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November 2009: Priya Satia

Priya Satia
Assistant Professor of Modern British History, Stanford University

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

Get comfortable—this will take a while, and at the end, I’m sorry to say, you will find not a story but a series of serendipitous events among which you will strain to perceive the unities. (But we are historians after all, so this should not be a terribly unfamiliar exercise in self-deception.) And, for your pains, I guarantee short responses to the other questions–these proportions reflecting the fact that my experience in this profession has so far consisted primarily of getting into it.

So here we go:

As a first-generation immigrant in California, I was perhaps naturally fascinated with the question of roots. My parents are practical people, as many immigrants must be or become in order to cope with the enormous upheaval that immigration entails. I would corner them in their rare nostalgic moments and pester them for nuggets about their life in India. In my summers in India, I would listen spellbound at the feet of gregarious and weepy aunts; absent-minded yet righteous uncles; and, most fascinating to me, grandparents who spoke matter-of-factly about the most momentous events of their and their country’s history. I carried a long scroll on which I compiled the names they dropped into an impossibly complex family tree that faded at the top, beyond one Tikaram, into the mists of time. (I also noted parenthetically the rumored scandals that, according to one roguish uncle, corrupted the entire “line” of the family.)

In short, the immigrant child’s search for roots developed into a pet obsession for me. I was fascinated by the way full, complex lives could leave but the barest traces in the minds of their children’s children. Most of all I was gripped by the sense of a lost world, a family life that I could not find reflected in any of the fiction I devoured or movies I watched. It was peculiar, only mine, it seemed. These were unrecorded people doing unrecorded things, sending scraps of their doings through the Chinese whispers of their offspring. It was every child’s dream: a secret world. My own existence as the American-born daughter of a man from Muktsar and a woman from Multan seemed dramatically accidental, the product of millions of stars being aligned just so; I was impressed as much by the power of the incidental as the power of destiny—a tween version of the old contingency vs. determinism dilemma.

For a while all the half-baked philosophy of my ten-year-old self mattered little. In high school, the First Persian Gulf War helped me find and articulate the anti-imperialist politics that my family history had quietly instilled in me (which till then had manifested in an otherwise inexplicable passion for all things Russian). But any hope of merging my private preoccupations with a disciplined intellectual method was frustrated by the fact that South Asian history was not really on offer in the schools I attended (although my wonderful lefty US history teacher gave me a place to understand the political uses of history in other contexts); my private world remained private and imaginative. At university, I majored in chemistry and international relations and hoped the stars would magically align once more and tell me what to be.

But while my own past remained numinous, I clung to those who had recorded other pasts in meticulous detail. Frances Hodgson Burnett, Jane Austen, Emily Brontё, Dickens, Henry James, Agatha Christie (and their Russian and French counterparts, whose names would only be a distraction in this story of why British) unlocked for me another past, where everything seemed crystal clear, where the full lives rather than skimpy traces of (admittedly fictional) people in the past were preserved, even when they traveled to places like Egypt and India. These childhood companions encouraged me when I was in college to study for a term at Oxford and immerse myself in the sources for Indian history available there. This was my first taste of rigorous scholarly reading and writing in the discipline of history.

But for this daughter of an immigrant physician who was the son of an unschooled cotton industrialist who started out trading buffalos at the age of twelve when his gambler father was jailed for nationalist activity, it was not obvious how to translate my growing academic interest in history into a professional path. It never occurred to me that there was a profession for people who loved history; I had certainly never seen a professional historian who looked like me.

After college, I tried to find a way to make my anti-imperialist politics practical by studying development at the London School of Economics, which put me back in the UK, a place that, in my mental universe, had become the land where history is remembered. There I was blessed by the structure of British higher education, which left me to my devices for some eight or nine months before the year-end examinations. Unsurprisingly, neglecting my studies for nearly a year turned out to be the best thing I ever did for my education. I frequented arty cinemas and pretentious bookshops, read history, politics, economics, film and culture studies, and literature by the gallon. But of all the sophisticated theory and history, what ultimately grabbed me by the throat was a popular book on prominent display in every Waterstone’s in 1995: Eric Hobsbawm’s controversial but riveting history of the calamitous twentieth century, Age of Extremes, which I sped through during my daily shuttle between West Ham and High Holborn. Here at last was what I had been looking for: drama, the mix of the personal and the epic, a frame wide enough to illuminate the connection between India’s history and the history of the West, a history that made my existence seem possible. And when I discovered that Eric Hobsbawm was born on June 9, just like me (with a mere difference of 56 years), it was obvious the stars were trying to tell me something.

