I’ve entered into the fieldwork phase of perpetual exhaustion, where no amount of sleep or days off return me to full strength. I’m nearing the end of my time in Bangalore, which is bittersweet since it means leaving a really fun community of people who know me well enough to order me IPAs, lamb, and shrimp at a bar without my asking. I’ve also re-established myself as a regular at the neighborhood restaurants where in one I just have to walk up to the counter and they serve my regular order of two rava idlis with coconut chutney. I got to end a long and busy week by spending five hours baking three lasagnas in a microwave (somehow our microwave has the capability to turn into a convection oven—so strange) for my Indian and Swiss friends. I spent more on mozzarella and ricotta cheese for the lasagnas than I think I’ve spent on food for the entire month that I’ve been back in India. We spent hours trying to figure out how to buy beef in Bangalore, which basically is taboo to ask about and is like asking for the GPS location of the black market. I also had the pleasure of going to my friend Rohit’s grandma’s house for Sunday lunch. She’s the woman from last summer who refused to allow me to wear the same non-wedding appropriate sari two days in a row at his cousin’s wedding and folded me into one of her bright pink saris. Her very first question demanded I show her pictures of me in her sari from last summer. She was so excited, but made sure to take a moment to once again tell me that my sari blouse didn’t match the sari itself. I’m such a disappointment. She stuffed us full of a home-cooked meal that included a delicious fish curry and some of the best tomato rasam (thin broth like liquid you pour over rice that’s nearly impossible to eat with your hands) I’ve had yet. My favorite part was when I was asking Rohit’s grandfather where to buy beef, Grandma got so unhappy to hear talk of beef in her house and playfully hit her husband. He then told us that sometimes he buys beef and tells her it’s mutton and she eats it. Oops.
I met with a friend from the summer at café and ordered a vanilla milkshake, which ended up just being vanilla flavored milk. He immediately barraged me with questions about why I had not yet sent him my wedding invitation (complete with a free visa to the U.S.—if that was something I could do I would invite all of Syria to my non-existent wedding), noting his nearly unmanageable anticipation that had mounted these past five months. Upon finding out of the current lack of marital plans, he suggested I marry a “young Arnold Schwarzenegger” or a “young Tom Cruise type” because I’m “tall” and have “a good physique” that will attract “the body building type.” When I mentioned that such a person probably wasn’t in my ten-year plan, he suggested I marry one of the Swiss Eawag colleagues since we’re both “damn brainy,” and thus are perfect for each other. The compliments didn’t end there though, I was informed that my skin looks like “India doesn’t agree with it,” although a day earlier another person told me my skin was the reason they didn’t think I am old enough to vote in the U.S. Nothing like brutal Indian honesty to keep you humble.
One day this week I went to a community that’s about 20 kilometers outside of Bangalore. I’ve mostly been relying on cabs because my time is worth the additional Rs. 200 cost, but this community was far enough on the outskirts that cabs refused to drive there. When my translator and I finished the day there, we confirmed the community’s valid complaint of a lack of bus services by experiencing first-hand the five kilometer walk to the main road and nearest bus. I’ve been trying to figure out how I academically explain how I confirm community priorities with personal experience. I’m not sure that I’m allowed to say in a journal article that “the community complains most frequently about mosquitos, a fact confirmed by the researcher’s thirteen bites and swollen ankles during a focus group interview.”
I started data collection this week in a community in Kolar Gold Fields. I have clearly not spent enough time in India yet because I trusted Google Maps’ estimate that the commute would be two and a half hours each way. To me this was worth keeping my spot at the EcoHouse, where all my things have shelves and I can actually relax. The two and a half hours turned into almost four full hours each way. The first day, we took three buses to get there. The rest of the days, we embarked on the Indian passenger train adventure, which basically means that you board a snail-paced train where the cumulative weight of the passengers has to be more than the weight of the train itself. There were moments where I literally could not move my arms, and the level of intimacy from spooning with hundreds of people simultaneously rivals the most committed of relationships. The commute between Bangalore and KGF is exhausting, particularly when whatever food one of the community members fed me for breakfast meant it was risky to spend three hours on a train without a bathroom break.
My favorite interview from this week was held outside of a woman’s house. I sat in a circle with a few women who were telling me about their community. Throughout the forty-minute interview, no less than thirteen goats, eight chickens, four roosters, seven dogs, and three cats vocalized their interest in participation.
