Academic and author Assa Doron plans to work on a book on India’s waste disposal systems

Assa Doron is not the first backpacker to keep returning to India for a second, third and fourth look at the subcontinent. But he is one among a select group of people whose fascination for India goes beyond merely surfing through her heritage and culture. Assa’s long affair with the people and the place has shaped an enduring relationship that has resulted in books and essays on the transformation of a culture, society and economy. An anthropologist, he tries to examine and understand how and why even ‘solutions’ to age-old problems create new challenges that test convention and tradition and create a new set of problems.

Vacationing in Kerala with his family, Assa says he is taking a break from his work on a book on garbage! Along with Robin Jeffrey, with whom he had co-authored Cellphone Nation, he is now studying waste disposal systems in India. They plan to trace the issue from the Mughal times, to the era when the British ruled India to present-day problems and issues connected with waste disposal. As such Vilappilsala also figures in the conversation. In the meantime, he is editing an anthology on the Ganga, which has select works by leading poets and authors.

“India has this ability to throw up new perspectives every time you visit the country. My first trip was inspired by Yoman Drachim [India, Account Of A Voyage], a book in Hebrew written by Azriel Karlibach, a senior editor of the Ma’ariv, a daily in Israel. He had toured India, met Jawaharlal Nehru and then written a series of articles on the states in India. The book, first published in the fifties, became a huge success and went into multiple editions. That book inspired many Israelis to discover India,” explains Assa, who is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University.

Assa first came to India in the early nineties after completing his mandatory three-year stint in the army. “In Israel, it is like a rite of passage to go on a tour after the military service comes to an end. Many Israelis travel to East Asia, India or South America in groups. I decided to travel to India on my own,” he says.

His voyage to India via Cairo landed him in Mumbai and from there he travelled to various places in the country for six months. Although he fell ill, he returned to India after recuperating in Thailand for about a month. That first trip led to many other trips and each journey resulted in a new insight on India and Indians. “I even worked as a guide, taking groups of tourists around different places depending on their area of interest. That gave me another angle and I saw the country in a different light,” he remembers. He did travel to Kochi to visit the synagogue.

Moreover, during his student days in the University of Jerusalem, he was taught by Indologist and scholar David Schulzman, an expert in Koodiyattam. Somewhere along the way, the tourist became a student and a researcher who wanted to engage with the country on a different plane. By then Assa was living in Australia. He began working under Robin Jeffrey, one of the foremost scholars on India and Kerala, for his PhD.

“When I wanted to work on India from an academic point of view, it was the ancient city of Varanasi that intrigued me. I lived there, learnt Hindi and was fascinated by the many connections the river Ganga has with pilgrims, with tourists, with priests, with people living on her banks and with the boatmen who make a living from the river,” says Assa, his enthusiasm evident in each word that he chooses to explain his association with the Ganga and the people inhabiting the banks of the river.

His many publications on the Ganga explore the multifaceted aspects of the lives of the people living on the banks and numerous other issues. He has delved into the caste equation and its ramifications too. It was during one of his trips that an incident did ring a bell that led to a study on cell phones and its multipronged effects on Indian society, polity, economy, family and so on.

“I remember that Eureka moment so well. I had come to have a ‘chai’ and was lounging around when an acquaintance ambled along for a chat. He had a fancy screen saver of Lord Ganesha that I wanted. He wanted me to switch on my Bluetooth and that is when I realised I had no clue how to go about it. He was so savvy about the technology, its possibilities. That opened my eyes to the way cell phones had rung in changes in India in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago,” he recalls.

Small shops were offering all kinds of downloads for a sum. So right from pimply teenagers to hard nosed businessmen, everyone was moving around with cell phones that changed them and the world around them.

Assa’s fascination for India has not been stubbed out. Instead it has taken him to different areas of study, each one leading him to something new about the country.

And what has India taught him over the years? “Never take anything for granted. Life in India humbles you and fascinates you.”

India Calling

Cell Phone Nation, authored by Robin Jeffrey and Assa, was about how the small device had altered India.

Life of the Ganga: Boatmen And The Ritual Economy, released earlier this year, is a study of the boatmen of the Ganga and their multi-layered, multi-hued relationship with the river and the people. Later, this year, he is working on an anthology, a collection of works on the Ganga, including poems, essays and notes written by the likes of Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, and also translations of poems in Hindi on the river. It even has the script of Ram Teri Ganga Maili, a film set on the banks of the river. The book is likely to reach books shelves early next year.

Gender And Masculinities: Histories, Texts and Practices in India and Sri Lanka is the latest book edited by Assa. The book has scholars writing on the idea of masculinity. They trace its place in history, literature, development and so on.