‘GUILTY’ daughter-researcher: Ethnography, familial politics, and guilt

‘GUILTY’ daughter-researcher: Ethnography, familial politics, and guilt

By Bhargabi Das

I would like to begin by giving a little context of my research and my family and possibly how they overlapped over the course of my fieldwork. My research looks at char areas in Assam, India. Chars are river islands and are extremely unstable, undergoing constant erosion. In Assam, the chars are largely inhabited by Bengali Muslims whose ancestors were encouraged to come during colonial times to increase productivity from such fertile riverine lands. However, as more and more entered the then colonial Assam from East Bengal, the ‘native’ Assamese people became worried of losing out their lands and becoming a minority in their own land. Today, the char-dwellers though have lived in Assam for decades, they still continue to face the brunt of ‘anti-immigrant’ hatred. The ‘anti-immigrant’ Assam Movement in the late 1970s spearheaded by the upper-caste Hindu Assamese men also exposed not just the xenophobic nature of the movement, but also the Islamophobia circulating in the caste Hindu Assamese households. The ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ is always imagined as Muslim or ‘Miya’, a derogatory term to denote Bengali speaking Assamese Muslims. Amidst all this, my research focuses on how the State gets imagined and experienced by them.

Image 1: A char in Assam. Courtesy: Author.

I come from an upper caste Hindu Assamese household. Both my parents took part in the ‘anti-immigrant’ Assam Movement and are ardent believers of Assamese nationalism or jatiyotabaad. My family believe that Assam continues to face an onslaught of ‘illegal immigrants,’ and the ‘native’ Assamese are soon turning into a minority and will lose their culture and language. My father was a member of the right-wing party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before switching to the Assamese nationalist party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). As with many caste Hindu Assamese households, the mockery and subtle hatred towards Muslims in general and Bengali Muslims in particular is normalized through jokes, myths, and everyday stories. By now it must be clear that my families’ political ideology leans towards the right and it gave them sleepless nights when I first discussed with them my research project. My parents were dismissive about my plans of staying in the chars amongst the ‘Miyas’. After tumultuous negotiations it was decided that I would stay with my grandmother in my ancestral village which was 3 hours away from my field-site. My father even moved in with me and my mother would do the occasional visits. So, I already began my fieldwork in a mesh of emotions: excitement, anger, and guilt. Guilty for not being enough of a ‘good’ daughter (Who wants to upset one’s parents?) while also guilty for being not enough of a ‘good’ researcher (Did I concede too soon? Living so far away from my field will definitely impact my rapport building and of course research findings, probably).

On September 2020, seven months after I had stopped fieldwork due to COVID, I began fieldwork again. Around 25 days later, my driver who accompanied me to my field first showed symptoms of COVID and later the entire household. Except me, everyone had tested positive, including my 95-year-old grandmother and my father. This incident washed me with tremendous guilt. But looking back, I now understand that manifestation of that guilt was a result of all the incidents over the months where I did encounter guilt in some degree. When repeatedly it was underlined that I do have time for “research” but no time for family, or as a caste Hindu Assamese woman I do not show “collective disgust” for the “other”, that I have not been the devoted caregiver of the family, or how I have shown care and empathy for the ‘wrong people’ in their eyes, I did feel guilty in some degree. Sara Ahmed in her book, ‘Cultural Politics of Emotion’, talks about how emotional responses and bodily sensations demarcate “others” from “us”. My care and empathy for the ‘Muslim other’, instead of my own family was seen as breaking these boundaries of ‘othering’ and was repeatedly conveyed to me, resulting in me developing a third kind of emotional response – guilt – in varied amounts over time. Ahmed borrows from Marx to argue that emotions accumulate over time, as a form of affective value. I understand that the guilt when I experienced after my entire family contracted COVID was a manifestation of such accumulated guilt.

However, I understand this guilt as political. I am arguing that what I felt was by the virtue of my positionality in the social structure – that is 1. Being a woman and 2. Being an unmarried upper-caste Hindu Assamese. Ahmed talks about feelings of structure, meaning that what we feel are related to structural inequities and power differentials. She goes on to talk about how emotions should not be understood as ‘subject-centered’ as emotions are not bound or located in an individual subject but that the subject arrives into a world where emotions are already circulating in very particular ways. Hence, how an upper-caste Hindu Assamese women ‘must’ be feeling for certain collectives – family and the Muslim ‘charuas’ are already defined. I just arrived in this world of already defined emotions. It is this sociality of emotions that also keeps alive the “us” versus “them”.

But the idea of guilt also means the acceptance at certain level the moral standards defined by these collectives. It meant me accepting to some extent how an unmarried, upper-caste Hindu Assamese woman ‘ought’ to behave towards her family, the societal roles and responsibilities as well as to the ‘Miya other’. Me taking up caring responsibilities and ultimately halting my fieldwork completely can be seen as a way to take responsibility for my ‘failures’ to adhere to societal roles and emotional boundaries.

