Avabai Wadia

Date of birth: 
18 Sep 1913
City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Current name country of birth: 
Sri Lanka
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
05 May 1928
Dates of time spent in Britain: 



Of an elite Parsee background, Avabai Wadia arrived in Britain aged 14, accompanied by her mother and to join her brother. She attended Brondesbury and Kilburn High School in London where she was the only South Asian pupil. She excelled at school and went on to train as a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn, becoming the first Ceylonese woman to pass the Bar exams. As a direct consequence of her success, the Law College in Colombo opened its doors to women. She was called to the Bar in 1934 and eventually found a chambers willing to take on a South Asian woman. Committed to women’s rights, Wadia was an active member of a number of women’s organizations in Britain. She was also involved with the Labour Party and the Indian nationalist movement in Britain. On her return to India, she pioneered the family planning movement.


Annie Besant, Spitam Cama, Charlotte Despard, Pearl Fernando, M. K. Gandhi, Agatha Harrison, Elizabeth Knight, J. Krishnamurthi, Emily Lutyens, K. P. Mehta, Krishna Menon, Herbert Morrison, Sarojini Naidu, Rameshwari Nehru, H. S. L. Polak, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, Devika Rani, Uday Shankar, George Bernard Shaw, Dorab Tata, Meherbai Tata, Florence Underwood, Monica Whately.

Involved in events: 

All-India Women’s Conference

British Commonwealth League conferences

Celebration of Gandhi’s 62nd birthday (Women’s Indian Association)

Concerts at the Albert Hall, the Queen’s Hall and the Covent Garden Opera House

Dinner held at the Minerva Club to celebrate 89th birthday of Charlotte Despard, 1933

League of Nations, 1935

Meetings and festivities at Zoroastrian House, Kensington

Performances by the dancer Uday Shankar at the Arts Theatre Club

Published works: 

The Light is Ours: Memoirs and Movements (International Planned Parenthood Federation, 2001)

Secondary works: 

Fisher, Michael H., Lahiri, Shompa and Thandi, Shinder S., A South-Asian History of Britain: Four Centuries of Peoples from the Indian Sub-Continent (Oxford and Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007)


Wadia, Avabai, The Light is Ours: Memoirs and Movements (International Planned Parenthood Federation, 2001), pp. 31, 34-5


In The Light is Ours, Wadia documents her stay in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Her account includes description of her experience of being the only South Asian pupil at a London school, her life as a law student, and her involvement in a number of women’s and Indian nationalist organizations where she encountered a wide range of socially and politically active men and women, both South Asian and Britain.


Indians in England in the 1920s and 1930s lived in a totally different milieu from that of today. They were a tiny minority, and were in England as professional or business people, with or without families, or as students, and all faced overt and covert discrimination. We were singular, and singled out – favourably occasionally, but usually as the inferior subjects of a grand empire. This did not mean that we could not lead good lives and have friends for, in spite of an imperial consciousness and ineradicable colour bar, on a personal basis people were friendly and helpful. They were seldom rough, but a barrier between white and brown skins was maintained and caused harm at times. The discrimination was a given, not to be questioned.


My mother, as a good psychologist, decided I would wear sarees to school. This gave me an advantage as my difference from the other girls was then not merely in skin colour but in totality, and to be an individual won a kind of respect…Comments such as “How is it your finger nails are pink just like ours?” showed racial ignorance or prejudice, but there was never unkindness. I was the only Indian among hundreds of girls, although there was one other whose father was Indian, but she had been born and bred in London and counted as English. I had a small distinction all my own, for I spoke and wrote English like the best of the others, and my French teacher said I had the best French accent!


Wadia’s memoirs are of interest for the account they give of the reception and treatment of South Asians in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. It is important, however, to bear in mind that she is of an elite background and was probably treated comparatively well by the British as a consequence. The second extract gives evidence of an interesting assertion of cultural difference on the part of Wadia’s mother, as well as of a migrant attempting to compensate for their minority status through academic achievement in this early period.