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Bye, 2015. And Season’s Greetings!

31 Dec

I’m glad to have made your acquaintance. In many ways you were like 2013: you walked me through quite a journey. In no specific order, some of my favourite things from this year:

*The share autos at Noida City Centre metro station. Because:

1)UPiites (Uttar Pradesh iites) really are polite, even if they burn their women and mutton eaters occasionally. And,

2) In order to extract the crazily parked and inevitably hemmed-in auto you are sitting in (or sitting behind) (filled with a minimum of 10 passengers) the driver will move backwards and forwards, going thud-thud into the autos in front and behind, like dodge’em cars, until there is space to manoeuvre out onto the main road.

*That twice daily meditations did not happen, but routinely longer ones did.

* The Cafe Coffee Day on Barakhamba road. After many misses, I’ve found ‘my’ coffee shop in the city.

* Days that begin at 5.30AM on winter mornings, finish by 3, leaving me the rest of the afternoon and evening for Noida visits and meditation.

* Who’d a thought I’d enjoy being out of the house by 5.30 AM? That I LIKE less sleep when forced into it?

* Goettingen. Lucking out on wonderful people there, both friends and strangers. Especially strangers.

* Uncle Chips. Many, many packets of it.

* Beginning, meaningfully, on field research for the second part of my PhD. I don’t care whether I actually finish or not: the journey thus far has far exceeded my expectations of learning when I began. But I will finish, because the ICSSR has kindly paid me a fellowship thus far.

* Noida, Nurnberg, Dakshineshwar.

Happy New Year, all. Because whyever not?


The relationship with your Supervisor

19 Mar

How is yours? Mine is pretty leaden with guilt, I can tell you that.

You see, my supervisor is endlessly patient, doesn’t dictate to me or even try to push me to go down a particular thought path. He doesn’t get reproachful when I don’t produce material regularly and doesn’t say things like ‘you’re not working hard enough’. (This is not to say that I don’t play these situations out in my head though :P). However, just because he doesn’t push them at me, it does not mean he does not have expectations or that it is perfectly fine for me to not be working on my PhD. When we started, he casually stated that it is possible to finish in three years. Towards the first quarter of last year, when I showed him a very rough draft of how I planned to proceed, he casually mentioned that I’d have two chapters ready by the end of that year (based on my draft). It is now the first quarter of this year and I don’t have two chapters (or any chapters) and three years looks nigh impossible.

I’m feeling pretty challenged by my PhD at this point. My topic is unclear, my fieldwork from Delhi of last year suddenly seems incomplete and not that easily comprehensible. I’m finding it hard to ‘begin’ the writing process. Per usual, I’m barely believing I have it in me to produce written material. I’m barely believing my ability to traverse through the literature I have collated (and mostly still not read). And I’m shuddering at the thought of transcribing my interviews from last August-October! Talk about procrastination! And I’m entertaining vague, non-specific thoughts about whether I’ll be able to finish, whether I’ll do a worthwhile PhD. I will not abide a routine PhD thesis.

I don’t know what is ‘normal’ sixteen months into a PhD. I do know that very few PhD students at my Centre, some of who have been at it longer than me, have written chapters. However, that is not much consolation, because it is hard to gauge productivity from chapters alone. What matters at the end of the day is one’s own evaluation of one’s work. And I do not think I have done enough.

Rationally speaking, I know there is some truth to this, but mostly also that I never think I have done enough. The truth is I have done the best I can, and there is scope to improve my best. As usual, ‘work’ for me is mostly mental. For the past two months I have been working to regain lost ground in my meditations. It is comforting to know that is my first and foremost duty and desire in life. It will prepare me to produce work.

I cannot tell my supervisor this, hence the guilt. I would hate for him to think that I am not taking the PhD seriously, or that I am not giving him sufficient regard just because he is nice. There are too many people in the world who take advantage of the nice folks. I wish I knew how to tell him how grateful I am that he is giving me space. And that I know that in the next four months I will write up two chapters.

It seems unlikely that I will get anything work-related done before I leave on my fellowship at the end of this month. I’m still reading, ofcourse, and mentally preparing myself for the upcoming re-location. I’m really, really glad for this opportunity, but me being me, I’m also a little scared. Mostly I’m scared about the impact it will have on my meditation. In Delhi, or Calcutta, if meditation is hard, I can easily reach YSS and recharge myself spiritually. I will miss this easy reach there. Then again, God has made it so that I am going to the only European country which has a YSS/SRF ashram! The only one!

One of the things I beat myself up over is the fact that my PhD allows me to not have a nine-to-five. I can have a twelve-to-three or a two-to-five-thirty and nobody can dock my pay. I feel guilt about how this is unfair, and how I would be forced to operate in a more conventional schedule if I had no option. If I had a normal job, or even a more rigid PhD programme, I would not be able to take so much time to work on my spiritual practice. But then again, perhaps I can choose to look at this mega-flexibility as a gift that allows me to work on my spiritual practice. I will possibly not have this kind of space and time again in my life. Now is the time to put my everything into developing an unshakeable spiritual discipline. It’s a gift, so take a hike, guilt!

