Aging in California

For Mary Steedly

I’m grateful to Bharat Jayram Venkat and Natantara Sheoran Appleton for bringing together this group of scholars to reanimate No Aging in India through their respective commitments, and to Somatosphere for airing the exchange. At the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association where earlier versions of several of these reflections were shared, I stood up to respond but lost it to emotion. Here, let me offer some comments of my own on the book followed by only slightly more composed responses to my interlocutors.


I’ve aged. As the Sondheim song goes, I’m still here. The “No” of the title points to many things, but chief among them is the plain assertion that from first breath aging as event is a variably privileged deferral of death. The split registers of relevance moderns may cling to—nature, culture, economy, religion, and the like—offer accounts of the how and why of this deferral and of its limit conditions. From the perspective of active being, age is an accomplishment and demands an account of itself.

Anthropology in its historically dominant, western European and evolutionary formation comes together as an account of other orders of generativity and killing. If Evans-Pritchard satirizes the Edwardians in expected fashion in Theories of Primitive Religion, his reduction of their interests to the following formula holds: religion for Frazer, Tylor, Marett, and Crawley “is chiefly concerned with the fundamental processes of organic life and climacteric events” (1965: 37). That is, the focus is on aging as vectorial or punctuated. We are accustomed to reading the more outré Edwardian productions, The Golden Bough and The Mystic Rose, for the punctum of their sex and violence, their Christian demythologization via the killing or undoing of one or the other partner in a filial relation or the play of the abstinent and the orgiastic in the temporal control of fertility. But the themes of descent and settlement, of the laws and rites by which a world gives itself over to the future, precede and survive Edwardian anthropology, present in the debates over kinship, sex, and the passing down of value for Morgan, Maine, Bachofen, and later Westermarck. All of this work presumed a background question: who and what must be dislocated and unmade and then remade, often resignified, for a world and its value to persist?  No Aging in India attends to accounts, usually but not always painful, of such undoing.

It attends to these accounts in a particular doubled framing of dislocation, unmaking, and resignification: that is, in relation to what at the time of its writing appeared the demands of a racialized colonial order preserving its necessity or being incompletely dismantled; the colonial as itself the undoing of a filial and sovereign relation, as a parallel and entangled practice remaking bodies in time.


When No Aging was first published in its American edition in 1998 by California and in its Indian edition by Oxford in 1999, anthropological publics were not yet quickened by exemplary sites like Somatosphere. Self-amplification via social media had not become a necessity, let alone an option, to help ideas and modes of work gain traction. Laudatory events—though I am insanely grateful for the generous things people have written here, as a genre they make me uncomfortable—were reserved for rituals of separation.

I am not accustomed to the genre: I am not sure how to avoid its perverse features. The invitation to meta-text carries the risk of embarrassing oneself through inflationary spirals of self-importance. Witness the last sentence.


The time (if that is what it is) of the book’s fieldwork feels radically other. I will repeat this sense of lost time, repeat it a bit like the parody of a symptom.

That earlier time did not lend itself to “coeval” simultaneity, despite Johannes Fabian’s apt warnings. From the perspective of what came after, time felt less compressed – say, as embodied in the telegram bicycled to the home in exurban Nand Nagar Colony where I lived for the first of two years of research, handed to me cautiously by my landlady with its news of a grandfather’s death. The event is one of several that opens the book and that marks me in generational desire. The telegram’s relative speed resonated in distinction to the usual month-long lag between aerograms or the fragility of the international trunk calls one booked days in advance. The observation is as hackneyed as the nostalgia pleasing.

That earlier time as we now can say preceded economic liberalization. It preceded the popularization of email and of the Internet, preceded the centrality of debates on globalization or neoliberalism, preceded the escalation and publicity of climate change, and preceded the consolidation and collapse of post-Cold War liberal consensus. More intimately for its author, it preceded the emergence of a pharmaceutical fix for living with HIV and preceded his parents’ struggle with illness, pain, and risk-clustering in late life, both horizon-altering thresholds for the relations constituting him and ongoing work.

The book’s reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, an old acquaintance who has written many books of his own, chastised the author for taking too much time in finishing it. Out of time even then, what to make of its incongruity now.

Calls for anthropology to be more just-in-time with its publication and coeval to events (Fabian applied to a different moment of capital, publicity, and ethics) have marked subsequent decades, along with contrary defenses of slow research (Adams et al 2014) and temporal incongruity (Miyazaki 2003). I would hate to make a virtue out of the mismanaged demands on a thoroughly modern professor by offering heroic claims for my different drummer.


A year or two after the first hardcover Indian edition of No Aging was published, I got a letter from a retired military officer in Bombay. His senior citizen association had a book club and they were reading the book. Or, would have been reading: Oxford University Press had reduced the size of the already small font of the University of California Press edition, rendering the book all but inaccessible. We are old, he wrote. None of us can read your tiny words. Please correct!

The book’s legibility varied in India even independent of font size. Of its many claims, the argument that the “bad family” narrative was a sign less of a demographic than an affective reality led to debate, in the best sense. No Aging appeared just before scholarly books along with other media became notoriously familiar for their power to wound communal sentiment. It provoked but to my knowledge (for better or for worse) never wounded, unlike some of my later work. I became particularly interested in presenting it at small colleges and institutes across eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, the book’s imagined home. The provocations to me in turn were powerful. You simply do not understand, one woman at Vasant College in Banaras told me after a talk there, the loneliness of old people.

You must understand this. This is the thing that matters.


What I used to feel mattered, in the unfolding of the work—moments like the ones that open No Aging: attention in 1861 to an old madwoman who was a possible sign of the end of days; an overheard conversation in which Alzheimer’s newly marked the limit to self as memory; a boat ride in which Hindu workers spoke of the finer moral quality of Muslim family relations and the lesser prevalence of hot, weak, or sixtyish Muslim old minds.

