ArchiveExtensive correspondence of 52 letters from 1930-1950 totaling 121 pages by various authors, mainly young women native to the Indian subcontinent. In 1931, Indian female literacy hovered under 3% making the experiences of these forerunners, and their correspondence, incredibly rare. These writers are highly unusual because of their level of education, either in high school or college studying to become teachers decades prior to Indian independence. These letters record the interactions between a rare group of highly educated women, their yearning for independence, as well as their conflicting feelings regarding the traditions that define and restrict them amid the upheaval of the Indian independence movement and its involvement in World War II.
The subjects revolve around a women's high school in Dehra Dun, a city in northern India resting in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Many of them are written to or by a young girl named Probha, a student at Queen Victoria's College. Her older sister Rani attends a teacher's college and writes as well along with a cast of fellow students, teachers and love interests. The girls' mother writes frequently with news from home and her daughters respond dutifully with stories of their lives and well being.
Parents are a constant presence,dispensing advice and limiting freedom, too. "Yet we are only human and creatures of circumstance. Things are often beyond our control," writes the girls' mother to her daughters "I don't think it is possible to let you and bua go to Kashmere this year. So please trust your parents and their love and do not feel too disappointed." Travel is a frequent topic of interest as the women venture further into the world and write back to the others, sharing their adventures. "I had one gay grand day in Paris yesterday. I was lucky in getting there and seeing it as I did, too, for I saw all of Paris and all of the millions of people...I heard in London that every American went to Paris-the good ones after they die, the bad ones before!! Tut tut! I've been to Paris-and more alive than ever before for years! So I'm stamped!"
As the women gain new opportunities for independence and travel, they eagerly share their observations. "I was very interested to see people from various parts of our country and to see their mode of behavior and thinking. I must say the Burmese and the South Indians impressed me the most. We in the north are quite different from the south Indians. They seem to be more serious minded than we. I am also glad to realize that we young Indian Christians are anxious to get rid of some of the old silly orthodox ideas and are all for a evolution in the real sense of the word. We do require a lot of changes concerning our church matters and politics."
The generation of girls writing and receiving these letters were the first with access to the kind of education that would inform their opinions of national politics and global events alike. One letter from 1930 describes the conflict going on during the early days of Gandhi's civil rights movement, “I very much hope the Congress and the British Government will come to a peaceful understanding, which will be for the good of our country...This crisis is not only a political one but also a moral one." When one former teacher refuses to engage in political talk, her student, a girl named Phyllis, is disappointed and says so, "Your decision to abstain from discussing politics in our correspondence which, I need hardly say, is very disappointing to me for, politics to me, is a part and parcel of my life."
Not only were the girls able to form well-developed opinions and express them, they were empowered to take action, too. "The other day I saw a news reel picture and the grisly sights shown in it of men, women and children being mercilessly bombed and killed, of the wounded dying on the roadside for want of medical assistance and many other horrible sights--are sufficient to make anyone disgusted and indignant at the wholesale massacre which is being perpetrated in China. It is strange and perplexing when we think of the comfort and safety that we are enjoying while another nation is in the throes of agony. These are the paradoxical things in life which shake one's confidence in Providence. I am doing some private anti-Japanese propaganda here in my college and amongst my friends." The encroaching world war and its implications for Indian independence were of particular concern for these girls newly aware of the wider world's impacts on their individual lives.
One letter written by a young Gandhi supporter makes a passionate case against imperialist hypocrisy, "I hope the obvious incongruity of fighting for peace and democracy at home and denying us the same rights by Britain has opened your eyes as to the real nature of British Rule in India." This woman's interest in Indian independence was not unrelated to her own desire for personal freedom during a time when there was new energy for throwing off old restrictions. At the time Gandhi called for uplifting the status of women through education and recognition of their inherent worth as human beings. Determined to promote equality between the sexes, Gandhi publicly did household tasks traditionally considered women's work, declaring "the future is with women."
Over the course of the correspondence the women can be seen learning how to move through the world and enter its public spheres. "You have been uncommonly frank with me in your letter and I appreciate it very much," writes one young subject. "One finds people so frequently taking refuge behind smoke screens of concoctions and falsehoods when one comes across an exception one takes a liking to him or her even if the frankness is somewhat disappointing in its results." Traditional Indian society kept unmarried girls and women cloistered at home surrounded by family where they had little opportunity to form their own ideas about society.
In one description of a traditional Hindu dance performance, the writer is eloquent, "Every gesture, the movement of each muscle seemed to be a part of a whole like each word belongs to a poem. Never have I seen a dance that was less sensual and more elevating than this. It made one kind of gasp for the air of higher regions. It was poetry." The women are eager to share new experiences with one another, expanding their collective sense of the world with each description.
Through their missives back and forth, one can trace dramas both large and small. In one, Probha describes a trip to visit Shushil, a family friend, "Shushil and Shunil have grown so big-interesting and well mannered. I was greatly surprised. Shushil looks quite a young man with a suspicion of a mustache...I saw some of Shushil's paintings which he did at an art school in Kashmere. They were very good. Far better than anything I have ever done." Shushil writes often professing his love for Probha, "Since you say you love nobody else in view at present, naturally I am eagerly looking forward to a close tie with you and this bring about better understanding and love in attainment of the cherished goal in the near future for which I am so patiently waiting."
Much of the archive shows the way normal life continues amid radical social change. The girls are political but more often they are personal, experiencing the joys of friendship, young love and flirtation. One letter from Shushil to Prohba teases her interest in soldiers stationed nearby. "Was very glad to know that you are having a fun time with the soldiers over there," he writes. “I hope I was a soldier. I would surely try and make love with you, and about being successful I bet I would be."
A fascinating and expansive view of twenty years of revolutionary change told through the ordinary lives of young girls navigating tumultuous times with long term impacts they could not possibly imagine. The perspectives of this rare set of educated young women would be integral to the cultural shift required for the country to establish independence and form a new government.
(From national archive UK https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/empire/g2/cs4/background.htm#:~:text=British%20rule%20from%20the%20time,even%20approved%20of%20British%20rule.).