Porous Reflections: Me, Aging, and No Aging in India by Lawrence Cohen

In the antipodean winter of 2018, I vividly remember sitting in my friend Eli Elinoff’s office on the 10th floor of Murphy building (which houses the anthropology programme) on Victoria University’s campus in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Eli, like me, was far from ‘home,’ and we talked about recent news from home – about aging parents taking care of aged grandparents. We talked about our responsibilities and how our parents were coping without us present. Eli reflected on his grandfather’s current health and the possibility that he would be institutionalized in the United States. I talked about my paternal grandmother with dementia, who had been moved to my parent’s house in Dehradun, India. Sitting in that warm office, as the sun streamed in, our very personal conversation also blended into reflections on aging in our respective field sites in Thailand and India. While neither of us research aging, we talked about the condition of aging – abstractly, anthropologically, and personally. We were aging, our friends were aging, our parents were aging, and our grandparents (those still alive) were living with our various experiments in dealing with aging and the aged.

Image 1: On the outskirts of Dehradun, looking up the Mussori hills.

A few weeks after this conversation, my plans for a three-month field trip to India were dramatically changed. I was thus unable to attend the 2018 American Anthropological Association (AAA) meeting roundtable on No Aging in India. I did think there was something particularly poetic about the fact that it was my grandmothers’ dementia, now being managed by my parents in Dehradun, which precluded me from attending and reflecting collectively on a book that in many ways provided me the tools to think about aging in the first place – and to read about Dehradun as one of Cohen’s many anthropological sites.

S. K. Nayer returned to India after more than twenty years practicing medicine in the United States, hoping “to make a difference” in India given his experience abroad. In his years among the old-age enclaves of southern Florida, he had become proficient in geriatric medicine. A geriatrics clinic seemed to make sense for Dehradun, the city where he settled, with its military and other enclaves with many retirees. Nayer had a large and well-appointed clinic built; a sign announced its specialty prominently: “Disha Geriatric Clinic.” (Cohen, 109)

When I left India as a nineteen-year-old to pursue education in the US, my grandmothers were still (relatively) young and strong matriarchs of their respective families. My maternal grandfather died long before I was born (when my mother was nineteen), and my paternal grandfather died of Parkinson’s when I quite young. I have very few memories of him, but those mostly centred around him being sick – not old. He died a relatively young man. Away from most family and with a superficial relationship with the grandparents of my new American friends, I rarely had to think about aging prior to reading No Aging in graduate school. In over a decade since my first encounter with No Aging, it has resurfaced, unexpectedly and in unimaginable ways – both as guide to fieldwork and academic interlocution, but also as a text that affords me, an Indian military brat turned Indian-immigrant academic, constant opportunity for reflection on the very personal that blends, bleeds, pours in and out of the academic. Below I share three distilled memories of No Aging and how it enabled for me a porosity between an academic inquiry and everyday life.


27 Years old: A Week for No Aging In India

It was my second year in a PhD programme in cultural studies. I was struggling to define a research project that allowed me to explore pharmaceuticals in India, while reading deeply in the Frankfurt School tradition and semiotic theory. Hugh Gusterson joined our programme and I got the opportunity to work with him. He introduced me the wonderful world of medical anthropology and Science & Technology Studies (STS) – and the research seemed more accomplishable. In one of our early meetings, he asked me to read No Aging. I had not read it or heard about it, as I was not an undergrad in anthropology and really had not paid attention to much anthropological work in/from/about India. I was a bit unsure why Hugh wanted me to read about aging in India, particularly a book that would clearly take over a week to finish (probably only if I read nothing else!). Over the first two years of my PhD, I had developed a weird anxiety-induced reading-time calculations in order to manage the substantial reading load for each of my classes. Reading now was undertaken with a pen and notebook for handwritten notes, a pencil and marker for marking the text, and a timer on the phone. It had become a science, far from my relaxed curled up body on couch under a blanket just soaking in a book. This made Hugh’s suggestion to read No Aging feel like an unnecessary burden. However, in many ways, that week with No Aging launched my academic inquiry. It also allowed me to love reading again and move me out my panicked, economized graduate student reader phase. It marked the end of that panic, and the beginning of a love for poetic anthropological inquiry.

