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My Passage to India

Nicholas Dirks, professor of history and anthropology | February 2, 2015

I set off on my first passage to India when I was 12 years old. My father had a Fulbright grant to teach at Madras Christian College, in Tambaram, southern India, and he decided to take our entire family with him for the year. I remember being told about my family’s plans some time in 1963, imagining in the long Connecticut winter that India would mean seeing tigers, elephants, and jungles, but understanding little else. I had met my father’s host, the new (and first Indian) principal of the college, who had stayed with us periodically while he was completing his doctoral studies in the United States, and I knew that his sons had a pet python. I read a large book my parents brought home and placed on the coffee table, called The Wonder That Was India, and puzzled about what it would mean to go to a different home and school.

book cover

This post is adapted from Autobiography of an Archive: A Scholar’s Passage to India, published this month by Columbia University Press.

I had no way of knowing I was going to miss out on the emergence of the Beatles, though I had the usual concerns about leaving my junior high school friends and the eighth grade. I was excited by the prospect of adventure, and as it turned out, the year was magical. The college campus did have acres of jungle, and there were peacocks, cobras, and leopard cats, much to my mother’s horror. I attended school in khaki shorts; studied the south Indian drum, the mridangam, with a maestro in Mylapore (along with the son of another Fulbright scholar); and learned how to navigate the extremely efficient bus system of the city of Madras.

I slept under a mosquito net, figured out how to take bucket baths (we only had an hour of running water each day), and endured the strangeness of having my (Hindustan) corn flakes mixed with warm milk rather than cold — all things that I remember from the vantage point of an early-sixties American kid. The year left a lasting impression and set in motion an interest that led to a career as a scholar of India and a lifetime of passages to India, personal as well as professional.

I wrote these autobiographical paragraphs to set the stage for a book with “autobiography” in the title (my new book, Autobiography of an Archive, is out this month), wondering if I should go on to write a memoir about this — and many subsequent— passages to India. As I wrote it, though, I realized that I was not in fact describing something all that unique, even during the years long before the current age of globalization, before email and social media and cell phones, before (relatively) inexpensive jet travel. Rather, I meant to observe that while I experienced my first passage as distinctive (I was, after all, the only kid in my junior high school to do such a thing, even though the school had many children of Yale faculty), this idiosyncratic experience was in fact a standard part of postwar American life.

My passage began with my father’s Fulbright grant. The Fulbright Program was established by Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946, just after the end of World War II, and out of the determination to advance international understanding — by which Fulbright and his colleagues also meant the global centrality of the United States — at a time when the United States knew it could not retreat to its prewar isolationism. The program has operated in 50 countries, providing opportunities for the exchange of scholars, educators, graduate students, and professionals, projecting the image of an enlightened and peaceful United States.

When my father went to India on a Fulbright in 1963, he worked closely with the director of the India Fulbright Program, a woman by the name of Olive Reddick. Although my father didn’t know it at the time, Reddick had worked as an undercover operative in India during the war, employed by the Office of Strategic Services, spying mostly on the British and their imperial intentions though concerning herself as well with the nature of the nationalist movement and its implications for the American war effort in Asia. Like many members of the OSS who had interests in India, she was sympathetic to the nationalist movement, committed to India, and continued after the war to play a role in the development of Indo-American relations (in her case, through scholarship and diplomacy), working with the Fulbright Program in India from 1950 onward.

Before the war, Americans with real connections to India or other parts of Asia (or Africa) mostly had these connections through missionary activities. The war thrust the United States onto a world stage, strategic and military in the first instance but political, economic, and cultural in important ways soon thereafter. FDR was prescient in his recognition of the significance of the globe not just for the survival of the United States but for any hope that the war, however reluctant the entry into it, and however destructive it would be, would also be the basis for newfound global prosperity and power after a decade of depression, economic decline, and isolationist politics.

When FDR commissioned William C. Donovan to put together a proposal for a U.S. intelligence service, he understood, too, that global ambition required new forms of knowledge, knowledge that existed neither in Washington nor in American universities of the time. As Donovan assembled the academics and policy wonks who populated his Research and Analysis Branch, first attached to his role as “Coordinator of Information,” and then to his newly minted Office of Strategic Services, he made it clear the United States needed to develop far more knowledge about and much greater interaction with the world well beyond Europe and that Asia was critical both in the war and to U.S. geopolitical interests and concerns beyond and after the war.

The OSS was shut down by Truman just months after the cessation of hostilities, and though it soon morphed into the CIA, it developed a very different relationship to the academy almost from the start, both because wartime conditions had sustained a much closer relationship between intelligence and academics and because the CIA had much stricter, and more politically motivated, ideas about what constituted usable knowledge. For these and other reasons, the OSS was far more influential than the CIA in shaping academic interests and predispositions.

Perhaps most importantly, the OSS played a critical role in the initial formation and development of what soon came to be known as “area studies,” the interdisciplinary study of discrete regions of the world outside the United States (with a special emphasis on regions outside North America and western Europe). W. Norman Brown, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Pennsylvania, had headed the India division at the OSS’s Research and Analysis Branch in Washington during the war years, and he recruited most of the people who worked with him there to Penn after the war to build the first regional department of South Asian studies in the United States. While the U.S. government established the Fulbright Program and then the National Resource Centers funded by Title VI of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, private foundations, especially Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, began to invest major resources into area studies and projects as well.

Many Americans lamented the “loss” of China when Mao’s revolutionary army established the PRC in 1949, and while this meant that China had now closed its doors to the United States, at the same time that India had taken up leadership of the “nonaligned” movement of “Third World” nations, it also created greater urgency in determining the relationship between the United States and Asia. The defeat of France in Vietnam in 1956 also led to greater U.S. interest in Southeast Asia, especially given prevailing theories about the escalating threat of global communism. And JFK instituted the Peace Corps in the early sixties.

What all this meant for ordinary Americans — even before the growing involvement of the United States in a long and horrible war in Vietnam — was a much greater likelihood of experiencing some set of “accidents” that would lead to a life and career like mine than ever was the case before. There were in fact a myriad of ways young Americans might spend time in Asia, Africa, or some other part of the world as children, college students, and recent graduates, and in an age that was not yet global in the way we experience the world today, replete with genuinely new and unique experiences, real adventure, and a sense of a different and vastly enlarged and enriched world. We were captivated by other lands and other peoples, ineluctably pulled away from “normal” careers and ambitions, yet systematically supported and often encouraged by the ample opportunities — and funding — that made it possible to engage in the academic study of things global.

When I went to the University of Chicago for graduate work in South Asian history in 1972, I heard many distinctive and compelling stories of how my fellow students came to their interest in South Asia (or other parts of the globe), yet they mostly seemed to converge in a collective story that was part of the new relationship the United States had forged, for better and for worse, in its postwar global emergence.

But the story is larger than that, too, and was propelled by the aspirations of many likely and unlikely players, from William C. Donovan to J. William Fulbright, from FDR to JFK, from Olive Reddick to my father, a professor at the Yale Divinity School who had been born on a small farm in central Iowa yet spent the decades after the war traveling around the world multiple times. My own story is unique, and uniquely American, at one and the same time.

This post is adapted from Nicholas Dirk’s Autobiography of an Archive: A Scholar’s Passage to India, published this month by Columbia University Press.