Gender Troubles during Fieldwork in India

Bandra train station (Mumbai) was busy and there were long queues to purchase tickets. Brett, who I was to interview that day, told me the train journey would be about 40 minutes so I bought a ticket for the first class carriage as I did not want to arrive all hot and sweaty. It was 31 degrees Celsius that day. When I arrived at the platform however, I was informed by conductors that there was no first class carriage, so I took my place in the ordinary carriage, which was very simple, mostly old steel and the ceiling was lined with small fans. It was very charming somehow, as it was a familiar scene from television and just nice to be with a bunch of ordinary people. I was dressed very discreetly with long cream cotton trousers and a long‒sleeved brown linen shirt. Nevertheless some men did not stop staring. I did not mind at all and I simply tried to avoid their stare. At some of the stations men herded in, literally like cattle, shoving each other out of the way to get their desired position on the train, but I held my ground: second person in from the doorway – I needed the breeze. I was fortunate that there were two, twenty‒something, quite well‒dressed young men standing in that doorway for the duration of my journey. At some point I asked them which stop we were at, and I had the feeling they were really looking out for me. A few beggars got on and one of them, a pregnant lady with her child, would not leave my side and persistently tapped my wrist. I don’t mind, and am very good at simply looking away. One of the boys ended up giving her a coin and told her to leave me alone (in non‒aggressive, Indian body and sign language). Another time when the train was packed with a herd, the other lad nudged a man away from me as he kept on leaning on me because there were so many people in the carriage. Really kind chaps – they did it all so gallantly, not looking at me once for a thank-you or any form of appreciation. Of course they also told me when my stop arrived and all I could do was give them a big smile and a big thank you, which I hope they understood meant ‘thank you very much for everything’.

On another train journey to the same destination two days later, I found myself in a carriage full of only females. It also seemed to me that on this day it was a majority of women on the platform as well. It was about 6pm, and many traders bundled on to the train as well, selling food, hair clips, purses – lots of plastic. I took my position by the doorway and found it so curious that today it was all women so I asked a young woman standing next to me. She began by telling me that it was because everyone was leaving work, and this was a crowded train to be on etc. and I said to her that two days ago it had been only men at around 3.30pm. Then she smiled and said that that was because I was in the male carriage! Whenever I visit India I forget about this differential treatment of men and women on public transport and in public spaces. Similar situations arose at airport security check, where there are different queues for men and women, as well as on the bus where the seats at the front are prioritized for women.

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On my third field trip, I had arranged a pre‒interview with a male German informant who I had spoken to about my project at a regular Friday meet‒up for the Bangalore Expatriate Club. We had arranged to meet at a restaurant in a district that was approximately 25km from where I was staying, which is a long distance to travel in evening traffic. I had great communication problems with the auto‒rickshaw driver, who, in short, did not understand at all where I was asking him to go, but kept on saying ‘yes’ and driving in different directions. I called my informant, Jan, in the hope that he could explain more, but he did not have any greater luck. After about one hour, I deserted the auto‒rickshaw after paying him, and then took two different buses (and one more hour) to reach where I needed to go. When I arrived, one and a half hours late, Jan had left as he thought I was not coming, even though when we spoke I emphasized that I was. I called him and he came back again. The meeting was supposed to be for me to brief Jan more about the project, however Jan seemed to be more interested in me personally than in the project. After a very short time, I decided to abandon the attempt to recruit him as a key informant, remained polite, ate a snack and made the journey home. I felt frustrated on my way home because the journey I had made to meet with Jan was very exhausting, and then I came home with ‘nothing’. In fact, I came home with a great number of different encounters from which I learned a great deal about myself and my research sites and subjects.

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On a follow‒up trip I took in 2012, I stayed for five nights at hotel in Bangalore. I booked through airbnb.com and had thought that I had booked private accommodation. I was surprised to find that I had booked a hotel and thankfully the staff were very friendly and the hotel itself was of a standard that met all of my needs (cleanliness, comfort and internet access) for the time that I would be there. All of the staff were male. On several occasions the service staff would knock on the door and enter my room without waiting for me to respond. The third time this happened, I called down to speak to reception to ask them to ask the staff to wait for a response from me before they entered as it was making me feel uncomfortable. The phonecall had the desired affect and the staff would wait for a response after knocking thereafter.

At the same hotel towards the end of my stay, an employee came to my room one the evening. It was reasonably late as I had had dinner and was getting ready for bed. As a result of our language barriers it took me a couple of minutes to understand that this young man was asking me for my telephone number. When I understood this, I became slightly angry and felt a little exposed. At the same time, I tried to respond in a way that showed my dissatisfaction without being aggressive, as the man was very humble and polite. After he left, I was not sure of what to do because I did not want to get the man into trouble as he may have risked losing his job, yet at the same time, I felt it important to let the management know that this was happening. I decided to wait until the morning and speak to the hotel manager face to face. When I did, I did not tell him exactly what happened, but explained that as a single woman travelling alone, I found it very uncomfortable having male staff in my room and perhaps he could inform his staff that they should be more considerate to this.

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These are some of the stories from my fieldwork which appear as an appendix in my PhD thesis. You are welcome to read more of the thesis here.

I have not been great at writing up recipes and will try to change that! I shall share a couple of vegetarian dishes from the wonderful cookbook by Vidhu Mittal, Pure and Simple, very soon.

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