5 Questions with Kalyani Ramnath LLM ‘10

July 10, 2024

Kalyani Ramnath LLM ‘10 is an assistant professor at Columbia University and a historian of modern South Asia. Her first book, Boats in a Storm: Law, Migration, and Decolonization in South and Southeast Asia 1942–1962 was published in August 2023 by Stanford University Press.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and the trajectory of your career?

My childhood was spent in Kerala in India. I moved away to Bengaluru for college, and did my undergrad at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) NLSIU has an integrated five year program that is built around an interdisciplinary law and liberal arts curriculum. Students took classes in history, sociology, and economics before studying tax, contract, and corporate law. In the final year of law school, I had the chance to be a teaching assistant for my legal history professor, VS Elizabeth. I enjoyed doing that so much that I decided to apply to graduate school to carry out advanced legal research and figure out a way to be a law professor. I applied to and was accepted into the Yale Law School’s Masters in Law program, well-known for supporting law teaching as a career. 

Here at YLS, it was a heady feeling to be part of a community of legal academics. At the same time, I explored course offerings beyond YLS. South Asian Studies Council was, in particular, was so valuable. K. Sivaramakrishnan ran a year-long South Asian Studies reading group which was open to students from all disciplines. I remember we read Anupama Rao’s The Caste Question and Ritu Birla’s Stages of Capital among others that year. 

After completing my LLM I went back to India to teach at NLSIU. I taught legal history for two years, and was relieved to note that my interest in a teaching career had not wavered. I then applied to graduate school for a Ph.D. in History at Princeton with Gyan Prakash, Hendrik Hartog, and Bhavani Raman (now at University of Toronto), who were training some of the finest South Asia legal historians. I began exploring a dissertation idea that would be about south India – where I grew up – but that placed its history in a regional and global context as also a project that would benefit from my legal training. That was the beginning of what became Boats in a Storm. The dissertation-to-book conversations took place during a postdoctoral position at Harvard University with Emma Rothschild and Sunil Amrith. That time spent thinking about the book was transformative. 

I taught at the University of Georgia’s history department before moving to Columbia University in July 2024. Throughout, I have tried to center my interest in researching place-based histories of law and legality and growing as a teacher and mentor. 

How did your experience at Yale affect your work?

Yale was transformative. I remember many of the conversations and most of our classroom debates. I am still in touch with friends and colleagues from that time. I enjoyed being in interdisciplinary spaces and among colleagues who have a syncretic approach to their work. People could be deeply immersed in their own disciplines and still be able to ask and attempt to answer big questions. As a researcher starting out, I loved that feeling. The big questions I ask in my book about mobility, citizenship, belonging—those can be addressed with a variety of approaches. The book, for example, is grounded in archival research, but lends itself to interdisciplinary conversation (see this conversation with Sahana Ghosh, GSAS ’18, for example)

How did your book, Boats in a Storm, come about?

Boats began as a PhD dissertation at Princeton, as I mentioned, for which I conducted archival research in Chennai, Colombo and London. I worked intensely to revise it into a book between 2018 and 2021 when a series of amendments were being proposed to India’s citizenship legislation that provided a “fast-track” for some of the subcontinent’s non-Muslims (Some colleagues and I wrote about the discriminatory legislation here, drawing from our research). What was initially a dissertation about politics and jurisdiction became an account of what was missing from our understanding of citizenship in South Asia, not as a constitutional or legislative fact, but as a possible resolution of the misalignment between peopled and newly designed territorial borders of nation-states in South Asia. The way we think about the immediate post-war period in South and Southeast Asia also usually focuses on political and diplomatic negotiations, around decolonization, and particularly around the Partition or the Emergency in Malaya. We know less about what it was like for people to live through the aftermath of the Second World War and how that might reshape our understanding of this period. Boats is a history of citizenship and decolonization narrated through seemingly ordinary encounters with the law. I have truly enjoyed seeing reader responses – from some that reported that they found the academic reframings around partitions, citizenship or decolonization to others that noted that the book sparked conversations with family that had lived through this period. 

What are you currently working on?

I am working on two book projects. One is tentatively titled Adrift in the Indian Ocean and it is about how legal fictions around maritime sovereignty evolved between the eighteenth century and the present, and its impact on coastal communities in South Asia. I have just received an ACLS Fellowship for twelve months of research and writing on thisproject. The second is a twentieth century history of south India meant for a general audience. 

Reflecting on your career, what advice would you give to younger scholars?

Let intuitive questions about the world drive your research, rather than what seems fashionable in terms of disciplines or methods! 

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti