Coming Back Around

bus signboards in Hindi

Well, the Fulbright adventure is over, and I didn’t do a very good job of keeping this thing updated. Two problems: time to sit down and write tended to come in the research slumps, when it seemed like there was no point to any of it. Not the best writing motivation. And, when one of those slumps would end with a phone call telling me to get out to this village, NOW, whatever I had half-written would suddenly seem irrelevant as I learned once again that everything I knew was wrong.

So now that I’m back in the US, I’ll do what I can to catch y’all up. And being a firm follower of John Law’s reworking of research method as research mess, I’ll do it all out of order every which way. So: let’s begin at the end.

Making the rounds to get out to various villages one last time, I spent a lot of time ruminating on how much my bus riding skills had improved (there’s not much else one can do while bumping along on the local bus). I remembered my first passage through Baijnath bus station, wending through the chaos following the beckoning hand of the conductor who was guiding me to my next ride, plopping down in a seat with no idea how this particular bus had been singled out as the one I needed to be on. Back then every row of shops looked the same, and I was baffled at how people knew when it was their stop. The first time I did a longer distance trip, I kept asking about timings and reservations because I refused to accept the advice to just get down to the highway and wait for the next bus heading in the right general direction.

By the end I could read the signboards on my own, even fast enough to flag down the right bus as it was trundling past on the road (it helped that they had to go pretty slowly around the curves, and that basically the whole road was a curve). Waiting at the station, it was not uncommon to run into someone I knew (or, more likely, someone who knew me). I learned how to decipher the bus conductors’ rapid-fire incantations as they called out their routes. I learned not to be phased when we would suddenly pull over and the conductor would shuffle us onto another bus, handing over our fare and listing all our stops. And I learned how to hop from station to station until I got to where I wanted to go—and how to recognize when I got there.

One nice thing about having a cyclical research topic, and an inefficient research method, is that you get second chances. I wish I could have stayed another 6 months to get a do-over of the autumn shearing season with the knowledge and language skills that I have now. But I know that the sheep will still be there in another year and a half, and I’ll be able to figure out which bus to hop on to get to them.


As any of my colleagues conducting interviews or participant observation in India will likely agree, drinking tea is a serious part of the research process here. Since my home institution’s campus happens to include an organic tea garden, I’ve also been able to learn about the process of tea cultivation first hand. (What does this have to do with wool research, you might ask? Well, it’s one of the multiple intertwining agricultural cycles that any local wool value chain intervention will need to accommodate. Plus, it’s just cool!)

Late January-Early February: pruning


Institute programming takes a winter break during this time, so the housekeeping staff spent most of their work days hacking away at the “grass” (this term refers to any plant, whether it’s a botanical grass or not, that grows up in untended patches of land) and pruning the tea bushes. After several days of insisting that the work would be too difficult for me, they finally let me take a turn with the loppers. “Kaisa lag raha?” (“How do you like it?”) they kept asking, until I finally announced to everyone’s astonishment that I have in fact done yard work before. I found their disbelief simultaneously exasperating and hilarious, as pruning camellias is probably the most middle class, suburban American activity I could possibly undertake in rural India.

Late April-Early May: harvesting

Once the new growth came in, it was time to pluck tender leaves and buds. Each bush can be harvested 3 times, and harvest days had to be planned around the intermittent thunderstorms that have started up in anticipation of monsoon. Most of the tea has been sent to be processed by machine, but some has been processed in-house (like, literally in the house that I live in) and by hand.

After harvesting, the leaves are left to wilt for a day and then are kneaded by hand to squeeze out moisture. With musical and dance entertainment.


Finally, the leaves are left out to dry in the sun (assuming there is any…).

Then, after all that, it’s time to sit down and relax with a cup of Kangra tea!

Catching the Bus

Bus stop–one measure of my Hindi progress is how many of the water conservation slogans painted on it I can read.

Sometimes research is like waiting for a bus in the Himalayas. You wait and wait and wait, and 6 buses go by in the other direction, and 2 go by in your direction but they’re school buses full of kids in blazers and ties, and just when you’ve decided to start walking the 3 km down to the highway (or, you’re already at the highway and you’ve decided to get a sandwich at the roadside cart), 3 buses in a row come around the bend and you’re running and waving and hoisting yourself up and the conductor’s yelling jaldi karo! and the door is slamming and you’re on your way.

It’s been like that lately. I’d been in a bit of a funk–frustrated that most people I’ve met just tell me that wool work is over, and faced with the interminable task of fluffing 5 kg of wool by hand. Then last week by chance I met an organic apple farmer from Chamba who told me he could help me out with contacts for my work. Two days after we met I called him up just to touch base and hopefully schedule a meeting sometime within the week. “Where are you staying? Is there a bus to Dhraman?” “Yes.” “OK, call me when you get there.” “Oh, you mean…today? Now?” “Yes, within the hour.” So all of a sudden, instead of a slow day working out some sampling statistics (and fluffing wool), I found myself touring the state government wool scouring and packing facility, photographing piles of striped and checked blankets, and staggering under the weight of luanchari as his aunt dressed me up in Gaddi finery.