I want to open this reconsideration of the book with what I thought would be its central claim: that age as a presumptive natural order is central to the imagining and contestation of political, cultural, or moral worlds, and that age in this sense makes a specific set of structural demands upon its theorist. Here I use the recent framing of natural and moral order of Lorraine Daston (2019). Daston asks why human reason tout court grounds normativity in one or more of several conceptions of natural order: her argument seems to be that nature is good to think with, given its “polyphony” as a “repository of all imaginable orders” and, as such, “the source of all expectations.”

In graduate school I encountered a armamentarium of texts that attended closely to sexual difference as the presumptively natural ground for a range of normative orders and reordering within the crucible of the British colonization of India. This led me to begin to think about sex versus age as foundational grounds for everyday understandings, projects, and ethics. This attending to age as difference was for me the work’s chief promise. It is not, however, its primary accomplishment. Age as difference grounding the contested order of things is not the dominant theme of most of the comments on the book assembled here; it has not been as central to the conversations the book has engendered, which variously focus (and properly) on rethinking its conception of senility (e.g., Traphagan 2000), reevaluating its claims for the bad family in the wake of the social transformations of liberalization (e.g., Brijnath 2014), or attending, as several of these essays do, to the book’s particular capaciousness. I will turn to the last of these themes in responding to the comments here below, but let me briefly set out the broader claims for age and the postcolonial and revisit their context in the moment of writing and today.

If these claims failed to get the traction I might have wanted, I presume at least three reasons. First, the logic behind them is structural, and structuralism as a project was losing coherence even in the sense attempted here. Second, I turned away from this book almost immediately and toward work on sexuality and what in India is marked as the “feudal”; I did not stick around to press my claims on age. And third, in differentiating age from sex as alternate “natural orders” and grounds for ideological worlding it seems to me now that I did not return to the persistent entanglement of the two in the constitution of worlds and their subjects.

This entanglement is of course the proper object of psychoanalysis. The midsection of the book turns to a particular kind of psychoanalytic inquiry that predominated both the study of Sanskrit texts and South Asian household dynamics from the 1950s through the 1990s, one that struggled over the place of “Oedipus in India.” It is for the most part not a clinically robust conversation and often reflects the familiar limits of Culture and Personality anthropology. If I were to return to the question of age as difference, I think I would need to take this structural approach and bring it into a different kind of analytic engagement, one that Sarah Pinto’s work, Daughters of Parvati (2014), opens up for me here.

My way in to this thinking of age had several sources. The most pressing was the emerging centrality of sex in postcolonial engagement with race and the nation. The anthropologist Mary Steedly had joined the Harvard department while I was living in Banaras. Conversation with her was transformative. We began to read together: feminist and what would come to be framed as transgender and queer writing, informing and informed by the postcolonial.  Mary passed away not long back and it seems right to dedicate these comments to her, to acknowledge the profundity of a debt to this book that I did not recognize then as this reading was always in service of the next project, on sex and “the feudal” (e.g., Cohen 1995, 2007, 2008, 2009).

The literature to which I refer is extensive, but among the texts that I was most provoked by as a student were those of Partha Chatterjee (1989), Lata Mani (1989, 1990), Ashis Nandy (1983), Veena Talwar Oldenburg (1990), and Ann Stoler (1989). These led me to a broader field of predominantly literary studies grouped together as “nationalisms and sexualities” and written in the shadow of Frantz Fanon. Though each properly historicist, they collectively specified a mode of analogical reason in the constitution of racialized populations whereby emerging sexual binaries were good to think for the making, government, and contestation of nations.

In my field and archival work, I repeatedly encountered figures of age and generation employed to make arguments about India: in relation to the impact of eighteenth and nineteenth-century British occupation or mid-twentieth century “westernization” and “urbanization” on Indian bodily and relational norms; in encountering the possibility of millennial change redressing the humiliations bound up in caste; in imagining the nature of mass suffrage; or in aspiring to a new kind of modern subjectivity and wealth. Most deafening was the iterated lament that the extended family was disintegrating (despite a social history of rights in land that suggested idealized large families were themselves a modern thing), with the abandoned elder standing for the predicament of this unmaking of the world at times to the point of madness.

The work of sex in the pieces I was reading suggested what seemed a parallel move, to ask how age as a distinct figure of nature might order specific problematizations of the present.  Within this literature, Nandy stood out in explicitly attending to age along with sex. The colonized subject in his reckoning came to know itself as too much or not enough in relation to normal age (mature adulthood) or normal gender (controlled masculinity): as infantile or senescent, as effeminate or hypermasculine.

Nandy treated age and sex as identical axes of imagined difference in embodying the terrain of a split subject. But age as it could be effected and known in given worlds was structurally a different sort of figure, for its nature appeared to be constituted less as a binary than as a continuum. If the anthropology of sex alerted one to the cultural work of making and stabilizing gender as a binary or in some cases a ternary set of positions, the anthropology of age alerted one to the cultural work of making and stabilizing aging as movement across positions, via something like a life course, whether processually or climacterically (to return to Evans-Pritchard). What was made was less the nature of the slots than the nature enabling normal transition across them. But what might it mean to think through how such a nature was good to think in the creation or refusal of moral order?

Age as natural order required attention to how that order was constituted through the making of aging: at stake was not only the nature of aging but the problem of no aging. No aging was perhaps easiest to grasp in relation to the condition of the infant or the person in childbirth or the person structurally placed in conditions of war, hunger, or enslavement: some people were less likely to age because they were more likely to die. (Whether the dead themselves age is another question). Aging was thus an effect of the distributive conditions of no aging.

Here I but hint at the demands I felt then in thinking age. At a time when the archive of the long nineteenth century seemed requisite to attend to grids of power and embodiment over the decades of the new nation, thinking age became a generative practice. The old woman from 1861 whose mad gestures and refusal of care presaged the millennium both marked an invitation to a decolonizing world that would follow but also to a method for anthropology, at least for myself.


