Cover of Boats in a Storm by Kalyani Ramnath
Boats in a Storm
Law, Migration, and Decolonization in South and Southeast Asia, 1942–1962
Kalyani Ramnath


August 2023
308 pages.
from $30.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503632981
Paperback ISBN: 9781503636095
Ebook ISBN: 9781503636101

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Excerpts and More

For more than century before World War II, traders, merchants, financiers, and laborers steadily moved between places on the Indian Ocean, trading goods, supplying credit, and seeking work. This all changed with the war and as India, Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya wrested independence from the British empire. Set against the tumult of the postwar period, Boats in a Storm centers on the legal struggles of migrants to retain their traditional rhythms and patterns of life, illustrating how they experienced citizenship and decolonization. Even as nascent citizenship regimes and divergent political trajectories of decolonization papered over migrations between South and Southeast Asia, migrants continued to recount cross-border histories in encounters with the law. These accounts, often obscured by national and international political developments, unsettle the notion that static national identities and loyalties had emerged, fully formed and unblemished by migrant pasts, in the aftermath of empires.

Drawing on archival materials from India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, London, and Singapore, Kalyani Ramnath narrates how former migrants battled legal requirements to revive prewar circulations of credit, capital, and labor, in a postwar context of rising ethno-nationalisms that accused migrants of stealing jobs and hoarding land. Ultimately, Ramnath shows how decolonization was marked not only by shipwrecked empires and nation-states assembled and ordered from the debris of imperial collapse, but also by these forgotten stories of wartime displacements, their unintended consequences, and long afterlives.

About the author

Kalyani Ramnath is Assistant Professor of History at University of Georgia.

"Ramnath offers a rich rethinking of the seismic shifts in governance and citizenship that accompanied war and decolonization in South and Southeast Asia. She shifts our gaze from official narratives, written from the perspective of politicians and diplomats, to the experience of the everyday subjects who had for generations made the interconnected shores of the Bay of Bengal their homes. A marvel of archival research and storytelling, Ramnath breathes life into dusty, crumbling records of legal disputes to reconstruct deeply moving tales of human separation and suffering, but also resilience and bravery."

—Julia Stephens, Rutgers University

"Boats in a Storm provides a moving and ethnographic panorama of people caught in the midst of changing contortions of nation, citizenship and borders in the era of decolonization. It tracks personal displacements and disputes, through tax, inheritance and remittance, and shows the everyday dilemmas that shot through people's lives. In place of diplomacy or high politics, we are left with the granular in comprehending jurisdictional demarcations that have potent afterlives to the present, for violent structures of statelessness, nationalism or for conflicts and authoritarianism that followed in later-twentieth century Sri Lanka, Burma, India or Malaysia."

—Sujit Sivasundaram, University of Cambridge

"Boats in a Storm is a magnificent contribution to the history of law and displacement in the Indian Ocean. Using a rich legal archive, Kalyani Ramnath shows us the history of decolonization in a new light through this astonishingly detailed picture of the loss suffered by migrants who found their itineraries interrupted by new borders and new jurisdictions. This is a spectacularly accomplished and insightful book!"

—Sunil Amrith, Yale University

"In her beautifully written book Boats in a Storm, Kalyani Ramnath scrutinises a plethora of archived legal accounts, memoirs, and administrative records to reconstruct the multiple migratory destinies of Indian migrants in Burma and Malaya after the Japanese occupation in 1942."

—Antje Missbach, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs

"Ramnath's book deserves a wide readership because the issues that she discusses around the disruptive histories of decolonization and state formation, border-making and citizenship, as well as the experiences and narration of displacement, have a wide resonance. I recommend this model study unreservedly."

—Peter Gatrell, European Review of History

"Kalyani Ramnath's Boats in a Storm contributes to the ever-growing body of literature using legal archives to help reconstruct a supernational history of the Indian Ocean World. And she does so in a refreshing, impressive, and layered way.... The encounters she unearths mostly relate to everyday dealings like income tax, debts, loans, or transmitting (or inheriting) money to (or from) family abroad. However, when connecting them, Ramnath reveals all sorts of political, social, and cultural implications when it comes to matters like citizenship, business, migration, family life, and community-formation in a changing, post-colonial South and Southeast Asia."

—Luc Bulten, Polity Magazine