After that whirlwind, I fell sick for a few days (people have been blaming it on the fact that I put my hands in cold water while washing wool, but I think it was more likely the 3 actual, very crowded buses that I rode while catching the metaphorical bus). Just as I was surfacing from that, —jaldi karo!—I met folks from the Centre for Pastoralism, who let me tag along on their meeting with the leaders of a local herders’ group, one of whom is a weaver who I’ve cold-called a few times over the past couple months to no avail. She showed me a picture of all the wool she is processing at her home right now, and told me that her household processes 30-50 kgs of wool. 30-50 kgs! Wool work is NOT over.

As I’m nearing the half-way mark of my grant (and the accompanying midterm report), it’s exciting to have things suddenly start coming together. I’m looking forward to another pastoralists’ meeting next week, including figuring out how we can collaborate on a field project with art and design students coming from Bangalore in February. And hey, I’m almost through fluffing one kg of wool, and ready to take it to the mill! Which means yet another bus ride…jaldi karo!

Lines of Growth

A farmer directed me to take a shortcut through his harvested rice fields, but it turned into a longcut because I was frankly uncertain what “सीधे जाओ” (go straight) meant in this context:

sidhe jaao

Walking and thinking with: Tim Ingold.

An Ethnographer in a Land of Tourists

So then I turn around and it’s been a month. I came over to Kullu valley for a wedding and stayed on for work, and am about to head back to Kangra. In the meantime some work has happened, and some fun, and a lot of multi-sited fieldwork FOMO.

Cutting to the chase, for those looking for pics of an extravagant Kullvi wedding: you can find several hundred of them here. I know there are several people following this blog who are not on facebook, but have no fear! The page should be visible even to folks without a fb account. The whole shebang was well documented by professional photographers, so I focused on experiencing the thing and only took a few pictures when no one else was. As a female guest on the groom’s side, I mostly hung out with the women of his extended family, so that’s mostly who you’ll see in my photos. Being explicit about the locations (physical and social) from which I take my photos (and make my observations) was already important to me before, but as I’ll describe below, my experiences at this wedding really amplified that commitment.

Before coming here, I’d been staying in a much more rural area without any tourism infrastructure. So this time coming to Kullu felt like landing up in the city–there’s cappuccino! And traffic jams! There are 2 ATMs, neither of which is a guy with a bag of cash! Since a multi-day function with several thousand guests was happening at the house where I usually stay, I spent about the first week of my stay here in a hotel up at the touristy end of town near the castle. It gave me a very different perspective on the place–in the morning when I came out of my room all I saw were tourists and the locals cooking parathas for them at the couple dhabas that were open at breakfast time. While I can see the castle from the house, I can also see Chachiji working on her loom on the verandah next door, kids on their way to school, sales guys trudging up the path with piles of rugs twice their weight on their backs. You know, life. Life swirling around me, but not centered around me. You can see this life from the castle too, but from a not-coincidentally panoptical vantage point.

So, I started my days with Foucauldian ruminations, and then descended into the swirl of wedding activity (much of which was actually just waiting around, but still felt pretty busy). On the 3rd day, we headed to the bride’s village, and that’s when the white guilt really hit hard. Because milling around in the chaat courtyard, I noticed several people who definitely seemed to be there for the spectacle (and the free food) rather than the celebration. I saw someone giggling “khana khana!,” and someone (not the hired photographers) standing in front of seated guests in order to get better shots of the bride and groom, and someone asking for information about the wedding practices and then filming themself explaining in omniscient narrator mode. I found this all pretty gross.

From my perspective, it was one thing to film us from the balcony as we danced through the streets, but something else entirely to crash the reception. When I asked one of my friends about it, he said it was fine–everyone is invited, and if you’re cooking for 4000, what’s 5 more? He certainly has a point, but it still bothered me. This lavish, everyone’s-invited extravaganza was part of a reciprocal web of celebrations, and we’re not really a part of that.

I say “we” because for every tourist that I gave the side-eye, I had to ask myself–is what I’m doing really that much different? Aren’t I also crashing the party, telling other people’s stories for my own benefit? And even if it is different, to what extent is it enabled by the tourism infrastructure that I’m rolling my eyes at? Next week I’m attending a workshop on visual storytelling for social change, so I’ll be continuing to wrestle with questions how I am, and should be, representing the work here.

The Inverse Interview

In the last few days, several people have been asking me how my work is going. I might be projecting my own insecurities here, but I feel like the subtext of this question is, “have you actually been doing any work?” I have yet to conduct a formal interview, or get my hands on any local wool, and have been filling my time with what probably seems like aimless puttering—knitting a few rows on my almost-finished shrug, or going for walks around the villages. But that stuff is actually part of my work.

dukaan path
On the way to the dukaan–the local equivalent of the bodega. No cats, but plenty of horses.

