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Life Among Indian Tribes: The Autobiography of an Anthropologist.

Anthropological autobiography is an interesting genre for a number of reasons. For example, it provides the reader with interesting facts and accounts about the host society that often do not find their way into the "scholarly monograph," and offers insights into the fieldworker's own subjective view of the people he is studying. In the heyday of the social sciences, not much literature of this sort was published and disseminated to the public because many felt that emotional and intimate accounts would somehow skew the "scientific" nature of anthropological research, making epoche an impossibility. Fortunately, more and more personal accounts are beginning to appear due, perhaps, to a renewed methodological interest in alternative modes of writing culture.

In the case of von Furer-Haimendorf's large corpus of writings, however, the fine line between observer and participant is not really drawn. Since he never disguised his life-long goal of improving tribal living conditions in India, the author probably did not feel the need to distinguish between his role as researcher and advocate. Indeed, his impressive position as "Adviser to His Exalted Highness the Nizam's Government for Tribes and Backward Classes" allowed him to voice his personal opinions whenever and wherever possible. Reading through this book enabled me to appreciate the author's dedication to the study of man, yet it also forced me to reconsider the role of the discipline during the colonial era.

Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, one of the doyens of South Asian anthropology, was born into an aristocratic Viennese family in 1909. As a child, he used to hear fireside tales about other adventurous characters in his family, such as Christoph Furer von Haimendorf (1479-1537), who wrote a book about his wanderings in Egypt, Palestine and Arabia. These stories, coupled with his childhood preoccupation with opera, facilitated his entry into the realm of exotica. Perhaps it was his interest in Madame Butterfly and Wagnerian mythology that prompted him to study religion under one Herr Langhammer and write his final thesis at the Theresianum on the "unusual topic" of The Religions of the Most Primitive Tribes. Von Furer-Haimendorf quickly abandoned his new-found interest in religion and registered for his first anthropology course in 1927 at the University of Vienna. There he received his first exposure to the Kulturkreise school of ethnology under the guidance of R. von Heine-Geldern, W. Schmidt and W. Koppers. His doctoral dissertation, under von Heine-Geldern, was an arm-chair excursus into the social and political organization of the hill tribes of Assam and northwest Burma. It was not until the late 1930s that von Furer-Haimendorf would actually get to visit India as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow. But prior to his departure, he decided to go to London in order to meet British ethnologists such as J. H. Hutton and J. P. Mills.

While in London during 1935-36, the author registered for a post-doctoral course at the London School of Economics under B. Malinowski. Since he was already skeptical of the evolutionary presuppositions of the Kulturkreise school in Vienna, he found Malinowski's lectures on functionalism stimulating, but never actually "converted" to it. Instead, it seems that he attempted to steer away from theoretical models in favor of a more descriptive and applied approach.

London also fascinated von Furer-Haimendorf for another reason. As he writes, "London had for me also a sentimental attraction for in 1932 I had met at a dinner party in Vienna an English girl by the name of Betty Bernardo and had fallen for her virtually at first sight . . ." (p. 7). Indeed he did! Betty, born in India and having spent her childhood in Simla, was "a daughter of the Raj." They corresponded regularly after their first meeting in Vienna, courted during his six month stay in London, and finally married after the budding young anthropologist's first triumphant return from the Naga Hills in 1938. Betty was to be Christoph's constant companion and soul-mate during the many years that they spent together in India, and much of the inspiration for the memoirs under review here are due to her.

The introduction is filled with such first-person accounts of factual and intimate details. They make for very interesting reading, but as the book progresses the prose becomes drier and drier. In fact, the remaining seven chapters should not strictly be labelled autobiographical. Rather, each chapter serves as a kind of prolegomenon to one of the author's numerous academic monographs, and is written in a similar style - that is, a mixture of stilted colonial prose and romantic fervor. For example, the author has no theoretical or ethical problem with using such labels as primitive," "simple," and "backward" for tribals, while making such statements as the following: "We had made friends with several Chenchus of whom even after many years I think of as individuals rather than as specimens . . ." (p. 37). But some of his anecdotes are also unintentionally witty: "By lying in the water we escaped from time to time the fierce heat.... The Chenchus warned us not to splash when swimming because this attracted crocodiles, which explained why none of the Chenchus were swimming" (p. 34). His sincere yet sardonically wry discussion of his temporary predicament during World War II is also unsuspectingly humorous: "His exalted Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad and Berar had no objection to our spending the war years among the tribal people of his vast Dominions.... Yet to comply with rules I had to undergo a short and comfortable internment of `enemy aliens'. . . . When my status as a trustworthy Austrian had been established I returned to Hyderabad and joined Betty in her palace . . ." (p. 23).

Von Furer-Haimendorf's narrative is unemotional and matter-of-fact. But there is actually a very interesting sub-text embedded in the autobiography: that of Betty's diary. Like many male fieldworkers, Christoph is constantly nurtured by a supposedly silent and supportive spouse who only emerges as a voice in relation to his. In Betty's case, however, there is a strong individual voice that speaks emotively and vividly throughout the text. The bulk of chapter two on the Reddis of the Bison Hills, for example, consists of excerpts from her diary woven together with passages written by Christoph. Unlike Christoph, who cannot wax poetically, Betty speaks with a passionate heart: "It is lovely to have Christoph back. The moon is rising and we are filled with the contentment of each other's presence" (p. 53). In short, it seems that whenever an emotional situation arises, the author chooses to quote his wife's diary instead of confronting his own feelings. But the general tone of his narrative makes it difficult to weave her thoughts and impressions coherently into his own. Perhaps the disjuncture created by these two very different voices suggests some of the tension and conflict experienced by couples working together intensely in the field. But it simultaneously points out the mutual love that our subjects experienced for each other while in India. I, for one, would like to see more autobiographies published by the "supportive spouses" who accompany the professional into the field. Perhaps then we would get a clearer picture of how professional couples manage relationships during times of great stress.
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Author:Korom, Frank J.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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