Though I attended with some dutifulness to then regnant anthropology of old age, what I took as its commitment to normative binaries (is old age better, worse, or a matter of plus ça change, here versus there, now versus then) and unreflexive identification with the moral value of elders distanced me from the subdiscipline. If my refusal of much of the anthropology of aging marginalized this work from that confraternity, my desire to be enfolded within the postcolonial turn was not exuberantly noticed by the tight circle of the latter. Medical anthropology remained a welcoming home for this work, and the book’s roots in the early work of Arthur Kleinman and Byron Good, most notably in their interpretive program that led to the 1986 collection Culture and Depression, intimately mark its middle sections. From Byron came the close attentiveness to a semantic network: to hot-brainedness, to sixtyishness, to bakbak or nonsense talk, to maladjustment, to weakness, and less commonly, to the particular languages for old women and old men in the pilgrim city of Banaras. From Arthur came the focus on the morality of local worlds and on the figure that has continued to haunt me, the demand to attend to “what is at stake.” From both came the attention to narrative and coherence and to the struggle to make sense when these collapse.

These lessons were reworked. The semantic networks were attended to less in how they drew together a cultural world than in how they marked difference within and across it, particularly the differences elaborated in the four neighborhoods of the main part of the work: of caste, gender, class, and the distinctions between neighbors and within households. The struggle to make sense was not taken as an existential imperative: I argued that the struggle to resist or avoid sense was often as compelling. Here the sense to be avoided was that which pressed at one within a particular field of relations: the sense that caregivers, particularly adult children, were deeply responsible for making their parents as they were by not giving enough. In such a field of relations, perhaps in many fields of relations, children could never give enough: structurally, if they survived the challenges of no aging, they would appear to replace their parents, to become them. If the gift maintained the structure and feel of the world, maintained it generationally, the turning of ages marked the gift’s failure. Perhaps this is why anthropologists fail to attend to rites de passage after “marriage” and before death, a frequent accusation of some anthropologists of aging. Perhaps the work of middle age is not to make parents move by creating a life course for them, as one does to children; perhaps, in contrast, it is to make time slow down; typically it will fail.

There was a third reworking of the lessons of interpretive medical anthropology. It was not simply that I listened and was rewarded with the words and senses and refusals just noted. It was that again and again I was instructed to attend: listen to her, I was told. Or to him. This invitation was to a voice, and the figure of the voice not only organized much of the book but it helped me reread the archives of European medicine to attend to it as a field of voices. The discussion early in the book of the emergence of the cursing voice, of the witch that must be refused, and of the collapse of that terror into the figure of the doting voice, was made possible by this invitation. Long before I started the dissertation fieldwork that led to this book, I had been sitting in Harvard’s Countway Library for months on end trying to imagine what an archive of what I was coming to call senility might look like. The question of how dependency was variably heard opened up my thinking.


In the time of writing these words for Somatosphere a person close to me here in California is debating entering an assisted living facility. I read her predicament as one hovering between the desire for containment – from Wilfred Bion’s language, the need to be held – and the refusal of confinement. The hover echoes the familiar challenge for radical psychiatry. I do not fully trust my sense of our conversations that confinement is at stake, mindful of many things including Sarah’s work. What troubles in her, and our, anticipation of what “assisted living” will entail may perhaps be better rendered as the foreclosing of experience.

I recall the first nursing home in which I volunteered, in Boston, as a college sophomore.  I drew upon oral history techniques a high school teacher had taught us in our visits to old Wobblies as part of his project of producing a local history of the Industrial Workers of the World. I tried applying some of Barbara Myerhoff’s approaches in Number Our Days (1980). I was rather serious: I wanted to produce my own history, of something, using ethnographic method. One of the women in the oral history group I had assembled was the most patient with all this. Come outside, she once said. Outside was a strip of grass abutting the highway the home faced, shadowed by trees I barely remember. A line of residents in wheelchairs were taking in the autumn sun. She gestured to the shifting pattern of light and dark under the shade, and I remember the breadth of the gesture. These are, she said, my diamonds. It is hard to avoid attending to such moments and their cheap seductions. But it is the urgency of her gesture I would still convey.


So to what was one to attend? Everything under the sun? I would be labeled a post-modernist because of my own need for plenitude. In the book I called whatever my “ethnographic method” had evolved to become juxtaposition, its relation to argument thick analysis, and its relation to culture, drawing on Roland Barthes, semiotic frottage. It all felt like life-as-fieldwork: everything mattered.

It was this feeling that I wrote the thing as I did because I didn’t really have a sense of how otherwise to do it that would challenge me as a teacher of graduate students. I could not tell them how to put a world together for themselves. It was not clear that their burden should necessarily be that of worlding, or in this way. One friend, a former student, once said something like “you hold the world too close, you are unable to breathe.” Containment and confinement always collapsing together, a challenging position to be in and not one that I wished to offer to another. At some point I wrote “The Gay Guru,” an essay on Drona, the great teacher of the Mahabharata epic and an altogether difficult person, as a meditation on how bound up teaching, healing, and an art of failure are for me (2012).


Perhaps here would be the place to transition to all-too-brief comments on the essays, taken alphabetically. Nayantara Sheoran Appleton does me the honor of making us kin through the relational work of Rashmi Sadana. In tacking between her own grandmothers and those I write about, including two of my own, Nayantara returns me to a helpful comment from my friend and colleague Nancy Scheper-Hughes.

Nancy once suggested that No Aging was a grandchild’s book, not a child’s. I think in a crucial way she was right. The point may seem obvious, beginning as I do with a dedication to a grandfather and then the story of receiving news of his death, but Nancy was making a very careful claim. The effort was not to refuse the book’s claims though at the time of research the author’s parents were in middle age and he had not entered the crucible of caregiving in a way a partner or child typically might. The effort was rather to locate the structure of feeling that animated the project and that perhaps was remade by it. I read something related in the work of Nayantara here and below from Bharat.

One example from No Aging: much of the chapter “Alzheimer’s Hell” troubles a set of then-emerging conventions in mass media pedagogy for framing dementia as monstrous, a genre I termed grand guignol and linked with more expert pedagogies of care that were being developed. But that I was able to reduce these uses of extreme language to discourse analysis was not only symptomatic of those deconstructive times but of a grandchild’s position buttressed by distantiated affection and idealization. If I trouble the rhetoric framing dementia as no less violent than an atomic bomb, I do not permit myself to entertain the possibility of a world that has been irremediably blown apart to the point where only language taken to its hackneyed limit will do.

