My research in India has been the best thing about my PhD. I initially dismissed the idea, especially as an unfunded student, all that expense and effort put me off, but during my upgrade I was encouraged to go. I couldn’t have anticipated what it is like standing in front of the buildings you’ve been writing about for years. Experiencing India has made my project better and not just because of the archival material I can now add.
I spent 5 weeks in India in 2013 splitting my time between Delhi and Kolkata: the latter was certainly my favourite. Returning to Kolkata in February 2015 for a short archival visit was easier than my previous trip. I gained access to the reading room in a day rather than a week. I had a clear plan for tackling as many records as the bizarre rules and haphazard opening hours would let me get my hands on. The city itself felt familiar, this is mainly due to all of the colonial architecture, but also because it is during my research trips that I have felt most connected to my project.
We all know that archives are full of challenges. How to tackle the archive as an institution and as source is something we frequently discuss as historians. India has a unique set of hurdles ranging from the political structuring and staffing of the national and state archives, the working conditions, the rapidly disintegrating records, and the illogical rules that seem to only exist in the archivist’s head. As historians we pay a lot of attention to methodology but not enough to logistics. We don’t seem to acknowledge how complicated, confusing and frustrating it can be just to get to the archive, especially for international and global historians. It can be infuriating listening to someone moan about the Bodleian when you’ve sat with rats crawling over your feet and an inexplicably angry archivist screaming at you in Bengali because you’ve had the audacity to request a file.
It is not just the differences in the archive experience at the research level that we forget to talk about, it is the reality of being an academic abroad. I’m not asking universities to hold our hands – we are after all adults – but in the social sciences it’s common practice to have some kind of training, especially if you are visiting developing countries or challenging environments. Most historians do not have to pass ethical research committees, but just because the content of the research does not present risks does not mean the research activity is without potential issues. As an institution which prides itself on global history we at King’s cannot pretend that archives exist in a vacuum.
Most of the basic advice feels pretty obvious, like budgeting an extra week in your research trip for illness or paperwork. We can all be sensible enough to ignore the funding criteria which stipulates that you get the cheapest hotel or the cheapest train ticket. Yet as a research community would it not be productive to share information and discuss best practice?
The elephant in the room of this discussion is the specificity of the female academic experience. I can only share my own experience and while I am more than aware it is not a universal one it certainly isn’t unique. I was not prepared for the constant sexual harassment in India. Most days just getting to the archive to conduct my research activity was distressing. I was shouted at, groped on public transport and followed in the street. I had to entirely change the way I dressed and behaved just to feel fractionally safer. In India my femaleness was a constant obstacle I had to overcome to just go about my business.
The moment that really sticks with me was at 4pm in the National Archives in Delhi when a fellow female researcher lightly touched my arm and said “this is when we leave”. The daily late afternoon exodus of women hurrying to get home before sunset was a reminder of how unsafe the city was and how different my archival work has to be.
My academic career will be shaped by whether or not I am prepared to face being a single female researcher abroad. I love India, and I will certainly be going back despite being aware that it will be challenging. To really successfully develop my thesis into a book I would need to go to Bangladesh which totally terrifies me, and it is a very difficult decision. Honestly, without a stronger, supportive, and more aware academic community, it would be easier for me to turn my focus towards a more British history of Empire and away from more exciting research adventures than the British Library.
Amy Kavanagh is a Postgraduate Researcher in the History Department working on District Officials, Representation and Power in Nineteenth-Century India