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  • Ila Ananya & Seetha Tan

Letters from the Field

Note from the Editor: This piece shares the correspondence between two PhD students currently undertaking fieldwork in London, UK, and Bangalore, India. The “field” is both exciting and lonely, and these letter-notes foreground friendship – theirs, with each other, and their relationships with their interlocutors – to navigate the anxieties and joys of building bridges in the field.



30/01/24 - 10:20 AM

 

Hi Ila,  

 

Last Saturday was my first “proper” day of fieldwork of the new year. It’s strange how we differentiate between “proper” fieldwork and the type of fieldwork that feels less productive. I have accidentally found myself calling the latter “lazy” fieldwork, and it usually involves me wandering around the streets of Southall or East Ham looking for a dosa. Every time I visit Hampton Court Palace and observe the team, it’s different. There is something about the unpredictability of the encounters that are both thrilling and anxiety inducing. I often find that some of the richest connections occur on the train ride back to London Waterloo when I awkwardly squeeze myself into a four-seater opposite a family or a couple. More often than not, as the train moves at a snail’s pace through the West London suburbs, we spend the half-an-hour journey talking, reflecting, and connecting. 

 

On Saturday, I spent the train ride back to London Waterloo with three women, talking about food. I told them about the curry plants that grow abundantly in my Mum’s front garden in Sydney, while the daughter shared that she has given up on her curry plant which had always failed to thrive in London. The two older ladies shared their recipes for making yoghurt. I told my Mum on the phone yesterday that spending so much time with so many Punjabi nanis has made me miss my Patti. It has made me miss her stories and crave her cooking. Sometimes, I feel a niggling sense of envy, somewhere deep and ugly, when I am interviewing people whose grandparents have shared their stories so generously. I think about all the fissures in my own family and how estrangement is its own narrative thread. Isn’t it bizarre that sometimes it’s easier to connect with strangers on a train, than talk to your own family? 

 

Anyway, just some thoughts.  

Sending you love, always.  

Seetha  



A view of the Standing with Giants installation (2021) at Hampton Court Palace. The silhouette prominent in the foreground and visible intermittently in the background was designed to represent the Indian Army contribution to WWI and WWII. Photo credit: the authors.


30/01/24 - 16:35 PM


Hi Ila,  

 

Another quick note. I am finding it quite nice to write to you. It almost feels like we’re sitting together in the freezing cold hull of the Haddon. Almost. I have a horrible pain in my left arm (where they inserted the new line), it throbs every time I reach for something in the bookshelf behind my desk or stretch my arms above my head. I am fighting off the sticky thought that there’s another blood clot, growing somewhere in my veins, threatening to become mobile and move to my heart, or my lungs, or god forbid, my brain. Can blood clots move to your brain? I know, on many levels, that this is a ridiculous thought because I am on blood thinners now and the veins in my left arm are less scarred and therefore don’t meet the risk trifecta, as the nurse put it so calmly on Wednesday. But the fact that there is one sitting in my right arm beneath the two picc line scars that resemble a snake bite, makes me a little uneasy. I had an interview today in Brighton (online, thank god) and I moved my arm in the wrong way and felt the pang in my left arm again. For a few horrible minutes, I couldn’t really concentrate on the very interesting things my interlocutors were saying about cassava, and yam and palm wine made from the sap of a coconut tree. I was imagining my little blood clot shifting its position and travelling up some scarred, skinny vein. Anyway, just another thought I wanted to share. It must be late in Bangalore, hope you’re having a nice, dreamless, fieldworkless sleep.  

 

Love,  

Seetha  

 


31/01/24 - 09:15 AM 

 

Hello my lovely, 

 

How nice it is to wake up to your letter-notes. Your work at Hampton Court is exciting. I like that it has so many levels—that you are at once researcher, attendee, and organiser, depending on who you speak to. Nevertheless, do you still feel like a researcher in all these different interactions? I’m asking because some of my conversations with students have started to feel routine. Many times, we chatter about dosa or they gossip about a teacher, and when I sit down to write my field notes, I don’t know what to put down. I can’t help wondering what the story is here, and if I should be doing more to elicit the story, even as I know that it’s probably not one story. 

 

Like you, I’ve also been thinking about our access, or lack thereof, to family stories. Have your interlocutors often sought out such stories? What is your sense of how they actually do this—is it only by asking their families questions? Do they have any anxieties around this? And perhaps more importantly, what does this knowledge give them? I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the context of some of my young interlocutors—several of them have little interest in pursuing such stories, because, as one young Naga woman told me, “See na, if I ask, I’ll keep looking back.” It made me wonder if there can be some power in this half-knowledge, in not looking back. Having said this, I also understand your envy. Coming from a family where we each often cloak ourselves in silence, I’m also desperate for stories. I think they’ll teach me how to live in this world differently and make me feel less lonely.

 

I know you are thinking of your clot, and of it travelling. I was thinking, as I read your letter-note, how visceral your description was. And so, I’m also imagining the clot dissolving, a little like what happens when you drop an effervescent Vitamin C tablet in a glass of water—how it bubbles and fizzes and disappears. Maybe we can hold our images together? I hope I don’t sound dismissive; tell me if I’m being thoughtless. And for the pain, I have nothing but endless love.