I need to write down my goals for the upcoming four months. There are two main ones: two chapters that will justify my Supervisor’s patience with me! And twice daily meditation.

Some reflections on immersive ethnography

26 Feb

But first-why does ‘awful’ mean something bad, when it could so easily have meant being filled with awe (and therefore something not-bad)?

Ethnography, pointed out one of my favourite Professors during a Research Methods lecture, is not simply fieldwork. There is an element of time and depth of involvement that sets apart mere fieldwork from ethnography. There is no clear cut definitional distinction between the two, and I suspect one can wade through a few tough knots when trying to conceptually separate the two, but let me put it like this-

Say your research project is trying to understand the behaviour of consumers at a particular market. You have ten months to do this. If you choose to compile a survey, visit the market once every week and target ten buyers every visit with that survey for eight months (because you need atleast two to analyse and write it up), you’d probably be doing fieldwork. If however, you visit the market four to five times a week, use your survey and additionally converse with buyers and sellers, and spend a lot of time observing and chatting with no end goal specifically in mind-that would probably be closer to ethnography. And chances are, you’d spend 9.5 months of your time in the ‘field’ because you never know whether you have enough material 😛

All fieldwork has an element of uncertainty and surprise, but ethnography probably has more of it. One doesn’t head into it unprepared-but plans are almost constantly remade because the situation on the ground changes. Also-fieldwork can be incorporated within quantitative research methods but ethnography, is, I think, pretty much always a part of qualitative research only.

I have been ‘doing’ ethnography since about 2009, but properly fell into it March, 2012. At that time, it was not actually ethnography because the academic aspect was missing: I only wanted to know how I could help the organisation in question. A few months down the line, however, I ended up making that my thesis topic (for the MPhil). Since then, my engagement has been both academic (for they continue to be one of the case studies for my PhD) and personal. I am invested in that issue, in the people and have worked on things with them that have nothing to do with the thesis. There is, I suppose, an element of activism involved in my engagement with them and there are other terms that have been coined to capture this research stance- Participatory Action Research being one of them.

Such an engagement has been, for me, a question of doing justice to my research, but more importantly-it has been about ethics. I am loathe to think of myself as that typical academic leach (and ethnographers, especially, come close to being this leachy variety of academics. It just seems so unfair that people like us spend months, even years, studying a (usually less well-off) community only to go back, write a thesis, get paid as a researcher and live a life that is far removed from that community’s). I have tried hard to reduce the separation between my lives with them and away from them. To an extent that came naturally. The clothes I wore, the lifestyle I led did not differ so much on and off the field. I did not shed a persona the minute I stepped ‘off’ the field. However, there are/were limits to how much I could pretend, to myself, that I was ‘one of them’. At the end of the day I lead a very middle-class life-and they don’t. I take running water, electricity, a room to myself  etc etc for granted.

Class guilt aside, I was very willing the blur the boundaries between the professional and personal. I have to say though, that a little over three years later I’m finding the need to actually draw this line and be okay with it. While one learns a lot through what I call immersive ethnography, it has its costs.

* When you get that involved in terms of time and energy with a particular community, time comes when some people get over-familiar and even inappropriate. Some people try to ‘own’ you or your welfare and this is uncomfortable not just because it crosses a line but also because you know this is a sort of power play. They are being ‘nice’ to me because they know their leader ‘values’ me and therefore by being nice to me they are earning points.

* Repeated encounters of the ethnographic kind produces a kind of ‘over-exposure’ after a point. The tenth protest rally you attend suddenly begins to look just like each and every preceding one and you feel like you have reached a stalemate. Nothing new emerges. However, as that Professor pointed out, it is perhaps unfair on my part to expect something new every time. Because, she said, I am trying to map the everyday details (which don’t change that fast) and  the events in the life of this organisation and their movement(which have been changing VERY fast)-mapping gradual differences and the bigger ones- I face this quandary of encountering a stalemate. That is, I expect every rally to be different just because at the macro level things are different every couple of months.

I have decided it is perfectly fine to take a step-back and do new things to think different thoughts.

*It can lead to rapidly declining hygiene standards. This, however, applies perhaps more to an outdoor life than immersive ethnography per se. When you are out on the ‘field’ you want to try and adapt yourself to the ways of the people in the field in order to not be any more of a nuisance than you already are. So you eat and drink what is offered you, and with thanks, etc. I have eaten off unwashed plates (not because there is a lack of water but because most people tend to not wash already washed plates-even though it might have been washed hours and hours earlier!), eaten without washing my hands (no water to waste), drunk water that I might perhaps not have when at home.

However, when I recently saw someone use their towel to wipe their shoes, well, then it struck me that I better be careful! I do NOT want to unthinkingly adopt a practice like that, ever! I’d rather go with dirty shoes. It is okay to do what I need to and can do to maintain certain standards of hygiene. I will not throw a hissy fit if there is no way to wash hands before eating, but I will also not NOT wash my hands just to avoid drawing attention to myself.

