My American Guru

My American Guru
I talked of my primary school teacher May 5th. Another great teacher came into my life in Sept 1960. His name is Morris E. Opler. To this day I remember my first meeting with him in his office in Morrill Hall at Cornell University. He was sitting at his desk seriously writing. He looked up, greeted me with a smile and said, “How was the trip? I hear a hurricane greeted you to this country.” “No damage done, spice to the long dull Journey.” I answered. We had chatted for about a minute and a half when pointing to a pile at a corner of his desk he said, “Those things are for you, Satish will explain them.”

The interview was over and we filed out of the office. The pile contained copies of textbooks the publishers send for the professor and his assistant. The second strange item was a stack of about 200 (3x5) reference cards. They were incomplete and I was supposed to fill the gaps by checking in the library. I could see that my work had begun. In a short and mostly mute interview I had received a string of messages: you are here to work, be precise in word and deed, you need to earn your place in the world academic community.

The books were useful to read and keep for many years, but to deal with the cards was tough. Satish showed me around Cornell’s mammoth labyrinth library and introduced me to a reference librarian Mrs. Eckholm. I took her offer of help seriously and for about a month took it greedily. To this day I vividly remember that motherly lady’s generous help. She never told me to walk on my own two feet for she had other work to do. But by her patient help she made me fit to be a graduate student.

In my very 1st semester I took one of Opler’s courses for credit and wrote my first term paper. Two days later when I entered his office I sensed concern and anger on his face. He pushed my paper across the table and said, “You need to work hard to improve your writing skill. Go over my comments and come see me at 5:00pm.” The paper was more red than black and I wondered what I had gotten myself into by coming to Cornell. In the evening we went over the paper word by word and Opler explained my mistakes and showed me how to correct and avoid them. Both of us went to the cafeteria for supper together. He told me writing was difficult for everyone. Even a top stylist in the field, like himself, had to go over his work 4 to 5 times. His wife Louise edited all his writing. From that day I began to see Opler as my Guru. Years later Louise helped me edit my dissertation. We worked together for nearly a month.

Professor Opler was a demanding and very strict committee chairman. When he doubted a student’s ability to go all the way through, he advised them to get a master’s degree and leave. Grad students in the department were literally scared of him. Undergraduates did not like his seemingly rambling lectures with carefully chosen precise words ‘like in a book.’ But they knew his stature, hid their feelings, and carried on. Some of course appreciated his great strengths. Once I failed to administer an exam to a class of his. Loudly grumbling students assembled in front of his office. I came to the scene and apologized for my mistake. Prof. Opler promised reexamination in 3 days. Some complained they would have to prepare again for the same test. He told them they had learned nothing if they could not remember it even for 3 days and sent them home.

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Most students thought him old styled in his work. For he looked at cultures in their entirety and tried to identify “themes” around which thinking and working patterns formed. But in the 60’s the times were fast changing. He once told me that no one cheered after he delivered his well thought out lecture to a meeting of demographers.

But they gave a loud approval to a youngster who presented detailed figures of how
much it would cost India to bribe poor people for vasectomy or tubectomy. I perhaps was old fashioned for I deeply admired Opler’s wisdom and painstaking work with tedious ethnographic detail.

Towards the end of my third year I had several vexing questions that nobody seemed to want to talk about. Dr. Opler did not seem to be the right person to discuss them with, but one day when he appeared to be in the right mood I decided to try. I said I wanted to discuss a couple of basic Anthropological questions. 1. All civilizations have failed and ended in sand. Why do we still think it is the greatest thing that ever happened to man? And 2. Why do we fail to see the great wisdom in the way the American Indians lived? Their cultures survived for 30 to 50 thousand years and could have continued for very much longer. They were content and at peace with nature around them. On the other hand we praise the Industrial Civilization that seems to act like a bull in a china shop.

Opler answered, I think the Apache and other American Indians lived very sensibly and their cultures were perfectly viable. It is sad that we Europeans destroyed them and did not learn much from them. I have defended the Apache in many court battles as an expert witness. But the damage is done. On the question of Civilizations I think you have a valid point. But people of all civilizations have thought that they were special and would survive for a long time. The time of these questions has not yet come. My advice to you is to leave them alone, prepare for the field study, write the dissertation, get the degree and find a job. There will perhaps be opportunities to pursue these questions later.

In those days professors and graduate students had a closer relationship than they seem to have now. Most students were poor and the professors watched over them. In summer months Opler often offered me work in his home garden at good wages. In my last year we were four in the family and my research grant was meager. Towards the end of each month we were eating potatoes, beans and chapattis. Opler heard of this and called me to his office. He asked why I had not told him. I said we do not think much of these temporary hardships. He immediately picked up the phone, talked with someone in the university administrative office, and nearly doubled my monthly research grant. Professor Opler helped me to cross all normal grad school hurdles such as finding monies, equipment on loan, field-research grants, and finally even a job.

June 2, 2007

Dear Partap

I'm honored to feature in your Opler memorial! I wonder why Opler didn't arouse as dramatic an admiration in me. Partly I think it the year and a half I spent with the Freeds in the village near Delhi, so after that Opler simply fitted into a familiar image of the hard-driving academic. But also because I veered off to Africa, I was exposed perhaps to wider range of academics. But of course I learned much from him and received from him countless kindnesses.

Thank you for reminding me of the old man. I just did a google search for him. In case you didn't know, he died on May 13, 1996. May his soul rest in peace.

As ever