Sneha Krishnan

Archives of Dreaming

[1] I use ‘girls’ in all my writing to refer to the young women in colleges because this is how they called themselves and this is how they continue to refer to themselves.
When I started research on young women in 2012, I wanted to ask how college-going women in India had fun. What constituted pleasure? And how did they make space for it? The question came from my own experience of both the apparatus of discipline that marks these young women as overinvested subjects of national futurity, and the communities of friendship within which fun comes to be imagined in profoundly transformative ways. This work, materialised in my doctoral thesis, led me however to a question that appealed to my initial training as a historian: how to write a history of colonial modernity that centres girlhood?[1] Young South Asian women are both pervasive in the archive as subjects of colonial and nationalist anxiety and mostly absent as subjects of their own histories. In early 20th century debates on the age of consent, women’s education, prostitution and social sanitation, and public health, they figure as repositories for fantasies of geopolitical futurity and as yardsticks of modernity. Whilst there is something of a scholarship on adult women and their role in anticolonial thinking, we still know very little about how young women – unmarried and occupying the period of ‘girlhood’ that suddenly became available in the early years of the 20th century – thought of the world around them. What kinds of anticolonial projects interested them? Were they invested in the nation-state to come? How did they understand caste and religion? How did the experience of education – which put them squarely within the reach of imperial humanitarian communities – shape the ways they came to think of their futures? What did they dream of for their lives to come?
Answering these questions has meant approaching the archive by looking at two kinds of materials that have yet to be examined: student publications in which young women authored essays and poems, and the stories that circulate at educational institutions for women. In my book-in-progress, I look at College Magazines – periodicals published by a Women’s college in the South Indian city then called Madras (now Chennai). Magazines published by colonial educational institutions are, in some ways, a bizarre archive. They are both instruments that establish the logics of colonial modernity in their construction of young non-white women as figures of humanitarian rescue, and almost the only place where girls and young women, who aren’t subject to legal proceedings in some way, enter colonial history as speaking subjects. The magazines I have looked at were typically published for circulation in the international philanthropic communities that supported educational institutions in the colonial world: organisations like the Rockefeller Foundation, and individual British and American philanthropists alike. Their purpose was to report on the progress of the project of modern woman-making that international humanitarianism had invested in. There are lists of courses offered, prizes won, clubs founded, and talks given. Much of this is staid and reinforces the idea that young Indian women are – as the founder of Women’s Christian College in Madras put it in her book – ‘lamps in the wind’: to be protected as much from their own unrefined emotions, as from the colonial city around them.
[2] Sneha Krishnan, "Killing Us Slowly: Pre‐Empting Suicide at a Women’s Hostel in Chennai," Antipode 51, no. 5 (2019).
I first came upon these college magazines when I was an undergraduate at one of Chennai’s women’s colleges. I joked then that while those who could afford it went to therapy, I turned to History. Stifled by the institution’s demands of respectability – and enthused by the community of young women in which I found myself – I began to ask if others before us had dreamed of political radicalism, and of futures that coloured outside the lines of caste-endogamous respectability. The carceral conditions of the college and its hostel – about which I have written[2] – came into the centre of the lives of the young women in my year, when one of our classmates was hospitalised after a violent instance of disciplining. Resisting the story that we were ‘unruly’ and our emotions a shame to the institutions that sought to make good ladies of us meant seeking histories of girls who also wanted an otherwise world.

The magazines themselves are brittle printed publications – the Madras Diocesan press published Women’s Christian College’s ‘The Sunflower’, which is the focus of my book – whose covers range from a nondescript image of the college’s shield and motto to dreamy images of young women leaning against pillars, staring off into the distance. I have no pictures of ‘The Sunflower’ because the British Library – where, for reasons familiar to scholars of the colonial world – Women’s Christian College’s magazine archive is held, will not let me photograph it. But the feeling of the paper – the smoothness of the cover page, the care with which I touch the thinner pages that follow; the advertisements for stationery and notebooks, textbook shops, soap that tell us how this publication was funded – is a visceral reminder of why I began this work, in the library at Stella Maris College over fifteen years ago. The history of girlhood that these materials iterate is therefore, inextricably interwoven with an embodied experience of the places, the international networks of humanitarian aid and women’s development, and the discourses of national and modern womanhood that I carry, and which I experienced collectively with the young women with whom I shared my experience of university.

