I was close to a year into my PhD in architectural history at Newcastle University when I began planning my fieldwork in India. My work examines a historic state in the south of India (Mysore), my methods therefore involve working primarily with archives and in some cases, when archives are not available, visiting some of the buildings from this era that still remain. Bangalore, where most of my research is focus, is my hometown and I had planned to stay with my parents who are based out of the city. I knew the archives that I intended to access, had taken permission letters, planned my weeks and felt confident both my methods and resources. But when I ultimately arrived in India for my fieldwork, I found myself feeling like an outsider. It was certainly difficult to immerse myself in the research since much had happened politically in the country but perhaps the most unsettling was feeling amiss because I was now ‘foreign returned’ in the city that I had lived in for over 25 years of my life.
Returning home, I soon realised, has biases that often work against you. While I consider myself an ‘insider’ others did not necessarily always see me that way. For example, I am well versed in the local language, Kannada and felt I would be able to communicate without difficulty. But institutions who saw that I am registered at a foreign institution considered me a ‘foreign’ researcher and in official forms registered me as such. Many assumed that I was also paying a hefty sum to study abroad, and expected me to pay 6 times the price of photocopying not realising my limited grad student finances. Even perhaps my appearance made me seem ‘different’. Being familiar with the cultural norms, I wore jeans and a kurta to the archives to be comfortable, knowing I would spend 7-8 hours there every day. But I still found myself looking odd and realised how these things that I thought were small, did ultimately impact how people perceived me.
I had worked in the building and architecture industry for some time in the city and had felt confident finding leads for my work in areas related to my research. But I realised that what I research and its nature was also left to debate. While my research considers and argues that architecture produced during the colonial era in India is inherently ‘Indian’, general public opinion disagrees with me. The focus of studies and prevailing biases tend to be towards studying ‘Indian’ architecture which is pre-colonial and limited to specific time periods. People really wondered why I would be researching the bearing of colonialism on architecture in the country that had formerly colonised it. Having spent most of my higher education academic career, in the UK, I was familiar with the way archives/libraries operated, the archive was reserved online and once I arrived at the library, it was handed to me and I could access it without difficulty. During fieldwork in Bangalore, sources were more difficult to access, the system was not transparent and often put a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to shame, leading to many moments of frustration and my having to spend a big chunk of my time trying to figure out processes.
My intent is not to discourage anyone from spending time doing fieldwork in your home country or to paint a dismal picture, rather to advice researchers not to take for granted that going back home for fieldwork will be easy. Some of these suggestions below may be obvious for students already familiar with having done fieldwork abroad or in their non-home countries but my insights come from going back to India as an Indian researcher in the UK.
- factor in, adequate time, even if you have obtained permission for access to resources, meetings and interviews. On the ground, realities may be different even if emails have been exchanged.
- Be patient! While it may not always operate the way you intended, you will find your data and in fact, have extremely interesting experiences in doing so.
- Do not assume that coming as a researcher from the UK or elsewhere will help- it may and in cases, it may not.
- Be prepared! Take everything you may possibly need from permission letters to business cards, ID Cards with you so you are able to provide evidence of all sorts, if necessary for institutional permissions.
- Contact people who have already accessed archives, even if they do not have the same background/familiarity as you do with the city.
- The PhD can already feel like an isolating experience, in addition to the time difference and not having met supervisors and friends in your program, fieldwork can make you feel removed from the research. I would encourage you to keep in touch, with both friends, staff members and talk through your fieldwork with them.
While there were things to get used to and to get around, being back home to do research while being around family, friends and many things familiar to you which you have been away from can be it quite wonderful a feeling as an international student. I ended up unearthing some pretty amazing sources, and have been able to quarantine in my home given the timing of everything so there is always a silver lining!