Writing through pain, working through loss: On the emotions of anthropological research

When I arrived at my house in Badlapur this July, it felt as though I had arrived in an alternate timeline. The house was the same, but so much had changed.

Earlier this year, my grandmother passed away. Only my mother and brother were at home then – my father, like me, was away and could not make it in time.

In the weeks that passed, I chose to drown myself in work to numb the sensation of helpless that had replaced the grief, knowing that my family had to deal with a lot more than I, and that I wasn’t there to bear the emotional burden with them (and they were as concerned, perhaps more, about me). And while we did have other family to help us, there were other relatives whose actions, for all intents and purposes, hurt us more.

There were other losses, too.

A cousin of mine died in an accident in January; a granduncle passed away in his sleep in April. Another uncle, who was battling cancer and had stayed with us for several months during his treatment in Mumbai, died last month. We got the news no sooner than we reached home from the airport.

And, as I write this post, we’re dealing with the loss of my grandfather (on my mother’s side), who died only ten days ago. It was a sudden loss, and it has completely altered my social universe here.

It’s like one of those episodes from Dr Who, where the Earth is transplanted into another galaxy (usually by the Daleks to further their plan for universal annihilation, and is always saved by the Doctor and his allies).

The more immediate constellations in my life are intact; but I cannot help but notice how the universe has changed.

It is as if I have not quite returned to the same world that I had left.


In ‘While Making Other Plans,’ Renato Rosaldo begins by discussing the phrase ‘Life is what happens when you’re making other plans’ to point out how anthropological theory has – at least till the 1980s – tended to treat culture and behaviour as “blueprints” or “maps” based on which individuals live their daily lives.

Such anthropological theory, he argues, did not pay sufficient attention to how people “muddle through” the problems of everyday life, or how they rely on improvisation and contingent happenings. Hence the need for an interpretive theory, rather than one concerned with structures and plans.

Engaging with interpretive theory that Rosaldo outlines is not my point here – although its utilities are very evident for my work (which I hope to discuss in future blogposts and my thesis eventually).

I cite Rosaldo mainly because he, too, is writing through loss at this particular moment: his wife, anthropologist and feminist scholar, Michelle Z. Rosaldo died in a tragic accident in the Philippines in 1981, where they were conducting fieldwork.

In a collection that combined poetry and ethnography – what he calls ‘ethnopoetry’ – Renato Rosaldo writes through the loss, grief and rage, using idioms generated in his fieldwork with the Ilongot headhunters.

Particularly, Rosaldo talks about the ‘cultural force of emotions,’ or the ‘emotional force,’ which would lead one to “consider the subject’s position within the field of social relations in order to grasp their emotional experience.”

There is, thus, a reason as to why I am referring to my emotions in this post which goes beyond a concern with reflexivity – that is, how research is affected by the subjective positions of the researchers.

Dealing with loss and pain in my life, I have come to realise, isn’t disconnected with my larger work on violence and gender.


The women and men (and in some cases, children) that I work and interact with in Dharavi, too, are affected by loss and pain, albeit of a more significant and debilitating sort: the structural violence of poverty, the 1992-93 communal riots, the bureaucratic neglect and apathy, everyday violence and abuse, and the looming threat of redevelopment. Yet, they desire to move forward with their lives amidst this.

My loss and pain pales in comparison, despite the desire to construct empathy through such narratives.

I am reminded of a session I had attended with the women front-line volunteers last year, where they were asked to share their experiences of change and dealing with loss.

At first, many of the women were reluctant to admit they had suffered a loss. But as Kalpana,* my community organiser colleague explained, using her own example, we all deal with loss and pain. In her own case, it was about the lack of mutual respect between her and her husband; about struggling to pursue higher education after marriage; and not to mention the incredibly stressful work of front-line intervention.

Many other women started sharing their stories: the uncertainty of married life; loss of a parent; the fear of social isolation.

I was then asked to share an experience. So I did. I spoke about how my mother, much like Kalpana, pursued higher education after marriage, when she was simultaneously taking care of me and my bother (we were 8 and 4, respectively), my grandmother and managing the house in general, while my father was away for work.

As I mentioned, my experience paled in comparison largely due to my class and gender privilege.

But, as Arthur Kleinman discusses in ‘The Violences of Everyday Life,’ people from bourgeois and middle-class social locations, too, suffer from everyday violence, as is in Jane Huffberg’s case, where she is an overworked counsellor in an African-American inner-city school, survived a physically abusive relationship, and has to take care of her teenaged daughters, who do not respect her enough.

Most people that I know in my social circles are, to an extent, more privileged than the average person I speak to in Dharavi, at least insofar as they have better access to healthcare resources and support networks. But many of them are subject to the violences of everyday life that Kleinman describes.

To take the case of gender-based or domestic violence itself, for instance, I can certainly think of nearly half a dozen cases among my relatives and acquaintances which can qualify as everyday violence, if not domestic violence and abuse explicitly.