After playing deaf a bit longer while dabbling in film and fiction-writing, I finally applied to graduate programs—in both film and history—without realizing that such programs were intended to prepare students for academic careers in universities; rather, I hoped they would further defer the question of “career” while helping me fulfill my more pressingly impractical ambition to write a book. In the end, for various pragmatic reasons, I chose the history program at UC Berkeley, with some vague notion of writing about the history of Indian film.

I found British history through this South Asian backdoor. The historical event that most gripped my imagination, and seemed most to have shaped my family’s history, was the Partition of 1947. I saw this as part of South Asian history but in too emotive a manner to pin down intellectually without feeling dishonest; I discovered, in the end, that I preferred those family tales wrapped in the language and sensibility in which they had come down to me (although perhaps some day the right format and language for rendering them as written history will occur to me). Fortunately, because I arrived in graduate school when empire was all the rage, I was also able to see events like Partition as part of British history. What increasingly intrigued me was the audacious imagination of the British state—dreaming up partitions, new countries, new techniques of rule, and making them a reality—an imaginative power that could convincingly reduce the Himalayas to hills. This struck me as the type of historical phenomenon that I could approach intellectually. Moreover, I was drawn to British history, as I had been drawn to Britain itself, as the place where history was rigorously remembered and so where a convert from chemistry might find the firmest ground beneath her feet of clay.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

To keep my promise about brevity, I’m going to take this in the narrowest sense to mean who influenced my development as an academic, else I will have to go through a slew of beloved elementary and high school teachers, favorite books, and an emotional ode to my parents.

The key ingredient in my conversion to British history was my fortuitous landing in the office of Thomas Laqueur. Prof. Laqueur, who eventually took me on as his advisee, was firstly, infectiously excited and curious about history and ideas, about epistemological questions and the human imagination. At the same time, he conveyed the importance of rigorous knowledge of historical fact and historiography—the discipline¬ of history—to even the most playful analysis of the most playfully posed question. I learned (and continue to learn) a great deal from him about writing and the uses and evolution of particular methodologies. Most especially, his particular humanist ethos imparted a sense that, whatever the politics at stake, the people of the past can tell us a great deal about what it means to be human, and that conveying this is, in the most basic sense, the historian’s job.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

Flop fiction writer; bankrupt maker of low-budget, overly intellectual, incomprehensible, and boring films; dangerously poorly coordinated pilot. In fact I did not so much choose a career as it chose me. I had not settled on a career in academics until I went on the job market, sort of automatically, near the end of graduate school, partly because the idea of a Punjabi-American woman professor of British history with no family pedigree in university life seemed a bit dubious even to me. When the job market worked out, the decision had more or less been made for me.

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

Among my long list of one book published, I would have to say, Spies in Arabia. One very gratifying bit of that project was my discovery near the end of the links between the story of the British in Iraq and the postwar writing of British history, via E. P. Thompson and his father.

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

In my own next project, I am looking at how war, and the state more generally, mattered in the industrial revolution, through a study of the gun trade of the eighteenth century, kind of a cultural-historical take on the eighteenth-century military-industrial complex. My last book had a lot to say about state power; this time I want to bring the history of capital and industry into the story as well. In general, there seems to be a trend, perhaps triggered by the financial crisis, to apply what we have learned from cultural and imperial history to the old, staple political economic questions. Cultural historians in the US especially have begun to explore the preserves of traditional methodologies—military history, the history of technology, finance, expertise, state institutions, and so on. There also seems to be a lot of work on the relationship between imperial history and the international institutions of the twentieth century, perhaps because of the current wars in the Middle East. Imperial history thankfully is no longer a “new” or exotic of form of British history but has been neatly folded into the mainstream, and the current wars seem to be encouraging exploration of material forces over the older preoccupation with cultural identity.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

Find a question you are genuinely curious about.

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