Entanglements with Humanity
-Stephen Christopher, PhD Candidate in Anthropology
Doing fieldwork in Himalayan
villages instilled a profound sense of gratitude. For months at a stretch I
depended on the hospitality of a semi-pastoralist community called Gaddi, many
of whom live in mud homes and work for $5 a day doing roadside construction or
slate quarrying. Often I would trek into a village about sunset, hours off a
driving road, and the first Gaddi I met would offer me food and place to stay –
and never accept a dollar.
I came to India on a Fulbright
grant, and the bare truth is that my monthly stipend dwarfed Gaddi local
salaries by an order of magnitude. There was no way to buy myself out of this
uneasy situation – I paid an above-average salary to my research assistants, I
hosted an all-night public ritual that celebrated our time together amidst 450
village guests, I gave occasional loans with no expectation of return, I
donated to various NGOs and religious institutions associated with the Gaddis.
But at the end of the day, Gaddis live by the maxim that a guest is a god, and
I could never monetarily repay their unending generosity. In India, to give
money or effusive thankfulness can be understood as disrespect. Villagers
prefer to enter into bonds of social solidarity and reciprocity, where one act
of kindness might beget another in the future.
So I jumped further into my
research and tried my best to write about their culture in a respectful way,
not compromising on critical analysis but always attending to dispossessed
voices and those silenced in the social margins.
Now that the dust of fieldwork has settled and I look back
on the experience, my greatest source of fulfillment is not the research
itself. It’s not the eventual (I hope) dissertation thesis and publications.
The greatest fulfillment, which fills my heart with gladness whenever I feel
stressed about writing, is that I tirelessly promoted the Fulbright program to
Gaddis, and from seven Gaddi applicants – the first Himachali applicants for
Fulbright in the history of the program, and among the first tribal and
low-caste applicants – from among seven applicants, two Gaddi women were
selected to come to the USA as Hindi teaching assistants and English students.
One is currently at the
University of Texas at Austin, teaching Hindi in arguably the premier Hindi
institution in the USA. Two years ago, when we met, she had never spoken with a
Westerner, had never sent an email, had never lived outside her family home.
Now she lives with African immigrants in Austin, moves around on her own, runs
her own classroom, and has traveled through-out the USA more than I have.
The other will arrive in
August. When we went to Delhi together for her competitive exams, she ate
Afghani food for the first time, apprehensively rode an escalator for the first
time, saw a 3D movie for the first time, entered a Muslim Sufi shrine for the
first time, travelled the streets of Delhi with a blind professor for the first
time, and met a gay Italian-Indian couple for the first time – and she did it
all with Gaddi grace and tolerance, with an insuppressible smile on her face.
I couldn’t repay the community for their kindness, the
community is too capacious and their generosity too large. But through these
two Gaddi women – embarking on life-changing adventures, from non-literate
farming parents in mountain villages, earning less than $200 a month, to their
daughters attending some of the best universities in the USA – through their
experiences and growth I found my best expression of gratitude. It’s also
deepened my love for anthropology, which is by design and methods a reciprocal
social science, pushing the researcher into further entanglements with