Women’s History Roundtable November 2019: “Grandmother, Mother, Daughter: Writing Women’s Lives” by Dr. K. Kalpana


K. Kalpana is Associate Professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Madras. Her research area is development studies with a focus on the interfaces between gender and the development experience. Her academic publications are in the intersecting domains of gender, poverty, microcredit, women’s work in the informal sector and collective action in solidarity economies. Her book ‘Women, Microfinance and the State in Neo-liberal India’ was published by Routledge in 2017.

This post is extracted from a story written by KV Navya for The New Indian Express titled ‘Paati’s story across five decades’ (published 12 November 2019). You can view the original story here.

‘When Kalpana Karunakaran, an associate professor at IIT Madras, was looking out for material to write a book on her mother Mythily Sivaraman, a trade union activist and leading organiser in the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu, she stumbled upon a wooden box in her home.

“The box was filled with my grandmother Pankajam’s writings. I have always known about her literary interests as I have read her essays, poems and short stories. But what I found in this box surprised me. It was her autobiographical writings that she had written from 1949 to 1995. I was struck by her vivid and evocative prose, in which she narrates the story of a girl child growing up in the second decade of the 20th Century amid salt pans in small towns along the Coromandel Coast in the Madras Presidency,” says Kalpana, while delivering a talk about her upcoming book at the Prajnya Women’s History Roundtable Series recently.

Kalpana realised this was a treasure trove and says her grandmother herself encouraged her to write the book. Mythily too, had written a book on her grandmother (and Pankajam’s mother), Subbalakshmi. The book, titled ‘Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive’, was published in 2006.

“My mother makes Subbalakshmi’s diary come alive, very creatively supplementing it with what she has gleaned from other sources about Subbalakshmi’s life. On the other hand, the subject of my book, Pankajam, speaks naturally from the heart and has a lot to say about herself, her life and her times. I rely on her autobiography. But I also juxtapose this with many other sources to present a full picture of her,” she says.

Talking about her grandmother, Kalpana said, “Pankajam had six years of schooling in Madras, receiving a double promotion twice. Her mother Subbalakshmi wanted to educate her to be a doctor. However, Pankajam was pulled out of school by her father when she was halfway through class 9 and got her married the year after, when she was 17.”

Yet Pankajam’s hunger for learning and knowledge was enormous. She read extensively on all themes including Science and Physics.“She kept up her diverse interests even as she raised her five children, managed her household and cared for her ailing parents. Hers was an ordinary life that was extraordinary in so many ways that I describe in the book. She raised me when I was a child and my love of books and reading and writing comes from her,” the author says.

Kalpana gathered the material for the book from Pankajam’s autobiographical writing, three short stories she had written that very closely mirror events in her own life, her essays and reflections on science, religion and the meaning of life, her letters and correspondences, her travel diaries as she was a global-trotter who travelled alone, interviews with Pankajam’s children and Kalpana’s recollections of conversations with her grandmother.

When asked how relevant she thinks books on family history are, she was quick to reply, “I find them fascinating. They are a rich source of social history and everyday lives of ordinary people — a vital departure from much of our usual focus on big events — wars, conflicts, dynasties and so on. This is also the reason that my grandmother gives for wanting to write about her life.”

The book is likely to be released by the end of next year.’

Women’s History Roundtable February 2019: “What’s Love Got To Do With It? Emotional Labour, Call Centre Work, and Romantic Love” by Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy


Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Her new book “1-800-Worlds: The Making of the Indian Call Centre Economy” published by OUP in 2018 chronicles the labour practices, life-worlds, and media atmospheres of Indian call centre workers, and locates them within the socio-political context of the new Indian middle classes.


Dr. Krishnamurthy presented her work at the February edition of Prajyna’s Women’ History Roundtable. She began by describing the difficulties of entering the space of the Call Centre as a researcher and an outsider. At first, she approached the question through the lens of a dichotomy in terms of gender perspectives, examining the different reasons why women and men take on night shifts. She noted that this was particularly relevant given that most call centre employees come from middle-class backgrounds, where discussions about female respectability often include fears about pre-marital liaisons, leading to aborted pregnancies, etc. Given that these discussions are still taking place in the face of increasing globalisation, Dr. Krishnamurthy wanted to examine the place of global capitalism in forcing middle-class women away from institutions of higher education and influencing them to enter into the exploitative labour regime of a call centre, thus changing their life cycles. At first, she tried to interact with call centre employees as a researcher while doing her field work. She noted that she found it difficult to penetrate the wall of secrecy around events within the call centre. So she decided to suspend her fieldwork and began to apply for jobs in call centres. She found that she was not eligible for any of the jobs, being older than the age limit of 26 years. A friend suggested that she should apply to be a call centre American accent trainer instead, and with some help from an Indo-American friend, she was able to master the required accent. This allowed her to get a job at a call centre, and her observations on gender, capital, and globalisation in the call centre became the theme of her research, constituting her first book.


Dr. Krishnamurthy explained that each new employee goes through a process of acclimatisation, adjusting to the artificial environment of the call centre that prioritises “feeling good” and discourages employees, managers and others who inhabit the space from feeling otherwise through its training practices. The space of the call centre is created on the basis on flexible capital and flexible labour (i.e. interchangeable labour). Most new entrants therefore slowly come to accept flexible labour as their natural way of life. This acceptance is helped along by the repetitive nature of the work – there is no “buzz” or challenge in the actual work, but most employees seem to find it addictive and have difficulty transitioning to a more daytime-oriented routine of work. This artificial environment is created in part by enforcing arbitrary tea and lunch breaks during the night – at a time when it is not really natural for us to eat. This sort of reprogramming of the body clock encourages employees to embrace the artificial environment and schedule.


Dr. Krishnamurthy’s research was particularly focussed on the experience of women employees, in an environment where gender plays a major role in the constitution of the workspace. Women are encouraged to leave at the age of 22, but men often stay on for longer. This creates a highly gendered environment, as age and gender differences create power hierarchies. Young women (aged 18-21 years) make up the bulk of the female population in call centres, and are enticed by visions of upward mobility as their salaries can be put towards EMIs as they work towards building a different life for their families. If their parents are reluctant to permit them to work at call centres, the parent too receive counselling pointing out that this job offer is an opportunity for a middle class family to access social and economic progress and better their situation.


All these tactics work towards putting a high burden on young women. Apart from the obvious difficulties of being tasked with improving the lives of their parents and family, they often have difficulty finding accommodation due to the unconventional working working hours required by their jobs. In addition, the creation of this artificial “feel-good” environment encourages women to aspire to call centre jobs rather than college degrees, leading to a complete breakdown in the education system – in more ways than one. It is not just their formal education that suffers from a lack of college education, but call centres also take the place of colleges as a “community” which teaches young women how to socialise, especially with the opposite gender.


This replacement of the college by the call centre often means that romantic encounters in the workplace become a part of the “desiring complex” that is built within the call centre – the job itself is advertised as being desirable, so it is natural that romantic desire becomes entangled with job-related desire. This desire complex is reinforced in every aspect of the job – recruitment, retainment, and even exit interviews. Since the cost of hiring and training a new employee is high, the employer goes to great lengths to try an retain young women in call centre jobs during the exit interview. Especially if the employee is a “high performer”, the management often makes it difficult to allow her to move out of the job by offering high incentives to stay.

Dr. Krishnamurthy’s presentation was followed by a lively discussion about the status of employees, particularly the relations between male and female employees, and the emotions of the women in call centres towards their colleagues and supervisors.

Notes for this Roundtable were taken by Sudaroli Ramasamy

Women’s History Roundtable: Dr. Prasanna, “The PCVC Story”


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Rapporteur: Sweta Narayanan

Dr. Prasanna Poornachandra is the face of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC). Like most other NGO’s, PCVC has a story to tell. For someone pursuing a PhD in Criminology with her thesis on studying deviant behaviour in the criminal justice system, Dr. Prasanna’s interests and purpose in life took a drastic turn when she pursued a PGD in Victimology from Japan. The need for a victim assistance and information centre in India struck her as imperative. On her return to India, she was keen on starting one immediately.