From A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1940) and Simone de Beauvoir (1972) we can think about the position of the grandchild or youth as removed from a certain intimate impasse, from the aporia of dementia for a child or partner. By framing dementia up close as aporetic I gesture to both the difficulty and necessity of resolving distinctions as these collapse in the work of care: between presence and absence, continuity and rupture, or meaning and incoherence. What I am moved and troubled by in the anthropology of a powerfully intimate dementia (say in the writing of Sharon Kaufman [2017), Arthur Kleinman [2019), or Janelle S. Taylor [2010)), what my own work here cannot possibly achieve, is this acute feel of impasse and what may come next. My sense is that up close these indistinctions are particularly hard to bear and that part of the cultural work of care and self-care (and, necessarily, of ethnographic writing) is to manage some incomplete resolution. In later writing (Cohen 2003) I turned, in conversation with Michael Lambek, to the figure of Socratic irony to think about what kinds of cultural work are more and less felicitous in recognizing someone whose recognition of oneself may become undecidable.

But if Nayantara’s careful reflections allow me to attend to both the limits and the insights of this grandchild’s position, she also offers in her account of her mother’s challenges of care a third and perhaps mediating figure: that of a daughter-in-law. Here, the intimate relation to a person marked by the difference of senility is no less close than that of a child and yet embodies a force of will, an affinal making-intimate, that in Nayantara’s telling must temporarily displace the grandchild (and great-grandchild) to be present. Her discussion opens up the play of gender and generation in care as part of the work and being of kin affinity.

I recently spent the better part of a year as part of an improvised collective of kin, care workers, colleagues, and friends doing care-relation and care-work for an in-law whose final months were marked by a toxic bodily milieu that induced what was named as dementia. Cognitive change often felt like the least of it in touching and witnessing experience entangled with great discomfort, fatigue, wasting, and a painful porosity of bodily and social boundaries. What I was continually reminded of was how unprepared I felt for the decline of a parent, my affine via modern homonormativity, despite the moral prosthesis of No Aging. Holding my naked father-in-law to my chest as he screamed through the pain of a compression fracture from a bedside fall, unable to raise or lower him into any other position and time freezing, I had the thought: but I wrote a book, a book. The demands—for the child, for the affine—were otherwise.

Nayantara calls attention to the marketing, in urban, middle-class India, of a new archipelago of caring institutions for the elderly. Here I am reminded of my discussion of the tonic, in the book, where against the venerable distinction of true (asli) versus false (nakli) treatments of old age debility I ask whether the tonic’s efficacy is performative, and may engender via a gift relation a supplement to the practical limits of care. This point emerged thanks to a suggestion from Veena Das, who along with Bob LeVine was also a mentor on the project along with Arthur and Byron. That is, what may be at stake amid the efflorescence of new claims for care—and surely much of this medical marketplace like others is saturated with nakli promises—is a field of supplementation: as if one could be prepared.


Sarah Pinto writes at the limit of translation and with a particular commitment to what one might cautiously term the provincialization of materialism. How, she asks, does one “account for the social nature of illness without translating afflictions into an analytic language that rejects the materialisms— the ideas about materialities—they instantiate.” She generously enfolds two lines of thinking in No Aging (on the life and work of the historian and philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya and on weakness and difference in Nagwa slum) with her own work on the mid-twentieth-century physician Satya Nand’s unruly conceptions of the Oriental reminiscence state and of the paraplasmagene, opening the reader to a mode of interpretation that does not work by reducing the material entanglements of the image or symptom to the social via a purified symbolic or cultural machinery but lays out an eccentric and “intensely material ecology.” Her essay amplifies both Satya Nand’s eccentricity and perhaps my own, via a series of “juxtapositional” folds that link the three of us.

Provincializing here is not the carving out of hermetic universes of discourse, and Sarah enlivens the efforts in No Aging to be open to surprise (a figure Tobias Rees has given me) through the eccentric, fabulous commitment to life-as-fieldwork. Her own work in Daughters of Parvati (2014) is a model of such a method at its most rigorous and, indeed, dangerous. My version of this commitment renders one’s life and claimed world as a series of broken-apart things, what we might term ethnemes. I coin the term in response to Barthes’ figures of narreme and lexie in S/Z (1975). I learned to read that book with Bruce Robbins and reencountered its relation to the world through the work of Martha Selby. Robbins, perhaps drawing on a 1975 reading of S/Z by Peggy Rosenthal, pushed his students to attend to the arbitrary and playful character of the breaks between textual units in the Balzac story that Barthes was proposing. For Rosenthal, arbitrariness frees Barthes from the “meaning-hunt”: reading S/Z in grad school became a means to put the interpretive medical anthropology of the time in its place. Sarah’s work exemplifies the kind of anthropology Barthes allowed me to imagine.

Juxtaposition involves a prior decoupage, a cutting and reassembling of the event-forms recorded through the research process. Despite Jamesonian alarms, this was never pastiche. No Aging was written using my beloved plastic color-coded Neelgagan notebooks, reread and then more seriously coded (in the spirit of Barthes’ serious play with code, not the simulacrum of method that dominates in anthropology): copying out things that resonated, clicked, confused, disturbed, or in a few cases bored onto paper index cards, repeatedly breaking a conversation or skein of moments into fragments, one per card, and then sitting for hours in the graduate student office I shared with two others dealing out these ethnemes as in a tarot session, seeing what the cards might show me. Once an ethneme was proposed—say, the conversation on desire at his Kolkata home with Chattopadhyaya; say, the presence, enigmatic or otherwise, of his mother in the other room; say, the figure of the aged Brahman in the nautanki skit that Secchan and others in his Nagwa Dalit troupe performed and how it was received by the audience of Ahirs—it pushed me back into the notebooks and beyond them, extending the site of ethnography beyond the normative field, back to Harvard’s Widener Library basement stacks as an undergraduate, discovering Chattopadhyaya’s book Lokayata while happily browsing. Many, many hundreds of cards were generated that did not make it into the restricted prose of the text: on grain deals and Keynesian economics and why Harvard, Wisconsin, Berkeley, and other places I worked had all these India books; on Chattopadhyaya’s youthful commitment to tribal medical knowledge; on the history of the infarct; and so forth. I am reminded of the pleasure and anxiety of the method when Culture or the Social or the Conjuncture were not adequate as containers and when anything was of necessity relevant, once patiently transcribed onto an index card and then the stacks sorted and resorted again and again to see what one might learn, to trace the intimate contours of the Big Picture.

