September 25, 2013

Fieldwork: A Mindful Journey into Strangeness

My fieldwork site offered up a geographic and mental divide between the world and the field. It was a river. It was a river I was familiar with but had never thought of as a scalpel for world-carving. In the crossing and un-crossing of a river, I found out soon enough lay a ritual. I found that a geographic entity soon crept into language, everyday delights and disgruntlements dreams and nightmares. A marking, I realized at the turn of that year, is a weighty thing. A tool of organizing material, ritual and imaginative worlds. The river returned time and again to remind me that people had received historically a viewpoint informed by the river. A big city and wider inaccessible world was indexed through the river. History of trade and commerce was coded in one’s relationship with the river. The ghats which were built on its banks to facilitate the give and take of goods and repair of ships, have lost their economic significance. The river tells a story of a century of economic ups and downs.

And what of that? Stories are told by rivers and walls and roads everywhere. Why should we bother? The entry into ‘field’ is perhaps necessarily to be marked as an entry into different spatio-temporal worlds, and as I realized, into a zone of mindfulness. As though one were an artist walking up on stage. A mindfulness spoken of by mystics to cultivate contemplation of a moment, such that all extraneous factors fade for the time of such practice. I found, over time, that fieldwork involved going about the tasks one has set for one’s self in a day, but with a certain heightened mindfulness. Cultivating a state of mind that enables heightened attention to the minutest of things. The texture of wood, the shade of trees, gestures of hands, taste of food, flailing moods, jerky busrides. Each to be seen as a special thing, and yet, always always connected, entangled.

The nature and texture of movement began to occupy a lot of my attention. Rhythm and texture would replay in my head, as they attached in my memory to the words people had uttered. Jerks on a bumpy road connecting town and village, rotation of machines, trotting of carts carrying cargo. Movement was made tangible in its framing in stagnations, halts, slowdowns. Texture of movement on the highway was smooth, the one in between narrow alleys and inside workshops was bumpy. A playful chat reveals a historical shadow. A king and his general and their footsteps are remembered in a gesture of calling out to the faraway. Cellphones and computers are interpellated too, in wonder and suspicion. These are not things that are told explicitly in an interview. These are elements of being that one comes to collect in the most ordinary ways, through the most ordinary devices, by adopting the mantle of mindfulness. A friend whose graduate work in mathematics had taken him to a Spanish village, had told me, that he began to tune into Spanish as a language by listening to people’s comfort noises, which opened his ears to a lived language. Fieldwork, I believe, in some way or another, turns out to be an attempt to get at lived language.


If culture is a text for one to decode through ethnography, then being-in-culture-politics-landscape-history might be the ultimate goal of fieldwork. What does it feel like to be a person sitting on a rock on a hot afternoon next to a river in a nation in a geopolitical region at a point in history? One could choose to investigate each component of being in a separate sub-project of ethnography, but I found this composite quest to begin the moment one switches on a ‘mindful’ button in one’s head. One could conduct ethnography in one’s kitchen and find new, unpredictable things and turn the familiar into the strange, or one could walk across a mountain and listen for the comfort noises of the strange. 

September 22, 2013

Country and the City


A shaky Bengali modernity on the cusp of town and country forms the canvas of many of Ray’s films. A restrained rebel against societal structure recurs in Apur Sansar, Samapti, Devi. In Postmaster, the protagonist lives in the village but feels the tremors of the modern overhaul brewing in the city. Ray’s poetic stroke captures this inroad, famously, as the train that cuts through the panorama of countryside, as a young Apu watches in exhilaration and horror. A rupture is marked. Many of Ray’s other films, especially Samapti (the third short film in Teen Kanya) which I re-watched tonight, show intimate moments of life lived through such rupture. A man rebels against the norms of caste-and-creed-based arranged marriage. He is educated in a Calcutta college, presumably on the support of his family village-based property. A resource base and a maternal presence pulls him back to the village. He can’t entirely extricate himself. The city, though, is his primary intellectual locus. He wants to engineer companionate life in the manner of ‘these days’ – meaning, essentially, in exercising individualistic choice, taste, disposition in the selection of a marital partner. His decision is finally irrational. A current of female energy passes by, named affectionately and politically in the village ‘pagli’. The epithet of madness carries with it a ticket of escape. She escapes the social order simply in flights, hideouts, befriending nature, crucially a squirrel. Such is a freedom, unaccounted for in his tomes on liberty, individualism.  Hers is not a choice commensurable in doors and windows, locks and keys. She is perhaps an ur-subject. Or a non-subject. Naturally, her inscrutability, excess and illegitimacy maps onto her femaleness. A natural colonial expanse – threatening, desirable, and demanding subjugation. The obvious antithesis of his rational argument with archaic social forms.

Naturally, his exercise of choice results in the curbing of hers. She accepts the sudden proposal of marriage in passivity. Resisting with weapons of the weak. Trying to chop her hair off. She runs off in bridal finery on their wedding night. He falls off to sleep on the chair, emasculated. The imagination of encapturing such energy and freedom that he had carried, had the crucial endpoint of harnessing into the fabric of marriage and sociality. Much like the Marx’s reminder of capital’s view of nature, a force that must be cited, tended to, harnessed and ultimately put to the logic production. He is oblivious to the annihilation of the force in the harnessing.



Her taming is made sweeter to the audience by the choreography of desire. When he returns to the village many months, there is the hint of conjugal submission in her eyes. Winds now blow to the dictates of the whistle. It is understood he will now enact the role of the humane husband who reads poetry out to his ill-educated wife.