This summer, I spent a week in Ahmedabad, India starting off my research for my Woodrow Wilson Fellowship project (which also doubles as my History of Medicine honors thesis). I’ve written about my plans a bit more extensively here, but, long story short, my research focuses on the ways in which household medicine changed in Gujarat, India during the late 19th century under British colonialism. My exact argument is still in the works, but spending the week in Ahmedabad to get my hands dusty with my first real archival research was a formative start, I think.
I spent every day of the week at MJ Library, which is one of the largest public libraries in the city of Ahmedabad. In fact, I found out soon after I ran into it that it was the library my mom and her siblings used to spend their summers in when they were little, which was pretty cool. While the library itself is a regular lending library at the surface, it’s been around for a long, long time, and it’s amassed quite a collection of records over the decades. Deciding to go there was definitely a leap of faith, because there was a very real chance that there wouldn’t be the rich collection of primary sources I so very much needed as a starting point for my research. But it seemed more promising than a lot of the other libraries I had looked at in the area, so I decided to leap anyways.
The first day in the library wasn’t too eventful; the librarian showed me around to a couple of racks of secondary sources on Ayurveda, and I felt a bit disappointed that that was what my research would be on for the week. The next day, I wandered into this “Reference Room” they had on the top floor tucked away in a corner, and I hit the treasure. The place wasn’t organized too well, but spread across the floor were piles and piles of early 20th century and late 19th century records and gazetteers – a lot of which were in English. I spent the rest of the week crawling around the room and coating my hands in a gray dust as I photographed as much as I could, including inparient/outpatient data across different districts in Bombay and Gujarat and Bombay directories that listed all the different medical institutions, organizations, and individual physicians. I still have a lot to sort through on that end.
Having said that, I think the best find was a book I found in my family’s old home in Amdavad, where my historian great grandfather stayed. It’s a 1908 Gujarati translation of an 1891 book by an Ayurvedic vaid who is trying somewhat desperately, based on the intro, to salvage what has been lost from the corpus of ancient Ayurvedic knowledge after the British rule. I flipped to a random page: after detailing the complex ways in which traditional vaids practice palpitation, he subtly laments the diluted methods taught in angrezi (English) texts to younger Indian physicians. My Gujarati is pretty slow, so it’s going to take me a while to parse through this book which my grandfather let me take back to the States with me, but I’m really really excited to dig into it. I’m interested to see his perspective on the ‘shift’, what domains he observed shifts happening in, and maybe which mechanisms and rhetoric, he may have observed, were employed for and against traditional Indian medicine.
Clearly, I have miles and miles to go. But I’m really glad that, if anything, I have a starting point for the research and some very concrete tasks for this semester. The experience was amazing, the people I met were really cool to get to know, the food was unforgettable, and I only sneezed like twice as I pulled books off their dusty stacks. Good week.