ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Life in the Limelight

Cornelia Sorabji, India

A Life in the Limelight

Cornelia Sorabji, India’s Pioneer Woman Lawyer: A Biography

by Suparna Gooptu; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xxv+241, Rs 495.


his is a curious book about a curious figure. Cornelia Sorabji was a Parsi Christian who made her career as an employee of the British colonial state in India, working on behalf of purdah women by bringing them to the attention of Raj officials and publicising their condition in both Britain and India. Born in Poona to Christian missionary parents (her father was a convert from Zoroastrianism, her mother a tribal Toda), she was among the first Indian women to attend at Oxford University, where she was in residence at Somerville College from 1889 to 1892. Like her famous compatriot Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), Sorabji originally intended to become a doctor. But her English friends in Britain – including Lord and Lady Hobhouse – dissuaded her from this path, hoping instead that she would become a teacher and hence help to advance their own schemes for female education in India. In the end, Sorabji pursued neither medicine nor education but law. Under the direction of A V Dicey and Benjamin Jowett she passed the Bachelor of Civil Law exam in 1892 and later qualified for the bar. After a brief postgraduate stint as a clerk in the London law offices of Lee and Pemberton, she was appointed “Lady Assistant to the Court of Wards of Bengal and Eastern Bengal and Assam” in 1904, a position that she held for the better part of two decades.

From the start of her career Sorabji struggled to reconcile her identity as a Parsi Christian with her identification as a secular professional woman seeking legitimacy as one of the first woman lawyers in colonial India. ‘Purdahnashin’ provided her with the opportunity to articulate her convictions about the necessity of preserving orthodox Hindu culture as a bulwark against the depredations of colonial modernity and in the process, offered her a platform from which to spar with the mainstream anti-colonial political opinion of the day. Sorabji was a staunch imperialist. She defended the colonial state against nationalist reformers such as those who supported the Sarda Act of 1929 (which raised the minimum age of marriage for girls from 12 to 14) on the grounds that it interfered with indigenous custom. She was a vocal critic of Mahatma Gandhi and she spoke out equally ardently against feminists, whether British or Indian, again on the grounds that their reforms aimed to interfere with the domestic traditions of Indian life. Most famously, Sorabji was an apologist for Katherine Mayo, whose 1927 book Mother India scandalised contemporaries in Britain, India and the US for its orientalist views of Indian women. Despite a close personal relationship with an English judge, she never married. She had a network of powerful women friends from her Oxford days, including Lady Elena Richmond, who was responsible for depositing Sorabji’s voluminous papers in the India Office Library collections (London). Sorabji’s work as lady commissioner meant that she travelled throughout India seeking out information on purdah women. But throughout her adult life she divided her time between Britain and India and till her death in London at the age of 88

Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006 she prided herself as having “warmed [her] hands at two fires”.

‘A Political Curiosity’

Although this is the first full-length biography of Sorabji, historians of modern Indian women have not exactly neglected her. While it is true that some scholars have treated her as a political curiosity – her anti-Gandhianism and her even more ferocious anti-feminism would appear to be at odds with the kind of heroic subject that nationalist and feminist historiographies are inclined to cast up – most have attempted to capture her complexities as a historical figure. Geraldine Forbes’ Women in Modern India (1996) acknowledges her role in the women’s suffrage debate surrounding the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, highlighting the protectionist character of her opposition to the female franchise.1 Re-issues of two of her best known books by Oxford University Press have been accompanied by nuanced introductions that situate Sorabji’s prolific career as a writer against the backdrop of British colonialism and Indian nationalism, historicising rather than pathologising her unprogressive political activities and pro-British politics.2 This reviewer’s own work has attempted to understand the social and cultural challenges she faced as an ethnographer first of Victorian Britain and then of “love and life behind the purdah”.3 More recently, Mrinalini Sinha’s Specters of Mother India historicises Sorabji’s infamous role in the Mayo controversy by emphasising how frustrated Sorabji felt by the way Mayo and her publicists effectively eclipsed her role as spokeswoman for purdahnashin – rendering Sorabji more to be pitied than censured.4 It’s hard, then, to understand why Suparna Gooptu opens her biography of Sorabji with the claim that she has “been pushed to oblivion” (p 2). In fact, as scholars have been at pains to show in the last decade, Sorabji occupied quite a prominent role in the interwar imperial public sphere, serving as both a guide to the half-shadowed life of purdahnashin and a relentless critic of colonial nationalists’ attempts to recruit “the Indian woman” to their cause.

