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 humanity.Stephen Christopher (bottom left) with Reeta (pink hat)