I have a stack of clothes which I refer to, mostly in my head, as my Ahmedabad clothes: pairs of long cotton tunics with short or three-quarter length sleeves that fall below the knees, and matching stretchy leggings or loose cotton trousers with a drawstring whose fabric collects in creases at the ankles. The “stack”, it turns out, is much smaller than I imagined: one orange and blue printed kurta in a divine “two-by-two” cotton fabric with a matching pair of leggings, a short sleeve red kurta with a black border and what can only be described as a typically Indian ethnic print, and a bright yellow with horizontal blue zigzags that had to be altered into a tunic because I ripped it getting out a rickshaw in Ahmedabad in 2014. For most of the year, this small stack of clothes remains tucked away in a suitcase or duffel bag. There is no room for them in my unwieldy wardrobe designed for extended New England (and now midwestern? winters). I usually pull them out annually, as I prepare for my annual trips to India–specifically, usually, Ahmedabad. Or what I call it cheekily in my head: “the season of migration to the [Global] South.”
Dada, my grandfather, used to call Chicago “she-kahan-go?”. In other words, “where does she go?” when translated from my preferred pidgin, Gujhinglish.* His reiteration perfectly encapsulates his, and even my entire paternal family’s, particular sense of humor–grounded in a particular fascination with the entertaining, and often uncanny, product of combining one’s native language with that of colonial ruler/migratory destination. It also subtly indexes a cartography–the place Chicago holds in the diasporic imagination as one of the major locations of South Asian American settlement after the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act. It has also come to bear personal significance, as the question “where does she go [now]?” speaks to my professionally driven, and often confusing, vagabond existence that has taken me from Charlotte to the Hudson Valley to Ahmedabad to Providence, and finally now to Chicago.
Perhaps a another writing challenge: every post must include at least one sentence from the one that precedes it. During a writing workshop this summer, I realized that the words of others weigh heavily on me. In the original, and lengthy Casual Ethnography introduction I wrote last year, I included the following excerpt from Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (there is an element of redundancy here, but I’m hoping no one got that far in the last post). There is a moment when the protagonist, a corporate anthropologist tasked with compiling the Great Report of contemporary human life/culture, contenplates the question of fieldsite–that is, where anthropologists conduct their research. He says,
For example: I considered at great length the question of field. In classical anthropology, there’s a rigid distinction between ‘field’ and ‘home.’ Field’s where you go to do your research, immersing yourself, sometimes at great personal risk, in a maelstrom of raw, unsorted happening. Home’s where you go to sort and tame it: catalogue it, analyze it, transform it into something meaningful. But when the object of your study is completely interwoven with your own life and its rhythms, this distinction vanishes: Where (I asked, repeatedly) does home end and field begin? Or–and this problem follows from the last–I reflected on the anthropologist’s relation to the figures known as his ‘informants.’ If these people’s background and culture is no different from your own, and if these people are your friends–albeit ones who might (or then again might not) know of your sidebar ethnographic carryings-on–then how should you interrogate them?”
For me, it has always been impossible to disentangle “the field” and “home” from one another. I spent five years on a research project in my family’s natal city, Ahmedabad, where I was implicated in contemporary class, caste, gender, and religious politics as I attempted to set a research agenda. My decision to turn away from that project was rooted in my inability to extricate myself from my own familial politics.
Now, I head to Chicago, where I intend to study the political imaginaries of South Asian Americans. That is, to study how the diasporic group of which I consider myself a member imagines itself as political participants in the United States. Certainly, this is a question derived from home itself. From the questions raised when, in 2012, a local Indian doctor in Charlotte, North Carolina held a fundraiser for a Democratic congressional candidate running in North Carolina’s ninth district, complete with a full Gujarati meal.
As I’ve reiterated this project across my South Asian familial and social networks over the last three years, I’ve been struck by the number of times I’ve been met with the response, “this is more relevant than your last project.” At any point in time, there are so many moments to doubt my intelligence, to wonder if my intuition is misguided, if I am asking these questions for the right reasons. How is it that the stakes for knowledge production can be so high and so low? But ultimately, research agendas have never been set without personal motive.
So, at a family dinner earlier this month on the day after I arrived in Charlotte from Providence:
Question: What is your research framework?
Answer: My research framework is that people I know see themselves in this question.
At the same dinner, my grandmother became very excited to talk to me about my project. She had been living in Charlotte, North Carolina for the full two-and-a-half decades since she moved to the US, but told me that night that when people ask her about her pier (Gujarati for natal home, loosely) translated, she responds, “Chicago,” because that is where her sisters and childhood best friend settled when they immigrated to the US. She then proceeded to explain vast Gujarati social and kinship networks in the area, as well as the political cartography of Devon Street, Chicago’s South Asian ethnic enclave: half of the street is named after Mahatma Gandhi, while the other half after Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Chicago, then, is also a kind of “home” that looms large in the diasporic imagination.
*Okay fine, I made up Gujhinglish after living in Bombay for three months, but it’s my favorite language–allowing for maximum expression of emotion, intellectual thought, and everyday communication.
A prompt I gave myself: what would it look like to write the same thing in two different ways:
Actually, I wrote each of these two entries more than one year apart from each other. I did not revisit the older entry (written in my subleased apartment last July) before writing the most recent one (in my childhood bed at my parents house last night). They are surprisingly consistent to one another: my anxieties about writing, about expertise, about vulnerability remain the same. I am sure I wrote another version of this same piece the year before that, as well. I will be starting my dissertation fieldwork next month. I no longer have, and have never had, valid excuses for not having a consistent writing practice. I have to surmount my anxiety about sharing, my inclination to share and then immediately expunge my observations. Anthropology, for me, has always been deeply tied up in the personal. I am an academician, but it would be both impossible and dishonest to divorce my social science from my emotional landscape.
***Casual Ethnography, then, is a space I have created for myself to experiment with writing–an attempt to intweave the ethnographic with the self by putting question of genre momentarily aside.
Sometimes, I feel that I have no idea what I am doing when I am writing. I have no control over how the words fall next to one another on the page. When I think about writing, I realize, I have no idea how to be a writer. Please, tell me what you think.