Long time ago, when I was interviewing women about the experiences that they had with violence, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that my dissertation was built on the pain and suffering of someone else. In one of my more angsty moment, I would think that my advancement into professional life was built on the beaten backs of women that I was in solidarity with. Of course, I was quite young and terribly self-indulgent. I also felt the lessons of my feminist training most keenly, as the newly initiated are bound to do. I wasn’t wrong – there is a sense of exploitation that is inherent in research that has been illustrated by feminist researchers. But I was also caught up in my own hand-wringing that I would forget what I was there for.
It was only by discussing this with M, my advisor, that I was able to re-focus my energies on what was important – the women sitting right there in front of me – sharing what they had never shared before. I owed it to them to listen, to learn, and to find out how and why and where to go from here. In fact, during this entire time, whenever I would get melancholy, his voice across the wide ocean would bring me back to shore – to do what the enterprise of research is supposed to do – engage with the unknown, illuminate the dark spaces and to provide the tools that can be used to build a better day.
But this feeling – that research is essentially vampirish – that it sucks the lifeblood of people for its own sustenance and purpose – has never quite left me. The only difference between then and now is that I don’t use the feeling to navel-gaze incessantly. Instead, I use it to hold myself accountable to what I do in the field. It means that I work towards holding myself accountable to the people that I meet in the field – to be honest and open with them as they are with me – and to be in their lives only as much as they allow me to be. And I ensure their experiences influence me in a manner that I do not live my everyday life in ignorance to what they have to live through every day. I am, of course, keenly aware that I possess most of the power in our exchange, and that weighs on me significantly when I am in or out of the feeling. The difference is that now I know I have the responsibility of carrying that weight and I need to deal with it one way or another.
The way that I usually do it is through proselytizing – it satisfies my other instinct to pontificate. I try to teach, give lectures, provide overly long answers to simple questions in every day conversation. In any case, it allows me to push people who I work with – activists, students, colleagues – to engage with the origins of their privilege and consequently, their own thoughts and have them question mine. I am a big fan of epistemology – how do we know what we know – and I try to make sure I work towards cutting through the bullshit that we tell ourselves.
But of course, the most critical way of carrying that weight is what I do when I go to the field – how to keep engaging with the power, how to be open, how to learn anew, how to work towards something that addresses the power structure. I open myself to being wrong – especially about things that I thought I knew already. Because every time I go to the field, that little bubble in which I am safely ensconced in my knowledge is broken over and over again. I become more aware of things that I do not know and I become more cognizant of the responsibilities that I have as a researcher.
This point was driven home to me by a recent trip to the field. We were interviewing a young girl who was studying. Close to her, there were the usual gaggle of women who were milling around. Among them, an older woman sat down on the steps in front of her house, and in between her supervision of the entire interview process, took out a neat little cloth pouch. She pulled out a silverish little box and with a tiny handle took something out which looked to my city-bred-Netflix-addled brain as cocaine. But no, it was merely slaked lime, or chunnaam as it is commonly referred to. She very slowly and methodically covered her paan leaf with it. Her measured movements was what drew my attention to her.
Most of the women sitting around were rose-teethed – the varying reds of their teeth embodying years of tobacco-chewing and hard labour. Given smoking is not really seen as ‘ladylike’, younger women are given to chewing tobacco, mostly to provide relief to the backbreaking work that they do all day. In any case, after the interview was over, we were wrapping up our things, and this woman started talking to us. She told us: these girls are so very privileged. They can read and write. I can’t even read my own name. I won’t be able to recognise it even it were on a piece of paper. Then she said – back then, all we could think of was food. It was so hard to be hungry.
I have heard a version of this story many times. A woman tracing her own journey of regrets and recriminations when she is asked about the future. So, when she spoke about hunger, it was certainly not the first time I had heard it, but the way she said it – it was so hard to be hungry – it hit the gut anew. On the way back to Bangalore, I kept thinking – it is not okay. It is not okay that women routinely talk about how they were hungry.
This particularly hit home to me, because of my own relationship with hunger. There is a joke in the family that I often forget to eat. It’s true – when I am alone, I have to have set alarms to ensure that I eat on time. I have hypoglycemia, so hunger hits me hard. Especially when I am working, I have to be reminded that it is time to eat. To put it differently, my consumption patterns are so richly met that I need not think of it. And here is a woman who is tracing her life, and finds it lined with hunger.
The next day, when I woke up in the morning, hearing the faithful call to prayer, I thought of my satiated belly – making no noise at all. No protests, no rumblings and no grumblings. And I thought again of the woman chewing her tobacco. In those moments of darkness turning into light, I remembered something I had read a long time ago – not the exact lines, but the feeling of it – the feeling of sitting and contemplating the world and feeling uneasily at ease with it. I searched for the lines and found them.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
By Philip Larkin from Vers De Societe
So, I guess this is another way of dealing with the angst – we sit with other things, as uncomfortable as they make us feel. Perhaps, we might even hope that our work and our words make a difference. Perhaps, one day, I will believe it.