 

I wish we were sitting across from each other at the Haddon. I wonder if we’ll find a different spot when we start writing up whatever this will be. That time feels so close and so far away. 

 

Love always, 

Ila

 


31/01/2024 - 12:10 PM 

 

Hi Seetha, 


I meant to go to a college for fieldwork today, but I woke up feeling so tired, and decided to spend the day catching up on my field notes. They seem to be getting longer and longer, and I am struggling to stay up to date. 


What do your field notes look like on “lazy” fieldwork days? I think what I also want to ask is, what do your field notes look like when you’re writing about a place? I’ve been thinking about how writing about a bustling place often becomes a list—in Ejipura, people sell plants, gold, and bamboo shoots, and I can smell fried noodles, marigolds, and cow dung. There is, of course, value in this description, and it can also be quite beautiful writing. But I’m also wondering what else (what more) writing about a place can be. I think the problem is that in my neighbourhood, there’s no place where I can sit and look out and observe; I have to keep walking. I’m also tired of being stared at. And so, the writing is starting to feel thin. Tonight, I’m going to start reading this book called Maxwell Street: Writing and Thinking Place by Tim Cresswell. Maybe it will give me some ideas; you might like it too.

 

Okay, let me go and write my field notes. Then, I’ll walk around my neighbourhood in the evening; I really want to like this place. Maybe I’ll eat some momos. At night, I want to paint some bits of fieldwork—in the sketchbook you gifted me before we left for the field! I think of you every time I open it.


Love always, 

Ila

 


31/01/2024 - 12:48 PM

 

Dearest Ila,  

 

It’s funny how in researching identity, you can accidentally give yourself an identity crisis. I am constantly struggling with how to position myself in the field. “Where are you from?” Some lovely participant will ask this, and I will regurgitate my pre-prepared script, “I am Indian, Malaysian-Chinese, but I was born in Australia.” I feel an urge to cover all bases. I am never quite sure which bit has sparked their curiosity: the face, the name, the accent. But on the topic of my identity as a researcher, I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I was invited to a dinner with the team to celebrate the end of the year and the main organiser made a joke about how the Elizabeth Line had finally connected East and West Punjab (i.e., Ilford and Southall, affectionately known by some Londoners as Little Lahore and Little Punjab.) I felt a bit guilty about wanting to make a note of this. It almost seemed opportunistic to transform an encounter between colleagues, or even friends, into a field note. How are you navigating this thin line between friendship and research?  

  

I thought about what you said about silence and story on my walk this morning through the copses. In families where there is silence, I sense among them a reluctance to dig too deeply… In terms of what this knowledge, or access to these stories, gives to people, I am struggling with this question too. I think I might have mentioned this over the phone, but I had an interview with a Punjabi-British woman who had lost her grandmother recently. Her grandmother had never been forthcoming about her experiences growing up in Kenya but with the onset of dementia, all she could remember were the stories of her childhood. Perhaps here, stories function like a bridge?  

  

My “lazy” day fieldnotes aren’t very useful. I think you’re right; they often fall into the trap of description. Have you read Nadia Seremetakis’ article “The Memory of the Senses” (1993), I think I may have mentioned it. She writes so beautifully about the senses; I am trying to write more like her—to soak in the sensory notes and flavours of a place. But this often falls short. I find it difficult to move from the sensory and descriptive to the analytical, is this your problem too? 


How were the momos? I love momos and I’m sure the ones in your neighbourhood are delicious. Please send me a photo of your paintings—I am so glad you’re using your sketchbook, I would love to see Bangalore through your eyes.

  

As I write, with my small Vitamin-C shaped blood clot somewhere in my arm, I am holding your description over mine and willing it to dissolve. Thank you for always knowing exactly what to say.  

  

Sending hugs,  

Seetha  

 


01/02/2024 - 16:07 PM

 

Dear Seetha, 

 

Today, I went to a “Northeast Food Fest” in the only college in Bangalore that has an association for students from different parts of the northeast (and Tibet and Ladakh). Before I tell you about it, let me tell you what I ate: smoked pork and yamter (a spicy chicken pickle) from Arunachal Pradesh; pork sausages and singju (a spicy snack/side dish with cabbage, perilla seeds, fermented fish, and oftentimes, wai wai noodles) from Manipur; sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf and pork from Tripura; sanpiau (rice porridge) from Mizoram; thaipho (large steamed buns with meat) from Darjeeling and Sikkim. I ate for two-and-a-half hours. Every half-an-hour or so, when the sun got too much, I would go and sit on the bleachers nearby and watch people eat. Why is there something so satisfying about watching people eat? 

 

I was a little less awkward today than I usually am whenever I arrive at a “big” fieldwork event. I now try to first sit in the corner, or stand outside, for a few minutes—to calm my nerves, mostly. It’s still hard for me to gauge why I am so anxious, but taking in a place, locating things, and orienting myself physically to everything around me, helps me be less self-conscious. Today, I found myself watching – on a larger scale – the clash of worlds that my interlocutors otherwise describe to me, and that I otherwise notice in individual interactions. I saw two boys from Tripura invite two Kannadiga boys to their stall: “Come, no, it’s my place special,” they said. The Kannadiga boys went, but they did not try their food. Later, there were two other local boys near me while I was buying some pork. One of them was curiously watching the young woman stirring the pork, while the other whispered, “nothing looks good.” I found myself thinking about something an academic from Nagaland had told me during an interview: “One hates the smell of akhuni (fermented soybean, and she meant ‘mainland’ Indians), and the other hates the smell of coconut oil (she meant people from the northeast).” This is so small, but also so big, isn’t it? I don’t know what I’m getting at. All this thinking about differences has started to make me nervous. They seem to multiply so much that I no longer know what “belonging” – the very thing I was interested in understanding when I first came to the field – is either. Lately, I’m feeling the threads of my proposal unravel. Earlier in January, this felt exciting. Today, I’m just lost.



