In 1981, in the early summer before the monsoons, I met Ivan Illich in Tharamani, a village on the porous edges of the growing city of Madras (now Chennai) in the state of Tamil Nadu in southeastern India. It was the Illich of print I encountered under the large thatched roof of the library at the Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre, Photosynthesis and Energy Division (MCRC), an appropriate technology center.
Founded and directed in 1976 by C. V. Seshadiri, this place was an epicenter of activities of organic biodynamic gardening, solar energy, fish ponds, algae as nutritional supplements for poor schoolchildren, and countless other projects where young Indian men and women were giving their life energy to solve real problems in real places. As a research intern I was studying the effects of biogas plants on the accessibility of cow dung as domestic household fuel to those women who were still in the heart of the gift economy of the commons.
That summer, I often wore the traditional half-saris, most young Tamil women my age wore, signaling the state of post-menstruation and availability for possible marriage. However, at MCRC, I was surrounded by young hip people who were wearing blue jeans, smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky after work!
Having just turned twenty, I had come "home" to India to fulfill a childhood dream to return to India, work in its villages and serve its peoples. I had come from UC Berkeley where I was studying the political economy of natural resources. I had recently left the field of mechanical engineering because I had felt the gaze of engineering had left out the influence of culture, women, conflict resolution, and environment on technology.
Seshadiri's assistant director was assigned to help me set up my research project. During the very first week, when I had explained what I wished to do, he asked me with surprise and amazement, "You are from UC Berkeley, and you have not heard of Ivan Illich! Before you go and do any research in our village projects, you must understand the work of Ivan Illich!" Under his sharp scolding tutelage, I reluctantly studied Illich, beginning with Tools for Conviviality . I had come to India to be in and work in villages, not read books on the philosophy of technology. I planned to get through his writings as quickly as I could, so I could do the real work I had come to do.
I did not know that that book was one of the most difficult of his writings. I plunged in, bewildered, and excited. I had never read anyone like him before. He had a kind of engineering mind, but he applied it poetically to social problems. He analyzed transportation, communication, and modern technologies to illuminate the moment when they become counter-productive to the intentions of their inventors and the communities' needs.
He questioned my certainties: were cars the very "best" way to get around? what friendships did we lose when we no longer walked to do the toils of everyday life? who was doing the shadow work, the unpaid implicit economic work which supported our explicit paid economic work? In reading him, my own intuitions about the blind spots of my engineering training were illuminated as lightning flashes on the sea of my imagination.
I went back and forth between the work of reading Illich and the work of being and understanding village life in India. It was as if Illich's point of view came from the sophistication of an Indian villager in all its complexities and nuances, yet his thinking was rooted in modern, cosmopolitan life. I felt I had found an "intellectual" home, though I felt I only understood half of what he was trying to say.
Illich came lecture on Gender the year after I returned to Berkeley. I read the early draft of that manuscript, and it became the sharp anvil on which I struggled with my feminism, a fount of liberation for me. I argued with the expositions laid out in that work. Illich brought with him to Berkeley an extraordinary cluster of individuals from around the world. Some of them gave informal seminars on their work and its relationship with the theoretical foundations of Gender. As my work had focussed on women and energy issues, it made sense to attend the seminar on Gender and Tools run by Lee Swenson. He has become my compadre ever since; and an extraordinary husband and father of our twin girls, Jaya and Uma. So I must thank Ivan for gifting me my husband.
It is difficult to describe the energy and excitement of being a young Indian woman in Berkeley and encountering these unusually courageous individuals—men and women who were thinkers, but also doers, willing to go outside of institutional ways of thinking and being. They were committed to the "poor," but not in an "I am going to help you because I know what you need," but rather, in a dialogic, ongoing struggle to understand how we know what is needed, and how the imposition of felt needs creates its own despairs and sufferings.
