Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Scholars make lifelong discovery of India

Many Americans have recently ``discovered'' India, with a little help from films, TV, news stories about ethnic strife there, and the array of cultural exhibits associated with the current ``Festival of India and the US.'' But for a pair of University of Chicago political scientists, the discovery was made 30 years ago, and it continues today. Lloyd and Susan Rudolph set out on their first trip to the subcontinent in 1956 -- a trip, they say, that couldn't be duplicated today. It was a frequently dusty, rock-strewn, liberally potholed overland passage through Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, then down into India. Political frictions would throw up roadblocks all over that route now, according to the husband-and-wife academic team.

The Rudolphs, who regularly visit this tiny, lakeside Vermont village, are prominent figures in the small fraternity of India scholars in the United States. They've co-written half a dozen books on Indian society and politics, most of which remain standard references on the subject. Current projects include a volume on the pursuit of wealth in India and another based on the diaries of a Indian nobleman, which span the years 1898 to 1942.

About these ads

The Chicago professors are often sought out by American decisionmakers groping after a better understanding of the world's second most populous nation. Theirs has been a profoundly cross-cultural life -- both professionally and as a family -- for nearly 30 years.

That life began when they met and married as graduate students at Harvard. It really picked up momentum, however, with that initial trek to the country they had studied from afar. They bought a Land-Rover in Britain -- the kind ``with the tire on top'' -- attached a large basket for extra luggage space, and headed across Europe toward Asia.

After Belgrade, they recall, the roads quickly deteriorated. ``We camped and had a great time,'' says Mr. Rudolph, describing the rough-and-ready nature of the journey, which included brief arrests by both the Greek and Turkish military. But their clearest memory of that trip is the marked change in conditions as soon as they crossed the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and India. ``You hit paved roads, electricity, road signs, administrative offices, petrol pumps,'' says Mrs. Rudolph, all of which contrasted sharply with the endless tracts of Middle Eastern territory they had just traversed.

It was the legacy of the British Raj, true, but it was a legacy that the postcolonial governments of India and Pakistan were not allowing to deteriorate, the Rudolphs explain. Also, they emphasize, the road system was to a large extent a modern renewal of the well-worked-out routes of trade and conquest established by the Mogul emperors of past centuries. This borrowing of the old by the new was true in other areas as well, they say, such as some of the administrative structures used by the Britis h.

They were fascinated by what they observed and immediately launched into a study of how politics has developed in India. That research generated their first book, ``Modernity of Tradition,'' which is still in print.

Over the decades, the Rudolphs' regimen has been to teach three years and travel one, using grant money from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and other sources. After their children were born -- Jenny, Amelia, then Matthew -- the frequent trips to India became a family matter. Jenny, born in 1962, first made the journey to India at age six months. ``Among our colleagues, in terms of going frequently and taking the whole family, we're rather unique,'' says Mr. Rudolph .

All the children have attended the Woodstock School, an international school in the Himalayan city of Mussoorie, India -- which the Rudolphs describe as an idyllic spot, reminiscing about a hiking and camping trek in the area last year. And all the children ``cook Indian and speak Hindi,'' their father adds. ``We've got an Indian identity throughout the family,'' says Mrs. Rudolph.

About these ads

Amelia, now a student at Swarthmore College, acquired an abiding interest in Indian music while at the Woodstock School and is continuing to study a form of Indian dance called Odissi. She made a special effort to return to India for her class's graduation, something her brother hopes to do, too.

The family's Indian friendships have remained close, perhaps because they were carefully formed. Getting to know Indians takes patience, the Rudolphs say. ``You spend time and you drink tea,'' Mrs. Rudolph explains. When it comes to personal relationships there, she continues, ``it's very inefficient to be too efficient.'' She pauses, then adds, ``It's a little like Vermont that way.''

But once a friendship is established, you're part of the family -- almost literally. ``When you get to be friends,'' muses Mr. Rudolph, ``they tell their children to call you `auntie' or `uncle.' '' It amounts to an ``adoption'' into the family -- the informality of the family and the ``language of the family,'' combining friendliness and respectfulness, he says. His own children, on the other hand, stuck to the traditional American ``Mr.'' and ``Mrs.'' when addressing their Indian elders.

Speaking of friendships, the Rudolphs point out that many of the people they got to know on their earliest trips to India -- those in positions of power -- were civil servants and businessmen who grew up under British rule. They were highly educated, ``Anglicized'' people whose ``English was almost always better than our vulgar American,'' says Mrs. Rudolph. But that has changed radically. Those now in power are the first post-independence generation, exemplified by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It's a g roup that's less oriented toward Britain, and whose cultural style is more familiar to Americans -- a kind of Indian ``jeans generation,'' the Rudolphs quip.

Other signs of modernization are as near as the neighborhood grocery. When they first took up residence in their Indian home base of Jaipur, a city in the northern state of Rajasthan, you couldn't buy ``our type of butter,'' Mrs. Rudolph says. It was all made and consumed in people's homes. Now, she says, indicating a white clapboard establishment down the road from their summer home, ``I can buy pretty much anything I can buy at the Barnard Country Store.'' See related article on India in Ideas section, Page 23

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.