Photo credit: the authors.

 

I’m still thinking about many of the things you said last evening. I’m very nervous about this friend-researcher business; I don’t like how I constantly feel like an interloper. Sometimes, I try to reassure myself that by the end of fieldwork, I will know some of my interlocutors well enough to gauge what I can and shouldn’t write about. In one of our first-year ethics classes, Candea had once said that sometimes we might also need to ask ourselves whether we should write some details down at all—even if “only” in our field notes. But I think this is a response to only one side of your question, and doesn’t speak to the everyday, perhaps less weighty situation you described. Maybe we will stop feeling like interlopers when we’ve been on the field for longer – years, even – when we actually become friends with our interlocutors. 

 

Going back to what you were saying about place-writing, though—I don’t think my worry is that I have too many descriptions; I suppose there is theory in description. I think my worry is that my descriptions, which feel fairly thick (because they have sounds and smells and the colour of fruits) are still not capturing enough. On the one hand, perhaps this is a problem of form, and a frustration with how my words are not conveying what I’m seeing, smelling, hearing… that they feel a bit flat. But maybe this is also about what you are describing as the jump from the descriptive to the analytical. I think I also view this as a problem of descriptive thickness—that it has to do with a thinness in my descriptions of what people are doing, and in particular, of how they are interacting with each other. I remember you telling me about Seremetakis’ article. Thank you for reminding me to go and read it! 

 

How has your morning been? Did you go for a walk? 


And here are some small fieldwork drawings—they’re not great, but they’re such fun to do.



All images courtesy the authors.


Love you always, 

Ila 

 


02/02/2024 - 12:22 PM

 

Hi Seetha, 


I just sat down to write my monthly fieldwork report to P, and I’m trying very hard not to melt onto the floor. In January, some things have clicked into place, but all the important things have come undone. I’m at the halfway mark and having 7.5 more months on the field feels like a while, but also not enough to make sense of all the things that have come undone. The thought of having to actively start bounding this project – to decide what threads to pursue, and what to let go of – scares me. The thought of all the things I’ve wanted to do but have not done yet, those scare me too. I think these monthly reports also demand some kind of coherence, which I lack, and have to confront as I write. 


Okay, enough procrastination, I just came here to whine to you.


Love,

Ila

 


05/02/24 - 10:48 AM

  

Dearest Ila, 

  

Excuse the silence on my end, I spent the end of last week walking in the South Downs and doing very little work. I am trying to walk every day, especially when I am back in London. I wake up at 7am, make my cup of tea and walk along the railway line, past Millwall Stadium and through small green spaces to Southwark Park and then onwards towards the Thames. Because it's winter here, and often only barely light, my route is almost empty. It’s just me and the dog-walkers, often owners of XL bullies who, under the veil of half-darkness, leave their dogs unmuzzled. There is a new and controversial law in the UK which now requires XL bullies to be muzzled or face the risk of being euthanised. I’ve seen this slow shift, this gradual muzzling on my morning walks. I have watched people preempt the judgement and the stigma. There was a gorgeous fawn-coloured bully around the corner of our house in New Cross Gate, who was off leash and nosing through some abandoned rubbish on the side of the road. The owner called out, “don’t worry, she’s friendly.” It’s funny how before the law and the fuss, I wasn’t really bothered by them in the slightest. I once asked my French teacher how I should translate the word “stigma”. He suggested the closest translation would be marque d’infamie. Somehow, the phrase in French captures this relationship between visibility and stigma. The presence of muzzles makes me hyperaware of when they are absent. It’s funny how that happens. Anyway, that was a bit of a digression, but I wanted you to understand my walks a bit. It has become such a precious time to prepare for the day, to sit in my breath and my bones, and to let time slow down and stretch. 


Tower Bridge on one of my early morning walks. Photo credit: the authors.

This past weekend has been quite full of fieldwork. I interviewed a participant (from South Africa) in West London and then spent Sunday at Hampton Court Palace. I am supposed to call the owner of a Trinidadian restaurant in Brixton today and have a few more interviews scheduled later in the week. 

  

I wish I could have visited the Northeast Food Fest! I’m not sure I’ve ever tried food from the northeast, but it sounds delicious. Are you learning to cook any of it? From your description of some of the dishes, it sounds like there could be a Central Asian/East Asian influence there? Have you noticed any parallels between these culinary and cultural influences of northeast identity? I had an interview last week where a man described his identity as being from “frontier lands” (i.e., Punjab). I like this idea of frontiers and borders and permeability of identity across these zones. I think this is why I am so intrigued by Trinidadian cooking; it brings different culinary traditions together in conversation. 

