No Aging in India: Then and Now

Part 1: Then

I’ll start with a memory in the stairwell in the back side of Kroeber Hall on the Berkeley campus, circa 1998. I am walking back to the department from Musical Offerings bookshop, where I had just bought my copy of No Aging in India – I actually have it in my hands; it is the only hardcover academic book I would probably ever buy as a graduate student; and it isn’t only because I was a dutiful advisee, but rather because I knew this book would stand the test of time and be a model, resource, and inspiration for me for a long time to come. I was right about that and obviously not the only one who thought so.

Another bookshop, this one in Varanasi, that carries No Aging in India, as well as a host of ethnographic and other books on the city. I went there in July 2016 on a kind of literary pilgrimage. The owner remembered Lawrence, his research, and proudly pointed out No Aging to me, prominently displayed. (Photo credit: Rashmi Sadana)

What Lawrence termed a “juxtapositional ethnography of sorts” became the way forward for ethnography – the challenge not just to be multi-sited, which was the call of the day, but to be intellectually capacious and analytically rigorous, to see and make connections that were not usually being made, to re-make our understanding of “sites” and “places” and “in-betweenness” that contain King Lear, the Vedas, and Deepak Chopra, and also the sounds of dying, the sight of blood, and the moral connotations of flesh, to forge new avenues of thought and relationality, intertwining the medical, the literary, and the ethnographic.

In the stairwell, I run into Lawrence by chance and congratulate him, asking him how he felt now that the book was out. Ever humble, he quips that 100 people at most would be buying his book. He wasn’t commenting on the quality of No Aging, but rather about the marketplace in academic ideas and writing, especially in a discipline that is about engaging with the contemporary, where there is an expectation of a certain kind of relevance. This is a discussion we would have in different forms over the course of my time in Berkeley: the value and reach of ethnography, what made it different from journalism (a question Lawrence would bring into his graduate seminars as well). For me, it always boiled down to the perennial question: Why write?

 No Aging is an answer to “why write” and not only for anthropologists. We are living in an age of the memoir and non-fiction narrative, after all. No Aging is firstly an analytical tour-de-force and is not written as a novel – there’s no fiction or made-up-ness – and yet it is entirely novelistic in that it contains multitudes: the book’s richness and imposition comes from the way it brings texts and people and places as well as different styles of engagement in contact with one another. It is also a precise telling, not a Rushdie-esque baggy monster of a novel, but rather one where the narrative moves like an electric current through mounds of ethnographic material, which become intricately ordered in the process.

In a 2004 review of the book in Literature and Medicine, Rishi Goyal writes that No Aging represents “the will to listen.” He says: “[Cohen’s] art is an act of defamiliarization. Like the Russian formalists, who taught us to read again for the first time by seeing and not merely recognizing, by making a stone feel stony, by transferring objects from their customary sphere of perception to new ones, Cohen wrenches the bodies of old people from the invisibility and inaudibility of the white noise of convention and repositions them in our perceptual frame as newly visible and newly audible. He teaches us to see and not recognize, to hear and not just listen.” (2004: 370)

No Aging took the reflexive anthropology of the time – which ranged from being overly inward to unreadable to outright problematic – and made it come alive with the possibilities of not only why we write, but how to write, how to do research, and how to analyze. The book was an example of what ethnography could be, what it could offer in the postcolonial and postmodern era, where meanings were suspect and methods obtuse. No Aging demonstrated how ethnography captures the multitudes contained within even a particular case and a single writer’s intellectual journey and argument; indeed, Cohen’s kaleidoscopic point of view (foreign anthropologist, medical man, grandson, Banarsi-wala, American, etc.) is also an invitation to find one’s own voice. In these ways, the book took the postmodernism of the Writing Culture moment and spun it on its head. The book was also exemplary of what multisited ethnography could be. This is not a calculated multisited-ness, but rather an inductive and organic one. How does one’s place in the world – where one chooses to be and where one finds oneself – make a whole? Cohen takes the biomedical and proverbial “tangles and plaques” and leads us through a process of untangling and exposure, making for a kind of energetic, lively anthropology.

Part II – Now

Rereading No Aging in 2018 I am firstly struck anew by the juxtaposition of India and America. For example, the old women at the Indian polls contrast with the young American voter. Both are mythic figures yet represent real metrics and real contours of two different sides of democracy on edge.

I also read the book now as an urban ethnography in a way that I didn’t before; as I finish up my second ethnography, about Delhi and the social and spatial mappings of its new Metro system.

Delhi Metro System Map (Photo credit: Rashmi Sadana)

In the 2000s, urban anthropologists asked: Are you doing an ethnography of the city or in the city? This question was a way to assess how the study of “the urban” might be changing, how the city as object co-existed with the city as lived experience, and how the city was about a place but also a position within transnational networks.