Knitting and walking have made space for what I’ve begun to think of as the “inverse interview.” I have not seen this mentioned as an interview format in any methodology textbooks or IRB checklists, but I’m finding it to be pretty useful. In these interviews, the tables are turned—I’m in the hot seat, and the people into whose work and lives I hope to intrude are asking me the tough questions about mine. (Tough partly because even though I’m understanding more Hindi every day, I still usually need to hear something at least twice before I get it, and then 2/3 of the way through my reply I fumble the verb conjugation. If I didn’t fumble right at the start with the wrong declension of the wrong pronoun. But I digress.)

So, for example, I might be out for a walk, and as I pass someone’s house they will call out to me “baitho!” (sit!). The following scenario will then unfold: me sitting on a chair that’s been dragged inside, the whole family sitting cross-legged on a bed in front of me, grilling me with questions about my family and my marriage prospects. I will, frankly, be relieved when the tea arrives and the conversation quiets down a bit.

The knitting interview is a bit less fraught. People are generally most curious about the following aspects of my project:

  • how fat my yarn is (I’m currently working with Reynolds Lopi, which is bulky, but not remarkably so in the U.S. Here it’s unfathomable)
  • if it’s real wool (yes—this highlights the fact that the English word “wool” is often used here to refer to yarn, which makes explaining my research a bit more complicated. Of course, to go meta, that complication of explaining my research is one of the things I’m researching)
  • if it’s local wool (no)
  • where it’s brought from (with this question I’m never sure if people want to know whether I brought it from the U.S. with me, or where the sheep were—so I generally try to answer with both)
  • what’s up with my knitting needles (to save space in my luggage I only brought my set of Addi-Clicks—here there’s nothing but straights)
  • where’s the rest of it (there is no rest of it—it’s just sleeves connected across the back)
  • what? Why would anyone make something like that? (truly, I don’t know)
  • when am I going to finish (I’ve made slow progress since I’ve arrived, mainly because I don’t actually get it out that much and also because I’m trying to replicate the cabling pattern from looking at the other sleeve, and have to keep tearing things out when I’ve figured out that I figured it out wrong. Also, the local knitters knit hella fast! While walking! On rocky terrain! In flip-flops! It boggles my mind)

Questions like these help point out (for both sides) things that we tend to take for granted about our practices (like how many different sizes of yarn there are). They help me formulate my own questions to investigate—why is the range of yarn sizes available so small? Why doesn’t anyone do bulky knits? Why do people seem to use handspun only for weaving, not for knitting?

Hm, this all reminds me that my first progress report is due tomorrow…

Happy Sair

Monsoon is over! It’s been at least 2, maybe 3 days since the last rain, and this weekend was the local holiday of Sair officially marking the change of seasons. It’s an extremely local holiday—I’ve spent September in another valley in the state, and never heard of Sair before. There’s been disagreement among us “outsiders” as to the nature of the holiday—whether it’s a harvest festival, or a celebration of having survived the monsoon. I, of course, pointed out that it could be both/and. Rinku’s cab driver confirmed: because the rice is still standing at the end of monsoon, we’re in the clear for a good harvest. Survival of the more-than-human community! I love it.

rice paddies at Sair

Saroj Didi, one of the institute’s kitchen-and-grounds staff, invited us programming-staff-and-assorted-oddballs (that would be me) to her house for a feast of babaru (puffy fried bread), greens from what I’ve finally figured out is what I know as “elephant ears,” and several other tasty things that I’ve forgotten.

ornamental or row crop? depends on context

Rinku and I had made some banana bread with bananas left over from the previous week’s gender workshop, so we brought that along to share. Since Sair, everybody’s been pushing various coconut breads and fennel cookies on us. Today at lunch Saroj Didi made her own version of banana bread apne dimaag se (from her own mind).

Wherever you are, and whatever you’ve recently survived, happy Sair! We made it through.

Saroj Didi’s altar for Sair

Research (it can’t be all trekking all the time…)

Yesterday I spent some quality time with Google Translate, slogging my way through a “sheep calendar” published by the state government’s Wool Federation. I know I could just ask someone else to read it for me in about 5 minutes, but it’s been a good language learning exercise. My already-weird Hindi vocabulary, which included words like “heddles” and “alum,” now also includes “fodder,” “foot and mouth disease,” and “gelding” (which Google also claims translates to “deforestation”–will have to check on that one). Spending a whole day on a one-page document has also led me to some questions about this publication–the biggest one being, who exactly is it for? I don’t imagine any shepherds wonder what they should be feeding their sheep this month, and go look it up online. They know all this, and in greater detail and nuance than the one paragraph per season allotted in the calendar. Besides which, there is no mention of any migratory cycle–kind of a major oversight in a region known for its…indigenous migratory shepherds.

In the afternoon I took a break to go visit the children’s learning center further down the path, where I hung out in the making/science lab for a bit watching one of the teachers learn to throw pots. Among other gadgets assembled out of trash, there was a YARN PEN (!) which was out of commission, but just needed a bit of re-threading. Teacher friends, take note: you too can make a yarn pen for your classroom!

The walk back uphill to the hostel was made somewhat less grueling by the always stunning view, and the promise of tasty future dinners growing in the gardens along the way.

Now it’s on to the 2003 Sheep Census…