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

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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