I am an Indian and an American. From the first moment I met Illich, he seemed to intuit and accept my biculturedness. Whether I wore a sari, blue jeans, a sundress, or a salvaar kameez , it was as if his eyes looked inside and outside. His face, though tough on most people, was remarkably tenderhearted and generous when he looked at me. I felt loved by him. He was the rarest of teachers. He stretched you beyond your limits of understanding, nearly every time. He basked in the use of nearly twelve languages and they were sprinkled generously throughout his conversations, lectures, as if you, too, had a similar capacity.
He gave me many gifts for which there is no way to reciprocate. My mother, who had been raised in a village until she was a teenager, and had been taken out of school at a young age, was burdened by the judgements made of her by those of us who were schooled. It was an astounding experience, through Illich, to re-know my mother. It is a sad testimony of our modern educational system, but until then, I had never thought of her as rich of experience, wisdom, stories, culture, of magical intelligence.
Throughout the 1980's and the 1990's, my work with Lee on The Recovery of the Commons Project and the Institute for the Study of Natural and Cultural Resources involved hosting Ivan at numerous public and smaller community conversations in Berkeley. He stayed over many times in our home. During one period, I was working at the Red Star Yeast factory in West Oakland. He would come with Lee to drop me off at the factory at four in the morning for the early morning shift or late after midnight for the night shift. He wanted to see the assembly lines; he wanted to know how it felt to be in a physically challenging environment for eight hours a day. Whatever I was doing, he was curious about it and he wanted to learn from it.
In the fall of 1984, while we were visiting Ivan in Claremont, he looked at me and said, "I want to ask you about something after dinner." That evening, a unique conversation began. He excitedly showed me one of his footnotes on an index card, and said, "Do you know anything about the kolam?" I looked at him with surprise, "Oh, yes, I grew up with this ritual practice, it is just something my mother did every day, and there is really not much to say about it. But I could draw you some rice flour designs tomorrow at the front threshold before sunrise and you could ask me any questions you wish." The next morning, after I had drawn these designs, we sat on the raised plinths of the front threshold of the house, warming up in the rich darkness of that sapphire dawn sky. He barraged me with questions, none of which I could answer. With these initially unanswerable questions, he started me on my own pilgrimage. This trail led me to lecture on the kolam at the Smithsonian's Festival of and onto graduate school in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley emphasizing Tamil Culture, Folklore and Anthropology and Art History.
In December 1992, soon after I passed my oral doctoral examinations, I had a few days before I went off to India for my fieldwork for fourteen months. I told my husband over breakfast one morning, "I wish I could talk to Ivan about my work before setting off to India." The next day we got a phone call from him in Bremen, Germany, saying he was thinking of me all day the day before and wanted to come and see me for a few days. He came to Berkeley and we talked about the kolam and the study of Indian women for three days. I felt renewed and energized about my search for understanding what the kolam was.
When I returned from my long sojourn in India, I felt the strong need to speak to him again. My husband and I went down and stayed near his house in Cuernavaca. We saw him every day for ten days. He said, "I will give you two hours a day to discuss your work. Come with your questions." He pushed me about what I had learned and what I knew and what I did not and could not know. Over this period, he tried to convince me that my most productive work would be as an scholar in religious studies. I was taken aback and not swayed at all. It would be over three years before a series of chance encounters led me to my present work as a full-time professor in that field.
To me, Ivan Illich was a teacher, a friend. When I looked into his eyes, I felt a most amazing feeling in myself and the world; it was a world full of wonder, intelligence, and surprise, despair and sorrow, enchantment and disenchantment, simplicity and density, clarity and doubt. And it did not feel ambivalent. I felt that it was how the world in fact was and he reflected that in all its complexities. I miss him.
Vijaya Nagarajan is assistant professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco, and codirector of the Institute for Natural and Cultural Resources. Her book on the kolam, tentatively titled Drawing Desire , is being published by Oxford University Press. She is a member of Whole Earth 's editorial advisory board.