Are nuances like curry leaves?

The title of this post – and its contents – was inspired by an anecdote I wrote about in an earlier post in my field blog. Before I proceed, I want to recapitulate it.

It was late-August, and towards the end of my fieldwork. Sanjay, Pankaj, Jagdish,* and I were having lunch in the NGO’s field office in Dharavi. After we finished lunch – a combination of coriander chicken curry and rice, made by Pankaj – Sanjay said introspectively, “We field staff, who work on the ground level, we are like curry leaves.” He asked us if we knew what he meant by that. I shook my head, no. Pankaj said that it is perhaps so because the field staff, like curry leaves, “adds flavor” to the NGO’s work. Jagdish offered his interpretation: because we (the front-line staff), like curry leaves, are chewed up and spit out once the taste or flavor is gone.

Sanjay smiled, and nodded: “Yes, that’s what I meant! A combination of the two!”

I wrote in the previous post why I found this metaphor so intriguing. It demonstrates the reflexivity of the front-line workers – how they are positioned hierarchically compared to the ‘offices’ – and is also a reflection on the kind of ideas and epistemologies they bring forth in their everyday intervention work in the basti (communities).

In a few earlier formulations, I termed this (rather naively, in retrospection) as ‘multi-sited epistemology,’ which suggests the following: there is a hierarchical relationship between the two distinct kinds of spaces where a certain kind of knowledge is produced – conference rooms, offices of the NGO; and the ‘field’ or community center – which is thus, logically perhaps, replicated in a hierarchy between the epistemologies and methodologies of organized social work discourse, and the more messy and embodied kind of front-line work. (Of course, this also recognizes that the communities within Dharavi aren’t homogenous and have their own understandings of complex issues, based on complex histories. They, further, have different culture-based ideas of gender and violence, which often makes intervention work difficult).

I drew inspiration from James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta, who wrote about the need to pay attention to how spaces, and the relationship between them, are not merely neutral, but rather hierarchized and reterritorialized. A part of this realization was also reflexive: as I reviewed my field notes, I found out that I was more concerned with ‘formalized’ aspects of front-line work (protocols, methods, patterns, theory, etc.) when I worked in the NGO’s offices during the pilot study. Whereas, when I spent time on the everyday interventions, there were instances where my observations would not fit into the patterns I would discuss with other researchers and administrators.

The distinction between the two modes of thinking became more palpable, for instance, when there would be pressures towards ‘producing results’ and ‘protocols’: monthly reports, PowerPoints, modules, even receipts for tea bought for meetings, which would constrain the work of the community organizers (COs). One refrain I heard quite a lot from them was: “They [administration] say that our work is not showing!” (Well, the pilot study I worked on did show that the front-line worker ‘model’ was effective to the NGO’s administration. But the catch was they needed an outside ‘expert’ to demonstrate that.)

Curry leaves. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This particular aspect of NGO work is as intriguing as it is frustrating: knowledge is often produced as/through assemblages (e.g., different researchers working successively on a single project), and despite collaboration, it is difficult to produce a unitary body of work or theory. Such work is quite often fragmentary; it has to adhere to protocols from funders or governments, or to publishing standards. And then, of course, you have the disjunctures between knowledge produced by the NGO’s researchers/administrators, and the front-line workers.

Where do the nuances of front-line work – like the emotional dimension of interventions; or the creative solutions and improvisations; the short-hands, rule-of-thumb understandings – feature within such a scheme?

Often, it is ‘corridor talk’; but rarely does it reflect in the knowledge produced (I often had insightful conversations on this with my researcher colleagues). Of course, all knowledge is partial; and the role of theory, as Kieran Healy points out in his provocative essay ‘Fuck Nuance,’ is by necessity to exclude the particular and the specific in order to construct an abstraction.

But, as much as I agree with Healy – and here I plead guilty of often conjuring up ‘nuance’ in so many past conversations! – I do want to consider what it would mean to take nuances seriously. In other words, can we avoid a position where nuances, like curry leaves, are just spit out once the flavor is gone?

As opposed to Healy’s context of sociological theory, I think ethnography can be a bit more sympathetic to nuances – indeed, offer a productive way of integrating them into (and generating) concepts and theory. Especially so, I would say, in the context of epistemic violence and epistemic colonization that is discussed by feminist anthropologists and decolonial thinkers. As Aihwa Ong, Chandra Mohanty and Marilyn Strathern have variously written with respect to Western Feminism’s problematic relation to non-western women, terms like ‘gender,’ ‘women,’ ‘reproduction’ and even ‘feminism,’ cannot serve as mere abstractions; they exist in a political field, often exerting power and violence. (This is especially so when partial knowledge becomes the basis of policy. For instance, during both fieldwork stints, the NGO was also working on a mobile-based application, which the sanginis used. This project suffered from several setbacks. In my brief observations, there was a primacy towards certain guidelines and frameworks of intervention, rather than figuring out how the technology would be adapted in the local context, the meanings given to it, and so on.)

The call to nuance in these cases – and with my own work with the front-line workers in Dharavi – does not fall into Healy’s (very relevant) concerns regarding its misuse. Nuances can and do add “flavor” to different contexts; but without these contexts, nuances are utterly meaningless. I am convinced that there are multiple possibilities for generating modes of intervention and advocacy, where nuances and observations are translated into idioms and logics – like Bhavanaben’s session on Women’s Unpaid Work, which I discussed in a previous post – and perhaps even into a theory.

Indeed even within such hierarchically spatialized epistemologies – which is how I have rephrased ‘multi-sited epistemology’ – there are ways in which ethnography can meaningfully hold on to nuances, whilst generalizing and abstracting. Victoria Bernal and Inderpal Grewal’s term ‘the NGO form’ in Theorizing NGOs, is one such generalization/abstraction that I find very relevant in my work (as is, for that matter, the term ‘front-line’ itself).

A caveat, before I conclude: in drawing the distinction between NGOized and front-line epistemologies, I do not of course mean to take either as homogenous or without contradictions; nor do I wish to romanticize the latter. These refer to particular modes of thinking about particular problems (gender, violence, and so on); by necessity, they do exclude other nuances and narratives. They are also co-constitutive to a very large extent, since it would be inconceivable to think that front-line workers would produce grounded and contextual understandings of violence without being in the NGO.

In asking whether nuances are like curry leaves, the assumption of course is that these nuances – whatever they may be – matter; that they “add” something to discourse and to theory, but are chewed up and spit out.

* I have changed the names of my colleagues

Proshant is currently pursuing his MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology at KU Leuven, Belgium. He previously worked as a researcher in Mumbai, India, on issues like public health, AIDS advocacy, migration, and gender-based violence.

2 thoughts on “Are nuances like curry leaves?

  1. Seems to me that those of us who are like curry leaves, spat out when the flavour is gone, are those who are unable to create some kind of capital: cultural, social or economic, out of our labour.

  2. Hey Andrew, thanks for pointing out the idea of capital here. Perhaps the reason I didn’t think of it in the first place is because of the assumption that these front-line workers do indeed create some form of capital (as well as epistemology) – but that it’s often not translatable into ‘NGO talk’ and ‘deliverables.’

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