Ethnography-collecting data and memories in the field

They say you don’t choose your memories, but life itself provides you with certain unforgettable events. A series of events unforgettable happened to me while doing fieldwork for my Masters dissertation in Anthropology. Apart from merely observing people around (ethnography in anthropological terms), I also undertook unstructured ethnographic interviews as part of my research methodology. I conversed with tourists-both Indian and foreign at two historical sites in Delhi.

I happen to have an acute interest in other cultures (the very reason I studied Anthropology) and that made me more enthusiastic in talking to foreigners.

of cats and commodities

On my first day I was reluctant, often shivering, practising what to say, full of anxiety and fear of getting dejected. The first thing I had in mind was that people might just swear at me or give me a straight look saying “See I came here to enjoy, not give you data” (I did get those too). So, I took it a bit lightly. I thought I would collect my data in a way that would be more like sharing their experience of the place.

Little did I know, I would fell in love with the whole research process. It had to be the rite de passage of my life.

For getting into the action, I started by talking to those who came alone and were found sitting near the site, in profound thoughts or perhaps loneliness. I came across Maria from Poland. She was a teacher, unmarried and a travel freak. For rapport building, I started asking about her life and she shared with me her love for cats and how she rescued many of them. She said she doesn’t own lavish furnish because she spends all her money travelling. She didn’t have much knowledge about art or history, she just came there as a student of life. She wanted to see the world, no matter she understood it or not.When I accidentally bumped into her, at my next site of fieldwork, she almost thought I was following her. Nevertheless, she shared with me much more than merely data.

hola! google translator

An acute anthropological problem, of language during fieldwork, brought another interesting encounter. Having learned Spanish and forgotten 4 years back, the language came back to me in the form of Daniel. A photographer in Chile, the man had a taste for art. When I had exhausted the residue of the language (Hola!, sí, No se!, bonito, mucho gusto, entiendo) in my head, I was at a loss of words. It was then that Daniel smiled and opened his translator app and the conversation kicked off. Not only was I able to interview him but I came to know the places he had visited and how he became teary eyed when he saw his dream come true in visiting Taj Mahal. He called me lucky having been born in a “a magical place”. Though our conversation lasted half an hour, bidding him goodbye felt like leaving a friend.  

‘the true’ heirs of the place

After meeting a photographer, I got acquainted with a filmmaker too. While trying to get an Indian tourist to interview, I found 2 people who I assumed to be Indians. But to my surprise, their as-salamu alaykum (in seemingly Persian accent) told me they are not. Ahmed F and M Uzbek, a writer/filmmaker and journalist duo, from Uzbekistan, were so passionate about history that they almost made me visit their native land. When they spoke Hindi with the influence of their native tongue, it actually felt like poetry. Their words, their phrases, sounded melodious. They gave me an Uzbekistani soʻm (currency) and their visiting card as a token of remembrance.

when i cried with a stranger

Not only did I have some lively experiences, I had encountered sorrow too. Nazim, was a PhD student from Kashmir shared with me the woes of his land. While he appeared all gay and enjoying the scene, he had a terrible tale of his hometown. He told me about what goes back in his home town and how they suffer a lot at the hands of influential people. Sitting with him, on the verge of tears, I gathered the empathy of my anthropological persona and helped him put himself together.

conversations till sunset

Of all the experiences I had, one amongst them stood out. With Patrick, from England I had a different kind of experience. He was a middle aged, cab driver who had the heart of a writer. He marvelled at the place, the people, the air. He meditated upon his life, in the presence of so many and made me meditate on my life too.

At first, he was sceptical and thought I had come to mince money from him (might have been his experience). After convincing him otherwise, I started having a conversation with him. The so called interview went on and converted into a discussion on life. We began talking when the sun was at its peak and stopped only when we saw the sun set right before our eyes. The time did fly and the experience was cathartic indeed.

I had but gathered enough data, but my heart still wanted to go back and talk to many more who are willing to lend a voice to a stranger.

It is then that the realization dawned upon me.

The world and its people are full of love. They may wear different clothes, have different color, height or hair but deep within all they want is to be heard. And I was blessed to be a part of such a discipline that seeks to observe the ‘other’ not in a lens to CRITICIZE but to understand how beautiful and unique the cultures of the world are. And so are people and their stories.

Are you a student of anthropology or an anthropologist already and did my experience ring a bell? I would love to know your comments.

This article was originally published on Linkedin

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