Image 2: No Aging in India at over 300 pages of text meant no other reading for a week!

Lata on the stereo as I write. It is not to provoke accusations of postmodern superficiality that the chanteuse finds her way into this book, just as it is not to provoke accusations of old-fashioned Orientalism that I refer to debates on memory in Samkhya and Nyaya, and in the next chapter, to angry old rishis from the Sanskit epics. Having watched Mera Bharat Mahan work its magic in Varanasi during an election, when full-page Congress Party ads featuring pictures of baby dolls smashed into pieces as ominous signs of the future appeared daily and killings of Muslims in my neighborhood (apparently by Congress-aligned local “vested interests” in an effort to generate a soupcon of communal riot and bring home the need for a centrist party) were going on, I find it hard not to find the then-ruling party’s deployment of age-old voices, younger bodies, smashed babies, fresh corpses-of critical importance. But this is the sort of appeal to experience that one should not have to rely upon. Lata is juxtaposed with Geri-forte, Kesari Jivan, “the voice,” and other bits that lie ahead both to tell a story and to resist a telling much as the angry rishis that lie ahead are not meant either to suggest a seamless link with the micropolitics of twentieth-century senility or to deny the possibility. A different sort of reading seems necessary: much as the voice of old age demands more than a sympathetic ear to be heard in a jhandu world. Much as Lata at her best demands something else besides your passive enjoyment of her voice on the stereo if you are really to be transformed from an aging body into the timeless beauty of Waheeda Rehman on the silver screen. (Cohen 150 – 151)

Over the years, that one week with No Aging was a reminder of many things – including how to write with particular attention to pasts and presents, but not “either to suggest a seamless link with the micropolitics of twentieth-century senility [or any other ‘category’]or to deny the possibility.” (ibid)  Through its very rich ethnography and subtle theoretical savvy, No Aging taught meabout writing in/with/and through dialectical dilemmas in cultural studies and provided me the tools to craft a project I still work on today. It provided me the training and ability to think about the social life of emergency contraceptives and their advertising in liberalizing in India, on many registers. While couched in a feminist medical anthropology and STS tradition, my work is forever indebted to No Aging for seminally shaping the inquiry of my research.  I thought the week with No Aging, influential as it was perhaps going to be, was limited to my academic inquiry and research project. I was wrong – No Aging would always be part of my academic andnon-academic everyday.

Image 3: My mausi has taken up Sudoko. It will help with Alzheimer’s, I am advised.

On my first day landing in India, to do a pilot study that would inform a proposal for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, I was greeted in my aunt’s house with food, love, laughter, and the reassurance that nothing changes ‘at home.’ My mausi, my mom’s twin, had prepared some of my favourite foods. My cousins were full of stories of amazing adventures across the world. We reminisced late into the night about our childhoods; nobody really asked about my research project or proposal! I was home, if only for a few months, and that was all that mattered. The next morning, while the cousins slept and I sat awake with warm cup of chai to defeat the jetlag, the newspaper was flung over the gate of the house. My uncle picked it up and we chatted over chai and newspaper stories. He then opened up the newspaper to the sudoku page, folded it over, and set it on the garden coffee table. It’s for your mausi, she’s taken up SudokoAs if on cue, mausi and mom came out to the garden with their second cups of chai. Mausi told me how Sudoko can help prevent Alzheimer’s and then turned to mom and suggested she take it up as well. It’ll help, Alzheimer’s is pretty bad. I saw they were putting into place plans to avoid the hell of Alzheimer’s.