One might say that this method is of its time. Varied “returns” from Barthes to Balzac under the sign of realism have dispensed with the former’s play as but that (see Reid 2001 for a discussion). Decades later, one might reduce decoupage to the bad faith and worse aesthetics of pastiche. But pastiche was never the important thing: rather, the possibility of learning something new in a universe suffused with emptiness and noise.

It seems right to me that not all readers will engage the world in this way, working things out attuned as I seem to be to the zone between clutter and emptiness. Method for me has always been an all but inescapable orientation to the world, which does not mean one is not responsible for work on oneself and others via new experiments in method.

As I made claims for each of these ethnemes, they pressed on me, despite the contingency of the method, and continue to do so. It is a gift beyond words to see someone take one or the other of these up in all of its specificity and to push with far greater rigor and imagination on what might be done, as Sarah does here.

I am not attentive to the conception of plural materialisms as such in the book: its time was different. Sarah’s rereading of “Chapati Bodies” opened the book and its author therefore to a different moment and pushed me to engage that chapter closely in a way I have not for years. It is not always a simple argument, and I am sorry for that. As with my turning again and again to Barthes, it was an effort to do structuralism otherwise. The effort placed me at odds with the dominant historicism of the time. It was not that I was resistant to the historical anthropologists—on the contrary—but rather that I was not particularly invested in refusing earlier invitations to think. George Marcus, in one of his ever insightful, if self-referential essays, on where the field is now (delivered years ago as a talk at Berkeley, but of a piece with his 1998 collection), challenged anthropologists of my generation with being Janus-faced. The sense for me in hearing it was that the Writing Culture generation had killed the Father (whether Geertz, or the Savage Slot, or ethnos itself), enabling their own students to be free of Oedipal constraint once and for all; but that my own generation, midway between the band of brothers and their now purely reasonable students, could not share in the sacramental feast and lingered with untoward melancholy over the remains, propping these up as if they could still offer their oracular magic.


Tobias Rees generously gives my work over to his call for an anthropology “after ethnos,” recently the subject of a book by him. He is rigorous in conceptualizing what I just marked as terror as a condition of an anthropology of relation in the way I approach it, as a matter of overflow along a “diagonal” that neither accedes to nor ignores the constitutive binaries of the received discipline, that Janus face. He thus allows me to reflect on one feature of my work here and since, its continual return to the personal. Through his own ethnemic attention to personal things, he reminds me of a drive we took together to position me as a latter-day Wagnerian dreaming of a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk.

I am reminded of a conversation with another friend, an anthropologist who wrote powerfully on divided places and their aftermath. I had just given a talk at his university—what would become “Holi in Banaras and the Mahaland of Modernity”—and he felt I strayed too far from a concise argument. I pushed him on the kinds of materials I felt needed to be brought together, in an engagement with the world, and he noted that there were a whole range of challenges that his work demanded and that went beyond the generic possibilities of ethnography. He was thinking of writing a play. He is not the only anthropologist I know who turned to other genres and modes—to theater and poetry, to film and photography—doing work at constitutive limits of disciplined genres.

In thinking through, at Tobias’ provocation, what I might have meant by my particular Gesamtkunstwerk fantasy, I think it was this: the idea that the work should be what it needs to be, that one does not have to resort to the something else, like writing a play say, at its limit. It is not (I hope) that I was imagining an endeavor without limitation. But there was a sense that exclusion, in the name of the disciplined clarity my interlocutor of the last paragraph was demanding, was a less interesting move for me than for him.  In the time of writing No Aging, such débordement was palpable as post-modernism: the incorporation of the personal, the tacking between wholes and their fragmentation; the aesthetics of excess. Though my lived experience, as it were, of those times was that I was not a committed postmodernist but exercising spadework, step by step, until the moment when it felt okay to rest the spade and take that breath.

In conversations with the anthropologist Laura Hubbard I came to define the aspiration of this particular spadework as fabulousness. Fabulousness has more recently emerged as a register of attention and practice of hope in a range of conversations on racial and gendered margins. My own effort in writing the fabulous was less a political claim on imagining the world otherwise—though perhaps there is that, too—than a way of attending to the erotics of the density of the world as it presses upon one. If this press registers through the first person, it is the surprising discovery of the capacity to write of things one should not be able to, things so other, so far beyond one’s ken as to be incoherent. I might turn to Michael Warner’s engagement with Walt Whitman and the Whitmaniacs.

When he retitled his longest and most famous poem “Song of Myself,” he created the misleading impression  that he was celebrating a fixed and definite self, his own ego. But Whitman attaches the word “I” to so many situations (e.g., “My voice is the wife’s voice, the screech by the rail of the stairs”) that it is not finally defined by any of them, except in the almost exasperated comedy of that endless discovery of inner otherness. “I dote on myself,” he writes, with often-forgotten humor, “there is that lot of me and all so luscious” (2003: xxxii).

My point is not to claim Whitmanesque status (or at least not to claim it justly), but to register as his followers the Whitmaniacs did the sense in the resulting practice of reading and writing something religious, in the promiscuous encounter with the world something like a wrestling with shame. The débordement in my work noted by Tobias and others feels like both these things, a willed possession by the world and a struggle with a relation to things in the face of what Warner calls shame.