Two challenging data collection experiences also happened this week. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with a project engineer and spent two hours getting really rich information on a community I’m studying. He’s since moved on, and now works as a freelancer, mostly spearheading innovative behavior change campaigns with a huge market-driven focus. He spouted a well-articulated philosophy of the catalysts for change start with the individual, and even inspired some hopeful optimism in me for the future of sanitation in India. Flash forward to this week. I gave the same engineer a call, hoping he would be willing to spend just one more hour talking to me about his work in another community. The phone call ended with him yelling at me, refusing to participate in the research further since he didn’t see the benefit for himself. Maybe this is why projects in India are so difficult to accomplish. Sometimes even the most inspirational and dedicated change-makers still have a self-serving streak.
The second notable challenge happened in the very community I was trying to get this engineer to speak about. Like many other slum resettled communities, the men tend to succumb to (as my translator likes to say) “unsociable elements”, namely, alcoholism. Since jobs are infrequent or demand massive commutes, many community members stay home without much to do. The November 2016 demonetization (where PM Modi nullified the Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes – akin to making $10 and $20 bills invalid overnight, but less poor Indians have credit cards) ignited India’s growing pains. While the move aimed to eradicate black money and identify tax evaders, India’s poor were hit the hardest when suddenly life savings disappeared overnight and the largest day labor employers cut jobs since they lacked the cash flow to retain workers. We entered into this scene for our data collection, and in about half of our interviews, encountered a male community member who sought (intentionally and not) to disrupt our work. I was reminded how thankful I am to have such an excellent research assistant and a dutiful translator, as they traded off which one would go and distract the drunk man while the other stood in between and let me continue the work. We were conducting the focus groups for community priorities one day when two drunk men came and suddenly began questioning our presence so often in their community. They have a point, it’s really hard to justify the benefit that my research participants will see from the time they dedicate to my interviews. Tangible change probably honestly will never result for these individuals from my research. It’s hard to navigate how much we should pay attention to the drunk belligerent man, and how much we ignore and try to proceed with our work. But it’s also a strange window into the community when I make eye contact with their wives, who laugh a little, but you know that they deal with this every day.
Not every place is like this. The place we visited in KGF had a highly empowered group of women, one of which adopted me and provided us with home cooked meals and an endless stream of juices, coffee, and tea during our whole stay. The sanitation system we visited is very similar to previous ones I’ve described: a shared community toilet block with a decentralized wastewater treatment system (DEWATS) that consists of a pair of biogas digesters, an anaerobic baffled reactor, and a planted gravel filter. The system worked for ten years, but the community stopped receiving vital operation and maintenance support and were not able to keep up with the system’s demands. In parallel with the sanitation intervention, the NGO created several women’s self-help groups. The self-help groups would rotate O&M responsibility for the system monthly, but were mostly designed to empower the women and position them for poverty alleviation. The self-help groups had the ability to provide micro-loans to women for children’s school fees, house construction, or auto payments. The NGO supported the groups by providing financial and vocational training. At the core of this program is one social worker who has dedicated her entire career to investing in these women. She spent ten hours with us for five straight days and answered every single one of my thousand questions, all while stuffing us full of biriyani. The best part was when she assembled one of the self-help groups for us to meet, and the moment we walked in the room, you could feel the waves of respect the women had for her washing over us. She had fifty pages of handwritten notes about the self-help groups and the community toilets. Her niece joked about how this woman is more attentive to her work than to her own family. She’s dedicated a lifetime to these people—and it’s all the more frustrating when that still isn’t enough for the sanitation project to survive.
Another hilarious part about working in this community was that a young school-aged boy took it upon himself to be our community tour guide. He would run back and forth between households, finding people for us to talk to. Our work happened during the weekdays, so we asked why he wasn’t in school. Apparently this week was vaccination week at school and he’s afraid of shots so he refused to show up.
I’ve also spent a lot of time this week learning about the micro-political climate in the small communities that we study. Direct questions about political oppositions and corruption are not always the easiest to ask, but somehow I (or my whiteness) have been able to find people who are willing to answer every question. My intern and my translator love (or at least frequently) to indulge me in detailed explanations of “how things are in India.” Following an interesting series of interviews where people told us of community infighting that stems from party differences and the power the parties wield, Sridhar recounted for me the many times he’s had to pay bribes to get “simple” things like a voter ID card or documents for his passport. One of the things I appreciate the most is the openness Indians have with telling me about their experiences. And it goes both ways. I have friends here where in one moment I’m telling them about continued racial segregation in the U.S. and in the next I’m learning about the complexities of a court case for the recent imprisonment of one of Tamil Nadu’s top officials.
In other news, I found out that the local store that sells organic milk only buys from cows who “live in maximum comfort with mattress to sleep on.”