Back to Concordia via India 

By Karen Herland

Rachel Berger has come full circle back to the site of her undergrad degree, and  the source of her interest in India as a research field. Magnifying glass

Rachel Berger has come full circle back to the site of her undergrad degree, and the source of her interest in India as a research field.

Rachel Berger laughs that she could be the poster-child for Concordia-India relations.

As an undergrad, Berger began studies related to India and worked with Leslie Orr and T.S. Rukmani in Religion and John Hill, who was in the History Department at the time.

That interest was focused in later research work on reproductive health, gender and development. After doing her MA at the University of Toronto, Berger went to Cambridge where she completed an MPhil in Hindi Language and Literature and a PhD in History.

Her MPhil dissertation undertook an analysis of Hindi texts on gynecological health that were available in Northern India in the early 20th century.

Building from that material, she become interested in the role of traditional Ayurvedic medicine in the context of the modernization of medicine in South Asia, “an issue which was present in the texts, but that none of the authors was describing in detail. I wanted to find out what new medical policy meant to traditional practitioners, and to the public.”

Berger was interested in how this indigenous and holistic medical practice fit within the models of development, public health and state planning, especially with regard to women and reproduction.

“I was interested in comparing the state’s attempt to modernize Ayurveda with popular Hindi-language discussions of the body.” She added that the work of Michel Foucault influenced her theoretical approach.

When the position for a South Asianist was advertised for the History Department in 2006, the opportunity was too good to pass up and she jumped at the chance to return to Concordia. Quite literally. She broke her ankle and had to interview by conference call from the hospital.

“I really wanted to be at Concordia. South Asian Studies is very strong here, and I wanted to work with the Simone de Beauvoir Institute.” She is currently a research fellow there.

As an undergrad, Berger benefited from grants and travel opportunities offered through the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute. Concordia’s relationship with the pan-Canadian organization extends back for 34 of the Institute’s 40-year existence. “Every level of my research was funded by Shastri.”

Although some of those specific programs no longer exist, the relationship between Concordia and the Institute remains strong.

Meanwhile, Berger is expanding her own research to include reproductive rights in the context of empire-building, and is collaborating on a transnational history of the pharmaceutical industry in Senegal, Vietnam and India with colleagues at the Université de Montreal. She’s also reworking her dissertation into a book, looking at how Ayurvedic medicine was incorporated into state medical planing in India after independence.

She will also be conducting interviews with Jewish youth as part of her department’s CURA research project exploring the experience of Montreal residents whose lives have been impacted by genocide and human rights violations.


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