by Sneha Annavarapu
I came to my dissertation by accident.
In 2017, I was taking a walk to clear my head and come up with a dissertation idea. My prior research – on examining the figure of the “kissing couple” in public spaces in Mumbai – had come to a dead end, and due to personal reasons, I decided to move my research to a city more familiar to me: Hyderabad. Hyderabad was home, sort of. Because I had spent time in the city as a teenager and spoke the regional languages, it was a convenient choice. I was not going to be an exotic ethnographer in an exotic location. I was going to be home, doing some project as long as it was in the city. As a budding ethnographer, I felt embarrassed. But I had to think of some project. I did not have much time. I needed a project – one that would give itself to me without too much of a fuss. Was I being calculating and cold? Why, yes. I did not have the luxury of US citizenship – so fieldwork grants and fellowships were far and few – and my financial aid would run out in three years. I wanted to be done with my PhD without falling into financial precarity. I needed a project. Chop, chop, chop!
With these thoughts, feelings, preoccupations, I was walking on the main crowded street of Ameerpet when a motorcycle on the wrong side of the road almost ran over my foot. The handles grazed my back and I yelped. The rider too yelped but did not stop. These “near-accidents” were far too common on Hyderabadi roads and as an unwilling and reluctant pedestrian on busy roads, I was hardly surprised. And yet, shocked and speechless. The motorcycle sped away. Only a few hours after this encounter with an errant rider, I decided to study the “culture” of driving in the city. Over the years, it became a multi-sited ethnographic project in which I followed the concept of road safety across several sites where it was variously configured – traffic police stations, taxi stands, government offices, driving schools, and streets. I ended up studying driving and the politics of road safety as a window into understanding state-citizen relations in urban India. I did short ethnographic observations at a variety of sites and drew a bulk of data from unstructured interviews – in cabs, in coffeeshops, on street-corners.
Photograph by the author
Fieldwork, as expected, was a mixed bag of feelings. On some days, I felt joy and pleasure at having the opportunity to speak with a variety of people. While on others, I felt a sense of terror at “getting it all wrong”. On the whole, as I look back, I am amazed at how much time people gave me. And, in that sense, I am forever in debt. Yet this gratefulness exists alongside discomfort, guilt, and immense anxieties. After all, holding together my multi-sited fieldwork was a singular fragile thread: as a woman doing fieldwork in fairly masculine spaces I experienced gendered discomfort.
I had been propositioned by interlocutors, I had woken up to salacious texts in the middle of the night, inappropriately touched under the pretext of rapport. At one point, a police constable attempted to kiss my hand since, in his words, it was an “America style greeting”. On the other hand, as a young woman seeking help, I had suffered hours of what I call uncle-splaining – which, in a way, worked to my advantage as I never had a paucity of long interviews. I leveraged assumptions around my naivety and gullibility to an ethnographic advantage.
I have often played down and joked about the subtle and spectacular ways of my own gendering over how I might be inflicting harm on my interlocutors. My harm doesn’t – shouldn’t – matter, right? Isn’t the whole point of ethnography the thrill of the chase, the allure of that narrow escape? Experiences endured, stories collected, riveting anecdotes to follow. It’s fine: I am nimble footed on a slippery slope but I am reaching for that “rich” ethnographic data.
I say this sarcastically. My feminist politics have taught me to critique the machismo model of ethnography. No to “cowboy” ethnography. A bigger no to putting myself at risk. A big yes to writing through the body. I say this exhaustedly, of course, as I think of all the affective surfeit I have edited out of so many of my writings. From a “near-accident” that filled me with numbness and pure horror to a dry sociological text that few people will ever read.
Should I put myself on the page? Risk yet another form of vulnerability? Worse, would anyone care? Am I being an ungrateful ethnographer?
It was in March 2019 towards the end of my fieldwork stint in Hyderabad that I was left absolutely speechless. Kasi, a head constable in his late 50s, was giving me a lift home on his motorcycle. Kasi had been of immense help through my time in Hyderabad and, so, I thanked him profusely during our last meeting. He then folded his hands in a namaskaaram and said, “I had to help you, madam.” I figured that he meant that his superior officer had asked him to help me but before I could respond, he said, “I feel like it is my honour to help a Brahmin woman. People from my caste are always happy to help Brahmins like you. It is dharma (duty).” As I stood there, a bit astonished at what had hitherto been unsaid, he flashed a wide grin, wished me well and left. I think back to this encounter very often wondering if I should have said something. What could it be? We both knew that caste had structured our lifeworlds and brought us to this moment of reckoning and recognition. Perhaps the look of awkward shock was all I could offer at that moment; perhaps that is all he expected. I never found out what his caste was. But that seems beside the point anyway.
As I grapple with these questions like most feminist ethnographers do, I also think of my position as an upper-caste ethnographer. While formulating my research agenda, I was not sure how to address the difficult issue of caste. As a Brahmin woman in an elite university, I am always already complicit in a colonial and extractive enterprise. Furthermore, I grew up in a “liberal” urban (self-identifying as) “middle class” family where caste manifests in insidious and sly ways, always shaping our lives but never quite talked about. This structural privilege alongside my anxiety that I would “get it all wrong” shaped some of my thinking in the early years of graduate school. I distinctly remember thinking that working on something as (seemingly) ‘benign’ as road safety meant that I could just avoid thinking and writing about caste.
