She was 20 and on her own, far away from her native Paris. She had told her mother that she would be traveling with two friends to India, but at the last minute the other girls got cold feet. Their decision didn’t deter her and she didn’t tell her mother about the change of plans. She first made her way to Istanbul, then travelled east via bus and train, through Iran and Afghanistan. It was 1977 and the trip, especially for a young woman travelling alone, was fraught with potential dangers. She arrived safely in Calcutta where everything around her — the crowds, the unaccustomed scents and sounds, the ravages of poverty — could easily have deterred a young student who, just weeks earlier, had been studying French literature at the Sorbonne. But it didn’t.
What Isabelle Clark-Decès recalls of her first encounter with India is its intensity. “Yet, I never felt threatened. There was kindness. I felt the gentleness of the people,” she said, “the smiles on their faces. The invitation of women to sit with them. It is an amazing country.”
That serendipitous voyage abroad provided the spark for a life-long interest in the country’s culture and people as well as the academic career she would later pursue. Clark-Decès joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1996, where she is currently a professor of anthropology and a scholar of South India.
With much of her research based on fieldwork, she has returned to the subcontinent “too many times to count” and witnessed firsthand the pluralistic, multilingual, multiethnic society’s evolution over four decades. A large part of Clark-Decès’ scholarly focus has been on the southeastern part of the country known as Tamil Nadu. The region, its people, and culture are the subject of four of her books, including the most recent, The Right Spouse: Preferential Marriages in Tamil Nadu (2014).
At Princeton, Clark-Decès teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on India, ritual, kinship theory, and ethnography; advises doctoral candidates; and has directed the growing Program in South Asian Studies (SAS) since it was established in 2007.
A certificate program, SAS offers undergraduates an interdisciplinary approach to the histories and institutions of India and Pakistan as well as their relations with neighboring states and the rest of the world. Under Clark-Decès’ direction, it has become a forum for social and intellectual interactions between students and faculty and a source of cultural events—dance, music, and film festivals—for the broader campus community.
Erin Raffety, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and one of Clark-Decès’ advisees, came to Princeton planning to research Mexican women in the Pentecostal movement. Six years later, she is on the verge of completing a dissertation on the role of foster mothers in China. The change in direction, she said, stemmed in part from Clark-Decès’ advice.
Raffety had recently married, and through travel, her husband had become interested in China. When Clark-Decès learned this, she encouraged Raffety to pursue studies that she could share with her spouse.
“Isabelle was very supportive of me as a scholar and as a person,” said Raffety, who learned Mandarin in order to do her research. “She kept stressing to me — ‘Your marriage is a very important part of your motivation’— which is different from some of the advice you get in academia. It was a human response.”
She said that she has learned as much from observing Clark-Decès at work as she has from their conversations.
“Isabelle goes back to India every six months or so. That is something we all respect. She embodies the commitment to fieldwork,” said Raffety. “She has this incredible sense of warmth and encouragement while being really adventurous and dynamic.”
Clark-Decès’ nature — free spirited and intellectually curious — was apparent early on. She said she felt “boxed in” at the Sorbonne — destined for a career in an advertising agency “writing blurbs and captions.” She wanted none of it. Instead, she sought to develop a broader sense of the world, setting her sights outside her comfort zone and choosing India, even though she spoke neither Hindi nor English and had no connection with the country. Why travel the 4,300 miles from home? “The Beatles had gone to India,” she said with a laugh.
She spent the first two months of a seven-month stay in India in Calcutta working with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. She met the famed nun briefly and did small tasks.
“I passed out hot lentil soup or rice or dhal,” she said. But the experience was enthralling. “That was my first contact with poverty. I was young; my senses were assaulted.”
After Calcutta she traveled on, trekking to Nepal, meeting the Dalai Lama, and teaching French to a Tibetan monk. She returned to India and spent several weeks in Tamil Nadu. She stayed abroad until her money ran out, but not her imagination.
“I returned to Paris,” she said, “but it is fair to say I had the bug. I may not have known I was going to be an anthropologist, but I wasn’t going to study French literature.”