In a different context, Tobias has thought carefully about what one of his research interlocutors spoke of as night work, of all the other components of a life as it is substantively worked and realized (writing a play say) that impinge on the demands of making powerful science. In our own field, I am always taken by the lives of anthropologists, by the kinds of night work they do. As I noted above, the text as I conceive it aspires to a kind to totality, it wants for no counter-text. But nocturnal work of many sorts suffuses No Aging. It took shape in relation to a series of domains of relationship, and these are worked into its margins in ways designed not to distract (too much). The book ends with a second boat ride, but for its author this additionally marks what came just minutes after and outside the frame of the text, and which is not mine to share.

I am unsure of how to think either with the ontological turn or Tobias’ positioning me in regard to it. In such discussions across anthropology, I feel my age, or rather despite the aforementioned desire for totality the sense that one may not always share fully in the dilemmas that capture those who come before and after. Put differently, totality is for me an intimate thing, and the disjunctures of involvement that life as time-travel engender may at times constitute a limit to desire.


Rashmi Sadana brings the focus close in to our shared time at Berkeley and out to her ongoing writing on the intimacies of infrastructure focused on the making of the Delhi Metro. Rashmi is a writer who earlier wrestled with where to situate her commitment to craft and character, within the academy or outside it. She was one of the first people to read the book and I remember her remarking on the distinctiveness of its voice as opposed to my everyday one. In fact I have multiplied this conversation in memory: I recall it happening in places all over campus. Rashmi’s question—why write?—has long affected me. The book in its opening handles an earlier version of it clumsily, marking the persistent inquiry from people in Nagwa slum as to the book’s utility for its residents and offering my weak answer.

In my dual training in anthropology and medicine, the proper answer lay in rigorously applied work. As I became caught by the anthropology of my teachers and friends and later as the book began to take shape, I was unable to ground myself in that answer. Medicine was a poor fit as a career for me for a range of reasons, but in abandoning it I felt that I was throwing away my one shot at redemption.

It was not only that my focus as a medical anthropologist located my work squarely in what Joel Robbins (2013) has typified as the “suffering slot.” My research in the history of religions before graduate school had looked at the ways temple and home worship of the deity—I had focused on Ganesh—carried their own spatially and materially grounded narrative forms, distinct from purana and other “mythic” genres. My work consisted of paying attention and asking questions in contexts where people never asked me about the work’s utility, in which its focus on the divine was adequate ground. The shift to old age and the decision to begin work in Nagwa slum created a demand that “writing” appeared ill-equipped to address.

Still, one wrote. In my rented house in Nand Nagar Colony and later in my flat on the river, I quieted the anxiety of the situation—that I wrote and could not do so on the basis of utility, that I was caught up in something that was an unavoidable failure from the get-go and yet the ground for a sense of vocation—by listening to cassette tapes as I wrote. My mother brought me a large stash of cassettes when she and my dad and sister came to visit me near the end of 1988. Friends would gift me more and I would purchase cassettes in the chowk, then the main Banaras market. Some of these, their sound reshaped in my room’s damp humidity, accentuated the melancholy of the situation. I had gone with my friend Punam to a giant concert at Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Delhi—Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and others were going around the world to raise money for Amnesty International. Among the then less celebrated artistes present was Tracy Chapman. I was captured by her songs, despite or in part because of the wealthy youth of Delhi around us jeering, wanting the Boss. Back in Banaras I would sit trying to render what I was doing into some kind of notes while listening to “Fast Car” and “Mountains of Things.” At some point my lover Vimal began making me mixtapes. These were pointed collections, even more engendering of the well of masochism than Chapman. There were the “pardesi” tapes, all of which attended to the pleasure-pain of falling in love with an outsider.  There were the love letter tapes, the pleasure of these not only in the redundancy of their genre but as our first film together had been Maine Pyar Kiya, I Fell in Love, and we were both enamored of the song “Kabutar Ja Ja Ja,” Pigeon Go Go Go, the pigeon in question being the go-between for the titular lovers. Things did not usually end well, on the mixtapes, but they were writing’s balm.

Rashmi like Nayantara directs us to a different kind of city, different sites to encounter the cosmopolitan. I, too, could not work for too much longer in Banaras. When I shifted frames and began to write on sex in the city, friends called me out on this business of turning our entangled lives into writing. I moved to Lucknow, vowing to create a separation between work and friendship. That was naive, but that is another city and another story. Banaras and my years living there feel impossibly far away. It is not just that my friends made me leave; it is not just that I needed to work in different kinds of cities.  It is not just that the Internet has sharpened the sense of political differences between old friends and I in the age of social media and its populism. All those cassette tapes still sit somewhere in my office at Berkeley, gathering dust and occasionally pricking memory.

No Aging is a kind of urban anthropology. It centers on a city with a hypertrophied sense of itself, a sense of Banaras that circulates through film and other media as a nationally available form of the local and provincial as well as casting its shadow on the anthropology and history of religion, the latter where I began my studies under Diana Eck my first teacher of all things Banarsi. It is written on a city famed as a necropolis and it is written in spite of that. The sense of place comes out most sharply in the chapter on Nagwa slum that Sarah attends to closely, in part because Nagwa marks itself or did then as both inside and outside the form that is Banaras. Since the book’s writing, Nagwa changed in some extraordinary ways. The Bahujan Samaj Party Chief Minister Mayawati built a large park to commemorate the Dalit saint Ravi Das, a key figure in the book. A new group of American evangelical missionaries settled in, far more successful in creating a presence than the missionary nicknamed Ji Han that I had written about. And it has changed in ways one might have intuited from reading.  One by one, the slum’s political leaders I knew and wrote about died, “from liquor” people always said, the last death the person I cared most about and whose thought saturate that chapter and others, and most later work of mine.

I am very attached to Rashmi’s project on the Delhi metro.  When I was a kid, Montreal built its own futuristic metro and I shared my father’s great excitement at its existence. He would travel the world and report back on metros he had ridden and we would share our attachment to route maps. There were times, sitting in a shared auto rickshaw in the crowded city’s lanes or riding a succession of mopeds and motorcycles and dodging human and non-human traffic, that I would imagine the Banaras metro.  Then I would sit at the Kerala Cafe in Bhelupura and doodle the Banaras Metro’s two lines on a napkin, debating whether it could or should cross the river to us paar, the other side, the side of crossing-over and of transcendence for the city’s panegyrists, the side to which the boatman who begins and ends the book was taking us.


