about giving her acceptance speech for the award. “So many people told me this was impossible, and that I was setting myself up for failure.”
While the task of researching for the book was not impossible, it was a massive undertaking. Over the course of years, Datta painstakingly searched through archives in India, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States to find glimpses into the muted and silenced lives of Indian coolie women. Using government archives, oral traditions, postcards, and farming records, Datta was able to weave the fragments together to provide a picture of the lives of these women.
Datta’s book is the first and to date only study of Indian coolie women in British Malaya, and it works to remedy a missing piece of history by examining the role of gender on labor, migration, and the nuances of colonialism.
“The study shows how often silenced and ignored histories are important to us as they offer new and nuanced lenses to revise our understandings of societies - past and present.” Datta said. “It also allows us to think anew in our approach to archives which often silence women’s gender and migration histories.”
Her book also introduces the concept of fleeting and situational agency which captures the coexistence of traits of complicity, resistance, and survival within an individual’s agential act. While the issues raised in this book are rooted within the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they have contemporary social and political relevance.
“The study helps amplify suppressed historical voices and realities,” she said. “In doing so, it proposes radical new ways to understand the past, but also allows history to lend itself towards efforts of better understanding the present.”
On Oct. 1, Datta appeared on the BBC 4 podcast, You’re Dead to Me. Hosted by Greg Jenner, the podcast highlights pieces of history in humorous fashion by bringing together a historical expert and a comedian as guests. In Datta's episode, she is joined by comedian, Eshaan Akbar, to discuss historical figure Sake Dean Mahomed, who introduced curry, the art of shampooing, and therapeutic massage to England in the 19th century.
“This was one of the most fun, inspiring, and personally rewarding experiences I have had as a historian,” Datta said. “It allowed me to make my scholarly work publicly accessible. In fact, after the episode aired I have received at least 7 emails from listeners, both scholars and the general public, appreciating my work and requesting I do more public history pieces like that. I also had a descendant of Sake Dean Mohamed who reached out to say how much he appreciated the episode.”
The host Greg Jenner reached out to Datta in an email after reading an article she had written about the history of shampoo. The email got caught in a spam filter, but Datta stumbled across it in early September and sent back a reply. Datta gives credit to the podcast's format for bridging the gap between scholarly work and entertainment.
“The conversations were so organic,” she said. “We made history fun.”
At the end of September, Datta was named a Royal Historical Society (RHS) Fellow. The RHS, based in the UK, has members all over the world. In order for RHS members to qualify for fellowship, they have to have made an original work “that offers insights that contribute to our understanding of broader historical problems and issues.” Datta was among other senior scholars who were recently recognized for their important contributions to history.
“I am incredibly honored and humbled to join RHS and members of the society who have always inspired me with their scholarships,” she said.
Datta will use her new status as a Fellow to be part of larger historical discussions and to create pathways to making forgotten and overlooked subjects part of larger historical dialogues.
After the eventful last few weeks Datta is not slowing down. She is preparing for the release of her next book exploring the lives of traveling ayahs who worked as nannies for British families in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Additionally, she has been named an Associate Editor for the prestigious academic journal Gender and History.