And rather belatedly, this includes the loss of an aunt who had died of “burn injuries,” a couple of years before I was born. My family, especially my grandmother and father, never spoke about the incident (despite hushed conversations I had with my mother). Her husband, my uncle, lived for well over 20 years, until he died a couple of years ago. But that loss, it seemed, did not affect us much.

Ironically, these women we know, my aunt included, appeared to have less of a recourse to interventions that the women in Dharavi have (due to the NGO’s work there, in large part. And while this class division is an interesting caveat in how VAW research tends to be configured, I have to postpone that discussion for want of time and space).

And experiences of violences of everyday life are compounded by experiences of loss and grief. Yet, as Rosaldo explains, we “muddle through,” “improvise.” Life, in other words, goes on.


In many ways, because of its grounding in an endeavour that is deeply human, anthropology has unique perspectives to offer in how human beings work through violence, pain, loss, suffering, grief, rage. That certainly is Rosaldo’s main concern in his work with the Ilongot headhunters, and also of other anthropologists’ as well.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ Death Without Weeping is another powerful and emotionally engaged work that comes to mind, where her main concern is how women in impoverished slums in Brazil’s northeast survive the everyday violence of abuse, malnourishment, infant deaths and political violence. Her work demonstrates the need the take the survival ‘tactics’ of the poor in their own terms, especially in how they are able to construct a social world out of experiences of collective and individual violence.

The people and communities of Dharavi are no doubt engaged in remaking their worlds, as Veena Das puts it.

But the violence they encounter and experience also affects people who work there, especially in how we deal with our own losses and pain, and our helplessness (or perhaps, irrelevance?). And recognising this connection, I argue, is more than just a concern for empathy. It is about a more honest and ethical engagement with what a human science should be like, especially in how it tends to be ‘applied,’ and the consequences it has for the vulnerable people we tend to work with.


Yesterday, I was walking to Sion station with a colleague of mine who works in the NGO’s adolescent health and sexuality programme.

She was talking about how her team are trying to approach the issue of child sex abuse that has been particularly rampant in one particular area, with 5 to 6 cases being reported in the last month (and some of them involving repeat offenders, or offenders who are themselves juvenile).

It was difficult to convince the parents to file first information reports (FIRs) with the police, since the affected families were criticised by their neighbours for doing so – after all, the perpetrators were from the same locality – and not to mention the threat of retaliatory violence. There were also communal tensions between the Hindu and Muslim families in the area, and a general distrust of the police, who they thought would release the offenders without taking any action.

Her team and the counsellors have spent the last few days trying to devise an advocacy strategy in the area. But as we spoke, she appeared to be at a loss. As was I.

Our knowledge, I realised, was ultimately inadequate to address the problems faced by our colleagues and friends living in Dharavi. Perhaps, the sense of helplessness that we felt was how the violences of everyday life spill from one collective domain to another, more personal one.

When I started fieldwork this year, I was confronted with cases of violence from the very first day. Cases of physical abuse, rape, street violence, child sexual abuse. And it has affected me (it had done so even last year, but the effects were nowhere near as visible as this time).

I was unable to sleep well, despite going to bed dead tired.

Whatever I could reflect on, were theoretical and practical problems. I still think my work on epistemology can be of use to my front-line worker colleagues. But my schedule and tasks are nowhere as punishing.

I asked Bhavna,* one of the coordinators in the prevention of violence programme, how she had dealt with the emotional trauma of work.

From the beginning, she had problems in dealing with the pervasive violence in Dharavi. She often thought, ‘Am I making a difference?’ She spoke to the counsellors about it, but their only advice was that the best way she could deal with it was to focus on her work in the community. But for her, that wasn’t possible since her work and her emotional response to it could not be separated.

I think the same can go for anthropology in front-line spaces.

It is in my moment of loss and pain that I am reflecting on violence, loss and grief. That despite the impacts it has on us, it can also build bridges of sorts (this is also where empathy comes in), like my conversation with Bhavna and my ongoing work with her and the other front-line workers, and also my colleague in the adolescent programme.

The one thing I did tell my colleague was: take it easy, and perhaps open a bottle of spirit that she loved. It was a Saturday night, after all. We would “muddle through” eventually.


*I have changed the names of my colleagues to preserve their anonymity.


Works Cited

Veena Das. 2007. Life and Worlds: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary.

Charlotte A. Davies. 1999. Reflexive Ethnography: A Guide to Researching Selves and Others.

Arthur Kleinman. 2000. ‘The Violence of Everyday Life: The Multiple Forms and Dynamics of Social Violence’ in Violence and Subjectivity.

Renato Rosaldo. 1985. ‘While Making Other Plans.’ (Link).

Renato Rosaldo. 2014. The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes. 1992. Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s