A favorite lesson for students enrolled in Eleanor Zelliot’s popular History of India class took place not in her classroom but in her kitchen.
There, the longtime Carleton College professor taught them how to cook — and enjoy — such delectables as deep-fried puris, chicken curry and Indian railway tea.
“It felt like a world opening up,” recalled Carolyn Fure-Slocum, a former student who is the chaplain at Carleton. “It was exciting. What she was teaching us was not just academically about a country and its history, but really about the whole culture.”
Zelliot, who inspired hundreds to learn about the history of South and Southeast Asia, died June 5 at her home in Randolph, Minn. She was 89 and had Parkinson’s disease and multiple myeloma, said her longtime friend, Rosemary Moore.
Born in Des Moines, Zelliot grew up there and in Boston. She was raised in a Quaker family, and the faith instilled in her a strong sense of social justice, Moore said.
“One of the interesting things about her childhood was during World War II, [her family] housed Japanese families in their home to help protect them and give them a place to stay,” Moore said.
It was on a Quaker mission trip to India in 1952 that Zelliot became passionate about the country.
That experience fueled her lifelong interest in the plight of one of India’s most-discriminated communities: the “Untouchables.” She became a world renowned expert on social reformer Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and the movement he inspired to fight oppression of Untouchables, also called “Dalits.”
Known as the mother of the Dalit movement, Zelliot wrote about the campaign to resist oppression, paving the way for other researchers.
“There are now a lot of studies on the Dalit movement,” Fure-Slocum said. “She spawned that. She helped connect it to other movements against oppression all around the world.”
Back in the United States, Zelliot earned a bachelor’s degree from William Penn College and a master’s degree in history from Bryn Mawr College. Later, she added a doctorate in South Asian regional studies from the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1969, she came to Carleton College in Northfield and taught until she retired in 1997. During her teaching career, she developed the Associated Colleges of the Midwest India Studies Program in Pune, India, traveling with students many times.
A popular teacher, she was known for her devotion to her students and for her no-nonsense critiques.
“In many ways, we were all her children,” Fure-Slocum said. “She displayed that with a kind of tough love. She helped us find and nurture our gifts. She had a very direct way of giving a critique. But it was always done with love.”
The Indian cooking classes in her home proved that.
Students were given tasks and expected to prepare the meals — even though many had little or no cooking experience. She coached them, giving them the recipes to keep.
“She was especially famous for the Indian railway tea,” Fure-Slocum said. “Now you can find chai anywhere.” But back then, Indian restaurants were few, and Zelliot’s chai was a rare treat, Fure-Slocum said.
She is survived by two nephews, Donald Piburn, of Grand Junction, Colo., and Marvin Piburn, of Hudson, Iowa; and a niece, Carol Thonen, of Wichita, Kan.
A memorial service will be held June 17 in the Carleton College Skinner Memorial Chapel, followed by another service June 18 at the Cannon Valley Friends Meeting House in Northfield.