The path toward her academic specialty again involved serendipity. A year after the trip to South Asia, she went to North America, first to visit friends in British Columbia and then for a brief stay in San Francisco. There she met with an academic counselor at the University of California–Berkeley to inquire about taking classes. At the end of their meeting, during which Clark-Decès spoke of her travels and impressions of India, the counselor suggested she remain at Berkeley and enroll in an anthropology course.
It was the right fit. Clark-Decès eventually entered the graduate program at Berkeley and received funding from the American Institute of Indian Studies to spend a year in Tamil Nadu studying the culture of the Tamil people, whose customs date back thousands of years, and their language. That fieldwork, along with subsequent research, provided the basis for her first book, Religion against the Self: An Ethnography of Tamil Ritual (2000). She would follow that volume with No One Cries for the Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs, and Graveyard Petitions (2005) and The Encounter Never Ends: A Return to the Field of Tamil Rituals (2007). In 2011, she edited A Companion to the Anthropology of India.
Clark-Decès’ recent book, The Right Spouse, sheds light on the evolving nature of a critical custom in Tamil culture: arranged, intra-family marriages. While many Westerners look askance at the practice, Clark-Decès learned that it is not only accepted but preferred by most Tamilians.
While conducting research for the book in India in 2011–12, she cultivated sources as a gumshoe reporter might. She handed out cards to people she met while traveling that listed the topics she was hoping to solicit opinions about, including love and finding the right mate. She went to the homes of dozens of families, many of whom were willing to share insights into the tradition.
In one case, her translator provided a touching tale. He told her that it had been arranged for him to marry his cousin, the daughter of his mother’s brother. But before the marriage took place, his mother and his uncle’s wife had a falling out. Years passed, the two women never overcame their differences, the marriage never happened, and the man never married anyone else.
“He had lived his life feeling that he had been deprived of the right girl, the right spouse,” says Clark-Decès, who drew the title of the book from the man’s story. “If you do not marry the right person, then you spend your life feeling that you missed something.”
According to Clark-Decès, what makes The Right Spouse newsworthy is the discovery that this kinship custom is increasingly at risk. With urbanization and more Tamilians leaving home to go to school, more in the younger generation “don’t want to marry a kin. They want to explore other kinds of possibilities,” she explained.
While cultural norms, behavior patterns, rituals, politics, and economics are among the many aspects of Indian society that have evolved since Clark-Decès’ first trip, so too have the ways in which she engages with the country. This summer she will teach a Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) Global Seminar for the first time.
She designed the new course, “Growing Up in India,” to focus on parenting and socializing. It asks the question, “What is it like to grow up in India nowadays?” and includes a community service component. It will be held in Mysore, the third-largest city in the western state of Karnataka, from June 9 through July 18 and is open to Princeton undergraduates and four or five students from local Indian colleges. Like other global seminar courses, it presents an opportunity for Princeton students to study the subject matter while immersed in the culture.
“This is six weeks of being exposed to something else: of interacting with Indian kids who have deep relationships with their parents and who see arranged marriages as a sign that their parents love them so much that they want the best partner for them. They will be seeing wild elephants outside Mysore and working with tribal children,” Clark-Decès explained.
Her goal is for the students to learn to view the culture, study the people, and take note of what they see before making conclusions about a country as diverse and complex as India.
“I don’t necessarily want to make them anthropologists,” Clark-Decès said. “I want them to remain curious and open-minded.”
She hopes that the fifteen freshmen, sophomores, and juniors who enroll in the course will be surprised by what they encounter, much like she was in 1977.
She knows the power of first impressions. On the journey that began for her in India, she wrote home to her parents twice a week, describing what she saw and trying, she said, “to make sense of the experiences I was having.” Her mother typed the letters and turned them into a booklet.
It has been years since Clark-Decès looked through its pages, but she said of its author: “It is another person. You could say I was young and impulsive and a little wild.” She stopped for a moment, then added, “I never regretted it.”