SUSANNE RUDOLPH (1930-2015) Comment

The interpreter of India’s maladies

In 1970 I was headed to the U.S. on a full fellowship to do another M.A. in History. The U.S. was bombing Vietnam, and ‘secretly’ bombing Cambodia, and I could see no real reason to love America. In fact, I was full of dread at the politics with which I would be identified once I landed on its soil. Worse things happened. The civil war in Pakistan sent millions of refugees to Calcutta; a really desperate genocide supported by the U.S. was underway as I tried to keep my mind on my duties as a teaching assistant and a graduate student with a full load. At the University of Bridgeport, very few understood my gloom. No one really knew India or cared; it was seen as teeming with the riff-raff of the planet — undernourished, illiterate, poverty-stricken, diseased, dirty. It was that larger “basket case” that Henry Kissinger was to call Bangladesh. Indians from India were unfamiliar tribals, confused with the other misunderstood and misnamed natives called “Indians” — the ones, they thought, whooped around with feathers in their headbands and tomahawks chopping the air. To say that this was the state of the art of the average American’s knowledge of India is no exaggeration. I felt like the stranger in a strange land. But I didn’t know Susanne or Lloyd Rudolph then.

The discovery of India

Two years down the road, I proceeded to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana on a fellowship to do my Ph.D. There I encountered one Philip Oldenburg, who lent me his well-thumbed copy of The Modernity of Tradition by the Rudolphs, his Ph.D. supervisors at the University of Chicago. The title itself evoked more complex minds, and halfway through the introduction I suddenly felt as if I had found the gurus who understood my benighted country with sympathy, insight and passion. Gandhi — that man modern India had come to neglect, if not despise — appeared, with all his failings, as the charismatic leader who had lain with the Indian psyche on a couch and tapped its subconscious desires. Even the loathsome caste system seems to have some redeeming social qualities — I felt the scales from my own single-focus, and oft-prejudiced, eyes drop away. But the real epiphany for me was on the subject of the legal system — how the British had so ill-adapted to the Indian idea of justice and how the legal courts and procedure were frighteningly arcane, dilatory and ruinous for Indian plaintiffs and defendants alike, and how easily subverted its processes and procedures were in an Indian setting. For me that opened the door to understanding and exploring, in my own scholarship, the distortions that colonialism had wrought in the very fabric of our society. The footnotes led to other authors and soon an entire universe of the best minds in the U.S. and elsewhere who studied India opened up for me. As I recall, Bernard Cohen was the first footnote in the law essay and his world of the anthropologist crossed with the historian brought further depth and width to the study of India. And the next thing I knew was that Susanne had made an appointment to see him in his office. All this was intellectually intoxicating.

What was even more remarkable to me, coming from the Indian educational system, where professors were remote, mildly risible characters who you imitated behind their backs and played sly pranks on in the classroom to win the admiration of your fellow students, was to meet the Rudolphs in their palatial home in Hyde Park with the ambience of a Rajput thikana. How much an Indian student would envy the hospitality extended by these gracious professors to their students (and I was not even formally their student) who were welcomed as warmly as eminences like Nirad Chaudhuri, J.K. Galbraith, Raja Rao and R.K. Narayan, visiting litterateurs and political personalities. Their home was an intellectual mecca, and if you were lucky enough you could go to the top floor and look at the breathtaking collection of books. And to make it even more astounding to foodies like me, the food was actually prepared by Sue and Lloyd, and served by the well-brought-up and very engaging children, Jennifer and Amelia, and Matthew. How in the world did Sue ever find the time to have these children, let alone bring them up, I asked her once in total amazement. “Well,” she said, rather matter-of-factly, “I took a total of eight days off for my three deliveries and Lloyd and I shared the parenting equally.” The results are spectacular as anyone who knows those three very good-looking, totally accomplished and marvellous offspring. And if this, and their dozens of books and scholarly articles and very wonderful journals of their travels were not enough, they also made India home for part of the year in Jaipur and in Mussoorie, and a wonderful residential complex on Silver Lake in Barnard, Vermont. Grand celebrations of anniversaries and birthdays, and memories of academic conversations liberally spiced with humour and gossip, are vivid in my mind too — and Susanne is in the middle of each one in flowing silk salwar kameez or dresses, with stoles and shawls that boast her exquisite taste. Just when you think she is a princess, she will appear in khakis and stout boots and will be off to hike on Mt. Mansfield while you drag along.

Amongst beautiful minds

They and the roster of luminous India scholars and authors (Bernard Cohen and philosopher and folklorist A.K. Ramanujan, Wendy Doniger, Ed Dimock and Ron Inden, among others) at the University of Chicago were a well-knit community of erudite and multidisciplinary Brahmins who opened their minds but also their homes to us. Philip and I felt fortunate to be frequent house guests coming up from Champaign to attend seminars, exchange news and views in the lounge at Foster Hall where Friday tea times were like the proverbial hookah gatherings of the elders beneath the banyan tree. Under their aegis I met anthropologists who knew more about the rituals of a Hindu household than any Hindu I knew, more about the niceties (and the not-so niceties) of caste and kinship (Kim Marriott had even rendered the caste system as a monopoly game), of the village republics, of ethnic and regional variations — the ‘Madrasi’, who was the generic South Indian for a northern Lucknow-bred person like me.

In fact, thousands of miles away from my own roots, in those frigid days in the ‘interior’ of a large empty continent, I discovered India through reading and in conversation with these scholars. One discovered the joys of commensality, and endogamy (in the breach!), and hypergamy (the dreadful idea that women ideally married “up”) as the one principle I was never going to accept as possible. The rigour of meticulous research, their teaching methods and lively seminars — where scepticism, questioning was as much part of the process as hard digging among original sources — imparted made India come alive for me in ways that I had not experienced in my Anglicised home and schools. The Area Studies Program, as the graduate study curriculum was called in the many Centers of Excellence at American universities, had a wide range of disciplines that parsed the infinite complexity of India from different perspectives — from religion and folklore to economics, history, anthropology, political science — achieving a holistic view of the area.

Immersion in such a programme anchored by the highest standards of scholarship would be hard to find in India. I had wanted to do my Ph.D. in British history and wound up being a historian of India instead, and am grateful for the switch I became persuaded to make.

Susanne perhaps mentored more students than she would care to count — and yet she never forgot anyone, kept in touch with the dozens, saw them through to their jobs in other universities and followed their careers with interest. She was a role model not only to her students but to her colleagues also. With her passing, a world of old-world scholarship and fellowship has passed. She will always be a star in the firmament of Indian Studies internationally — and generations of students will know her and Lloyd through their rich legacy of scholarship, now in digitised form in e-book versions eternally.

(Veena Talwar Oldenburg is a historian and current Fulbright-Nehru Fellow for Academic and Professional Excellence and is writing a history of Gurgaon.)

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