I borrow Ahmed and Cala Coats’ use of the term ‘stickiness’ to understand my guilt – such that I, as a subject, became more invested in particular structures than others. The movement of emotions as imagined by Massumi, Deleuze-Guattari, and Ahmed is also accompanied by ‘stickiness’ wherein often some objects get accumulated with particular emotions. My emotional stickiness to certain positionalities structures being a daughter or an unmarried upper-caste Hindu Assamese woman over and above being an anthropologist or a researcher, which produced continued emotions of guilt. And this stickiness was engendered by repetition of my position’s roles and responsibilities. But from what I understand and argue is emotions can spill over too and it is this spillage of emotions where I find possibilities for ethnography, for creatively using emotions as a methodological intervention.

Emotionality is messy. Hence, I understand that when experienced two field sites – the home with family and the river islands (though this sharp distinction can also be critiqued as this is purely analytical), instead of flow of emotions, I argue that emotions spill into one another. As opposed to flow, spilling is involuntary or accidental movement such that there is a possibility that it can go in different directions, hence there is an unpredictability attached to it. And such movement can bring in transformation, change or what Ahmed wrote as ‘unstuckness’. What I argue here is of spillage of guilt from one field-site to another and what transformations and possibilities that can open up for an anthropologist ‘stuck’ in particular investments of certain social positionalities and structures.

I understand that my two field sites with its own politics and social relations would not just spill sometimes physically – let’s say, when my father accompanied me to my field in the first few months or when my participants visited me at times in my village, but also emotionally. It is in this emotional spilling, particularly guilt, from one world to another, that I am more interested in.  This was particularly evident in the act of eating. My caste Hindu grandmother had strict reservations about me eating in Muslim households as Muslims were understood to be impure for their consumption of beef. And every time would insist on me getting a purification bath. After the initial months, I created an elaborate façade of weekly new narratives of invented road-side restaurant names and the food that I ate in each. The lying however did make me feel partly guilty. Post-COVID however when I began fieldwork in September, I carried my own food and was more reserved at sharing food. This struck as odd to them and often my participants would quip in saying “Baideo, nowadays does not eat with us!” I felt guilty then of not eating with them. But I say emotionality is messy because I do realise that a part of me was also escaping from the guilt of lying to my grandmother.

But the fascinating thing about spilling is the unpredictability, allowing the existence of newer possibilities. One does not know where the emotions can go, get stuck and reveal newer corners. And does the possibility of opening up unpredictable, ugly fractures mean the researcher closes down emotionally? Absolutely not. Hence, after all the messiness of emotions I still go on to explore the importance of the figure of the vulnerable researcher.

It is critical to understand that one cannot and should not escape or try to master one’s emotions, including guilt. Only a vulnerable researcher opens up possibilities to find moments of surprise and shock to not just understand the topic better but to constantly review methods and ethics of fieldwork. I ask how can vulnerability be used as a methodology for a researcher? For a life-world where the researcher dives in, that world is messy, where concepts, boundaries, values, identities overlap, clash and spill and not defined in neat categories and I understand that possibly only the figure of a vulnerable researcher brings him/her as Ahmed says closer to that world.

It was my feeling and working around guilt that helped me understand how deeply rooted I myself was in Assamese nationalism, a concept I examine in my research and critique in my political writings. It also helped me understand better the everyday mundane workings of that ideology and how family as an institution has tremendously contributed in it being supported and nourished.

Finally, I did feel guilty in the process of writing this, about my family. Almost like I am trading off numerous dining table family discussions, maybe intimate family opinions and secrets in front of complete strangers. So, why do I still do it? For more fractures and possibilities to open up. When I let my stories of guilt spill here today with the prospect that it will get stuck to newer corners, I am looking for newer fractures and possibilities of making sense of the world, of methods, of fieldwork and of doing Anthropology better. For as Kant says, to know something is always to spill over the concept. Hence, maybe concepts of emotions, guilt, fieldwork, and anthropology will gain fresh meanings and discussions when I let my guilt from the two field-sites spill into now a third space – this, right here with newer participants, its own politics and relations.

Bhargabi Das: I like to call myself a raging potato, a part-time anthropologist and a poet. Currently a PhD Candidate of Anthropology at National University of Ireland, Maynooth, my doctoral research is based on the riverine ecologies called chars in Assam, India. This ethnographic study looks at char-dwellers’ experiences with the state. I am largely interested in the politics and poetics of water, citizenship, state, bureaucracy, infrastructure and nationalism. My doctoral research is funded by the Irish Research Council, Government of Ireland and Irish Higher Education Authority (HEA).

Editors Note: This is the final in a series of three posts by Bhargabi Das.