- India Calling: the Memories of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s First Woman Barrister
Students of modern Asian history will certainly benefit from the republication of memoirs by prominent nineteenth- and twentieth-century Asian women. Among works recently reissued is the compelling memoir, India Calling: The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s First Woman Barrister. Born to a Christian, Parsi family in Nasik in 1866, Cornelia Sorabji had a public life that spanned nearly sixty years. Sorabji’s memoir, last published in 1934, is composed of several distinctive narratives that together shed light not only on her individual life and legal experiences, but also on many of the most important reform issues facing Britain and India in her era. Chandani Lokugé, editor of this edition, complements the text with a provocative introductory essay that contextualizes Sorabji’s life in relation to one of the most significant themes of colonial and post colonial studies: hybridity. This memoir would be effectively read alongside Antoinette Burton’s At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), which features an insightful study of Sorabji’s experiences in Great Britain.
This memoir captures the wide variety of Sorabji’s life experiences. India Calling is a personal and professional history that illuminates elite society in India and Britain at the end of the nineteenth and turn of the twentieth centuries. Sorabji also provides a richly detailed ethnography of the purdhanashin (women who lived in seclusion from men outside their immediate family) and orthodox Hindu gender relations, as well as a series of critiques on subjects ranging from missionary institutions and the civilizing mission to women’s movements and Indian nationalism. Although an Anglophile, Sorabji was cognizant that the British did not apply equal political standards at home and in the Empire. As critical of British governance as she was, however, Sorabji was neither a friend of the Indian National Congress, nor a supporter of Gandhian mass politics, which she believed had been high-jacked by a ‘body of clever young politicians’(192) of whom she was quite skeptical.
Sorbaji was a trailblazer. Although she was born to privilege, she created professional opportunities that neither liberal Indian nor British society readily accepted. She became the first Indian woman barrister by studying law at Oxford between 1889 and 1892, then gaining admission to the bar by examination. When British officials initially refused to permit her to practice law—a privilege not granted to women in India until 1919 and a status she did not receive until 1924—Sorabji seized opportunities available to her in India’s princely states, where legal custom could accommodate a woman’s appearance in court. The largest portion of Sorabji’s memoir is dedicated to her work for the purdahnashin in the orthodox Hindu princely states of Western India. Sorbaji met with the purdahnashin without compromising their seclusion, and she then represented them in public courts, securing the property rights that they held by custom. Refusing to over-romanticize English law, Sorabji observes, “Till the English Married Women’s Property Act [1870s], indeed, Hindu women might be said to have had greater rights than English married women”(67). This memoir confirms the conclusions of Rachel Sturman’s recent dissertation, “Family values: Refashioning Property and Family in colonial Bombay Presidency, 1818–1937” (University of California, Davis, 2001), by challenging the assumption that British imperialism unqualifyingly improved the rights of Indian women. It is finally noteworthy that Sorabji’s unorthodox professional work on behalf of the purdahnashin did not make her a feminist in the manner of many of her British and Indian contemporaries. Opposed to the suffrage movement in Britain, Sorabji argued that women should influence society by completing social reform work that needed to be done, rather than by engaging in public political debate. The memoir makes an interesting contribution not only to histories of colonialism and modern India, but also to the history of feminism.
Sorabji’s memoir will appeal to students interested in the history...