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Destination India

What would it be like driving overland from London — East of Suez and over the Khyber Pass — to India ? Day by day and mile by mile, we found out, recording our impressions and experiences of people, landscape, and encounters as we drove a 107″ wheel base Land Rover from London to Jaipur. The year was 1956; the months July and August. Our 5,000 mile journey took us across the ecological and cultural limes distinguishing Europe from Asia and into the Indian subcontinent. As freshly minted PhDs, 26- and 28-years-old, we were open to adventure and to knowledge of the other. Funded by a Ford Foundation Foreign Area Training fellowship, we found ourselves positioned at the cusp of the area studies era generated by the end of colonial rule.

Modernization theory was regnant then and we argued that it was wrong to suppose that tradition would be swept into the dust bin of history; that “they” would become like “us”. We showed how and why tradition was often adaptive, change dialectical not dichotomous, and “we” could learn from “them.” We also learned an important methodological lesson being there. Many western scholars of “new nations” sought to find universal truths, truths that were said to be true everywhere and always. We found ourselves learning from the other and grounding our concepts and categories in local knowledge and practice. We characterized our approach as situated knowledge, knowledge that arises out of particular times, places and circumstances, and that results in contextual rather than universal truths. Travelling through countries of western Asia — Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan — shaped our perspective. We learned that if India was less developed than the countries of Western Europe, it was more developed than the countries lying between western Europe and South Asia.

At Harvard where we did our PhDs in Political Science, we studied comparative politics and nationalism with Samuel Beer, Rupert Emerson, and Carl Friedrich. We learned to analyze institutions, politics, and, even then, policy as they were defined by European and American historical experience. Our graduate education at Harvard in the mid-1950s didn’t equip us (as our students at the University of Chicago were equipped from the mid-1960s onward) with knowledge of South Asian languages, history, and culture. (The Eisenhower administration introduced the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) South Asia area and language programs in the post-Sputnik area.) We learned Hindi on our own and at the Landour Language School and about India’s history, culture, and society while doing research in India. Our openness to area and language knowledge was partly a consequence of working while junior faculty at Harvard with David Riesman in his course on American Character and Social Structure, and with Erik Erikson in his course and seminar on life history and identity formation. These experiences prepared us intellectually and emotionally better than did our graduate education in political science to respond to living in and learning from India. They liberated us from the disciplinary straight-jacket of political science and opened the way for us to be humanistic social scientists more concerned with meaning than with causation.

From 1956-57 onward, roughly every fourth year until 1999-2000, we took leave to do research in India. In all, we spent eleven years on the sub-continent doing research. Starting with our second research year, 1962-63, the first of our three children accompanied us. Over the subsequent nine research years our children travelled to India with us. They attended Indian schools: St. Xaviers and Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls Public School in Jaipur, the Woodstock School in Mussoorie/Landour. Living in India they experienced Indian family life and formed lasting friendships. In the process they acquired a passable Hindi. Beginning in 2001, as an aspect of our retirement arrangements, we have been able to spend the winter months, January through March, living and working in Jaipur.

India captured our imagination as a place to encounter, study, and learn from. We drove to overland from London in a Land Rover in order to be there. And we’ve spent the subsequent 50 years researching, theorizing, teaching, and writing about this country.

Featured image: In front of the Jaipur Palace, India, 1956. Photo by Marc Riboud. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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