Learning to Estrange Myself from Myself: A Tribute to Professor Kavita Datla

Professor Kavita Datla, who passed away July 22 after a long illness. Photo courtesy of MHC Office of Communications

Professor Kavita Datla had the ability to reach into my work, grasp the core of what I wanted to say, and help me bring it to the forefront of my writing. I would step into her office gingerly, with my heart in my hand, scared after having delayed submitting another thesis chapter, or afraid that she may have decided I was not a good enough writer after all. I would step out awed and relieved, trying to hold on to her exact words so I could retain that “a-ha” moment of pure, unflinching clarity I felt so often while listening to her. She  spoke in a calm, even tone, with keen eyes, and a half smile. She would pause sometimes, to carefully select words for her next sentence, or to take a sip of coffee. She was the only person on campus who always pronounced my name right, taking her time with each syllable, rolling the “r” gently and firmly.

Professor Datla taught a series of classes centered around the history of the British Empire and its impact on modern South Asia. While I studied with her during most semesters of my Mount Holyoke career, the class dearest to my heart was a seminar called the History of Women and Gender in South Asia. To me, Professor Datla’s class was one long epiphany. I was a Pakistani woman who had left her hometown at nineteen to go to college in South Hadley on an accidental scholarship. I grew up in a turbulent, low-income household where financial anxiety and domestic violence were two of the only constants. My father had lamented my female-ness when I was born and then repeated the ritual at my sister’s birth. Any time I achieved something of significance—a good grade, a job, a scholarship—my family would tell me, “It is almost like your mother gave birth to a son!” Professor Datla’s class made me understand that any shame, regret, pain, or loneliness that I felt was not a unique phenomenon.

Week after week, I would learn something new and monumental: why property laws seemed biased against women, why societal “respectability” was tied to conservative dress codes for women, why women’s passports required a male guardian’s signature, and, above all, how British colonial legacies had sneaked their way into brown women’s past, present, and future. At the same time, I would try to put together the jigsaw pieces of my mother’s life—married at twenty-three, mother at twenty-four, primary breadwinner, successful writer outside the home, frequently assaulted inside the home—against the backdrop of Professor Datla’s syllabus—one that drew upon academic essays, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, film. I came to learn that the difficulties my family faced were part of a long, winding historic narrative.

When we watched a film for class that portrayed physical and sexual violence against women, I went to Professor Datla and asked for help in separating the personal from the academic. “How do I study without spiraling into gloom? How do I move forward when I recall crouching in a corner, fearing the next blow? Will I find strength to keep reading and writing?” I asked.

“Estrange yourself, from yourself,” she told me. I had chosen this class for a reason, she assured me, but I had to keep my reason, and my composure, intact simultaneously.

Professor Datla was unafraid to voice her opinions in class and beyond. We once spent a three-hour seminar talking about on-campus activism. She spoke in favor of student organizers in a clear, ringing tone. She applauded those who spoke out against racial microaggressions. She stood alongside them in holding college staff accountable. She cited instances in which professors and administrators had disappointed students. Striving for diversity was not enough, she said. We had to fight for true inclusivity and we had to fight continuously.

In spite of her unabashed candor during difficult conversations on campus, Professor Datla was private, detached, somewhat enigmatic. She was gentle but firm, intimate but aloof. She was deeply committed to her students, responding to us so thoughtfully that I spent most classes typing furiously, trying to transcribe her every word. But she retained a gentle distance.

You have to estrange yourself from yourself. We pick themes that help us make sense of our experiences. It is natural for you to pick a subject that is personal. But once you have begun your study, establish boundaries. Estrange parts of yourself from your work. Estrange yourself, from yourself.Kavita Datla

Professor Datla did not talk about her illness, even when she had to abandon the last week of our British Empire and Commonwealth class to tend to her health in fall 2014 or take a last-minute sabbatical in spring 2015. While she was home and recovering in April of that year, I reached out to her to discuss the possibility of a senior thesis on twentieth-century British indirect rule in regions of Africa.

She spent several hours on the phone with me, listening to my ideas, offering me names of books I could read to refine my ideas, explaining how I could go about my future writing. She never alluded to her absence from campus or to the hardships she was facing. Instead, she told me the only barrier to my thesis was my ability to adhere to my goals and deliver good work. “Spend your summer reading. Spend your fall writing. But your work will not be a thesis until I call it a thesis,” she told me. Neither of us knew then that this would be the last thesis she mentored.

The following year, I spent an hour in her Skinner Hall office every two weeks, soaking in mid-afternoon sunlight that filtered through her window, trying to hold on to everything she said. At one point, I felt like I could not possibly read all of my primary source material while also doing job interviews. I suggested finding a natural language processor that could parse through the thousands of pages for me, took her raised eyebrows as a “no,” and returned  to the library and read some more.

The last time I saw Professor Datla was at my thesis defense. It was the last day of finals, and of my undergraduate career. I sat in the international relations lounge across from Professor Datla, who wore a long dark skirt and her characteristic, composed expression. When I left the room at the end of our hourlong discussion to allow the thesis committee to arrive at a decision, Professor Datla followed me shortly after. She told me I had passed my defense and raised her arms to offer a hug, in an unprecedented gesture of affection.

In the time we spent together, we discussed a myriad of topics: her love for the Urdu language, her disdain for “skimming” readings instead of thoroughly reading them, her preference for half-caff in the afternoon over fully caffeinated coffee, her amusement when students (like me) spent their last college summer doing corporate internships and came back to campus hungry for soul-nourishing academic projects during senior year. I asked her why historical research methods differed from those in international relations, how I could become a better writer, why she insisted I first get words onto a page before making sure they were the right words to use. But I never asked her about her illness, and she never brought it up.

It seems bizarre now. Her cancer more or less spanned our entire relationship. But then, she was not the kind of person to let anything—even a fatal cancer—stand in the way of being her most attentive self for her students. Perhaps it never came up because it was not truly relevant to her work as a professor. No matter the strength of the illness, her guidance was as absolute and her presence was as palpable as it had ever been, down to the last day of my student career, down to our last email exchange a couple of months before her death, when she helped me with a recommendation.

Perhaps Professor Datla estranged herself from her illness in order to be our mentor and teacher. Perhaps she estranged herself from herself so she could be with her students until the very end.

Areeba Kamal ’16—By Areeba Kamal ’16

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