What could be common between the curfews on young women hostellers at the Banaras Hindu University today and the girls who studied and lodged at the Women’s Christian College in Chennai in the 1910s? A lot, actually, as Sneha Krishnan, Oxford scholar of Human Geography, discovered in the course of her exhaustive project.

Krishnan’s research unearthed details about the everyday life of students in Chennai’s oldest colleges for women, using an unusual resource: college magazines – those wildly uneven accounts of campus life, with their typical mix of humour and high thinking, frivolity and ideology and, of course, a stern preface from “authorities”.

Among the nuggets Krishnan stumbled upon was this: WCC’s first principal, the Scottish missionary Eleanor McDougall, built and raised the height of some college walls for the sole purpose of discouraging male visitors. She also worried endlessly about students misusing their telephone privileges to contact young men. Young Indian women, she firmly believed, simply didn’t have the emotional fibre to withstand evil, persuasive men.

The trope is familiar for all those who have been following the stories of paternalism and paranoia gripping hostel wardens and administrative bodies at colleges in India. A lot might have changed on Indian campuses for women, but a lot remains frozen over 100 years.

Now and then

Krishnan recently delivered a talk at the British Library in London, on her research titled In a Place of Dreaming and Secrecy: College Magazines and Young Womanhood in South India. Her journey into this world was sparked by the questions that interested her: What sort of future were our grandmothers and great grandmothers dreaming of when they entered colleges, the first Indian women to do so? If they were intrepid enough to leave their homes, what was a typical day in the hostel like? What kind of political debates did they engage in? What were their anxieties about love and marriage? What did they read, which films did they see? What sort of terrains did those legendary hostel friendships negotiate?

One way to find answers was to dig around for journals and letters, but those were hard to come by. Even when Krishnan did find them, they were rarely bare-all writings about growing up in South Asia of the early 20th century.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Balajijagadesh [Licensed under CC0]
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Balajijagadesh [Licensed under CC0]

Between the lines

In her days as an undergraduate student at Chennai’s Stella Maris College between 2006 and 2009 Krishnan became “mildly obsessed” with college magazines.

Krishnan discovered the magazines were an unusual, intriguing, honest and oded glimpse into the way women thought, lived and felt in the early years of women’s education. They were edited, monitored and controlled by faculty editors but if you looked long enough, you were sure to find riveting material.

“Girls write frequently about hostel pranks and friendships, about relationships between senior and junior students and about living away from home for the first time,” said Krishnan. “They also write on more serious matters: for instance, I’m currently writing a paper about a 1941 debate at WCC on whether civil disobedience could be reconciled with Christian ethics.”

Most of the material she used came from magazines of three women’s colleges in Chennai, set up in the early to mid decades of the last century: Stella Maris, Queen Mary’s and the WCC. Krishnan read through every single issue of WCC’s Sunflower and Stella Maris’ magazines, both annual journals, up until 1980 for her research. In fact, Stella Maris has uploaded its journals starting from 1947-1948, the year of its inception.

A page from the 1948-'49 magazine of Stella Maris College.
A page from the 1948-'49 magazine of Stella Maris College.

My brilliant friend

Among Krishnan’s favourite finds from Sunflower is the story of Soma Samarasinha, the first Sri Lankan student to graduate from the WCC in 1918. It is a fascinating account of a complex hostel friendship, pangs of loss, death and reconciliation.

Samarasinha met Mercy Azariah, daughter of the bishop of Dornakal in present-day Telangana, when the two ended up as roommates at WCC. Samarasinha wrote of how she was intimidated by Azariah’s erudition. The two went on to become close friends and visited each other’s homes. But Azariah died tragically young, and Samarasinha writes about her grief at losing her friend.

Eventually, after a personal spiritual journey, Samrasinha, a Sinhala, converted to Christianity and chose to get married at the WCC chapel. College faculty and students attended the ceremony and the principal of WCC gave the bride away. Samarasinha wrote that Azariah’s parents attended, and were, to her, as much family as her own would have been.

“To me, this is a story about how life in the hostel opened young women up to a reconfiguration of kin and family, as well as to journeys both spatial and ethical,” said Krishnan. “I think it’s important to see youth friendship as an important site for articulations of selfhood, and the hostel as a significant place of cultural encounters.”

Advertisements in the Stella Maris College's magazine.
Advertisements in the Stella Maris College's magazine.

Dream journals

Other writings which held great promise of psychoanalysis were the narratives about dreams, that spoke of the inner imaginative lives of women. A second-year student wondered what she would choose between a hypothetical marriage with a handsome doctor she loved or a scholarship to the US. Would marriage be a mistake? Would she be able to somehow pull off both?

“My favourite though, are stories in which girls write about bizarre and frightening dreams they have had,” Krishnan said. “We have a bicycle that pitches and someone falls off a cliff, when she tries to cycle to the library in her dream. There is also a dream about the Spirit of History visiting a student and telling her a poem about how histories of the nation are necessarily fragmented.”

Could there have been much difference between the pre-Partition college magazines of say Kinnaird College in Lahore and Isabella Thoburn in Lucknow? Unlikely, according to Krishnan. “College magazines in India were published mainly to serve as a record for philanthropic bodies in the West that invested in women’s education in India,” she said. “So they include many pages of reports of club activities, as well as lists of visitors from abroad. In the early years, there are even college accounts in these magazines: records of funds received through charitable donations and fees, scholarships awarded, salaries paid.”

But, as Krishnan learnt, not all of it was dreary record keeping. Occasionally there were touching, hilarious stories of love and romance. Krishnan stumbled upon poems expressing the desire to marry for love, or marry someone kind and loving. There were also funny stories in the Queen Mary’s College magazine from early years about students’ fiancés being allowed to visit on Saturday mornings.

Junior students, most of whom were not engaged and did not receive any visitors, would stand on the balcony ready to pour water on the men. “The writer tells us that these men would arrive looking both nervous and dapper, and that it was a major source of amusement to see these lines of husbands-to-be alarmed as they were cascaded with water from above,” Krishnan recalled.

While her work is rooted in history, it links to contemporary debates on women, education and campus spaces. During her own research and stay in women’s college hostels she found that authorities clamp down on women’s freedoms a lot more now than when Krishnan was a student. Some curfews were as early as 4 pm, and most no later than 7 pm.

“Movements like Delhi-based Pinjra Tod speak to how the women’s hostel as an institution creates a normative imaginary of middle class respectability and public visibility,” she said. “My work looks at women’s college magazines as a way of understanding how this regime of curfews and restrictions came to be instituted in the context of a racialised and caste-inflected project of social reform in late colonial India.”

Krishnan is now collaborating with an archive project along similar lines that will be housed at the University of Pennsylvania: “We’re looking for South Asian women’s personal correspondences from about the 18th century to the present. So if someone reading this knows of a great-grandmother’s letters or diaries just sitting in a box, and which you wouldn’t mind a bunch of historians looking through, please get in touch. We desperately want to know what your great-grandma did in her everyday life as a girl.”