Martha Selby develops this anatomy of local cosmopolitanisms through a resonant and precise reading of Dilip Kumar’s “vernacular humanism” and his ethnographic voice rendering particular urban worlds across differences of regional origin, language, caste, religion, urban collective form, and caste. As with Rashmi’s and Nayantara’s essays, the old person marks the existential limit of a particular world and opens to another one, in the Christian stories here to Kumar’s extraordinary figure of the Planet of Old Age. As it was for my interlocutor at Vasant College, at stake is isolation. In Mittu Mama’s voice, this isolation is resonant with other old men speaking and spoken of in No Aging, as a metamorphosis, in their becoming-the-dog.

What is so striking in reading Kumar through Martha are the grounds here for something more wonderful than the descent into canine animality, something we might name through Hannah Arendt’s language of natality.

I borrow natality from the discussion of a group of scholars and artists based primarily in Denmark with whom I’ve been privileged to be associated for some years.[1] Can the foreclosure of a world and the rendering a person an isolate from it nonetheless open to something other, something new and even unexpected?

In the case of the Christian couple Mr. and Mrs. James, at first pass Mrs. James’s opening to a new and unanticipated form of life would appear to vary inversely with Mr. James’s abandonment and relegation to the planet of the old: one is mindful of other zero-sum versions of natality such as that of yet another James, Henry, in The Sacred Fount, or the still weirder transformations of William Blake’s “The Crystal Cabinet.” Despite Mr. James’s dire proclamations, one has a sense that he himself and not time would be Mrs. James’s undoing and fall into lonely senescence; and, conversely, that her escape into a new world hastens his own diminution. Put otherwise, relations not only keep one bound close and protected from isolation, they conversely may be the very ground of isolation. As Martha I think suggests in reading Kumar, the distinction between the Bad Family and Good is not so easily parsed.

What is striking and natal is the new world. We do not know what Mrs. James will find: it lies beyond the known world of the agraharam. But in the case of the world from the balcony, intimates emerge from the physical participants in a foreclosed landscape. This new community could be read as symptomatic of isolation, but whether in the more fabulous variant set in the nursing home or the realist frame from the agraharam balcony it also opens to emergence. There is the natality of escape, for Mrs. James, and there is the natality of the circumscribed world.

I think here of a 1981 painting by the late Bhupen Khakhar, “You Can’t Please All.” An older man watches a crowded and colorful urban world from a balcony: he is naked and his back

Bhupen Khakhar, “You Can’t Please All,” 1981.

is to us. Below are a series of events from Aesop’s fable of the two men and the donkey. The pair try to please each of their interlocutors in turn (taking their advice as to how to get their donkey to market without injury) but the effort proves impossible (Mukhopadhyay 2017). Here the delimitation from the balcony is the refusal of the demand by the collective to please it, a demand revealed (as in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet [1990]) as impossible and indeed as destructive. This revelation that “you can’t please all” is given to a man in old age whose close attention, amorous and ethnographic, to a specific piece of the world is here less the foreclosing of experience than the allowing oneself, like Mrs. James, to refuse the attachments that prevent natality. In the Arendtian sense, this refusal is the ground of politics.

Khakhar’s espied intimates are most obviously other men (though the donkey, in one of the attempts to please and carrying the two men sports an erection and suggests a different rise into animality). But one might read Mittu Mama and Florence as each being gifted a particularly delimited but surprising gaze, in its way “ethnographic,” one that opens onto something new, and in its natality all but totalizing: a planet worth visiting.


Kavita Sivaramakrishnan enlarges the ground of the ethnographic to attend to contemporary global forms: like Tobias and Bharat, she helps us understand the history of global health and its forms of reason. Her extensive study of the making of “global aging” in her tour de force, As the World Ages (2018) takes suggestions in No Aging so far beyond my efforts and with comprehensive rigor that it is a bit embarrassing in this context to return to my work. The archives of globally framed invitations to gerontological internationalism that I took up in an Indian context were limited to what I found in a series of state offices and libraries in New Delhi, and in Kavita’s work we see global aging as a project and site of governance coming together across a range of transnational contexts.

What Kavita offers in these remarks is manifold.  She disaggregates the “Aging in India” discursive form I had argued for and shows its entanglement in other problems, whether the promise of the expert government of the future for Khanolkar, the gerontocratic limit to innovation, civic virtue, and women’s rights for Chandrashekhar, and the interplay of peasant and national-industrial time for Marulasiddiah. Marulasiddiah in particular emerges as a conceptually and ethnographically nuanced student of old age and a superb writer, and Makunti village as the very site of Kusum Nair’s earlier manifesto on the costs and challenges of development. I would meet Marulasiddiah a decade after writing No Aging, through the friend of a friend who knew him in Dharwar, and would encounter his breadth of conception and field.

Each of these authors participates to a significant extent in the circumscribed fairy tale, as I offer it through Propp, of “Aging in India.” But such a mode of reading in hindsight was not adequate to the stakes, to return to Kleinman’s demand. I am reminded (as I often am) of a response by the feminist literary critic Susie Tharu to another article by Julie Stephens I read with Mary Steedly on the heroic figure of “Third World Woman” and her limits. Both pieces appear in 1989 in Subaltern Studies VI.  Stephens deconstructs, and Tharu notes the need for a method less totalizing and perhaps more modest in its claims, in order to allow the kind of insights to emerge that Kavita’s engagement with Marulasiddiah similarly enables. It is not that I would disavow the argument of my book regarding the force or unexamined obviousness of the Aging in India series, not do I think this is the point of Kavita’s remarks. But there is far more that needs to be accounted for if one is not merely to amplify the vulgarity of the dominant discourse.

The impact of the call for old persons’ mandated “adjustment” by Chandrashekhar and others cannot be underscored. By the time I came to work house to house in both of the Banaras middle class colonies, it had become a commonplace to speak of elderly parents as more or less adjusted, and at the same time that very localized vocabulary within the city resonated with research programs in academic psychology in Indian universities at that time. Kavita helps us understand the emergence of this everyday urban and class-specific interpersonal grammar of aging.

