Mrinalini Sisodia Wadhwa, a Newly Minted Rhodes Scholar

After graduating from Columbia in May, she’ll head to Oxford University to pursue a degree in intellectual history.

Eve Glasberg
March 14, 2024

Notebook is a Columbia News series that highlights just some of the many fascinating students who study at our University. 

Before she graduates in May and starts the next phase of her academic journey in England (a two-year stint at Oxford), Mrinalini Sisodia Wadhwa is fitting in everything she is likely to miss about New York—walks in Riverside and Central parks, cups of spearmint tea at a Blue Bottle Café, and exhibitions at places like the New-York Historical Society.

What is your major, and what drew you to that academic concentration?

I'm a double-major in History and Mathematics. I began college quite set on majoring in history. I was interested in the history of British India during the early 20th century, and enrolled in Professor Susan Pedersen’s History of 20th-Century Britain lecture course during my first semester at Columbia. I was drawn to studying the Indian women’s movement during this period, especially their engagement with religion to claim political rights. This led me to take up Sanskrit in my sophomore year of college, and, in the summer of 2023, to begin an archival project on letters exchanged between Indian and British feminists on securing political representation for women in India’s last colonial constitution.

During my first two years at the University, I also grew interested in 18th-century France through courses on the French Revolution and the Enlightenment taught by Professor Charly Coleman. I was particularly drawn to debates over universalism and difference—and similar questions about the relationship between religion and political thought.

Between my sophomore and junior years, I was thinking of ways to bridge these interests when Professor Susan Boynton—my Music Humanities instructor in the Paris Summer Core Program—suggested I look into the writings of Jesuit missionaries as a link between the religious and cultural worlds of India and France during the 18th century. As a result, I changed the course of my history major. As a junior, I took up French, and encountered the curious history of a stolen French manuscript on Indian morals and customs. It was written by a Jesuit missionary in the French colony of Pondichéry (now Puducherry) in southeast India in the 1770s, sent to Paris and lost amid the upheaval of the French Revolution in 1789, and sold to British officials in the 1800s, who used it as a colonial training manual.

My history thesis, advised by Professor Emmanuelle Saada and Professor Coleman, takes up this broader question of how we relate Jesuit and native spirituality to Enlightenment, revolutionary, and early colonial political culture. Thanks to funding from the Department of History's European Archives Program and the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, I was able to pursue this project, which led me from British and French archives to a convent founded in 1748 that is still active in Puducherry, India.

Given all of this, my interest in math probably seems less intuitive—but one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about being at Columbia is the chance to fully pursue these two very different subjects. I began college with an interest in proof-based math, taking the Honors Mathematics sequence my first year. I then became fascinated by algebraic and geometric topology, the idea of linking algebraic structure to our visual intuition. My math thesis, advised by Professor Francesco Lin, focuses on mapping class groups. The project has given me the chance to study foundational results in this field, which lie at the intersection of algebra, geometry, and topology.

How did your time at Columbia inspire you to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship?

My initial inspiration to apply came in August of 2022. I was in the archives of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, through the two-year Columbia Laidlaw Scholars Program, when I learned that the first student to earn a doctorate from St. Anne's was an Indian Sanskritist named Seeta Parmanand. College records noted that she graduated in 1927, wearing a “blue ‘sari’ surmounted by the blue and red gown,” with a dissertation that argued women had greater freedom during phases of ancient Indian history than under the legal codes of her present day. Fascinated by this Oxonian in a blue sari, I discovered that she went on to serve in the Indian parliament during the Hindu Code debates of the 1950s. There, she advocated for reforming colonial-era marriage laws, using her Sanskrit research to challenge claims that these reforms violated religious tradition.

