50 years ago, tragedy created triumph at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences

In 1970, an arson at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) partially destroyed two buildings — and the work of several fellows. One of them lost almost everything. Yet from the ashes, he managed to write a book considered a classic of social anthropology.

Inspecting the damage in 1970. (CASBS files)

The fire happened on April 24, 1970 – a Friday – at about 5 a.m., so no staff or fellows were present. And it was no accident. That was immediately clear. It was arson. The arsonists actually attempted to set fires in four locations. The worst damage occurred to two banks of fellows’ offices.

Among the fellows impacted was M.N. Srinivas, a sociologist who, at the time, was considered India’s most distinguished social scientist.

In addition to books, charts, maps, photographs and correspondences related to his ethnography, about 5,000 cards of hand-written, processed field notes were in the study. They recently had been sorted and stacked, reportedly in preparation for a duplication.

And, by a “strange quirk of fate,” all three copies of his field notes, processed over 18 years, were in his study at the time of the fire.

After losing his life’s work, Srinivas decided on taking an “unorthodox” approach and worked on turning his few remaining notes and what he could recall from memory into a book. After that initial dictating flurry, the transcribed draft went through various iterations and revisions for more than three years.

The final result, poignantly titled, was The Remembered Village, published by the University of California Press in 1976. It captures, in great detail, the complexities of inter- and intra-caste relations in the Rampura community. The book is known for its humane and humanistic tone; its holistic, lucid and illuminating descriptions of relations; and its insights into the nature of ethnographic research.

In his scholarly career, Srinivas was the author or co-author of 15 books, some of them acclaimed, but The Remembered Village is the one for which he is remembered most, and his own story in its creation is a part of sociological and anthropological legend.

That Srinivas produced any book at all is remarkable. The Remembered Village was not just any book. It was considered a landmark achievement at the time, and still is recognized as a classic today.

A first edition copy of the book resides in the center’s Ralph W. Tyler Collection.

Who were the perpetrators, and what was their motive? Bottom line: we’ll likely never know. The Santa Clara County fire marshal launched an investigation in coordination with police. According to reports, the only suspects were “several motorcyclists who had been in the area during the previous few days. They turned out to be student firemen who had been patrolling the center and the campus to avert exactly the kind of incident that occurred.”

Read the full story about the fire and Srinivas on the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences website.