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Hidden and Silenced History of the Everyday Person: ISU History Professor’s Book Gains International Attention

December 15, 2022

Arunima Datta

Arunima Datta says she was always interested in the history of everyday people.

Datta’s interest in the everyday has led to research and publications that have explored silenced histories of labor communities and of women migrants. Fleeting Agencies has gained international recognition and is the winner of three prestigious awards: National Women's Studies Association Whaley Book Prize (2021); Western Association for Women Historians Chaudhuri Book Award (2022), and North American British Studies Association Stansky Award (2022).

 Fleeting Agencies is an account of Indian Coolie women in British Malaya (present day Malaysia) who migrated to work on rubber plantations. It tells the story of their everyday survival and resilience amidst exploitative colonial and plantation power structures. Fleeting Agencies is the  first book length study about Indian Coolie women in British Malaya.

“I cannot tell you how much the three  awards mean,” Datt said. “The awards are gratifying personally, but they mean much more than words can describe to me and the fields of Malaysian studies, migration studies and women studies. Usually these kinds of voices don’t get represented so the fact that it was recognized means a lot to me and the fields that I work in.”“ 

“After it got the awards I was just overwhelmed with emotions because this is a project that so many people said would be impossible.”

Datta is an assistant professor at the Department of History at ISU and specializes in British, Asian, labor histories and women and gender histories. The inspiration for her book came when she was a graduate student looking at secondary texts about men’s labor on plantations. 

“I came across women in pictures but no stories of their labor or contribution to the nation or plantations,” she said. “That ignited this quest to discover their story, what their life was like.”

Datta says that as soon as she started researching it became clear the women were doing physical labor, emotional labor, sexual labor, and reproductive labor and yet their histories were not adequately studied. Fleeting Agencies also shows how Indian coolie women  contributed to the Indian nationalist movement by participating in  an all-women’s regiment against the British Empire. It innovatively ties together oral histories, visual archives, planter diaries, and multi-dimensional archival materials. 

“Many said I wouldn’t be able to do this,” Datta said. “They thought it was impossible to unearth these women’s experiences for lack of resources and also the lack of interest in women’s history, which is changing, thankfully.”

But Datta was able to unearth vital records. In a project that spanned the globe, with archival materials from the UK, Singapore, US, Malaysia, and India. 

“I had many moments where I would go into archives and find boxes of paper, boxes of books that people had not cataloged and ignored because they thought it didn’t matter. But when I opened the boxes they were amazing documents about the lives of these women and the services they provided to the British Empire,” she said.

Datta also interviewed surviving women. She spoke to at least six women who were alive during the time, and more of their descendants.

“I had the good fortune to talk to these women, some 90+ years old, some descendants,” Datta said. “They said, ‘Thank you for telling our stories!’” 

Datta says that one of the most touching comments she had from the women was “now finally we’ll have a place in national history.”

Datta says that knowing she had the blessings of these women gave her the courage to find connections and go on when research was difficult. 

 The main challenge Datta says she experienced is the silence in the archives. This silence exists because whenever the documents about these women were made, it was made as a complaint or to record something going wrong. Their personal voices did not necessarily enter the archives because they did not write the official documents. 

 “Whenever I would go to archives and they would tell me they didn’t think they had information on these women, I would ask different questions about the sources which allowed me to find alternative sources which helped me piece together a history about these women and their encounter with the Empire, plantation society and more,” she said. “Accessing their direct voices is challenging because their stories have been silenced. Bringing into conversation different kinds of sources allows us to unearth some kind of voice and agency of these women that have hitherto been swept under the carpet.”

 A few of the surviving women Datta interviewed passed by the time the book came out. Datta says she couldn't deliver them a copy of the book that is their story. But the public now has access to a previously unheard group of women.

 “Finally in public memory and history these historical actors, who were as important as any queen of the past will be heard. Through works like this, their history, their contribution to society will be remembered,” she said.

Datta has a forthcoming book, Traveling Ayahs, which will be published soon by Oxford University Press. It looks at the history of nannies who traveled back and forth with colonial families between Asia and Britain. A chapter of this book has recently won the Carol Gold Best Article Award 2022.

Datta says that sometimes her students tell her she is the professor who does the “weird history,” who explores everyday topics such as the history of alarm clocks, the history of waking up, the history of fan bearers, the history of horse groomers, the history of shampoo, and more. She wants them to know that they can have success as historians by uncovering the lives of everyday people.

“For me, the everyday is eventful in its own right,” Datta said. “History is going more toward the everyday and the unstudied. It is important to know how everyday people negotiated the past.”


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