It was my first time in an archive—and at Oxford. I started to see the projects I had been drawn to at Columbia converge. During my freshman year, out of an interest in advancing gender justice in constitutional law, I had joined the newly launched Equal Rights Amendment Project at Columbia Law School as a research assistant, and written about related issues with peers at the Columbia Undergraduate Law Review. Through Core and history seminars, language classes, and the Laidlaw program, I was also drawn to historical research on religion and gender. I spent my first summer in the Laidlaw program studying 1930s essays by the Indian poet and educator Mahadevi Varma on women and Hinduism. As a result, I wrote an essay in my Contemporary Civilizations Core course (published in The Gadfly), which placed Varma in dialogue with Core texts on the search for emancipatory potential in our relationship to the past.

Parmanand’s unlikely trajectory from Sanskrit research to legal reform offered a model for how to bridge these different worlds. Over the course of my junior year, through conversations with peers, mentors, and advisors, a project began to crystallize—writing histories that unfix our sense of the present, and thereby open new political and legal possibilities for the future. This project led me to apply for the Rhodes a year later.

How has your life changed since learning you were named a Rhodes Scholar?

The entire experience was a whirlwind, and not what I expected to happen when I went in to interview at the New York Public Library on a Saturday afternoon last November. The scholarship interviews and decisions all happened within the span of a few hours that day—which also ended up being during the weekend of Diwali, and a few days before a thesis chapter deadline. I’m not quite sure I slept that week!

With a bit more time to look back at things, I think my life was already changed by the kindness of the people who I got to know during the application and interview process—our advisors at Columbia, especially Dean Ariella Lang; alumni, mentors, and close friends who talked me through pre-interview nerves; and the inspiring group of finalists in my district. I am deeply grateful to have this time and space for intellectual exploration, and to see where these next two years lead me.

How do you like studying in New York? What are your favorite urban activities?

It’s been wonderful to study here! Growing up, I spent summers in New York while primarily attending school in Chandigarh and New Delhi, India, so I was thrilled at the chance to return here for college. I’ve enjoyed revisiting some of the places where I used to spend time when I was younger—the Central Park reservoir, the American Museum of Natural History and its surrounding gardens, the Columbus Circle Holiday Market, the knitting/crochet/embroidery section of Barnes & Noble—while also finding new destinations.

In terms of favorite urban activities: I like to work out of cafes, and have probably written the majority of my essays in college at the Blue Bottle near campus, supplied with a cup of almond-milk hot chocolate or spearmint tea. I’ve also loved attending talks, events, and exhibits at nearby museums like the New York Historical Society, where we’ve coordinated group tours through the Columbia History Association over the last few years. And so many wonderful artists and writers pass through the city! Some of my highlights include meeting a landscape painter teaching outdoor classes in Central Park, hosting visiting writers and creatives at the Columbia Journal of Asia, and getting to see the sitar player Anoushka Shankar—one of my favorite musicians of all time—perform in Brooklyn during her recent U.S. visit.

Any recommendations for things to do beyond campus?

Explore the parks! Walk through Riverside Park right next to campus, along with Central Park—especially around the reservoir, and through the park from Central Park West to Fifth Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum. I haven’t been going often enough these days, but there is something incredibly special and immersive about being in Central Park in the springtime and early summer months.

Food-wise, places I have enjoyed (for their vegan options!) include TAP NYC, a Brazilian cafe that’s great for açaí bowls and tapioca wraps; Alice’s Tea Cup, for scones, sandwiches, and whimsical tea blends; Celeste, for pasta and lime sorbet; and Pizza Collective and Sullivan Street Bakery, for pizza, sandwiches, and focaccia.

What will you study at Oxford, and what do you hope to pursue professionally after your time there?

At Oxford, I plan to read for an MPhil in intellectual history. I hope to extend upon a number of questions I’ve been drawn to through my senior thesis work—about global circuits linking different religious, political, and cultural worlds during the Enlightenment; the relationship between Enlightenment and empire, and, more broadly, between colonial experience and intellectual categories; and the way religious knowledge is codified and translated into structures of law, and contested and reinterpreted by feminists and other social reformers.

Afterwards, I hope to return to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in history and a career as a historian, working on the intellectual and cultural history of empire between the 18th and 20th centuries.