(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Sita Vekateswar as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Sita is a Social Anthropologist at Massey University, Aotearoa/New Zealand. She is Associate Director of the Massey chapter of the recently established New Zealand India Research Institute (NZIRI). Her ethnography Development and Ethnocide: Colonial Practices in the Andaman Islands (2004) is based on her Ph.D. fieldwork in the Andaman Islands and her co-edited book, The Politics of Indigeneity: Dialogues and Reflections on Indigenous Activism (2011) is published by Zed Books. Her current research on the implications of climate change for food production takes a political ecology approach to follow the fortunes of millet cultivation in India.)
I write to become.
Through writing, I accumulate more being since I am more than I was when I materialise the ephemeral.
I wear the traces of various Englishes, strung like so many iridescent pearls within the necklace of language adorning me. The lilting singsong of Anglo-Indian first granted me tongue, irrepressible, undaunted by the pristine elegance of Queen’s English. As I collided with the unabashed assertiveness of American idiom, I learned the discipline of anthropology. I discovered my place in the world from the antipodes, in encounter with the laconic, self-deprecating humour of New Zealand vernacular. A clamour of tongues finds expression through me to constitute the anthropologist I have become.
Writing requires an act of will or a leap of faith that I will find what I need to reach where I want to be, yet no direct route exists from thinking to writing – a spiralling path often littered with impediments. Immersed within the spinning cobwebs of my own thought, I am tempted to linger unless an externally imposed imperative channels the steady stream of words to a medium read by others. The yawning pit of terror triggered by such a prospect requires considerable effort to evade no matter how habituated I am to its presence. Despite the testimony of many accomplishments, the act of writing exposes an unvoiced vulnerability that I, like others, prefer to mask. To be judged and found wanting: to not find the right words, render intelligible or offer something original, considered valuable by academe.
My entry into the world of words is primarily as a reader. I remain enraptured by others’ writings, the magic and precision of words a lure to escape the exigencies of the present. Yet, anthropology compels confrontation with those very same exigencies! A necessary discipline to craft a self and sensibility only manifest through writing, anthropology engenders a mode of being inseparable from writing. Always already in process, entwined, anthropology as/in writing feed each other, yet are at a standoff when the immediacy of extended fieldwork drives writing underground. Until, like a dam breaching its walls, the accumulated weight of words become an urgent torrent – unstoppable – as insights reached through fieldwork compel communication whether catalysed by ‘intelligent rage’ or commitment to research participants and field site.
Conversely, what modes of writing emerge untethered from the intensities provoked by fieldwork? What felicity conditions enable instauration of anthropology as writing, without the boost of fieldwork to unleash its potential? I pose these queries to address my own current predicament in which a combination of factors curbs my ability to transport myself ‘elsewhere’ at will. When Tim Ingold distinguishes between ethnography and anthropology, he suggests crossing a threshold not necessarily reached via fieldwork. By shifting focus to encompass the spectrum of human and (more recently), non-human condition, we enter a calmer more measured space concurrent with anthropological labour. Instead of fieldwork, I engage in ‘memorywork’ nourished by imagination to the shifting sands of times past and lives lived. Such writing up occurs in the absence of documentary artifacts and hence, is fabricated entirely from ‘headnotes’ to be summoned as I do in the segment below:
“Tangled skeins of narrative possibilities plunge me into Ammam’s stories during long, hot afternoons in Calcutta spent lying beside her in the shaded cool of her bedroom. The whirring ceiling fan picks up the occasional gust of warm breeze from the shuttered windows to settle on my increasingly heavy eyelids. I listen to her reveries of a distant village in Kerala, her reminiscent voice casting a dream-like spell, sowing the seeds that have remained buried for decades to finally find fertile ground and germinate at this conjuncture in the antipodes. I recall two stories in particular, both sending a sharp thrill through me at the time, reverberating through the marrows of memories haunting me ever since.
The first is an incident from the pioneering journeys of my great-grandfather through the dense jungles of Palaghat during the last quarter of the 19th century. A player in the futures market of that conjuncture, my great-grandfather’s mission entailed identifying and marking jungle tracts rich in spices for auction. It was a dangerous venture through a wilderness teeming with predators. On one of these trips, his path through the jungle intersected with that of a leopard, indolently stretched across a rocky outcrop of the Western Ghats. His eyes locked with the amber, unblinking gaze of the magnificent feline, camouflaged by the dappled shadows cast by the sylvan surroundings. My great-grandfather stood stock still, then bowing his head and drawing his palms together, he intoned: “Revered elder, if it pleases you, grant me permission to cross your path.” The leopard’s amber gaze burnished his face, then, in a fluid movement, the animal stretched, yawned and disappeared into the surrounding jungle. My great-grandfather went on to make a fortune trading in spices, but never forgot to give homage to the leopard that permitted him to grow old to tell his tale.
The second story emerges from the context of Ammam’s household responsibilities as a daughter, and the daily round of chores allocated to her. At the centre of the courtyard, the household well provided for the family’s day-to-day water needs. Ammam’s morning routine began with replenishing the water for the family kitchen. At daybreak, as she drew water from the well, she thought she heard a hissing sound. Ammam’s mother also noted the same susurration as she drew water for her morning ablutions. As the murmurs of apprehension among the women in the household grew louder to reach the ears of my great-grandfather, he took it upon himself to investigate the matter. Peering carefully into the crevices of the large well, he spotted a King Cobra hidden in the mossy gloom of the walls. Drawing his hands together and bowing his head low, he addressed the cobra. He said, “Revered elder, I live in this household with many children. Why have you come here to live among us? This is not a suitable home for you.” He filled a cup of milk and left it by the well then ordered everyone indoors. The cobra uncoiled itself to slither sinuously away from the well, never to be seen again; the well was emptied then left to replenish itself from the aquifer that fed it.
I tap into the ‘black milk’ of memories and return to the scene of encounters with predators in Malabar. Whether in the “wild” spaces of the jungle, or the “domestic” space of his house, my great-grandfather’s mode of address to the two creatures is striking. In those contact zones, he displays an unwavering assumption regarding the possibilities for communication. Ammam’s narratives confront the predators’ ability to take human life head-on. Yet, the mutuality of humans and animals, their entitlement to survive, thrive and co-habit the spaces where both humans and animals range is never in any doubt.”
I have fashioned a narrative to conjure alter worlds that were precursors to my own and foreground my trail of connections to contemporary anthropological discourses.
I write to enter a world where I stand tall among others of my ilk, and know I keep good company.