How caste came to America

Barney Cohn had so many books that he commandeered two offices in the highest reaches of Haskell Hall, the temple of the University of Chicago's anthropology department. My graduate education took place in those two offices, whether while settling the books in the one room, or sitting amidst the studied clutter of the other room, listening to Barney ramble on about the state of the world, anthropology or his own life. There was something of the British subaltern in Barney's look, with his floppy safari caps and saggy moustache. His, however, manner was anything but. He was courteous, wearing his old-fashioned liberal grace in his diffidence.

In the midst of our conversations about his current projects (I was his research assistant), he would break off to give me primers on the history of the study of India in the United States. I often asked him why American scholars seemed so interested in caste, almost to the exclusion of other things. Barney's stories began with Cornell, where he studied rural sociology for his PhD. At Cornell, the leading anthropologist was Morris Opler, who had cut his teeth studying the Apache, the Native American tribe, working for a spell in the 1930s with the Bureau of Indian Affairs before settling down to teach in the College of Education at Harvard. Here, Opler asked his students to write an essay to present to their graduate seminar. One of his students was Rudra Datt Singh, who came to Harvard after working as a rural analyst with Albert Mayer in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh. Mayer was highly impressed with Singh, whose calm intelligence enabled the Americans to form a close relationship with villagers.

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Himal Southasian