Staying Afloat: Reflections on Anthropology and Everyday Life

15673Today we have a guest post from Ann Grodzins Gold, Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University and author of Shiptown: Between Rural and Urban North India. Shiptown is based on Gold's ethnographic research while living in the small North Indian market town Jahazpur for ten months, recording interviews and participating in festival, ritual, and social events. Gold's book reflects her conviction that, even in the globalized present, local experiences are significant, and that anthropology—that most intimate and poetic of the social sciences—continues to foster productive conversations among human beings. In this post, she expounds upon this idea, drawing upon personal reflections as well as insights from her research.

Shiptown, my book's title, literally translates Jahazpur—the real name of a small municipality in Rajasthan, North India. If anthropologists have not totally ignored India's thousands of small towns, they have certainly neglected them, preferring by and large to focus on village or city. Jahazpur is neither. For over a quarter-century I personally experienced such towns merely as where I changed buses, purchased bananas or savored fried snacks. I came to study Jahazpur by following (as usual) the lead of Bhoju Ram Gujar—an associate and dear friend with whom I have collaborated on research for more than 30 years. Bhoju moved most of his family to Jahazpur, if only temporarily, for the sake of better schools and an easier commute; while visiting him I began to see beyond the bus stand to the town's charms and fascinations.

Just what I learned in Jahazpur over the better part of a year's residence and persistent if selective ethnographic fieldwork, I hope you will decide to read about in Shiptown. Here I address a potential reader's burning question: why bother? What can anthropological glimpses of everyday life in one small town offer us in this era of global glitter, technological wizardry, and heightened fear? I'll highlight three possibilities.

affinity with ordinary people • I wrote Shiptown in a personal voice and I remain present throughout its pages. My work in anthropology has regularly ducked below the structures of power to attend to the ways ordinary people live their lives, and to hear what they say about what is meaningful to them. In an earlier book on local history, for example, I recount how an old woman had vividly described to me a protest against the British which had taken place nearby, about 45 years in the past. I asked her if she herself had participated, and her reply was this: "Nobody from our house went on that day. We were harvesting our lentils." These words capture something at the core of my anthropology. I am not a farmer, nor are most of the people in Shiptown, yet like this woman, our priorities remain close to home.

In Shiptown you will not meet many leaders or wielders of power. We did record some activists with appreciation for their rousing efforts. Yet this book largely concerns persons most powerfully motivated to sustain their family's livelihoods and to ensure their children's futures. Such motivations trump political or religious fervor. Because my own choices in life, as I see them from the vantage of age 70, have been similarly framed, I recognize an affinity between who I am and how I practice anthropology. This may be the source of the honesty that some reviewers find remarkable and almost disconcerting, but that for me is inescapable.


Ann visits her former neighbor, Samud (Photo by Bhoju Ram Gujar)

pluralism • Neither isolated nor cosmopolitan, Jahazpur is self-consciously diverse. The town's citizens include Jains, Muslims, and Hindus but these broad categories encompass many additional, significant internal social divisions. Identity politics are certainly at play in Jahazpur, but they are subsumed within a healthily integrated world of commerce and sociability.

I observed a plural community that, most of the time, worked. Reluctantly but doggedly, with Bhojuram's help, I investigated two moments of fissure that haunted Shiptown's collective memory. Both took place in the 1980s and both were evidently precipitated by the tentacles of national political agitations extending into the local. The shock of these events, deemed "riots"—a word most often uttered by interviewees in scare-quotes—remained resonant in 2010. Both Hindus and Muslims insisted, however, that "not a single drop of blood was spilled." A return to "normal" was crucial for trade, the town's economic foundation. Responsible shopkeepers from all communities and neighborhoods willingly participate in "good-feeling" committees instituted by local government to prevent inter-community disturbances.

If you pursue Shiptown's account of these disturbances you will understand that they are far from negligible. Yet coexistence prevails here, an everyday peace in which occasional moments of tension are countered by norms of hospitality and flashes of humor. I aim as a writer to lay stress on the latter without blacking out the former. I seek to highlight how friendships and common cultural practices create overlapping identities, soft not rigid, curious not defensive. Peace among neighbors is an ongoing, fragile but precious project.

compassion • Jahazpur's peculiar twinned origin legends define the town as a land without compassion. Chapter 1 tells how Bhojuram and I extensively tracked those tales and elicited interpretations whenever possible. Along the way we encountered expressions of both interpersonal and ecological moralities. You'll learn in Shiptown that although everyone knows the stories of the pitiless land, few acknowledge these old tales' relevance to the present everyday.

After every correction had been made and my manuscript-ship had been launched fully out of my hands, I learned from a colleague at Vanderbilt, Elliott McCarter, that there is another place in North India with a "pitiless land" legend attached to it. That place is Kurukshetra, the site of the epic Mahabharata war. As in Jahazpur, the local story is extraneous to the Mahabharata, but linked with it. First I was distraught, as any scholar would be, that such a crucial footnote would not see the light of day. I conclude my first-ever blog post by mentioning this, not simply to satisfy that doomed academic compunction for thoroughness, but to point out something intriguing. In the great Sanskrit epic, Kurukshetra the physical battlefield is also dharmakshetra, or the moral field of human action. A vital struggle is ongoing, but not between good and evil as fixed, readily distinguished forces. Rather it is a struggle to discern what is moral and to live life accordingly. Disparate viewpoints may possess situational validity. Cosmic vision can render doubts irrelevant but not for long. Maybe like Kurukshetra, Shiptown is special in this regard. Could a heightened awareness that the very soil beneath their feet is mythologically endowed with ruthlessness provoke Jahazpur residents to consider the value of compassion?


At Swasti Dham Atishay Kshetra, Jahazpur Jains construct a new temple in the form of a ship (Photo by Ann Grodzins Gold)

In my book, ship is a polyvalent metaphor. With it I gesture to passages from village to town, and back again. Ships are steered, they depart, they arrive, they transport, and—with a mix of skilled navigation and luck—they may stay afloat in a storm.

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