Dr. Prasanna and 2 other women started a victim assistance centre in a small room in Parry’s Corner, Chennai. The centre established a strong link with the police, who were the first point of contact in the event of any abuse, anywhere. After a year, the women realised that 90% of the cases that came to them related to domestic violence. And that they did not possess the necessary skills to deal with such cases. But the experience did give them the insight that domestic violence as an issue needed serious, dedicated attention.

In an attempt to understand the gamut of issues that fell under the ambit of domestic violence, the women set out to train in the United States. The experience taught the women what they needed to know about domestic violence and how to deal with its victims. Thus began PCVC’s journey, as the only organisation aiding all sections of the population in fighting domestic violence. According to Dr. Prasanna, her journey with PCVC so far has shown that domestic violence is pervasive, irrespective of class – poor or rich, domestic violence exists. PCVC’s client profile is varied, from wives of police officers and ministers to even NGO workers.

How does the Centre deal with a case of domestic violence? PCVC’s strategy in dealing with domestic violence cases is two-pronged:

  • The Centre has a 24 hr crisis helpline, which serves as the starting point. The helpline is manned by office staff till 5.30 PM, after which Dr. Prasanna personally takes over. Victims are contacted this way.
  • Victims are then taken to an undisclosed shelter in Chennai, where they are encouraged to start a new life on their own.

In the event that a woman complains to PCVC, the husband is informed (from an undisclosed number) that his wife is safe. This is to ensure that the husband is not subjected to further distress, says Dr. Prasanna. At the shelter, women are encouraged to restructure their lives by learning core life skills like budgeting, managing household affairs and their children’s lives. However, PCVC does not have a planned structure – services are modified as and when there is a need.

Most victims of domestic violence, as is known, are women. How does PCVC deal with perpetrators of the violence, the men? According to Dr. Prasanna, male perpetrators are treated differently – not as ‘bad’ men but as those exhibiting ‘bad’ behaviour. Men in our society have grown up thinking control is part of any relationship and that abuse, especially physical, is acceptable behaviour, she says. Though it is difficult to alter this mindset, treating them as human beings is crucial to resolving any conflict.

The highest priority, in any domestic violence case, is stopping the violence, according to Dr. Prasanna. Hence the first step is to help find a solution to put an end to the violence. Establishment of safety comes next. This is achieved through physically removing women from the place of violence (the home) and providing a ‘safe house’ for the affected women. The final step is empowerment and healing, which gives affected women the confidence to rebuild their lives. Women are often motivated to trace back their desires and aspirations and PCVC guides them towards their goal.
Crisis counselling is a crucial thread across these stages, where women are told what their options are and are advised to evaluate each carefully. This is because walking out of a relationship is not easy, according to Dr. Prasanna. Focussing on the problem (here domestic violence) will not help victims, as this only makes them ruminate over their troubles. Only striving towards a solution can liberate the victim, she believes. Enhancing innate on strengths and competencies to carve out an improved life is the way ahead. The overarching objective is to empower victims well enough so that they are equipped to handle any situation later in life.

Another major project PCVC is involved in is helping women at the burns ward at the Kilpauk hospital. The ward admits 150-200 burn victims every month, of which 60% are women with third degree burns. PCVC supports such women by helping them file chargesheets, providing a health drink and water and counselling. The concept of ‘me’ is alien to most Indian women, feels Dr. Prasanna. Women are brought up being told to be submissive and tolerant – it is for this reason that they are willing to tolerate anything, even abuse, for the family.

Therapy for children through art and play constitutes the core idea of PCVC’s SMILES initiative. The Centre adopts children of women whose burn injuries prove fatal and finds a relative/guardian to play for their care (including education and daily expenses). Currently, 120 children benefit from the initiative.

PCVC faces its share of problems too. In many cases, women often go back to the violent environment they have tried to get away from, due to certain compulsions. It is frustrating to see efforts go waste as we spend a lot of time and energy with a client, says Dr. Prasanna.  PCVC does not receive funds from the State Government – this makes sure they are independent of any influences, according to her.

The emphasis, throughout the roundtable, was on the need for women to be financially independent. If a victim wants to be independent, PCVC will be the first to help, she asserts.

As women, we need to take charge of our lives. With the belief that we can do anything.

