The ethnography of chai, or an anthropology of waiting

I walked into the community centre one day in August to find the team engaged in a meeting with the accounting and finance team of the NGO.

One of the things being discussed was how there were several problems in the way the community organisers were filling out reimbursement vouchers, or finding vendors who would be willing to take payments in cheques (a relatively new policy in the NGO).

Several small vendors in Dharavi, and elsewhere, work informally – they may not have stamps, or visiting cards. And many wouldn’t take cheques, preferring cash instead.

These are the vendors the team buys tea and snacks from during sessions with the community-based volunteers – a very commonplace practice, if not strategic one, in working with communities. A very basic practice in reciprocity, perhaps; but as the meeting progressed, I realised it was a contested one as well. Continue reading


An anthropologist among front-line workers: Part 2

(This post is a continuation of an argument I had made in the last one. Read it here).

Sanjay, Jagdish, Pankaj* and I were eating lunch at the NGO’s community centre. It was a Sunday, and we had just finished a session on gender and sexuality with young boys from the community.

As we finished lunch – a combination of chicken curry and rice, and some sheera# for desert – Sanjay said, introspectively, “Hum field staff, ground level pe kaam karne wale log, kadi patte jaisa hain.” We field staff, those who work on the ground level, are like curry leaves. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Performing the ‘community’ & the awkward de/merits of ethnography

It was a usual rainy day in Mumbai.

Parts of 90 Feet Road, the arterial road that passes through Dharavi, were waterlogged. Yet, the NGO’s art centre (also located on 90 Feet Road) was crowded, and people were still coming in, braving the rains.

But many were also frustrated.

There was another NGO – technically, a ‘Trust’ – that had camped in this centre to do a survey of sorts. They had asked the Organisation I was working with to send people from across Dharavi to the centre, where they would be asked to respond to a questionnaire.

It had something to do with their aspirations for Dharavi – once it was redeveloped, of course. These aspirations would then be projected on a map of Dharavi as some sort of an art installation. Continue reading

Penniless anthropologist? Or I am my own boss? The ethics and politics of front-line ethnography

“However sensitive we are to our informants, we have to recognise that fieldwork is at some level always a violation. We are rather like uninvited guests who hopefully, once welcomed, behave with consideration and perhaps even offer our hosts something they value. We gain nothing by denying this violation: the inherent violence of field research.”

– Vincent Crapanzano, ‘At the Heart of the Discipline’: Critical Reflections on Fieldwork.

“We [anthropologists] must entertain the strong possibility that there will be no need for what we do among such actors. There is no guarantee that our knowledge and skills will be relevant. We must recognize that it is possible, too, that different kinds of knowledge and skills will be required, that the nature of our intellectual activity itself will have to be transformed in order to participate in this way. But the possibilities are there to be explored.”

– James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine.

“You are spending a lot of time here,” said Pankaj,* one of the NGO’s programme officers who lives in Dharavi, and had worked here until he was transferred to another site in the eastern part of Mumbai a couple of months ago.

“Well, I am my own boss this time,” I replied. “Although, I don’t have any money either.”

He smiled and added, “Yeh sector mein to aise hi hota hain, sir.” That’s what happens in this (social work) sector. Continue reading

Fragmented field(work), and anthropology in the front-lines

“Hi Proshant, what are you doing here?” asked Patrick,* one of the UK-based consultants of the NGO, where I am doing fieldwork.

I was sitting in a corridor of the municipal hospital where the NGO’s offices are located, right outside the counsellor’s office.

“Um, fieldwork,” I replied, smiling, trying to remember the details of a case of sexual violence that I had just heard.

He looked around, and asked “Here?”

I added rather awkwardly, “Well, the field is everywhere!”

He smiled, said bye, and went ahead to the office. I returned to my field notebook, scribbling details of my conversation I only just had with a woman who was seeking legal aid from the NGO. Continue reading

An anthropologist returns home – in the monsoons, and to everyday violences

“Is it just me, or are there far too many people here now?” I ask, as I return home after frantically attempting to get a new SIM card from the market.

My mother disagrees. Her explanation is simpler: returning from the First World has obviously changed my perceptions of people-to-space ratios.

But there are far more people back in Badlapur, my rapidly-urbanising-and-populating suburban hometown, which 60 kilometres from Mumbai. My brother concurs. He experiences the swell in people every morning as he commutes to his college through the (in)famous Mumbai suburban trains – known colloquially as ‘local trains.’ And not to mention the spate of new housing projects, described as ‘integrated townships,’ that dot the once-green landscape. Continue reading