I suppose I will have more to add to this post later. For now, this will suffice.


A temporary re-alignment of property values Or MYY PRECIOUSSSS!

17 Nov

Last week, I was in Ranchi attending a meeting called by an organisation I am studying for my PhD. At the end of the second day, everybody set off for a bit of touristing and we climbed nearly 400 stairs to a hill-top temple. The view was nice, the breeze-with its promise of winter-was precious in view of my upcoming return to (still) warm Calcutta and chatting with the others made for a pleasant hour. Such a pleasant hour, in fact, that when it was time to go, I climbed down 20 of those 400 stairs before realising I’d forgotten my backpack. My notes! I cried (and not- my wallet! My laptop! My camera! My recording device!) and ran back up.

Today, as I was climbing down the library stairs, looking at the mosaic-covered surface (very commonly used as a cheaper substitute for tiles or marble) I was thinking about buildings, quality of construction and what would happen if the library were to collapse whilst I was away from it and my things were still on a table in the reading room. My notes! I realised I would cry in my mind (not my laptop! All those books! Or even, all those dead people! :P)

And that is when I realised that I finally have an answer to that favourite hypothetical situation: if your house caught fire and you could ONLY bring one thing, what would you bring? Why, this dull, boring, brown leather-bound notebook that holds all my field notes from August 2014 onwards, ofcourse. Because for everything else, there’s Mastercard 😛

(Also, from now on? My laptop and external hard-disk are always going to be separated by a healthy geographical distance-so if one goes, a backup (of my work) remains. And a safe deposit box or three might house a photocopy of all my notes. Excessive? That word don’t exist in the dictionary of a first year PhD student B-))

Unexpected surprises

3 Apr

There I was, moping about at home (escaping the library and my supervisor) having desolate thoughts about how my PhD work seems to not be taking off at all, and stuff, when…

Mail in inbox.

My first paper acceptance B-) It felt so good that I read the first two lines and called my Dad to share the news. And then my mom. And then my brother. And then a friend. And then another friend. And then my grandmom.

Yeah, I got stupidly happy. Because a) they were supposed to notify us in February, and not having heard anything from them, I assumed my proposal had not made the cut. And b) this is my first acceptance ever B-) The start of a sterling career in academics B-)

HAHA. Ok, not. I’m not seeking a career in academics, sterling, or not.

The point being that blessings come to the undeserving at unexpected times.

I’m sure stage next will be me panicking about writing a competent paper (I’ll be using mostly material from my MPhil dissertation), but for tonight, I just savour this 🙂


Twiddling thumbs…purposefully ;)

8 Sep

September is going to be a month of waiting.

Waiting for my viva.

Waiting to officially hear of the results of the PhD application.

Waiting to know what my plans will look like for the rest of the year.

All this waiting was making me think I needed to suspend life until

But then I saw that there was another option as far as perspectives go. I choose to see this as a month where I have the luxury to just do things. Use this month to ‘chill’ so to speak. Finish my Artemis Fowl (the last in the series, which is what I’m reading, ought to make Eoin Colfer embarassed for having sold out to the sequel pressure), read more Rushdie (I can’t help loving his work), see more of Calcutta, etc. So that is what I am doing.

Mostly 😛

This is also a good time to process the fact that the self is never done with pushing its limits. And that it doesn’t give a damn that a lot of limits were but recently pushed. And that it isn’t willing to let the new-found equilibrium be. But I guess if the equilibrium can be disturbed, it must mean that it wasn’t. Nobody ever found God by saying ‘ok, this much but no more.’ 🙂

Ah the sun!

30 Jul

There is nothing like beginning your day with a mug of green tea with lemon and honey.

I’m in Delhi for a week. The primary purpose was a close friend’s wedding, but I had also made plans of yoga, meeting friends and generally just going around Delhi for a bit. I already know that yoga is all that will happen, hehe. I’m just too reluctant to make long journeys right now, I’d rather vegetate a bit.

I did apply for the PhD. And now there is a month to read up on and defend the proposal- somewhat sketchy at the moment- for the interview. I’m at peace with the decision. While working on my dissertation, I saw that my brain really likes to be challenged, it thrives on being forced to think. However, there is also a part of me that resists attempts at hard work, that tries to tell my body that happiness lies in taking it easy. If I do get into the PhD programme, life will be harder. But I’m no longer as scared of my ability to negotiate a difficult path as I was till even a year ago.

Back in Calcutta, a batchmate has been in an accident under unfortunate circumstances, which involved my entire batch, minus three of us. Drunk driving. She was the passenger. It was the night of the farewell that our faculty gave us. She and her friend (not our batchmate) got into an ugly exchange of words with everybody else, apparently (I wasn’t there since I had a flight to catch to Delhi the next morning), and took off with her friend driving. The car flipped. All considered, she had a miraculous escape. I feel for her. She has been making bad choices for so long. The inside of her head is not a happy place. She needs someone to be firm but loving with her. I’m not sure there is anybody playing such a role in her life, not even her parents. I’ll be going to visit her once I’m back.