Equally puzzling is Gooptu’s renunciation at the start of what she calls “an analytical framework” (p xxiii) in favour of what is presumably a more straightforward biographical narrative. There are costs and benefits to this method. What we gain is a linear story that traces Sorabji from her early family life through her education at Oxford and her variegated professional career to her last years in post-war London. As a life story, it is as fascinating as it is full of contradiction. Sorabji socialised with some of the most prominent reformers and intellects of the day; she travelled in Britain and Europe and all over India, commanding the public sphere as the right and proper domain of the professional woman. And yet she never countenanced the paradox of being a highly mobile woman whose career was enabled by the comparatively immobile purdah woman for whom she insisted she was the most authentic representative. Nor did she embrace the possibility that the feminist movement she so loathed was committed at least in part to guaranteeing that a woman of her education and training should be able to pursue her own livelihood, unhindered by what Victorians deemed “the disability of sex”. Indeed, despite the fact that at several stages of her career she was clearly discriminated against because she was an Indian woman, she refused to credit either race prejudice or sexism for the considerable injustices she faced as one of the first Indian woman lawyers.

These are not questions that Gooptu takes up directly, though the evidence she musters

– from Sorabji’s private papers as well as from her public pronouncements – allows the reader to glean some of the complexities of Sorabji’s biography in the context of British raj during its last decades. What the biographical method espoused here does not quite capture are the non-linear trajectories of Sorabji’s public and private life. So, for example, it would be a mistake to imagine that she left her family of origin behind as she became engrossed in the several professional worlds she came to inhabit. In fact she was plagued by her brother’s fecklessness, her sisters’ careers, her parents’ health and the Sorabji family legacy well into the 1930s, and her anxieties about these problems erupt continuously in her private correspondence. Nor should we imagine that she moved easily or unproblematically between Britain and India. Her letters and diaries are filled with struggles over what to wear (saris in London, “western” dress in India), how to survive the petty-mindedness of colonial bureaucrats, when to mourn her perpetual “hotel life” and when to celebrate its freedoms from conventional domesticity. In contrast, the Sorabji that emerges here is somewhat one-dimensional, which is puzzling in light of the wealth of personal and private material available in the India Office archives (as Gooptu notes, Sorabji destroyed some of her personal archive before it made its way into official collections) and especially given Sorabji’s penchant for self-dramatisation. It is almost as if in renouncing an “analytical” framework from the start, Gooptu seeks to distance herself from a political or politicised account of Sorabji, even one that might allow us to glimpse the interiority of her well known conservatism – a choice that seems at odds with Gooptu’s claims to intimacy (p xxiii) with her subject.

The desirability of such an approach is up to readers to decide. Meanwhile, the parable of Sorabji’s life is not her exceptionality, but rather how symptomatic her struggles with and against ascendant forms of colonial modernity look from this postcolonial perspective. For all her differences with her nationalist and feminist contemporaries, Sorabji shared their conviction that the status of Indian women was an index of progress, thrown into bold relief by the ambitions of what Mrinalini Sinha has called the bourgeois colonial modern. If “the Indian woman” was one of the terrains upon which those ambitions were projected, Sorabji played an influential role in shaping how the struggle over the political and cultural capital of that iconic figure played itself out historically, and historiographically as well. Reluctantly or not, Gooptu’s biography has entered the fray, and all those who wish to historicise Sorabji’s legacy – and that of 20th century Indian nationalism’s gender politics – will have to grapple with this book.




1 Geraldine Forbes, Women in Modern India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp 98-99.

2 Chandani Lokugé (ed), India Calling: The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s First Woman Barrister, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001; and Lokugé (ed),

Love and Life Behind the Purdah by Cornelia Sorabji, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003.

3 Antoinette Burton, At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998 and Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home and History in Late-Colonial India, Oxford University Press, New York.

4 Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire, Duke University Press, Durham, 2006.

Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

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