Women’s History Roundtable Series: Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan on female-headed IDP households in post-conflict Sri Lanka


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Dr. Nirmala Chandrahaasan is a distinguished advocate who has been involved in the peace process in Sri Lanka for several years now. She holds a postgraduate degree in law from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D from the University of Colombo. She has contributed articles on human rights, refugee law and international humanitarian law to international law journals. She is presently on the advisory committee of a ten-year master plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka.

What is the international point of view, standards on Sri Lankan refugees? What are the ground realities we see at present? The Prajnya Rountable chaired by Dr. Nirmala Chandrahaasan threw light on some of these pertinent questions in the backdrop of the scenario today.

The roundtable revolved around three main strands – the resettlement of refugees, internally displaced people (IDP) after the civil war and the problems faced by women particularly during and after displacement and relocation.
Dr. Nirmala first briefed the audience on the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka. The civil war in Sri Lanka, she said, has been on for 30 years, with almost 800-900 lakhs of refugees having relocated to western countries. Most of these refugees are reluctant to return to their motherland as they are well settled abroad. From June 2009 until now, 4,000 people have returned to their place of origin in Sri Lanka. A sizeable population of Sri Lankan refugees also live in camps in India.

The narrative then moved on to talk about the differences in meaning between a ‘refugee’ and an ‘IDP. According to the 1951 Geneva convention, a refugee is defined as “including any person who is outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.” In simpler terms, a refugee takes shelter under a well-established international regime outside his country of origin and has access to humanitarian aid.

An IDP, on the other hand, lives within the country, has no convention or laws to protect and safeguard rights and has no access to assistance of any kind. The causes for refugees and IDPs though were common she said – civil war, persecution, violation of human rights, generalised violence and discrimination. IDPs became a matter of concern after their numbers and spread increased over time.

A significant portion of Dr. Nirmala’s narrative focussed on the importance of the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement as being the international norm and standard framework governing the protection and humanitarian assistance of IDPs. It lays down that no government can arbitrarily refuse a plea for assistance by an internally displaced person. It emphasises on the right of people to ‘voluntarily’ return to their habitual place of residence or any other part of their country.

The Principles also recommend that the IDPs be allowed to fully participate in the planning of their return and resettlement. Women especially MUST be involved in their relocation.

A very pertinent question that then arises is whether internally displaced people are being resettled in their native villages and whether they, especially women, are involved in making these decisions. Dr. Nirmala then pointed out that the aspect of ‘voluntary’ return is absent due to the high military presence in Sri Lanka.

She then moved on to talk about women headed households in Sri Lanka, the percentage of which has been pegged at 25-30% after resettlement. Section 4 of the Guiding Principles focuses on certain categories of people with special needs – children, women head of households and disabled people.

The problems faced by women heading households are many, she said. One was the uncertainty about missing family members. Not knowing whether family members were alive or dead added to a woman’s trauma. Next, no death certificates were issued for family members who had passed away during war or relocation, hence taking away their right to claim compensation for their deaths. Another cause for anxiety and trauma in such women was the fact that grave sites were being demolished or vandalised; hence access to graves of missing people dear to them was limited or impossible. She highlighted the high levels of anxiety and mental illness among IDPs owing to such traumatic experiences. The need for counselling and medical services only becomes all the more important in such a scenario, she said.

The next section of the narrative focussed on livelihood options women heads of households had access to. She contrasted this with the few options people living in camps had. People in camps, Dr. Nirmala said, received a package from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – Rs.5,000 when they left the camp and Rs.25,000 later for resettlement. She also highlighted the food package offered by World Health Organisation and a seeds and farm equipment package given by the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Households managed by women hardly had access to means of livelihood, either because their previous options had been destroyed or they were being prevented from accessing available resources. Lack of equipment and capital to start new ventures, no labour and awareness of other livelihood options meant the chances women had at starting afresh were in jeopardy.  Also, limited employment in the region further reduced the possibility of securing a job.

Dr. Nirmala cited the example of Kilinochi where food insecurity, she said, was at its highest. The region, with a large proportion of female headed households, was characterised by low income levels and high food prices. Women were not able to access lands due to lack of infrastructure and army intrusion. What is further traumatic for women is that 90% of women headed households also had a disabled person in the family.

Another factor that contributed to added anxiety for these women is the lack of documentation required to prove ownership of land. Most women had lost property deeds during the relocation process and are unable to prove title for land. Dr. Nirmala felt that in such a difficult situation, the government must be willing to take into consideration factual evidence/witnesses of women were not able to produce documents confirming their ownership of land. Even worse, education and birth certification of women often go missing in the resettlement process, leading to questions of citizenship.

Sexual harassment is another significant problem faced by women in Sri Lanka, according to Dr. Nirmala. This, she said, is because of the large number of army camps and soldiers. No civil administration in place even two years after the war meant that women had no platform to voice their concerns and seek legal assistance.

Finally, she emphasised the need for a proactive approach by the Indian government in Sri Lanka. This, she felt, was all the more relevant and necessary because of a large presence of Sri Lankan refugees in camps in India.

Q&A session

One of the important questions raised by a participant at the rountable was why the plight of women households in Sri Lanka was deplorable despite the existence of the Guiding principles. The answers to this question centered around the premise that the principles were only a convention, normative laws that did not bind on countries. Hence, its implementation depended on the leadership of a particular country.

Other questions revolved around SEWA’s involvement in entrepreneurial work in Sri Lanka. A chunk of the Q&A session also highlighted the underplay/ignorance of trauma in the political discourse in Sri Lanka.

This report has been prepared by Sweta Narayanan.

Pleasures and Perils of Intimate Ethnography: Women’s History Roundtable 3


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Dr. MD Muthukumaraswamy of the National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai, was the third speaker in Prajnya PSW’s Women’s History Roundtable Series on June 13, 2009. The title of his talk ‘Collecting Personal Narratives: Pleasures and Perils of Intimate Ethnography’ presaged a very interesting presentation.

rt3 3M.D.Muthukumaraswamy is the founder director of National Folklore Support Centre since 1997. He holds a double masters in English Literature and Philosophy. His PhD (1996) is on “Semiotic Analysis of Bharathakoothu Performances: A study in Theatrical Communication”. He is currently pursuing D.Philos in University of Oslo on “Social Imaginaries of  Divine: Selves, Spaces and Simulation in Kanchipuram.”  He was an Assistant Professor of Folklore 19987 to 1994,  and Folklore Consultant for the Ford Foundation’s New Delhi office 1994 to 1997. His publications include works in Tamil and English.

Dr. Muthukumaraswamy started by saying that following the classification of Tamil Sangam literature, he likes to classify narratives into ‘Agam’ and ‘Puram,’ broadly signifying personal/private/inner sphere and public/outer sphere respectively. Women’s narratives fall into the first category for the most part, in his view. Discourses about ethnography were largely discourses about ethics and ethics is about aesthetics and philosophy,  he posited as a preface to his talk, which explored the ethical, methodological and personal challenges of conducting ethnographic research.

Drawing on his field research experiences, Dr. Muthukumaraswamy underscored the importance of the researcher bringing something to the table as a way of building confidence with those whose lives are the subject of research.  If the researcher does not share something, the research respondent/informant is unlikely to do so. Once there is trust, there is a second dilemma for the researcher: how much of the narrative shared may be shared with the outside world which is the researcher’s own target audience? In his research, Dr. Muthukumaraswamy has come to depend on gathering several narratives to study the content and meaning of the common elements of the narrative structures rather than the content of individual narratives.

Descriptions of actual research decision-making, processes and conversations were very illuminating.

The discussion drew the speaker out on other issues: how to build confidence? what did he actually do while recording conversations? how are informants prepared for the end-use of the information they share? how to balance the importance given to transparency with regard to the researcher’s own background and process and the need to keep the subject in question front and centre? how to ‘give back’ to the community being researched?

The third Roundtable was held on the day after Lakshmi Krishnamurti passed away. We had always intended to start our Oral History work with her. But that is not to be and it serves to remind us not to dilly-dally over this work, waiting for the perfect funding and the perfect moment. Lakshmi Krishnamurti, social activist and freedom-fighter, RIP and thank you for the difference you made to India.