Notably, Kavita shows how a critical refusal of this new science of aging, adjustment, and development emerges in the 1970s and 1980s in the work of Fernandes and De Souza. In No Aging I too was struck by the importance of their project, but somehow I allow myself to dismiss it in the following way. If the work of Fernandes and De Souza offers “the beginnings of a different sociology of old age,” these beginnings nonetheless will “remain incoherent as long as state and global interest in utopian rhetoric and inexpensive inaction collude with the disciplinary structures of international gerontology” (Cohen 1998: 100). A righteously angry challenge from me, but its presumption of incoherence here was unearned.

It was of course easy to be smug. At conference after conference and in correspondence after correspondence the unwavering narrative line of Aging in India and the emergence of the Bad Family was slathered onto any project or problem, numbing me. But all the more reason to be attentive to and not dismissive of alternative formations.


Bharat Jayram Venkat writes movingly of the varied settlements of his family and does so as dakshina, as a gift to a teacher. The engagements here of Bharat, Rashmi, and Tobias are serious gifts in this sense and as noted they provoke such joy and yet a sense of not being equal to the worth of them. Perhaps gifts in general to be gifts always provoke such uncertainty around worth. Bharat and Nayantara offer the additional gift of this collective conversation and all my interlocutors the gift of their serious consideration and friendship. I am in bad faith, anyhow, to protest too much: when Bharat and Natantara in planning this event with some names in mind asked me if I had any suggestions of persons to engage No Aging, I sent a very long list that included many of the graduate students with whom I’ve been fortunate to work.

Bharat’s story of himself and his grandfather, known because of his position in the family as Anna, opens us to a different frame of the grandchild than I began with in thinking with Nayantara. It is less a matter of the rendering of a grandfather’s voice (itself an anthropological challenge, beautifully realized by Anand Pandian). Anna’s disowning of one of his daughters for a disapproved marriage will haunt his grandson, and lead not to idealization or heroic presentation but to anger. As he unfolds the tale, Bharat opens us to thinking through waiting and through forgetting as grounds both for living with others and for living otherwise. Forgetting emerges as double-edged in making possible a life with others, perhaps even making possible natality in allowing for the dissociation from the persistent toxicity and hurt of the world, and yet in forgetting why we were angry there may be a limit to natality and to the political more generally.

The story he tells is in its way epic, if offered through his own kind of quiet juxtaposition in which a range of texts and moments are brought into proximity to see what might be learned.  It is bound up to the history of film and film distribution, to the making of a South Indian tech diaspora, to entanglements of migration, real estate, and war, and to a Wisconsin childhood. It reminds us that one pre-condition for my long interest in life-as-fieldwork may be the possibilities and demands of the cinema.

We get a sense of this for his character of young Bharat exploring Anna’s cinema and mindful then and now of translating his life into the feeling of Cinema Paradiso and back again.  This sense of being in a movie characterizes contemporary accounts of the sublime, as in the recounted moment by many of watching the World Trade Center towers fall on television. Those, too, fell after No Aging. It may be that the desire I shared with Tobias for a total book was of a piece with the long arc of immersive cinematic modernity, perhaps at the moment of its pixelated if partial breakdown. It may be that among the other affects that life as movie amplifies is the invitational feeling that queer kids, whoever they are at any given moment, describe. There is no question that the first film I remember my parents loving so unabashedly and that felt in every sense available to me—which was The Sound of Music—became the ground for my intuiting a fabulous relation to the world. I somehow knew, at age eight or nine, that the film had something like a secret, and if I could but master it I would found a new religion. Mastering meant something like becoming Julie Andrews twirling her heart out on that Austrian mountainside. As an eight-year-old I would shut my bedroom door, stand on my bed, shut my eyes, imagine Hollywood’s Austria, and spin. Bharat brings out, as I read him, a sense that this incomplete finding oneself in kinship and in film bear some relation, certainly for the subject of a historical dislocation and perhaps more broadly.

The form of the total work that No Aging in India took was not cinematic but rather that of an imagined nineteenth-century novel. As a ten- and eleven-year-old I read most of Dickens in the Boston Public Library: poorly to be sure, then as now less precocious than omnivorous. The feel I remember taking from Dickens was the security, of a sort, that no character was abandoned, that eventually the unfolding of the novel form would knot together events and their varied aftermaths: things would, for better and for worse, make sense.

No Aging ends with the reigning deity of things making sense, Sarasvati as something like goddess of culture, finally being given over to the Ganges and to her too-long-delayed immersion and coming apart. The boatman asks a question: where to now? What might now hold it all together, where do we go from here? And yet it should be clear to the reader if not the author that culture as such, at least in its patterned Boasian or coherent Geertzian incarnation, was already marginal to the larger enterprise. So what held it all together, and what was coming apart?

Thus in the end, it was all a matter of physics. Perhaps the unified field at the heart of work can be rendered as karma, or at least karma as rendered by Rodgers and Hammerstein as Maria and Captain von Trapp struggle to make sense of their momentary good fortune, singing their duet out on the balcony of the Villa Trapp, you remember it: “So somewhere in my youth or childhood/I must have done something good.”

Lawrence Cohen teaches in the departments of Anthropology and of South and Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley   His research has engaged questions of embodied postcoloniality and liberalization in India, focusing on senility and the family, sexuality and feudal modernity, bodily regeneration through surgery, and most recently utopian securitization through biometrics. His most recent article is “The ‘Social’ De-Duplicated: On the Aadhaar Platform and the Engineering of Service,” in the journal South Asia, and his forthcoming piece, “I’m Your (Fore)Man,” is on a California jury trial focused on divine grace and Depakote.


[1] These discussions have been primarily with Rasmus Dyring, Harmandeep Gill, Lone Grøn, Maria E. Louw, Cheryl Mattingly, Lotte Meinert, Tove Nyholm, Maria Speyer, Helle Wentzer, Thomas Schwarz Wentzer, and Susan Reynolds Whyte.

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