  

I have loved reading your reflections on food and difference. I read a chapter recently that might be helpful to think through some of these ideas. It was in a book called Food, Senses and the City (2021) and the chapter was called, “The sensorial life of amba: taste, smell and culinary nostalgia for Iraqi Jews in London and Israel.” It spoke to these questions of identity, nation-building, stigma, and sensory nostalgia. On your note about feeling the threads and coherence of your proposal unravel, I completely understand this feeling. Someone asked me the other day to “pitch” my project, and I realised I have taken a few detours away from the original proposal. I am trying not to see this as a failure to execute my “research design”, and more as a type of errantry. I have been rereading Glissant and taking solace in his emphasis on wandering with a “sense of sacred motivation” (1990: 211). I like this idea; it suggests a sense of direction within the lostness.

  

On your comment about form, language, and senses, I think this is a problem with reducing the sensory richness of the field into text. Have you thought about exploring other mediums, like sound (recording some of the soundscapes you encounter)? Smell and taste seem to be the hardest for me to communicate. You can embed an audio file into a PDF now, but I can’t force my readers to visit a particular restaurant or put scratch-and-sniff stickers into a physical thesis. Because New Cross Gate is quite poorly connected to the rest of London (most of South London relies on the Overground and buses), I usually take the Overground to Whitechapel and change there to access the rest of the tube network. I love it when my journey coincides with lunchtime, and I walk onto the District Line platforms and am hit with the smell of deep-fried pakoras. If lunchtime in Whitechapel smells like fenugreek and ghee, Friday nights in Peckham smell like smoke and suya. Every borough has its own sensory identity. 


 Peckham High Street, suya smoking on a Friday night. Photo credit: the authors.

Has P replied yet? I keep putting off the admin side of my research (i.e., transcribing interviews, reviewing fieldnotes, connecting threads). I find myself just wanting to do the active parts of research all the time (i.e., conducting interviews, hanging out) and avoid the more difficult part of reflecting and processing. 

  

Tell me your news, and your plans for the week ahead, sending you love, always. 

  

Seetha    

 


05/02/24 - 15:42 PM 

 

Hello my darling,  

 

Just a short note. Do you ever feel guilty about saying no to research opportunities? I accidentally said yes to an event that was on the same day as my next infusion. Now, I know that my infusion days will be wiped out by a bad combination of NHS inefficiency and the drowsy side-effects of the drugs. I know all of these things, yet, I still said yes. I have been sitting with this decision all day and finally decided to explain that unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to make it (which feels so much worse than just being clear in the first place). I guess there is always a kind of asymmetry in research, we’re often privy to the intimate details of our interlocutor’s lives and they know so little of our own. To return to your question about researcher identity (a few letter-notes ago), I sometimes feel like I can’t be anything but a researcher with my interlocutors. I worry about coming across as unreliable if I have to change plans, or ungrateful if I am less energetic or sociable. When I disclosed that I had a hospital appointment to someone I have been working quite closely with, their well-meaning response was: “but you always seem so energetic!” Fieldwork seems to require putting my best self forward all of the time. There is no space for joint pain, or fatigue, or blood clots, or infusions. I can feel the fieldwork clock ticking, a constant calculation to assess how much I’ve done and how much there is left to do. Anyway, I hope all is well in Bangalore. Sending love. 

 


07/02/2024 - 10:38 AM 

 

Dearest Seetha, 

 

I’m always so happy to read your letter-notes. The photos you sent me from one of your walks were so stunning, I wanted to find a way to appear there, even if only briefly. I also love knowing where you walk in London. Though it’s not the same, I too have told myself to walk to places within a distance of two-and-a-half kilometres (it’s not much, I know). Since I returned to Bangalore for fieldwork, I’ve been feeling like I’m watching it from the outside, and this walking, tripping on pavements, and sidestepping bikes, has been an attempt to feel, once again, like I am a part of this city. The walking is also an attempt to just let myself be watched—I am, after all, doing so much watching too.


Thank you for recommending Food, Senses and the City! It sounds like just what I need at the moment. I have been wanting to learn to cook food from various parts of the northeast—they are all quite different from each other too. I’m spending a lot of time with Nagas, so this has become the food I’m most familiar with. The other day, a Naga friend who lives close by came home, and we cooked together. We made smoked pork with michinga leaves, a smoked beef chutney with large amounts of green chillies and Naga lasoon (garlic) and boiled some passionfruit leaves. She had spent a month at home in Nagaland, and had brought the pork and beef, smoked for a full day in her house, to distribute to her Naga friends. They usually boil their vegetables and don’t add any masala to anything, just salt and some pepper. Usually, they cook with a lot of bamboo shoots, or fermented foods and dried fish—ingredients that the locals here hate because of their strong smell. We cooked for an hour, and only because she didn’t find the beef chutney spicy enough (it was quite spicy), she grudgingly added a spoon of talpudi (a Mangalorean mix of spices we use at home). We ate so well, and in near-silence that night, and when I returned home after walking her to her hostel, I was hit by the smell of the food we’d cooked—so different from just the dal I make every day. I wish I could have bottled it.

 

Photo credit: the authors.