33 Years Old: Rituals – Of Passing and Defending

The dissertation defense, a rite of passage for many graduate students, is memorable for many reasons. Mine will forever be a reminder of the fact that six days prior to my defence my maternal grandmother – nanimapassed away. She was flying from Delhi to Hyderabad (returning to her son, my uncle’s home where she lived) after visiting her sister in their ancestral village in the heartland of Utter Pradesh. Over the few days after her passing, there were many discussions about whether I should come home or not, and whether I would be able to make it back in time for the defence. While the discussion around my presence was happening, another conversation ensued amongst the sisters (my aunts) about whether they had been good daughters if we/they had not been a bad family to nanima in her aging days. Should she have been travelling with one of the kids or grandchildren? Should she have stayed on in her own home (after a fall), rather than staying with my uncle? My uncle, an only son and loving brother was wrapped up in love by his sisters as he experienced the loss of his mother – who he was incredibly close to, while juggling his responsibilities to his own children. From afar, I watched and heard many a discussion about old age, while feeling selfish and too American in my pragmatic decision to not attend the funeral and post-death rituals for my grandmother. I had, because of my modern American life, become the bad family in my thinking, albeit, with distance and scholarly obligations as a momentarily justifiable excuse.

As I got to my defence, No Aging was not at the forefront of my mind. It was part of my intellectual scaffolding but given that most of my work was on women and pharmaceutical contraceptives, it was not a text I relied heavily on for my preparation. And yet, just as I got ready for the presentation a message from home with more updates –there I was, with Cohen, examining myself and my absence from my grandmother’s last rituals. Cohen and No Aging’s presence were magnified by the fact that Dr. Rashmi Sadana was one of my dissertation committee members, sitting and smiling at me warmly – encouraging me on my academic path. Cohen, in ways, my intellectual/academic grandfather (given that he was Rashmi’s adviser) had showed me the various life rituals of old age in India, some of which I would never be able to experience with my nanima. For me, No Aging again refused to just be a text that I had read in graduate school, but rather offered me a strange an unexpected grieving and coping mechanism. It allowed me to be imagining nanima’s life as an old lady – before and after her passing. Words, images, texts, smells, textures described in No Aging often whiff up like the smell of rain on a parched Indian summer day – fleeting, brief, but always reassuring reminders of my nanima’s life and death in India. While I could not witness it, I knew that she was not plagued by a bad family (other than me perhaps at the end).


38 Years old: Dementia in Dehradun

It had been over a decade since I first read No Aging. Bharat’s suggestion for a AAA roundtable as an homage to No Aging and Cohen is a brilliant idea and I was excited about the conversations that were about to ensue. I laid out a well-crafted plan to attend/present at AAA, do some follow up fieldwork in India for my book, while juggling a new-born (who would be nine months old at the time of the conference in November 2018). My husband had put in a leave request for four and half months, so he could help while I do fieldwork in India. All plans were in place. We intended to fly from New Zealand to India, and from India, a quick trip to the US for the AAAs, then back for more fieldwork before returning to Wellington in January 2019. A phone call from my parents disrupted these plans.

My parents patiently explained, while I moaned about the loss of research time and costs of cancelling flights and other modern things, that my paternal grandmother – dadima – was moving to our house from my aunt’s house, since her dementia and general health had gotten worse and my aunt could not handle the burden as she dealt with the birth of a new grandchild. I felt selfish doing either – going or not going. In going to India, I would be adding to a set of things for my parents to manage, especially with a young baby they would want to spend time with while we were there. In not going, I would then miss the chance to see my grandmother and offer moral support for my parents as they transitioned into caregiving for my aging mother. As my mother explained, if you come here, I’ll want to spend time with Sarmaj and you and Michael. But right now, I really need to focus on your dadima as she needs a lot of help and support. You know, she doesn’t sleep through the night and sometimes I have to hold her and rock her as she cries…just to make her sleep. Your dad can’t do that, I have to, it is my duty.

