‘Fielding’ Challenges: Reflections from fieldwork in Gujarat

‘The field is a travel through varying intensities’. At the Law and Policy Hub Clinic Exhibition last year, I jotted down this line in my diary, my face reddening with an excitement I usually experience after having read a line or two of beautiful poetry. Indeed, Professor Atreyee’s description of what a field really means was nothing short of poetry and I wrote all of it down like an eager connoisseur. When we travel on a flight, we are insulated from the conditions outside but that rarely prevents us from inhabiting different time periods and experiencing changing versions of the Sky through the window. On the field too, the researcher moves through such alternating temporalities, no matter how much one tries insulating oneself.[1] This idea remained etched in the pages of my diary, only to ‘flash upon my inward eye’[2] a year later, as our bus lunged past the frenzied crowds at the Bhuj market making its way to Kutch which was to be the first site of our study. The beginning of our experience of the ‘field’.

In retrospect, fieldwork in Gujarat from Kutch through Anand to Gandhinagar was indeed a travel through varying intensities of geographical environs, cultures and our own emotional energies. While transitions from the parched Kutchi lands to the cement soaked sarkari buildings in Gandhinagar–from scarcity to abundance, from ‘rural-ness’ to ‘urban-ness’, from one dialect of spoken Gujarati to another; were clearly visible and are still remembered like a series of sceneries gliding past, from the window of a moving vehicle. What, until now, got little attention were the varying intensities of our own emotions vis-a-vis changing locales and time periods. In particular, emotions intensified in situations where we had to take certain tough decisions. Different situations arose–at different places at different points of time–each one demanding us to respond in different ways, both individually and as a group.

In hindsight, it is circumstances such as these that make fieldwork both adventurous and memorable: and in some cases, serve the purpose of building team rapport and help create bonds that go beyond just being team members. It adds to the joy of reminiscing about days bygone. ‘Ah! Remember that day when that happened…and we did this. Lord! what a tough day that was!’ These will add to the repository of memories that will make us laugh and connect with each other even years from now. In this way, challenging circumstances faced during fieldwork, have implications even beyond the realm of academics, as they add to individual and shared experiences. Thus they may either strengthen or in other cases, even weaken existing team bonds but they undoubtedly create space for anxiety involving tough deliberations, at the time that such situations unfold.

Outlined below is an account of such challenging circumstances, which according to me, led us to take certain hard decisions during our fieldwork in Gujarat.

It was on our very first day at Bedwa, Anand that we interviewed members of a Darbar household. There were around fifteen people swarming the two rickety houses, all of whom seemed to be busy going about their daily chores. In the midst of this, there was one woman around our age draped in a torn saree, breast-feeding her infant child; who took notice of our presence and beckoned us to come in. As we began explaining to her our project, we managed to gather the attention of the rest but no one except who seemed to be the lady’s husband bothered to give us an ear. Although we spoke in Gujarati, the young woman was finding it hard to understand. But she was wanting to know more and was willing to understand and even seemed willing to talk. So we continued, trying to simplify what we had to say, but in vain. This went on for the next five minutes or so when all of a sudden her husband lost his cool and told us to leave saying that she was after all an illiterate woman who would never understand anything. And so our “interview” ended in five minutes but before we headed to the next household, we were puzzled by whether we should even count this as an interview–as something that would formally add to our study; or would it just count as a failed attempt to elicit a response, or at the least would it just end up as an anecdote that we carried from the field to our classrooms? This had been the question before us. After all, we had gained nothing directly from the woman on what she felt about the ‘State’ or what her idea of it was. But on second thoughts, the whole situation, as it unfolded, had driven us to think about the agency of women in rural areas, their right to speak up in their own homes and how even such a non-response could contribute to building an idea of the State. We discussed whether we were over-theorizing events, that is, interpreting or seeing every small incident through the lens of some concept or the other we learned in class? Whether it was right or not right to do so? Finally, it was agreed upon that though this was not an interview in the conventional sense of the term, though it was not successful in eliciting any direct response, the series of actions that led to this had helped us learn through observations and therefore we could draw inferences from the same.

We were faced with another situation the next day when we visited the house of a Luhar couple. They were the only Luhars in Bedwa and were the most marginalized, living in what seemed like a ‘house’ created out of two decaying walls. They were living in abject poverty and it felt awkward talking to them since every question was answered by the lady, crying with folded hands, pointing at the condition of her ‘house’. It was clear to us that to them the State was both the cause of their deplorable conditions and also the only entity that could lift them out of it. We had been noticing a pattern: the more marginalized communities we interviewed, the more distanced they would think they are from the State and yet the more hope they would have from the State. After the interview we felt a little uncomfortable since one of the risks of interviewing the most marginalized communities was that they would have expectations from us as well. This was not a problem per se but it led us to question a lot of things. How ethical is it for us to be ‘studying’ the poverty of another (even if it is for a ‘long-term’ benefit)? How do we as researchers make the interviewees feel comfortable, without making them feel as though they are mere subjects of a study? What should be our way of approaching those at the margins, those barely making ends meet, to ask them about what they think or feel about the State? Whether it is right for us to expect the socially¬† and economically marginalized to even have the time and energy to consider thinking about the State? Even with an influx of such doubts, we decided to interview the Luhars and decided to speak to them as honestly as we could.¬†¬† At that point, it felt right to understand their views as well, just like we interviewed people from other well off castes too without treating them any differently.

One of the toughest decisions for us to make was deciding how many interviews to conduct for our study that is when do we know when to stop? And how do we know that? Should we target quantity in terms of more number of interviews, or, should we focus on quality that is take a few in-depth interviews? More importantly, being on the field can be mentally and physically exhausting especially when one has to travel 100 kilometres back and forth daily. While we were enjoying this travel, it was also important to come up with a way to not let this exhaustion affect our interviews. Asking similar questions, following a similar flow, with ten-fifteen people per day can be monotonous and tiring. Therefore, when we felt satisfied with the responses we were getting and felt we could use them to build an argument, we decided to stop and move on to the next village. I remember telephoning our field supervisor, Siddharth Sir, from Jatawada (Kutch) one day and getting some good advice: “You should be confident enough to be able to justify what you are doing. Judge accordingly. There will always be regret about having missed out on a few interviews, but if you feel you should move on, do so.”

Through pieces of advice such as this and our own learning by trial-and-error, fieldwork in Gujarat has definitely equipped us with ways of facing and ‘fielding’ challenges in the future as well.

[1] Professor Atreyee Majumder at the panel discussion held during the Law and Policy Hub Clinic Exhibitions, 2016-17.

[2] From the poem Daffodils by William Wordsworth.