And for a long time I have managed to dodge an explicit reckoning with the question of caste. Yet, the truth remains that the mere fact that I could imagine doing any project based on utilitarian calculations indicates my caste privilege. When I decided to do fieldwork amongst traffic police officials, all I did was call a friend who (very kindly) arranged a meeting with the top cop of the city. And while my father is not some high-ranking civil servant who could have opened up doors for me, the fact remains that I do have friends who are very well-connected. I went to the “right” schools and cultivated the “right” networks. Similarly, I was able to make my way into taxi driver union offices, taxi stands, driving schools…I was able to make my way into spaces as a subject who has never quite considered herself “immobile”. When you are an upper-caste researcher in India, few spaces are out of bounds. That entitled mobility is caste in action. In a way, my entire life soaked in caste and class privilege had enabled my dissertation fieldwork. While my gender seemed to foreclose possibilities, it is also my caste that held doors wide open.
How does a cursory line that acknowledges one’s social position as “an upper-caste/class scholar” even begin to capture the enormity of structural advantage that I have accumulated in my life? How does one account for the startling fact that I “moved up” professionally while my interlocutors suffered material losses – if not lost their lives – during the pandemic?
I often wonder if not keeping in touch with several of my interlocutors makes me a bad ethnographer. It probably does. Mine was not a typical “immersive” or community-based ethnographic project and, so, I felt less inclined to developing long-term attachments to several of my interviewees. Nonetheless, some relationships have revived in the time of Covid (despair, the great uniter), some have frayed organically (everyone is busy in their own lives) and some have been severed abruptly. One abrupt ending keeps me up at night.
He was a police inspector – a man I met in mid-2018, introduced to me by a constable who told me that I must meet the best traffic police officer in the force. I entered the two-storey traffic police station when I heard a loud bellow. The constable who was accompanying me chuckled and said, “sir is doing his usual thing; some poor chap is at the receiving end of his ire”. I walked up the stairs and caught PR (pseudonym) in action – giving a young adult in his early 20s (who had been caught driving without a driver’s license) a sonorous scolding. PR, as I would learn later on, was not fond of pecuniary punishments or other “softer” modes of disciplining. My scepticism about his modes of reform notwithstanding, I began to spend time with him, shadowing his daily activities. PR was amenable to having an ethnographer tail him around now and then. He had done an advanced degree in social sciences and was very interested in the revival of the social sciences. However, he told me angrily, “the leftists and liberals have taken over academic institutions in India and abroad and they have spread lies about the country and the great religion of Hinduism”. He called himself a “fan – no, a devotee!” of Narendra Modi. I decided to keep quiet about my politics.
A few weeks after we met, he sent me a Facebook friend request. I ignored it; I often shared op-eds critical of Modi and his Hindutva nationalist politics. The next time we met, PR asked me why I had not accepted his request. I said that I do not use Facebook anymore. He paused. “I googled you. You have signed many bad petitions. I did not know you are also anti-national”. I remember my hands going cold. I had never revealed my politics, but I felt like perhaps I should have. PR, however, did not seem to care. He took this as an opportunity instead to convert me into a “good Indian”. Every morning then on, I began to be inundated with propagandist material by neofascist Hindu organisations – all of them promising a saffron, Hindu subcontinent while singling out the “evil Muslim” as the singular problem in the country. Anti-nationals like me featured as the second-biggest problem.
I remember thinking about how this is not what I signed up for. I did not set out to study right wing fascism. I did not want to get caught up in thinking about religion and politics. That is not my area of interest or expertise. And yet here I was dealing with a discomfort that was not borne out of gender or caste (although, arguably, the very desire for a Hindu India stems from masculinist and casteist desires of “blood” purity) but the utter fear that floods me when I think about the reach of Hindutva authoritarianism and hateful politics in India.
After many months of pursing my lips and nodding when PR spoke, I finally decided to withdraw from this equation. I gave no explanation. I knew – and so did he – that his politics were “off the record”. That he only used his personal WhatsApp account to forward. As my departure back to Chicago was coming closer, I stopped going to that police station and ignored his WhatsApp forwards. I never sent him my US number. I wonder, sometimes, if I should have offered an explanation. But when I took stock of how much distress interacting with PR was causing me, I had to question my own assumptions around always sympathising with my interlocutors. Further, even if I could sympathise with PR, it did not mean that I would have to continue being in touch. In our last interaction, I thanked him adequately for letting me shadow him. But beyond that, I did not feel I owed him much. Especially with the divisive politics of Narendra Modi deepening in the past few years, the chasm between me and PR was too large for me to want to bridge.
Whether that was a good or ethical decision I do not quite know. All I do realise in retrospect is that the messiness of ethnography requires us to make decisions – sometimes carefully calibrated, sometimes abrupt – that cause discomfort, pain, guilt and linger in our bodies for years to come. And, yet, this story never made it to my dissertation. There is no whiff of my discomfort, of my anguish, or of my guilt. There is no whiff of PR’s politics.
The real story, I tell myself and the world, is about driving, road safety, infrastructure.
All three dimensions to my fieldwork that I bring up here were messy in their own ways. I hope to have brought to fore some of the frictions that often made me wonder how to do fieldwork caught between the overlapping threads of exclusions, inclusions, privileges and perils. In a sense, the “difficulty” of encounters is, perhaps, expected; it is the difficult and near-impossibility of writing about them, discussing them with peers, animating them in our theories of the world that is more surprising. We are here to write, but is anyone listening?
Dr. Sneha Annavarapu is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at Yale-NUS College. An urban ethnographer by training, Sneha’s wide-ranging research interests centre around urbanization, governance, class relations, and gender in contemporary India. Sneha has published articles in academic journals such as Social Problems, Journal of Historical Sociology, and Journal of Consumer Culture and is a regular host on the New Books Network podcast. She tweets at @SnehaAnnavarapu