History professor Mridu Rai’s academic background is like that of many other Yale professors — she has a doctorate from Columbia and, like many of her peers, is the author of an upcoming book.
But as a South Asian woman and professor of South Asian history, Rai is unique in Yale’s history department. Her undergraduate course, “History of Modern South Asia,” and her graduate seminar represent the first time in several decades a Yale professor has taught courses in South Asian history. As the department’s only South Asian member, Rai said she is having no trouble integrating her area of expertise into the course offerings.
“This is a position which the history department as well as students who are interested in South Asian history worked very hard for,” Rai said.
Student groups, such as the South Asian Studies Action Committee, were instrumental in lobbying for the permanent appointment of a professor of South Asian history. Committee member Radhika Natarajan ’02 said it is important for students to study South Asian history because so many people live in the region, and because South Asia is intimately connected to other world hot spots, such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
“For any sort of comparative history to be done you have to have a South Asian history professor,” Natarajan said.
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said Rai will build bridges to other departments, such as political science, Hindi and economics.
He added that the addition of a South Asian history professor will strengthen Yale’s academics as a whole.
“We’ve recognized for a long time that Yale is strong in many parts of the world, and South Asia hasn’t been one of them,” he said. “She [Rai] should help change that.”
Rai said she has not always had easy access to materials she needed to conduct her research because of the volatile political climate in South Asia. In fact, the issue of access ultimately determined what period Rai could study in depth. Rai said various archivists in Kashmir and New Delhi denied her opportunity to see documents after 1947, the date of Indian independence from colonial British rule, as well as some documents dating after 1924, an arbitrary cut-off point.
Her research was made more arduous by the region’s explosive political situation and the resulting diaspora of people from that area. Rai’s first trip to South Asia came in 1995, which was the sixth year of the popular insurgency in Kashmir. Protective curfews were a way of life there, which meant that “libraries and archives would close at the drop of a hat,” Rai said.
She is now preparing to embark on a new research project about caste and politics. But Rai’s most recent new endeavor has been beginning to teach her classes at Yale, which she said she enjoys immensely.
“It’s a pleasure to teach Yale students,” Rai said. “They read well. They are forthcoming in class.”
She said she especially appreciates her students’ willingness to engage her in discussion, even in lecture classes.
Some of her students said they find Rai’s teaching style equally engaging.
“She’s a very good lecturer,” said Sara Bonner ’05, who is enrolled in Rai’s course. “I decided to take her class because initially I was interested in the history of India. I talked to her before classes even started, and she was a really cool person.”
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