Notes From the Field

Many Hindis

Jocelyn Killmer, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology

English is the official language of medical education in India. When I return here next year for my dissertation research on the place of morality in medical students’ career choices, many of my interactions with research collaborators will be in my native tongue. Nevertheless, because the English-speaking world of doctors represents only one aspect of the culture of medicine in India, I am currently spending eight months in Jaipur to sharpen my Hindi conversational skills. I want to be able to observe—and understand—all kinds of interactions that take place in the teaching hospital between students and nurses, techs, patients, and patients’ families. What I have come to realize since I arrived two months ago is how many Hindis I actually have to learn in order to accomplish this feat.Jocelyn Killmer and her husband doing a puja - a Hindu ritual

I go to school every morning to learn “pure” Hindi. We discuss literature and films and speak in grammatically correct—and necessarily slow and painstaking — sentences. But when I leave school in the afternoon, this form of Hindi doesn’t get me very far. No one wants to wait around for a grammatically perfect sentence to emerge fully formed from my mouth. And while mastery of “pure” Hindi is useful for reading and writing, speaking in such a register usually leads only to confusion. Moreover, this is certainly not the register I will encounter during my research in the teaching hospital.

The obvious—and happy—solution to this problem involves lots of good conversations with Hindi speakers over lots of cups of chai. I have been lucky enough to find several Hindi-speaking families who have the patience to wait out my haltingly slow speaking style. This has led to holidays and weddings celebrated together, gift exchanges, comparisons of our two countries, and lots of laughter at my strange ways. And during all of these fun-filled encounters I’m doing “work” to improve my Hindi! Needless to say I’m having a fantastic year and am thoroughly enjoying the chance to exercise my mind in a new and different way.

A Cautionary Tale

Dan Cheifer, PhD Candidate, Department of Religion 
When I first arrived in Delhi on the way to start my fieldwork, the foreigner's registration office there told me I needed to register in the city where I intended to reside, Haridwar. When I got to Haridwar, the corresponding office there told me I needed to register in the city specified on my visa, Delhi. “Don't worry,” they told me, “it's an easy process,” a claim I regarded with deep skepticism. Back at the Delhi office, someone competent suggested I go to the visa office, where I could get permission to register in a city not specified on my visa. Unfortunately, the illustrious bureaucrats at the visa office only grant audience to petitioners who arrive weekdays between ten and noon, and since it was about 2 pm on Friday, I got to spend a lovely weekend in Paharganj rather than actually doing my fieldwork. When I finally got to the visa office Monday morning, I was given a number. When that was called, I explained why I was there, whereupon I was given another number. About four hours later that number was called, I gave a man some documents and he gave me, you guessed it, another number, and sent me on my merry way with all assurances that I'd be able to register in Haridwar the next day.Dan Cheifer outside Chotiwala in Rishikesh

About a week later I learned that I had not yet been able to register because of the following problem: the visa office in Delhi could communicate by e-mail but not fax whereas the FRO in Haridwar could communicate by fax but not e-mail. Once I sorted this out, I learned that the visa office had requested that the FRO recommend that the visa office give the FRO permission to let me register in Haridwar. The registration officer in Haridwar required me to hand deliver his recommendation to Delhi and also gave me another unrelated piece of mail he wanted me to deliver to the Burmese embassy.

Another trip to Delhi. Another number to get another number to hand someone an envelope and get another number. And then back to Haridwar again. When the letter granting permission to register in Haridwar finally came from the visa office, the registration officer in Haridwar had me bring it to his commanding officer in a suburb of Haridwar that was about an hour away by auto-rickshaw. Having obtained his permission to act on the visa office's permission, the registration officer sent me out to make photocopies of the registration documents for him. He informed me of the fine I would have to pay since it took me more than two weeks to register, and somehow that was my fault. Paying this fine required another trip to the same suburban office where his superior officer worked. When I brought back proof of payment, hey presto, I was registered!

I learned too late that this can usually be avoided by claiming that you are taking frequent trips to your field site while actually residing in whatever city your visa specifies. Even if it doesn't quite reflect the reality of the situation, it's better than driving yourself insane while wasting day after precious day of fieldwork time. I hope that by writing about these experiences here, those of you who might be headed to the field sometime soon will not repeat my mistakes and the rest of you at least enjoyed a bit of healthy schadenfreude.