McGill-Ingenium Fellowship: Part One - A Historian & Her Archives

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Ingenium – Canada's Museums of Science and Innovation
An essay titled Mata-no Sahkar (Mother’s Guidance) in the popular Gujarati journal Guna Sundari (Nov 1936). The piece has an older woman sharing advice, in a conversational manner to presumably younger readers.

“Excuse me, sir”, I asked, trying to get the attention of the staff member at the Maharashtra State Archives, a public archive located in the heart of South Bombay. I had just spent several moments pacing up and down the dark corridors stacked with piles and piles of cloth-bound files and was making no headway in my search. I continued despite the silence in response, “Could you please direct me to the section with the Times of India newspapers from the 1930s onwards?” I waited in anticipation.

“Tumi kaun?” he finally responded, peering from behind a shelf. This meant, “who are you?” in Marathi. Switching quickly from English to Marathi, I introduced myself as a PhD student with McGill University working on the history of birth control in India. I passed on the list of documents I was hoping to find at the archives. To my great dismay, this was not to be. I was informed that many of the documents I requested were in very poor condition, some even crumbling upon contact, which meant they could not be lifted off the shelves without turning to dust.

An article from an issue of Strijivan in 1947.

The kind staff member at the archives had been working there for over 15 years and had witnessed the colour of the archival documents change from white to yellow to nothingness; much like his beard, I thought. No digital copies were available for most of their vast collection, which translates to, what’s lost is lost. Dejected, I found my way to the Forbes Gujarati Sabha, a private archive in the Western suburbs of Bombay, not far from the international airport. The Sabha offered a wealth of material, particularly Gujarati collections of women’s domestic journals, and was superbly organized. Like the archive at the International Institute for Population Sciences, a research and educational organization independent from and yet aligned with the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India, it was a treat both in terms of the rich materials available and the systematic structure of the collections.

At the heart of it, what I was looking for in these archives were women’s own stories and experiences, as told by themselves.

Most historical scholarship on birth control, whether regarding India or elsewhere, has argued that birth control was imposed upon helpless, poor women. In a sense, this argument holds merit since birth control was advocated by elites to improve humankind and to counter the anxieties of overpopulation. It was not promoted for the wellbeing of women, let alone to promote reproductive choice and sexual freedom.  

However, I found this methodology and approach to history writing far from satisfactory. I was also alarmed to see that most historical scholarship on birth control showed little creativity in the use of archival material, relying primarily on records of western/international organizations, such as the World Health Organization, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the United Nation, and so on. There was a thundering silence in the representation of women’s accounts of their own stories and experiences, as well as sources in vernacular languages such as those that women would use to communicate regarding matters of the intimate.

Through these archives, I was able to discover that women in India actively engaged with birth control, were receptive to new technologies, and were keen to limit or space their pregnancies. In other words, they understood the benefits of modern birth control and sought it out. This then, stood in contrast to historical scholarship that made the too simple argument that women from marginalized communities had birth control imposed upon them. Such a narrative was not only inaccurate, it also did disservice to women’s agency, will, and intellect.

In another corner of the world and at an advanced stage in my PhD, I turned to the Ingenium Centre in Ottawa, an institute with federal funding and home to a massive collection of artifacts, trade literature, rare books, and more. Here, as every archive I have worked in, I entered expecting something and left surprised and with something else. The collections and archives at Ingenium, to my great joy, were excellently organized, and the materials were accessible digitally, a boon in these times. Admittedly, as an Indian researcher, I was both impressed and envious at the respect, funding, and due attention given to research and archival materials by the Canadian government. However, and this is interesting especially in its contrast with local, small archives in Bombay and Gujarat, I found there were significant gaps in the collection at Ingenium. In a larger sense, there were limited medical technologies on reproductive and sexual health, and specifically, the collection was missing archives that reflected women, particularly indigenous, immigrant, or women of colour’s experiences, in relation to health, fertility, and reproduction.

In an upcoming Ingenium Channel piece entitled A Tale of Two Nations, I mention that birth control was illegal and punishable in Canada until 1969, however diaphragms, pessaries, and condoms were available through physicians and as prophylactics at drugstores. The absence of these histories, but more so, the voices of women, particularly indigenous women who were the main target of birth control coercion (and more), points to a larger and troubling silence in how we record and remember our histories. Missing representation(s) in archives tends to reflect, or result in, a one-sided history, where authoritative voices speak over marginalized, vernacular, or indigenous voices, or worse, speak for them.

An article from an issue of Strijivan in 1946.

As a historian, my experience in the archives has been fascinating, confusing, and illuminating, often, all together. However, I try to remember that archives themselves are political spaces, with the power to represent, or not, and to remember, or not. Indeed, whether in terms of protecting invaluable archives for future generations, to treat and respect them as cherished national heritage, or in terms of being mindful of voices that may represent different facets of the same story, it is time we better interrogate the state of our archives and collections. In recording and retelling stories of the past, it is important for us to scrutinize our claims of accessibility, lest we leave someone behind.


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Urvi Desai

Urvi Desai has lived in Bombay, Geneva, Berlin, Montreal, and Hyderabad. She is a doctoral candidate with the department of history, McGill University, and McGill–Ingenium Fellow. Her research discusses the history of birth control markets in Bombay. Her archival work includes sources in Gujarati, Hindi, and Marathi.