Paromita Chakravarti (Jadavpur University)
India Fellow (September 2014-March 2015)
University of Liverpool
As I warily picked up the receiver of the office phone, noting that the call was from the Deputy Registrar of the University, I dreaded hearing about another round of dreary reports which should have been filed last week and would have to go in by the end of the day. This had been my life for the last one and a half years as Director of the School of Women’s Studies, an additional charge over and above my duties at the department of English, Jadavpur University. Although I have been closely associated with the School for many years and have cherished the opportunity it has provided me for research, I was a little exhausted by my new administrative role and had been straining at the leash—a fact not unknown to my colleagues. The Deputy Registrar asked whether I had noticed the internal circular on the India Fellowships offered by the University of Liverpool. I had not—there were too many circulars to look at each day. He said that I might consider applying, more so because my department already had collaborative links with the UOL. His words sounded oddly like the gong signaling the end of the working day at my secondary school. Without much ado I started the application process.
I had attended some of the meetings and conferences of the ETIC (Envisioning the Indian City) project conducted collaboratively between my department and department of English UOL. I had often thought of using the resources of this collaboration to consolidate my work on the homeless women of Kolkata, but I hardly had the time to do it. For a while I had been planning to study the discourse of women’s safety in urban spaces in the context of the city’s changing history but the documents were scattered in several libraries. I longed for an integrated archive like the British Library. Suddenly things seemed to be falling into place.
Professor Nandini Das readily agreed to be my host and Claire Kidman and Christine Bateman at the International Relations office at Liverpool patiently helped me with my queries about the application. In early February 2015 I got a cryptic message on my phone from Nandini—“check your email, there might be good news.” It was very good news indeed.
Coming to the UK on the India fellowship was in many ways a return since I had spent several years as a doctoral student at Oxford somewhere in the hoary past. However, neither during those days nor in my subsequent academic visits had I ever been to Liverpool. So it was also refreshingly new. Arriving at the beginning of the academic year in the season of orientation courses and freshers’ meets with undergraduates milling around trying to appear purposefully occupied, I felt transported to my student days. The excitement of encountering new experiences and people and the luxury of having time for research had magically returned in my life.
My arrival in Liverpool coincided with the two day ETIC conference packed with stimulating papers from all over the globe. It seemed like a fitting beginning to what promised to be an exciting time. Within a week, thanks to Louisa Ainsworth and her colleagues I had settled down in my quaint attic office with the fireplace. Within days I was equipped with my staff card, learning the ins and outs of TULIP and VITAL, grasping the finer points about the collections at the Sydney Jones library, ably assisted by Lisa Hawksworth.
Nandini introduced me to the head, Dr. Siobhan Chapman and other colleagues in the department who made me feel very welcome. I was included in all departmental and faculty events, whether it was a farewell meet for a colleague or the annual Christmas party. At these social occasions I had the opportunity to meet a cross-section of people from the university, some of whom I approached later in connection with my research. At one of these gatherings I met the head of SOTA, Professor Stephi Donald who was always accessible and supportive during my fellowship, responding to my mails patiently and promptly.
The teaching I was assigned was not onerous and actually helped me to get to know the department and its academic programmes better. The lectures and workshops provided an opportunity to interact with students as well as to exchange ideas on teaching early modern literature with colleagues like Michael Davies, Esme Miskimmin, Nick Davis and Nandini Das on whose courses I taught.
Knowing about my interest in gender studies, Nandini introduced me to Sandeep Parmar who opened up the brave new (only to me!) world of local women’s organizations and research networks. I had a wonderful time following the activities of the Angry women of Liverpool, talking to passionate young members of the Liverpool Students’ Feminist Society and discussing international politics with the indignant activists in “News from Nowhere”, the alternative bookstore on Bold Street which became my favourite haunt. Sandeep’s Gender Research Network on which she kindly posted details about my research interests proved to be a gateway to many more valuable contacts from across the university. Karen Evans and Jude Robinson, both from the School of Law and Social Justice got in touch with me. This led to exciting discussions about our respective projects and possible future collaborations. In fact I am delighted to have contributed in some slight and accidental way to initiating a conversation between Karen and Jude’s School and the ETIC project in SOTA. One of the first products of this dialogue was their decision to jointly host my talk on Homeless women in Kolkata held in February 2015. I am grateful for the truly interdisciplinary audience I had for the talk and the diverse range of their expertise which informed the discussion which followed.
I also cherish the informal conversations I had with colleagues like the hastily fixed lunch meeting with Dr. Deana Heath from the History department where we discussed our work as well as our experiences of dealing with Institutional patriarchies. I still remember the perfectly random but utterly coherent and useful conversation I had with Lisa Regan of the English department on the pavement adjoining Abercomby Square about women’s mobility, the bicycle and first wave feminism.
It was not only academic colleagues, but also those from the administration who helped my research. Diversity and Equality Officer, Darren Mooney took a couple of hours out of his busy schedule to meet me and explain the gender equity policy of the University. This discussion helped me to contextualize the work I have been doing on gender auditing higher education institutions in West Bengal, India. I learnt a lot about the Union as well as issues related to women’s safety in the campus and in the city from enthusiastic students from various UOL departments who contacted me through Sandeep’s gender network. It were these stimulating sessions, talking excitedly with colleagues, students and acquaintances over several cups of tea that I also got to know the city since we met at coffee shops and restaurants. Cuthberts, the Everyman playhouse restaurant, China town, the cathedral tea room and the Cambridge pub became regular haunts. Slowly I also became familiar with the shopping areas around the station and the wonderful museums of the Albert Dock area.
Towards the middle of my fellowship, Nandini and I decided to put together a joint bid for funding for a project on Shakespearean reception with colleagues from the University of York and the Shakespeare Institute. I immensely enjoyed the entire process of collective brainstorming, planning and the task of designing the proposal. This was both an instructive and stimulating process because of the intellectual camaraderie that it fostered. I sincerely hope that the bid is successful and Nandini and I can continue to work together with other colleagues at Liverpool.
Finally, I am most indebted to the India Fellowship for providing me the opportunity of conducting archival research in the British Library on the history of colonial Calcutta. I had a most rewarding time reading old police records, government reports and newspaper articles on incidents of crimes against women in the city. I am overwhelmed by the kind of material that I have been able to locate. I wish one had more time! However I think this unfinished business can actually provide the best excuse to return.