Tales from the Field: The Toe-ring Tale

-Madhura Lohokare, PhD Candidate in Anthropology

Ask any anthropologist about the moment of ‘entry’ into the field and you will more often than not get anxiety-ridden or even panic-stricken narratives. The sizing up of the researcher by the researched and vice versa, the power dynamics which will be defined between them, the interface of two worlds which are waiting to interact with each other, all these processes crowd the moment of arrival of the anthropologist and mark it with tense anticipation and tentativeness, for the insiders, outsiders and insider-outsiders alike.Madhura in a working-class neighbour in Pune, India

Two silver rings, worn on my left ring-toe figure prominently in my anxious entry narrative. As an insider-outsider, I was far too well aware that wearing toe-rings signified married status of women and that my being a Marathi-speaking, Pune-born single woman researcher might not easily fetch me the discount that a ‘foreigner’ researcher might get. To wear or not to wear, was uppermost in my mind as I kick-started my scooter, setting out to the neighborhood where I was to begin my fieldwork.

Wear them I will, I decided in the middle of a sea of fellow scooter-riders honking away in the lanes of Ganj Peth in Pune. The silver toe-rings starred in a big way in the ensuing four hours that I spent in the neighborhood of Samrat Ashok Mandal. Some of the most common responses from the women of all walks of life who at that point did not know who I was and what I was really doing there were: How come you are wearing two of them on the same toe? Did you lose the one on the other toe? It delays your marriage, if you wear them before you get married. We never do it like this. “I always wore them in college and who knew what it meant then. You know how fashion is. This was a fashion then and now I really like them,” I said, and after a pause added, “I’m not married yet,” trying to maintain that fine, fine balance of casual nonchalance without sounding disrespectful and arrogant. By the end of the visit I had repeated this spiel at least 20 times to different women in the neighborhood.

Some women’s expressions remained uncomprehending. But the realization of my class and caste privilege, which allowed me to consume a stringent social norm as casual fashion, dawned upon the faces of some others. Was this a deliberate attempt at establishing the caste and class difference and the power equation that will come with it? Not really. Not at all. Was this a deliberate attempt at not invisibilising that already existing caste and class difference and the power dynamic that comes with it and facing it squarely in the eye? That is exactly what it was.

No amount of not wearing toe-rings, sitting with people on the floor and wearing a dupatta with my salwaar-kameez was going to erase or invisibilize my upper-caste and middle-class privileges which gave me the opportunity to go to a US university and get year-long funding to research this neighborhood. Instead, I found it much more honest to acknowledge those privileges with the people who I worked with and later became good friends with..My silver toerings, in the meanwhile, have become quite a hit here and we are now planning a trip to a store on M.G. Road to buy my style of toe-rings en masse for the (married) women in the neighborhood.