So, really, as I ask how young women articulated dissent against the project of modern and national woman-making, I cannot ignore the ways in which the papers held in the British Library and the Bodleian in Oxford (which holds records of the conferences where formal education in India was imagined) meet the limits of their utility with another archive: the somewhat macabre archive of stories – ghostly, and very palpable – that circulate in these institutions, about their violent and colonial legacies. I heard many of these stories when I began hanging out with young women who lived in these hostels. Centring largely on themes of emotional discipline, the narratives I heard circulated as cautionary tales, as hauntings, and as comic stories about ‘girls like us.’ There was, for instance, Lily, who I was told killed herself after she was gated – confined to her room: a punishment still routinely handed out – because she started seeing a Dalit man. The drama club, with whom I was fortuitously hanging out when I heard about Lily, performed for me the limerick that circulates about her, rendering her both funny and tragic, a story of the curtailed possibilities of love outside caste boundaries, and of survival beyond the institution’s violence in Lily’s return as a favourite haunting. There are stories about gun violence that repeat the tropes in the scandalous – and very real – murder in 1919 of the British missionary Principal of Newington College, a men’s institution in the city, by an Indian student. Easy distinctions between archival and oral history reiterate the logics of colonial history writing. To write against the imperial and modernist impulses to fix colonised women – particularly young women and girls – within narratives of family and nation means making room for messy desire, and the serious business of playfulness: the sorts of things that the dean of one college in the city described to me as “stories with horns and tails.”

Dismissed easily as apocryphal – and I make no claims to their literal truth – stories of love gone awry, suicide, supernatural sounds, and possessed technologies indicate a register of everyday negotiation, in which the colonial institution’s claims to having produced distinctly modern subjects fail to hold. In rearticulating the colonial women’s college as a site of ruin, these narratives gesture both to anxieties about moral failing and to the material falling-apart of the institution that threatens to render these enclosures porous. They are held in, and inextricably attached to the architecture of the institution – gardens, carefully constructed by colonial educators to cultivate modern emotional dispositions, are rendered into places of magical possibility for girls who die in the institution; the clock-tower that marks time is haunted by a dead baby. Telling these stories, carrying them in memory and in embodied practice – disturbances in the night are attributable to particular ghosts and hauntings, and to hear them and know them is to be part of the community of students – is integral to the ways in which young women experience the long reach of imperial logics of respectability in their lives. They are histories that are almost anti-archival: papers, the girls I met often told me, can be made to look as people in power want them to. Trust us, they said, we know how it is.  We remember. The collective sense of this memory – it only makes sense as shared within a community – in some ways itself militiates against the individualist project of colonial modernity. By refusing to forget, these stories are indicative of the ways in which unliveable affects straddle mourning and play: animating the epistemic and embodied violence of the colonial college with uncanny refusal, and incommensurable laughter.

Working with these materials is to take seriously narrators of history, who have tended to be imagined as unreliable. When I first began work on girlhood, I found myself often confronted with the idea – expressed in the historical archive by missionaries and social workers of the early 20th century, as much as by present-day university administrators and hostel wardens – that young women were not capable of reliably narrating their own experiences. Taking such unreliable historical narrators seriously and asking how the stories that circulate in the hostel matter, is to critique the disciplinary project of futurity at the heart of postcolonial modernity. Geeta Patel writes that modern time “is about a future thrown forward from a past, a past produced in and through the present, which excises other possible pasts, other possible histories.” In making sense of girlhood as a site of unfixity, I take seriously the significance of these abandoned possibilities, and spectral resonances to the writing of postcolonial history.

Works Cited

Krishnan, Sneha. "Killing Us Slowly: Pre‐Empting Suicide at a Women’s Hostel in Chennai." Antipode 51, no. 5 (2019): 1515-33.

Sneha Krishnan

I am an Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Oxford. I currently hold a British Academy -Wolfson Fellowship (2022 to 2025). In all my work, I’m interested in how spaces of colonial education shape histories of gender, sexuality, and race. My first book, Unhomely Histories focuses on hostels for girls in late colonial India, asking how to make sense of an archive that is simultaneously sparse and abundant in its construction of girlhood at the nexus of projects of racial and sexual difference in the colony. In previous work, I have focused on the interplay of pleasure and danger in young women’s lives in India, and on the ordinariness of carcerality in the project of postcolonial sexual discipline in India. My work has appeared most recently in Social History,Antipode, and Gender, Place, and Culture. I have also written for readers beyond the academy in Public Books,the Abusable Past, and History Workshop Journal. I am also Editor of Gender, Place, and Culture and Associate Editor of The Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

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