I explained to mom that she could hire somebody for this kind of work and support. She reassured me that they have hired a lady who spends the day and evenings, but it has been difficult to get a night nurse out in the village where they live. This support, I feel, is even more important at that current juncture as my mother is just barely recovering from the excruciating pain and debilitation from a double knee surgery – something she underwent in June. I was supposed to be in India for the four months, so I could do fieldwork during the day, but also be close to mom and help with her recovery process. However, given that dadima needed the support and my parents were ‘next in line’ to help with her care, my mom took on the care for my grandmother. Mom, a ‘modern woman’ by all accounts, as a lifelong teacher and a senior military wife, remained the ever dutiful daughter-in-law, even as she struggled with dadima’s changing speech patterns and her diminishing capacity to recognize family members. My presence with the little baby would divide her time and opportunities for seva, something she was not willing to do at this stage.

Another paradigmatic image conveying the spatial ambiguities of seva is the malish, the massage, classically by a dutiful daughter-in-law of her mother-in-law’s hath pair. A remembered image: I am sitting, up on the roof after a hot day in Varanasi, enjoying the urban delight of rooftop breezes. Around me flit the myriad kites of children; on surrounding rooftops, the hour of the malif has arrived. The sas lolls on the charpoy, and her daughter-in-law squats next to her, massaging her leg. The older woman’s arms and legs ache: hath pair, the critical site of generational weakness. Seva as malish mandates an immobile body and tired limbs even as it marks the hierarchy of the superior older woman giving her feet to the younger and inferior. (Cohen 182)

In December 2018, as dadima started to feel a bit better and recover her health, we travelled to India for ten days to visit my parents and grandmother, and introduce her to her great-grandson. She seemed confused when we first got home and over the next ten days would often ask my parents who I was and who was that little baby. This was the first time I had visited India and done no fieldwork. While academic life was at a standstill, No Aging surfaced again as I sat looking online at old age homes and home care as a way to support my parents from afar – if and when the need arose (hopefully far in future). While No Aging is largely set in Varanasi, it transcended that space and seemed like it was set in every town in India.

Image 4: Still from youtube video of Antara Senior Living – Old Age Home

Early in my online search to see if I can help find a night nurse, I find Antara Senior Living, an old age home supported by Max hospital (leading chain of private hospitals). It is an impressive website clearly aimed at a visually savvy audience. I am intrigued and start searching for more on Antara. I find YouTube videos promoting Antara. The first video of Antara Senior Living is a promotional video, but it takes me down a rabbit hole – from more videos of Antara with testimonies of current residents and other promotional videos. The promotional video showcases senior residents enjoying life, with images of wine glasses clinking, brisk walks in open parks with partners, and lavish dining rooms with dedicated chefs. My grandmother, with her roots in a rural Rajasthani village is not part of this sophisticated narrative of aging in India. But Antara is a growing community and caters to a particular clientele – what Cohen so eloquently called the emerging urban bourgeoisie.

Image 5: Rainbow in Dehradun

I remember sitting and looking at those videos, while clouds rolled past the Mussori hills and a rainbow appeared. My dadima needed my mother’s attention. My dad fretted, as he tried to make everyone comfortable…while trying to burp little Samraj. With all the generations under that one Dehradun roof, I was reminded of how modern things go hand in hand with aging in contemporary India, uneasy but necessary. We fly back to Wellington. Eli and I got together over a cuppa at the university café, checking in and talking about grandparents. His grandfather had passed, and my grandmother was then getting better in Dehradun (and has since passed between the writing and final edits of this piece). I thought about No Aging and missing the AAA panel. But I started reading it again and the text greeted me like and old friend. No Aging is a comforting presence reminding me that every once in a while a book will come along and show you the generative nature of porosity between thoughtful academic inquiry and everyday life.

Nayantara Sheoran Appleton is a Senior Lecturer at the interdisciplinary Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Trained as a feminist medical anthropologist  and STS Scholar (with a PhD in cultural studies) her first project is a book manuscript titled Emergency Contraception: Medicine, Media, and the (re)Imagined Family Planning Project in Contemporary India (under contract at Rutgers University Press). Her second project is on the ethics and regulations of stem cell research and therapies in India. Having recently moved to Aotearoa New Zealand, she is now starting to conceptualize a project that explores relationship between immigrant and indigenous communities – both within and beyond the medical space.


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