Jyoti Thottam has worn many hats as a journalist: business reporter, foreign correspondent, and now deputy op-ed editor at The New York Times. In her first book, Sisters of Mokama, Thottam explores the journey of a group of Appalachian nuns who established a Nazareth Hospital in 1947 in the east Indian state of Bihar, one of the regions hardest hit by Partition—the period when the British finally left India, leaving it to be bloodily divided into independent nation states, today known as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Thottam has a personal connection to this story: Her mother traveled from her home state in India to this very hospital in Bihar to receive training as a nurse.

Thottam touches on many pertinent narratives over the course of her book. Through the nuns’ journey, she charts pieces of Partition history, the feminist movement, and missionaries and their shifting goals. We come to see the nuns not just as the protagonists of the story, but as a way to view and understand the town of Mokama. Despite being a small, cut-off region in many ways, Mokama was a melting pot at the time, home to Indians who had lived there for generations as well as Westerners living there with their own agendas for the region. Through the nuns and their relationships with these different residents, we gain a window into what it meant to be a citizen of India at the time, and also what it meant to be an outsider intent on forging one’s role in another society.

I spoke with Thottam about her book, her fascination with this tale, and her take on Partition politics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Zoya Qureshi

Zoya Qureshi: What does a story of Christian missionaries in Bihar mean against the backdrop of Partition politics?

Jyoti Thottam: There have been some firsthand accounts of that period, both of Partition and Bihar at the time—not very many, but definitely some. But let me answer this question in two ways: One is, why look at Partition and Bihar? And I think that’s important. A lot of what’s written about Partition, understandably, is about the actual border, you know, and the people who live close to the actual border. But I think a part of the story that is somewhat less well-known, at least among a wide audience, is the way that Partition affected parts of the interior. Bihar is not a border state per se; there’s a small border with Nepal, but it’s not a border state in the way that Punjab or West Bengal are. But the political forces that were shaping Partition—the jockeying for power and the uncertainty about who would belong where, the tenuous position of religious minorities in villages all over North India—all that was very present in Bihar. Part of the reason I go into Partition history is because I really wanted people to understand how a place like this, sort of in the interior, could still have been so deeply affected by what was going on. Now, the question of why a story about Christian missionaries? There are a limited number of firsthand accounts of this period, you know, in any language from any source. To have letters and other documents from the archives of the Archdiocese of Patna in that period, both right before Partition and right after—it’s an unusual account of someone who was an outsider in some ways but had lived most of his life at that point in India and was deeply enmeshed in the local politics of that area. It provides a useful account from someone who’s an outsider in some ways and an insider in other ways. I do think it’s important for people to remember that around Partition, there were all kinds of people—missionaries, businesspeople from Europe, from the United States—who were involved in India at that time. Their stakes are obviously different from those of Indian people, but they were very present and saw themselves as having a role to play in post-independence India. Given the shape that Indian politics has taken since then, it’s really interesting to think about that.

ZQ: I’d love to hear more about what you think the insider and the outsider perspective each brings separately, and how those both come together to give us a better picture of the time.

JT: This is a question that I thought about a lot, because this book is a story about a community of women who were building an institution in India in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s that was founded by women, run by women, and had all the decisions made by women. That in itself is a very unusual thing. On one level, all the women who ran this missionary hospital and came through its doors are insiders, right? It’s their story: They were the ones deciding what this community would be, what its priorities would be, and how they’d interact with the rest of Mokama. Then the Indian women come into their community, and there’s a sometimes tense, contested negotiation between them about what it all means: How does our community change? Who do we think of as part of this community? But I think the part that’s interesting and challenging for me is that these nuns were definitely outsiders when they arrived—but the longer they were there, both as individuals and also as an institution, the more they became part of that community. The institution today is an institution run by Indian women. I think that really challenges the notion of who is an insider and an outsider.

ZQ: That brings me to another question—your thoughts on Christian missionaries and their role. Ultimately, these women did show up in Bihar not speaking Hindi at all; why did they feel like that was OK?

JT: By the end of the period of the book, in 1965, even the Catholic Church had started to reconsider what it means to be a missionary. But one of the things that I wanted to do with the story was to show that for American women, and then later for Indian women, the missionary impulse was both a religious impulse and a feminist opportunity. If you wanted to do certain things as a woman in the United States, or within the Catholic Church, the only way to do that was to be a missionary. Being a missionary was this special space that you could occupy that would allow you to somewhat circumvent the gender norms of the larger context that you were coming from.

ZQ: Over the course of writing this book, what was something you learned that surprised you about your mother, or her relationship with her personal history?

JT: She kept saying as I was doing the research that this was very much in the past for her. Once you leave the place that you’re from—especially, in her case, a small, traditional village in Kerala—and you go to Bihar, and then you go to Delhi, and then to New York and then Texas, you’re always moving forward. She doesn’t see herself as being defined by this experience that I’m really fascinated by; she’d always say, “I don’t know what’s so special about this. This is just my life.” And it’s true.

ZQ: Yeah, that really resonates—both my parents are immigrants. I think there is something in the immigrant mentality where you don’t look back, you just look forward. Is there anything you’d like to add about your perspective on the book that you’re excited to share and want our readers to know?

JT: Well, I think one thing that I hope people will take away from this book is that I’m very, very grateful to the historians of modern India who are working today and who really laid the groundwork for what I was able to do in this book—historians including Yasmin Khan, Ram Guha and Srinath Raghavan and journalists including Madhsree Mukerjee and Raghu Karnad. They’ve all written really interesting and very different books about that period of India—during World War II, during Partition, immediately after Partition. And the perspectives they gave provided a kind of intellectual scaffolding for me to think about where this story fits into that larger story, so I really relied on their work. I hope that some of the archival material in my book might offer a small contribution to the literature as well.