by Deeksha Sivakumar
Who would have thought that one of the hardest questions I ask myself every morning during fieldwork is “what to wear?” In order to be remembered or valued in society we all lay somewhere on a spectrum of corresponding identities. It is within this spectrum that Kirin Narayan, among others, has articulated the deviations experienced by a native or non-native anthropologist and respectively problematized these categories. I too have recently found myself struggling within multiple identities as I pursue fieldwork in India – being ethnically Indian, raised in the U.A.E, and now living in America. Most of my interlocutors want to place me into one category or another and attribute to me the positive or negative qualities that they locally associate with them. As Pierre Bordieau has indicated, with each of these social and ethnic identities vast amounts of cultural capital are shared and exchanged.
What to wear during fieldwork has been a question directly reflecting my identity in this “native” region that I have pursued my study. So-called “western” attire brought me greater respect among Christian Indians (who often assume that all Americans are Christians), and younger folks who saw my clothing choices and my independence as a result of my having lived, and acculturated to, America. This was a privilege, as I received a good deal of what is called “bhaav” – “undue status”as a result of the kinds of clothes I chose to wear. These friends really valued my American-ness and wanted to enjoy all the perks that came with that status. In fact, one even asked me to dress in “western” clothing for a department gathering at her college, suggesting it would give me good “bhaav” among the chair committee members. Of course, this brought social capital for her as well as she came to be associated with an American colleague.
At other times, my Indian-ness and my caste origin played a significant role. It allowed me to gain access into temples, sacred grounds, speak with pious devotees, and also get local ticket fares! Wearing Indian clothes, wearing flowers in my hair and a dot on my forehead gave Hindu families an affinity towards me, and also led them to be sympathetic to my travel needs and my safety as well. While my Western clothes were perceived as a signal of independence among some, among others, my Indian clothes signified dependence, and promoted an empathy that made me relatable to their own daughters and female relatives. Moreover, some even perceived Indian clothes to be synonymous with chastity and conservatism, whereas my “western” clothes indicated promiscuity and reckless individuality.
In actuality, I lie somewhere in-between on this spectrum of “western”/Indian identity. Being a participant/observer, one has to often be cued into those ‘social-capital-ridden moments’ and make the most of them. Learning ethnography occurs when we can safely say that we fit in to a degree and gain the acceptance of our interlocutors. However, I often wonder if my flirtation with identities (performed in order to share and gain capital) is something that my colleagues struggle with as well. This discomfort with being forced into one identity or another is obviously a sensibility that affects the unconscious and conscious decisions and choices made by my interlocutors as well, especially when they talk to me and tell me about a ritual or a place of interest. But ethnography is premised on the claim that visiting a place or talking to practitioners does in fact provide insights that cannot be gained from texts. But are we making the mistakes of our structuralist and functionalist forefathers when we try to fit in or when we try to fit our interlocutors into vessels for the identities they represent? As much as I was troubled by being “forced to be somebody” in order to advance my research, I was also expecting my interlocutors to be somebody, indicative of the social, religious, and material conditions they represent.