Written before this new urban reckoning, No Aging is both an ethnography in Varanasi and of it. The book announces its own urban anthropology by saying: “Varanasi is a particularly interesting place to study old age. One of the key signs in the iconic representation of Varanasi is the old person and particularly the old widow, who has come to Varanasi and the Ganga to live out her last days or to die or at least be cremated here” (Cohen 1998: 40). It is, we are told, “a sacred center” “home to hundreds, at times thousands, of sanyasis, renunciates, and other sadhus, or holy men” (Cohen 1998: 40).  In No Aging, Varanasi is a stage for these events, and old age is the prism through which we see the city; yet it is also a close ethnography of four neighborhoods, where there is much time spent, dwelling in place, and knowing a detailed variety of its people and characters. Varanasi is not merely a site but “a set of linkages from the intimate to the global” (Cohen 1998: 43); like the book, the city is, itself, generative. It is also a reimagining of the city – an extension out rather than a turn inward, and always also a reflection of the self.

A very different kind of city, Delhi used to be a weigh station for anthropologists, not a place to study itself. It is also an old city, though my somewhat contrasting interest in Delhi’s Metro is precisely its newness, youngness, if you will, and what this means for an already developed 21st-century Asian megacity. The Metro is in constant circulation and encapsulates a range of social mobilities; yet it is also a permanent, fixed presence in the urban landscape, an end point for capital flows, constant construction, and technological innovation. No Aging leads me to think about what it means to study and to do work in an Indian city, and alerts me to the question of age and the aged in the fast-moving public space that I study. There is the body in time and the city in time, and in my conversations with Metro riders, I’m always aware that if I am talking to someone under the age of 30, they will not even remember the city before the Metro. For older people, the Metro comes as a kind of end point, a summation, an example of not just how the city would change, some kind of external modernity or urban plan, but rather how they could and would change with it. Either way, the Metro brings a new temporal reality to the city: it points to the future as it links geographic pasts.

The Metro is also the story of the young and the aspirational, those who can endure the multitude of steps and escalators, the disorientation of station entrances, and the crush of the crowds. Even the young men in wheelchairs I talk to spin fast across the platform. And then, on occasion, there are old women sitting in partially bent-over postures in rows of three on the train or alone on the platform. There is slowness on the Metro, too, moments of reflection, and the recognition of different ages and abilities on platforms and in trains. The Metro is a microcosm of Delhi’s array of middle classes, but it does trend towards the young and able-bodied. I am struck when I see oldness in this environment, maybe because it offers a different set of meanings to the Metro in contrast to how it is usually defined. I am taken back to the figure of decay in Varanasi, the city as canvas, and the continuous ethnographic present. How does the Metro re-order places and bodies? What are the politics of this re-ordering?

Delhi Metro (Photo credit: Rashmi Sadana)

At Mandi House station, I talk to an old woman with buck teeth, who is wearing a synthetic, printed sari and sporting dirty pink chappals. She has, by chance, sat down next to me on the round silver metal bench on the platform, a momentary intimacy before the next train arrives. She says that going up and down in the Metro is tiring. She is taking the Metro to Tilak Nagar to see her sister. She likes that she can travel on the Metro without talking to anyone or bothering anyone. I can’t help thinking in such moments of bad families, good infrastructures, and the ever-widening networks that both entangle and disentangle everyday lives.

Another day this past summer there was an old man, very wrinkled, very gray, at Mundka Station way out in the urban periphery, more than an hour by Metro from central Delhi. When I first notice him working at a snacks stall beyond the ticketed area of the Metro, but still within the station premises, he sticks out to me: he does not go with the young shiny Metro or the young shiny guy working next to him. He is more the kind of old man I would see in Lajpat Nagar Market, not here in Metroland. I am surprised that he is working here. I buy a packet of biscuits from him and go down the escalator to exit the station. On my way back to the station some hours later, I see this old man at the bottom of the escalator, and we smile at each other in recognition. It’s not all circulation. The Metro and its environs are also places to be and spaces of waiting and watching. The old man has come down from the snacks shop, clutching some bananas. He asks what I’m doing in a kind and inquisitive manner. I tell him I’m studying the Metro. He reveals a partly toothless smile and simply says, “Do you have children?” “Yes, one, a daughter.” Then he smiles as if to say, all is okay. “And a man, do you have a man?” I nod, yes, I have one of those, too. He is happy to hear this. I ask him how long he has worked at the snacks shop. “Just a little while,” he says with a somewhat mischievous smile, “it is a good time pass for me.” While his questions have been answered about my life’s purpose, I am left with the question of how to assess the well-being of elders.

And so, I think: “We are in a boat: myself, two other passengers – railway workers from the nearby town of Mughalsarai – and the boatman, who is pulling hard against the current and ferrying us upstream” (Cohen 1998: 9).

(Photo credit: Rashmi Sadana)

Rashmi Sadana is Associate Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University. She is the author of English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life of Literature in India(UC Press, 2012) and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Modern Indian Culture (Cambridge, 2012). As a 2019-20 American Council of Learned Societies Fellow and Weatherhead Fellow at the School for Advanced Research, she is currently completing a book on the social and psychic impact of Delhi’s new metro rail system.


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