This post is the second in a tripartite series of lecture summaries from the fieldwork methods class which I co-teach this term at SIT New Delhi.1 Before Azim Khan spoke about interviewing in more practical detail in the second half of our lecture, I framed the practical issues he raised by looking at the difference between research questions and interview questions. This post sums up my key points from this framing exercise; the rest of the series is here:

Description, interpretation, evaluation
Research questions, interview questions
Doing research as a foreigner

Let's first look at today's picture, taken at one of my earlier attempts to interview Maulana Khaled Rashid in Lucknow. All the practicalities are sorted: tea is being served, the Hadith commentaries provide a nice background, cameras and mikes are set up (the latter are not mine, of course - it was the time of the Salman Rushdie controversy, and I had to share my appointment with a dozen journalists). But the central piece is missing: the Maulana, with whom I hoped to have a conversation.

  • 1. More on this class here; this particular lecture (namely its emphasis on the advantage of clear epistemological bases) was inspired by Roulston, K, DeMarrais, K, Lewis, JB. (2003). Learning to interview in the social sciences. Qualitative Inquiry, 9(4), 643–668.

Recently, a friend called me an armchair anthropologist on Facebook, alleging somewhat pre-Malinowskian leanings. It wasn't quite meant as a compliment.1 But she certainly had a point: these days, I am more often out of Lucknow than in town. I keep busy teaching, touring visitors, or attending workshops and conferences. And when I am home for a few days, I can indeed more often be seen on the verandah, in my swingchair, scribbling notes or scrutinizing the latest book on Lucknow2 than going out "in the field". Her mocking comment thus reminded me how easily we scholars - and anthropologists in particular - can be made feeling guilty of neglecting "the field" - both when attending to other academic tasks, and even more so if one is sneaking out into real holidays.

On second thought, I however decided to own up her allegation. I found that I indeed need to balance engagement and disengagement with "the field" to retain my creativity and curiosity. Unless I am able to swing, as it were, between fieldwork overdose and "deep hanging out", I find it hard to produce quality work. In fact, I think one can make the argument that engagement beyond a point in fact prevents rather than eases good ethnographic writing.

  • 1. I admit that I might have hurt her feelings by posting a rather sunny picture - shown to the right - of my beautiful new swingchair back to freezing Europe...
  • 2. Definitely worth a read: Jones, J. (2012). Shi'a Islam in colonial India. Cambridge: Univ. Press.

When I introduced the Rifah-e-Aam Club as my first field discovery in Lucknow back in October, I briefly mentioned its significance for Lucknow Literati circles. It is high time, I feel, to follow-up by looking at two circles in particular - the Progressive Writers Association, which was founded in the Rifah-e-Aam in 1936,1 and the poetic project of the Club's contemporary inhabitant - Sri Cakrapani Pandit. One could add to that list the Jalsah-e-Tehzeeb as the first stage of the Club's relation with literature - but I shall save this for a later post...

Let me first turn to Zaheer's seminal Roshnai,2 in which he reflects upon the convention in which the movement for progressive literature was founded:

We put all our efforts into acquiring the Rifah-e-Aam Hall for our conference. This attractive building had been bequeathed to the nation to serve as a venue for public meetings and conferences, by an eccentric potentate of Lucknow. This progressive-minded gentleman had been dead for several years, and after his departure from the scene, city lawyers and barristers had appropriated the building and set up their club there. The hall now served as a biliard and bridge room and location for a bar (55)

I shall add that the very same bar room is still proudly shown to visitors like me - though nothing than memory reminds one that it had been a bar once. And the billiard table must have been an impressive one, too - all neighbours know of it, and its the first thing mentioned when asking about the Club. On goes Zaheer:

  • 1. Though my colleage and Lucknowi friend Emily Durham-Shapiro would undoubtedly have a lot more to say on this, since she writes her PhD about it...
  • 2. Zaheer, S. (2006). The light. Oxford: Univ. Press.

Khamosh is an Urdu term for silence and taciturnity. Yesterday, Lucknow went to the polls for the ongoing UP state elections - and while the papers today report a record turnout of 53% in my constituency (Lucknow central), that is exactly what the elections felt like around here: they were a silent and tacit affair, both audibly and visibly (as the picture of an otherwise busy intersection demonstrates, taken yesterday). Given the image of UP politics as the core of Indian democracy - vibrant, rowdy, and exorbitant - this is really surprising. What happened? This post tries to give a first, unfiltered response.

On election day itself, the answer is simple: nothing much happened, really. Yes, people went to their polling booth, politicians took a break, police officers enjoyed the sun, children let their kites fly high - and scholars like me were busy being puzzled. More puzzling than the khamosh polling day were, however, the silent weeks ahead. Of course, the media was full of buzz, with all the indecisive factors in this election: will Mayawati stay in office? Most likely not. Will the Samajwadi Party return or fade away forever? Most likely it will return. Is there a Rahul Gandhi factor? Yes. What is it? No idea. Similarly: is there a Anna Hazare factor? Yes. What is it? Nobody knows. And on and on and on...

Last week, I went to New Delhi to attend an ICSSR strategy workshop on improving social science research in India (set up in the wake of this report and shortly before the new budget year starts). After an early morning arrival and the disillusion that the only breakfast option at Connaught Place at such an early hour is McDonalds, I waived down an Auto Rickshaw to proceed straight to the conference hotel - The Ashok, a Government of India enterprise of the surprisingly efficient sort. Somehow, breakfast at McDonalds insulted my Indian sensibilities. But little did I know about the Ashok!

Social science in the Indian province

Social science in the Indian capital

The story began at the outermost gate, where the guards were rather bemused to see a Gora arrive in a humble three-wheeled conveyance. My Auto Rickshaw was not allowed on the driveway, so I got down, paid my 50 Rs, and turned to the guards to ask whether they want to x-ray my suitcase. That the Gora was speaking Hindi turned their bemusement into somewhat more ambivalent bewilderment: surely they wanted to check this fellow rather thoroughly. After five minutes of x-ray, questioning and body search, they were however convinced that I am indeed only an anthropologist.