Though I think you are right about leaving much of the stitching for when we return to Cambridge, I’m also worried about this. When several of the categories, concepts, and questions come undone, I feel like I also need to have a better grasp of how and why this is happening, because don’t they also have to be replaced with different questions? Questions that might, at least, help me make more sense of what I’m seeing and hearing? I also worry that when I do sit down to write, I am not going to have enough details about things that feel like they are the last pieces of a puzzle. I know, of course, that the field is not a static puzzle—that it is a live, shifting thing, and so everything that one writes from it will indeed be partial and changing. But how do we make sense of the changes on the field without really knowing what is changing, or what it might be signalling? I don’t know. Do these anxieties resonate with you? Like you, I haven’t done a single transcription either, and I know that I’m going to be so daunted by them when I return.

 

I’m sending you love. I’ve had some moments of having to say no to research opportunities too. It’s usually been because I have therapy scheduled. I don’t know why, but I mentioned it to some interlocutors once, and an awkward silence descended in the room. Nobody knew what to say, and then one of them (well-meaningly, of course) joked, “Ayy, come with us, therapy is for the weak.” But I felt so stupid for saying it. Seetha, my love, you are also a person on the field. You’re most certainly not unreliable. And you don’t have to tell people why you can’t make it if you don’t want to. I’m glad you said you couldn’t go that day—I know it’s not easy to do.

 

How were your interviews last weekend, and what do you have scheduled for this week? Today, I am going to listen to Penpa Tsering, the Tibetan Sikyong, speak at the college with the northeastern and Tibetan students’ group (they’ve organised a “cultural program” before his talk). I’ve been curious about this coalition. I’ll spend the rest of the week in another college and go to church on Sunday.

 

Love always,  

Ila 

 


07/02/24 - 16:17 PM

 

Dearest Ila, 

  

Your description of Naga cuisine is making me hungry! 

  

All of these anxieties resonate with me. I have a huge amount of dread that at the end of this year (when I finally get around to transcribing my interviews and reviewing my fieldnotes) I will realise that I never asked the right questions. Do you ever find yourself actively thinking with any of your interlocutors? I am reminded of something Malkki writes in Improvising Theory. She advises Cerwonka to seek out intellectual “kindred spirits” in the field: 

  

People with whom one works can offer more than ‘data’ or ‘information’ in a ‘raw form,’ a form to be processed, decoded, and placed in a meaningful larger framework by the specialist. They can, and often do, have critical insights about the project as a whole… talking with one’s ‘informants’ at many different analytical levels is surely important (Cerwonka and Malkki, 2007: 57) 

  

Perhaps, you can share some of your emerging ideas or theories with the interlocutor you had cooked with? This might help you to determine whether you are heading in the right direction or not. Otherwise, you can do this with me, write to me about some of your unformed ideas, and I will write to you about mine. 

  

I’m sorry you had that experience with some of your interlocutors, it’s always a bit alienating when you share something intimate, and no one knows how to hold space for it. But I am learning (slowly) that there are enough people who I love (like you) that can and do. I hope you know that I am here for you too. 

  

Let me know how the talk went? Do you have any reflections on how the identities of the Northeastern group and the Tibetan group converge or diverge? I always find it fascinating how in the context of migration, new coalitions of identity or solidarities emerge. My interviews have been going well, although I’ve had a few cancellations and rearrangements. I am on a bit of a roll interviewing people from the “Old Commonwealth” i.e., the settler colonies. This is often an odd one, especially when I interview other Australians. It reminds me of the bits of my own identity that are Australian and the bits that no longer are (or maybe never really were). I am interviewing a man who owns a halal-burger restaurant tomorrow evening. His vision behind the restaurant is to create a type of “third space” for the Bengali and Muslim community in Tower Hamlets. I will send you a photo of my chicken burger and loaded fries (I already know what I’m going to order!). 

  

Love always, 

Seetha 

 


08/02/24 - 10:52 AM 

 

Hi my love, 

 

I woke up this morning feeling so tired. I’ve been in my aunt’s house since Monday because she is travelling, and we have two dogs in the house—Banja, of course, but also Zoey (who we are dog-sitting). Banja was never meant to live with other dogs. These two simply ignore each other, though I’m always waiting for some altercation. Banja is almost fully blind now and Zoey knows this, she sneaks in to eat the food I drop for him on the floor, because he’s slow to respond. At night, Banja curls up under my blanket or against my legs, and Zoey sleeps a small distance away. Sometimes, when Banja shifts positions and gets too close to Zoey, she growls at him. It makes me more protective of him, even though Zoey is less than half his size, and I can lift her with one hand. All this to say, maybe I’m tired because I haven’t been sleeping too well, given all this moving and growling.

 

Thank you for reminding me of this bit from the correspondence between Malkki and Cerwonka. January felt like a month of fieldwork-flow because many interviews happened in that register, this time with faculty members (in Bangalore) from Mizoram and Nagaland. I found myself bouncing impressions I’d been getting from students off of them, to see what they had to say. I enjoyed these conversations, I could feel some things shifting, and others clicking into place. I also have one friend from Nagaland who said he didn’t want to do an interview because he was very busy with his own PhD – my first-week-of-fieldwork self was so mortified by this “rejection” – but who always asks me questions about fieldwork. He often gives a lot of important context to what I’m seeing and hearing on the field. Perhaps I should have these kinds of conversations with students more actively.

