Monday, December 19, 2011

Twelve Days until Departure

As you’ll know from the title of this blog, Colgate University is sending twenty-seven of its faculty members to India for two weeks in January in order to enrich the Core curriculum. I am one of the lucky twenty-seven, and I confess to being utterly daunted.

I have never been to India (closest?—Egypt), and the prospect of the trip is still a tad scary. Travel in India in my ignorant imagination seems a formidable task: it’s big, it’s crowded (or some of it is), and it offers many physical and emotional challenges.

Then, of course, there is the prospect of travelling for two weeks with twenty-six colleagues; thankfully, I can say without equivocation that I like each and every one of them, and many of my closest friends are on the trip too (including a solid base formed of the all-conquering Colgate faculty trivia team…).

We are being led by Padma Kaimal (Art History) and Eliza Kent (Religion), so we couldn’t have better or kinder guides. Even so, all the preparation—injections, briefings on etiquette, etc.—have included moments that were supposed to be comforting but only raised new concerns:
“You don’t need a rabies shot to go to India,” said Padma, “just don’t make eye contact with the feral dogs.” 
Wait?—there are feral dogs in India?!? (Cue visions of packs swarming the streets, carrying off tasty tourists...) Moreover, two weeks in India means two weeks away from my children (and as they live in the Boston area I see little enough of them as it is). And even the long flights (I am not a happy flier!) loom large.

So why go to India? Simple answer for me is that I have always wanted to go. I am not sure why beyond the obvious, but I hope to clarify that question for myself as we travel. I am a medieval European historian, so there is no immediate connection with my own work. In Colgate’s Core, I teach The Mahabharata in the context of the course entitled Legacies of the Ancient World.

I don’t think I do a very good job with it, so it will be good to learn more about the culture that produced it. On a more complicated level, I have—in my own research on poverty in medieval England—made claims that we can learn about the experience of poverty in the past by placing it next to modern poverty. I cannot help but feel that I have made those claims somewhat glibly. This trip will, I believe, stimulate my reading on the subject. Although, that said, the prospect of encountering appalling poverty in India is one of the most daunting prospects of all.

At this stage, I am considering which books to take, so your advice is appreciated. Definitely on the list:
  • Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India—I am constitutionally incapable of going somewhere without knowing something of the history
  • The Ramayana in the William Buck retelling—about time I encountered India’s other great epic
  • Irene Khan, The Untold Truth: Poverty and Human Rights 
  • Gandhi, Hind Swaraj 
  • Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
The last is a book I have started twice and never finished. Part of me imagines it as a model for my blog postings, in that it is a wonderful example of travel prompting inner reflection. I certainly don’t want to fall into the cliché of westerner-travelling-to-India-to-seek-Enlightenment, but these last few years have been ones of loss and sadness for me, so I hope a trip like this one, so outside what is familiar to me, might serve as a line of demarcation of a sort.

And, last, I need a novel: the whole group has read Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger, in preparation for the trip; I read Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children the other year and didn’t much like it (although it may need a re-read!); my dear friend Noor Khan suggests Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy, which sounds good. Truth be told, though, I could also do with some mindless brain candy for the flight, something to keep me distracted. Suggestions?

Anyway, we were told that blog posts should be no more than 350 words and I am over double that, so now I will just


  1. I was thinking of taking along either A Suitable Boy or A Fine Balance, and would be especially inclined to do so if I knew someone else on the trip would be reading it too. AFB was an Oprah selection, which must mean it passes the airplane test, if nothing else.

  2. Thanks, Liz—I hadn't heard of A Fine Balance, but reviews look interesting. I think Georgia and I may split (literally!) A Suitable Boy, and perhaps someone will have the other too.

  3. I read A Suitable Boy years ago and enjoyed it greatly. I was thinking that it may be a good one to reread in India. It's a big book, though, so I'll only do it if I can get it for the Kindle.

  4. I have A Fair Balance coming from the library on CD. Good for the journey!

  5. Hi Professor Cooper,

    How wonderful that Colgate's doing this! I think your justification for why you're going on this trip is very honorable. I was wondering though, why pick India of all places for the purpose of CORE enrichment? And what exactly does this "enrichment" entail? Don't get me wrong--I'm not trying to challenge any decisions here. It's just that being from this area of the world (I'm from Burma), I'm simply curious as to how Colgate plans to incorporate the traditions from this area into its curriculum.

    On another note, I'm reading A Suitable Boy right now, and it's wonderful. Definitely echo others' recommendations there!

  6. Sandra: thanks for the question. I wasn't in on the deliberations, but my understanding is that a great deal of thought went into choosing a destination that would be of interest across the disciplines—whether it was for Economists to see India's new economy, scientists to engage with new technologies, or humanists to encounter art, religion and history. Those interests were combined with the fact that we have sufficient faculty expertise to lead a group to India, not to mention that there was a similar faculty trip to China, South Korea and Japan a few years ago. Finally, Colgate has connections in India—we are part of a study abroad consortium that sends students there—but not enough given India's ever growing World profile. You're right, though, that there are plenty of other places that we would learn a lot from you. Please suggest them to President Herbst!—perhaps we can get another trip!