 

Tell me about your interviews with Australians; I’m so curious about this. I’m thinking about your poem on imperial circuits as I type this, and your description of trying to gauge what aspects of your identity interlocutors seem to be curious about when they ask you where you are from. I’ve been thinking of my own answer to this question of late because I’ve found my answer changing over the course of fieldwork. At first, I gave my interlocutors my standard answer, “Bangalore and Hyderabad.” Then, when one of them said, “I mean, what’s your ethnicity?” I started saying, “My family is from Karnataka, but I grew up in Hyderabad.” “Karnataka” was meant to capture my Kannada and Tulu sides. And now, for the first time in my life, I’ve suddenly started including Mangalore in the mix, a place I’ve been to all of three times. I was talking to my cousin about this last month—she said that she says she’s from Mangalore, even though she grew up in Bangalore, and has lived and now settled down in Bombay. Where has this Mangalore business come from for both of us, is it the language, the food? Of course, my answers vary depending on who I’m talking to and my sense of what they’re trying to understand about me (and by extension, what the question of “where are you from” means to them). Sorry, I’m starting to ramble, but I’m curious about how you talk about your Australian identity with other Australians.


About the talk I went to yesterday—it was interesting, though I’m not sure that I have much more to say about northeast-Tibetan solidarity at the moment. I am still trying to understand the group and what it’s meant to do. The other day, I’d attended one of their meetings, and a staff member talked at length about how the group was meant to show Indians that they (that is, people from the northeast) are also Indians. What was at stake in this discussion for the Tibetans in the group? I’ve also been wondering if these coalitions are similar to pan-northeastern groups (that often emerge in moments of crisis) in Bangalore, that also stop functioning just as quickly. My interlocutors often become “northeastern” when they move, and because mainlanders know very little about them—“northeastern” seems to mean something and nothing.

 

I’ll be off now; I need to catch up on fieldnotes (never-ending, really) before going for a walk later this evening with the friend I cooked with. I hope your interview goes well, send me a photo of your chicken burger and fries! But one more thing before I go: I don’t think it’s a bad sign at all that what you are thinking about now doesn’t seem to answer your original research questions. It’s good that projects change on the field, and through our interactions with people. I’m saying this because I’m trying to remind myself of this too. 

 

All my love, and I hope you’re getting pockets of rest, 

Ila 


 

09/02/24 - 16:33 PM

 

​​Hi Ila, 

  

It was so nice to hear your voice over the phone this afternoon. I enjoyed listening to Bangalore’s soundscape through the call (even the rickshaws and the traffic) and hope you didn’t mind the London sirens. 

  

Did I tell you about the time I told a friend how my paternal great-grandmother was White-Australian, and he acted like he had caught me in a lie—this wasn’t active act of concealment on my part, and perhaps it just felt excessive to go through my entire ethnic breakdown, “I am 1/8 this, and half this, and 3/8ths this,” as if my identity was reducible to a pie chart. But I think we have the capacity to tell many stories about our identity, and which story we choose, is so dependent on who is listening, how we’re feeling and what seems relevant on a given day. 

  

I think I have a strange relationship with both Australia and Britain, and this sometimes makes me feel alienated from my Australian interlocutors. They are often here on “ancestry visas” (a complicated legacy of the empire’s attempt to stem the flow of Black and brown Commonwealth migration in the 70s, while maintaining Old Commonwealth ties), and often here with the intention of only staying a few years. Living in London is almost a right-of-passage, an overseas experience that is familiar and well-trodden while still being exotic. It’s interesting that most of my connections to this community have been through one Australian friend (based in Sydney) and an American friend who has a South African partner and is more connected to this part of “Commonwealth London” than I am. I don’t think a lot of my Australian interlocutors grapple with “tensions” in their identity vis-à-vis Australia or that their “migration” (if they were to ever call it that) came from an impulse to reject Australia. The people I have interviewed so far have been White-Australian (this is likely a product of class, ancestry, and visas), and as a result, I wonder if their relationship to Australia is less antagonistic and fraught than mine (but perhaps this is reductive). I had an interview with a British-Bengali woman yesterday and I asked if she had ever experienced tension between her “British” identity and “Bengali” heritage (sometimes I worry this is a bit of a crude question). She responded by saying that she was glad to have grown up in London because she could blend in. She was never an anomaly; she was never out of place. I wonder how my Australian interlocutors relate to this feeling of being “out of place”...

  

But I have also found that I am missing Australia in strange and surprising ways. I recently read Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe and watched a TV series set in Sydney called Bump. It made me feel like I missed out on something beautiful by leaving at 18. When I write more creatively, I find myself wanting to write about home. I don’t have a voice in which to write about England yet, it never feels authentic, and I wonder what that says about my identity. 

  

Tell me how your fieldwork has been going? Did you decide to go to the church gathering or to the poetry event? I loved the idea you mentioned over the phone about mapping the city, tell me more about how Bangalore, itself, is becoming an interlocutor? 

  

Here is my takeaway burger, garlic and parmesan fries, and mango chutney chunks (boneless wings) from Simply Smashed. I devoured it on the Overground ride home. 

 

Photo credit: the author.

 Missing you, very jealous of your smoked beef chutney and rice, I have a lentil stew that I have smuggled into the British Library and will have that for dinner tonight. 

  

P.S. I wanted to share this blog post that I mentioned over the phone where Ryan Holliday explains his approach to the “Commonplace book” using index cards: https://ryanholiday.net/how-and-why-to-keep-a-commonplace-book/?amp=1 which I have decided I am going to try to see if I can do some gentle “restitching”. 

  

Love, always, 

Seetha 


  

11/02/24 - 15:12 PM

 

Dearest Seetha, 

 

I decided to go to the poetry event last evening—it was the right choice, though the event itself (the book launch) was terrible. The poems could go into Hallmark Valentine’s Day cards; the poet kept saying that “good poetry is never hard,” and the woman discussing her poems kept calling them “pretty.” It was all just… irritating. Nevertheless, it was really lovely to meet this friend-interlocutor again.

 

But I’m sorry, I meant to write to you yesterday. I’ve just been in such a strange mood, and I don’t know how to snap out of it. It’s hard to describe what I’m feeling at the moment, because I don’t want to spend time with myself to figure it out—and so I just keep filling my time with work. Some months ago, I was desperate for pockets of leisure; now I do everything I can to avoid them. There’s a buzzing in my head, and it’s making me jittery. 

 

And so, I’ve set myself the task of writing to you today, for a bit, about anything that isn’t related to fieldwork (sorry!). It’s harder than I expected; I’ve been staring at this document for a while, typing and deleting filler words. Maybe it’s easier to write a list. Did I tell you I joined BeReal? I have five friends on it. I realised yesterday that more than a third of my posts are blurry photographs taken in autos. I’m trying to read Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. It’s a weird, terrifying, story about a daughter caring for a mother who once abandoned her, and who now has dementia. It keeps making me want to cry. A few days ago, I noticed that there is a small food stall up the road from my house whose name is a sentence that translates to “We Make Food With Less Masala,” which I found hilarious. Today, I noticed that a plant that I thought I’d killed but have been watering in some vain hope, has sprouted four new baby leaves. I just finished watching a Korean ssireum murder and match-fixing mystery set in a small town. I really loved the wrestling scenes. I really, really miss writing fiction.

 

Yours restlessly, 

Ila 

 


11/02/24 - 17:49 PM

 

Seetha,


I also meant to say: it really was so nice to hear your voice – and London – the other day. Are your ankles still hurting from all the walking? And, happy lunar new year! 

 

I think you’re right about our capacity to tell different stories about our identities. Maybe this is why I’ve been trying to think about identity and selfhood more carefully. Do you remember that essay I’d been trying to write about my interlocutors and anthropological approaches to the self early last year, before we began fieldwork? A few months back, we got feedback on these essays, and my reviewer (quite rightly, and critically) pointed out that it seemed like I was using “the self” interchangeably with “identity,” and as something that’s strategically expressed, even as the self is, arguably, quite distinct from a social identity. And I think this is really what I’ve also been struggling with during fieldwork, because I often collapse the two when I speak to people, even though people are actually acting and speaking in ways that are “working the interval between identities” (Ranciere, 2006).

 

I was also interested in what you said about the impulse to write about Australia when you write creatively, even though you left so early on. It reminded me of something Tanuj Solanki (whose book of short stories, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar is spectacular) recently wrote on his Substack. He was talking about how in a recent interview (for this new archive, by the way, called Cities in Fiction – have I already sent it to you?), he had been asked which place he, as a writer, writes from. Solanki said he responded in a “non-committal” way – that it depends on “which place has formed your sensibility the most, which place do you feel most like saving from oblivion or which place do you know the best…” But in his Substack, he unpicks this “saving from oblivion” further, and I think there’s something quite striking about what else emerges at the bottom of this unpicking. Here’s a link, see what you think: https://tanujsolanki.substack.com/p/how-specific-are-the-places-to-which.  

 

As for me, I don’t think I know yet how to talk about Bangalore-as-interlocutor. It’s the place I love the most, it’s the place I write about and from in my fiction, but I don’t yet know what it means to ask it questions and listen to what it has to say.

 

Thank you for the index cards idea. And your meal from Simply Smashed looks amazing, I desperately want to try those mango chutney wings! 

 

I love you always, 

Ila 

 


12/02/24 - 13:29 PM

 

Dearest Ila,  

 

I am sitting in a café at Telegraph Hill near my house, writing to you. There is a toddler running around in her nappy and a bib making her way around the different tables. Every time I try to smile or wave at her, her face scrunches up and she looks like she’s about to cry. There really isn’t anything more depressing than being rejected by a toddler. 

  

How are you feeling today, my love? I wish I could pop over to Bangalore for a weekend. Sometimes it’s easier to sift through these thoughts when you’re not sitting in them alone. I have also found these kinds of thoughts (the ones you want to bury) are easier to sit with when I am not sitting still. I felt a similar wave of anxiety after an interview yesterday and decided I needed to walk it off. I walked from Notting Hill to Piccadilly Circus at a snail’s pace and this seemed to help digest a few things. 

  

Why do you think you’ve stopped writing? 

  

I don’t think I even know how I am thinking about the difference between the “self” or “identity” – I am definitely using these interchangeably and simplistically – send me more of what you’re reading on this topic. I would also love to read your essay, please send it through too. 

  

Let me think about that phrase a bit, “which place do you feel most like saving from oblivion”… On face value, I am not sure I have wanted to save Sydney from oblivion. I’m not sure my nostalgia has ever been straightforward, either. When I was a young teenager, I made a short film about two friends: one who desperately wanted to leave Sydney, and the other who desperately wanted to stay. Perhaps these two characters hold a mirror to this friction. It’s funny when you reflect on the projects you have created and realise you have been asking the same question in different ways for a very long time. I’m still caught somewhere between a romanticisation of the city and a sense of claustrophobia. If I was to analyse myself as a participant in my research, I’m sure I would be able to pathologize all these contradictions. Do you feel like your relationship with Bangalore is straightforward or is it ambivalent too? 

  

I am going to head to the big Sainsbury’s to pick up some groceries and cook the last bits of my anxiety away. Throughout the time it’s taken to write you this letter-note, the toddler has warmed up to me and when her grandma asks her to “say goodbye to the café” I am thrilled when she chooses to wave goodbye to me, progress! Sometimes forming connections in the field feels a little bit like trying to bond with a toddler—you have to be very patient haha! 

  

Thinking of you, and sending you infinite love,  

  

Seetha 

 


15/02/2024 - 12:30 PM

 

Dearest Seetha, 

 

I know we said it’s time to send our letters to The Scholar, but I’ve been thinking about my relationship with Bangalore a lot since you last wrote to me, and I wanted to send you one short letter-note.  

 

I love Bangalore. I love it. I wonder, of course, if I love it because it’s the place I feel like I ran away to—and if I would have loved (or at least, grown to know) Hyderabad if I hadn’t left at 16. I think it’s a collection of small things: that I can speak and hear Kannada every day, that I could eat my grandmother’s fish curry, that it’s where I first got drunk, it’s where I first wrote with some excitement. That it’s where the owner of Blossoms (the bookstore I sent you a postcard from) will smile at me no matter how long it’s been since I’ve come. That it’s the city where I feel like I can see my parents zipping around on their old kinetic scooters, and where all my grandparents decided to move to, and build much of their lives. When I was working here a few years ago before coming to Cambridge, when none of my closest friends lived in this city and I was a bit depressed, I don’t think I ever imagined an elsewhere where things could have been better, different. I want to try to hold on to this feeling, even when I’m alone, angry, sad, or sneezing because of the dust. I don’t think all places make you want to try. 

 

Fieldwork has reminded me of this. It has taken me to parts of the city I know and love and now see differently. It has taken me to places that I have never spent time in, and to neighbourhoods that this city is expanding in. I can see how hostile it can be; I can see how uneasy so many relations are. But it is still where I see and hear about (from my interlocutors) the possibilities for something else, or of being someone else, even if briefly. I suppose this is true of “cities” in general, though perhaps a part of my task is also to understand what textures these feelings take in Bangalore. I have been thinking about this in relation to how my interlocutors are always clicking photographs when we go out—I’m not very used to this. They don’t always post these photos on social media, they just send these to each other, or to their friends and family. Though this was not spurred by any thoughts about fieldwork, I started doing this with S a few weeks ago; I send him a photo a day, a scene from fieldwork, a funny signboard on the road. I am beginning to enjoy how this intentional search for something to take a photo of makes me look closer at the things around me, notice a dry cleaners’ shop called “James Bond,” or the swagger of a man with a bike helmet with piranha-like spikes on it. In my mind, these become Bangalore-things, they become things I love about Bangalore. Now, I am starting to see many different Bangalores in the things I click photos of, and the things my interlocutors photograph. 

 

Does all this make Bangalore the place I want to save from oblivion? 

 

It’s February, and the pink trumpet flowers have begun to bloom in Bangalore. Everybody clicks photos of these trees, here’s mine.


Photo credit: the authors.

I’ll send you the self-stuff on WhatsApp. Let’s talk one of these days? 

 

Love, always, 

Ila 

 


26/03/2024 - 14:30 PM 


Dear Ila, 


It’s finally spring in London and the weather is getting warmer, we no longer have to dry our socks inside on the radiators but can use the clothing line outside. On my morning walks, I’ve watched the snowdrops give way to crocuses and daffodils. I was recently at a students’ group meeting at a local university where we discussed our sense of belonging to London. The group was made up entirely of women who had personal or family histories of migration and the conversation quickly descended into a long list of London’s faults: the terrible weather, grumpy commuters on the tube, English food… I found myself getting a bit defensive of London! Like you, I wonder if I love London because it is also the place I ran away to, and like you, I wonder if I would have grown to love Sydney if I hadn’t left at 18. I love that in your photographs you can capture the many different Bangalores. I took this photo on one of my morning walks. 

 

Photo credit: the authors.

I thought it was amazing how in lieu of an appropriate pond, the ducks make use of the city’s puddles. Now, the sceptic, the closet-London-hater, would look at this photograph cynically. But I think it shows all the ways the city continues to give life, despite of, or because of its grit, its dirt, and its rain. Anyway, thank you for your letter-note, it is reminding me of all of the ways that perhaps one of the most important interlocutors in my work, is London itself. 


All my love, 

Seetha  



The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect those of the Editorial Board, the Scholars’ Council, the Gates Cambridge Trust or the University of Cambridge.

 

Ila Ananya ['21, '22] is a PhD candidate in the Department of Social Anthropology. She is interested friendship, belonging and self-making among young people who move from various parts of northeast India to Bangalore to study.


Seetha Tan ['22] is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology. Her research explores storytelling as a form of identity-construction within the context of postcolonial migration to London. 


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