Apala’s War Story: Whose side is the researcher on?

Apala Lahiri Chavan, Chief Oracle and Innovator at HFI relates a tale about her own distress when faced with a difficult household situation.

In one of the very early research projects I worked on in India, we learned many best practices that became part of our research guidelines. However, there were parts of the experience that I have not quite gotten over even, after 12 years.

We were researching in-home media usage in India for a multinational tech company from the USA. The research targeted lower middle class households from across the country, both urban and rural. My colleague Amita and I were covering the northern Indian state of Punjab. This particular evening we were visiting a semi-urban household near the city of Chandigarh.

It was 6pm when we reached the location. We had to leave the car behind and walk the last few yards since the lane was too narrow. As we entered the gate of the house, a group of ladies came out of the house and welcomed us. They had marigold garlands for us to wear and a lit earthen lamp with which evil spirits were warded off.

We were welcomed inside the house and ushered into a tiny but neat living room. One elderly lady who had garlanded us was the mother-in-law. She invited us to sit on a rug on the floor. She sat down too and so did a number of other people – the entire neighbourhood was there.

The mother-in-law and some of the other elderly women from the neighbourhood did their own in-depth interview where we the participants! We were asked about our age, income, husbands, caste, education, number of children, size of house, TV serials we watched, and so on. On hearing that neither of us had children though we were married, a hush descended upon the group. After a few tense moments, the mother-in-law told us to have faith in God and not give up hope. We looked down into our plates, wondering what would happen if we told them we did not have children out of choice!

Some young girls had also joined the gathering inside the living room (which had spilled out to the gate and into the kitchen). One girl rushed home to get us some dessert that she had made that day!

By the time the gup-shup (friendly chatter) was over it was 7:30pm. Even though we were used to the fact that time stretched quite a bit in India and hence a session slated for an hour could stretch to an hour and a half (after all, the concept of time in India was circular unlike the linear concept of time in the West) this was beyond what either of us had experienced. But there was no possibility of hurrying anybody. How could we tell a group of extremely hospitable and warm people that our time was more important than their company?

At last, we started the session with the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. As we realized that the neighbours were not about to leave, Amita and I looked at each other and decided that it was fine to have the neighbours since they were clearly like a large, extended family.

As the father-in-law, two sons and the other daughter-in-law were not back from work yet, this was women’s time. However, it became clear within the first ten minutes that this daughter-in-law was not going to speak her mind in front of her mother-in-law and the other neighbourhood matrons. We did some quick improvisation: I asked the daughter-in-law to show me the house (they knew this would be part of the interview) while my colleague continued to speak with the mother-in-law. This worked very well and while she showed me the house I got to hear the daughter-in-law’s story (e.g., how she never got to watch any television she wanted or listen to any music she chose, and so on).

It was 8:30pm or so when the men of the house returned from work. Instantly, the atmosphere changed. Until then the mother-in-law and the other matrons had been the ‘bosses’ of the session but now everything changed. The father-in-law and the two sons were clearly in control. Mother-in-law now scurried about between kitchen and living room and many of the neighbourhood matrons and girls left. This was a very high power distance culture after all!

We were fortunate that we had the time to speak with the ladies while the men were not around. Had they been around from the beginning, we would have not heard any of the ladies speak. Even as we carried on the conversation with the men, we suddenly noticed that there was a young lady standing at the living room door. There was a hint of aggression in her posture that made it difficult to ignore her. However, everyone else in the room seemed to not even see her.

Then as the elder son was telling us about his media usage preferences, a most unexpected thing happened. The young lady at the door suddenly stormed into the room and started addressing us.

She screamed and howled about the physical abuse and dowry harassment she was being subjected to by her husband (the son who was speaking) and the mother-in-law. She shouted “He made my poor parents buy him that expensive TV that he has been talking about. Now he wants them to buy him a VCR. Where are they going to get the money for that?”

We were absolutely stunned and just as we began to get our wits together, her husband got up, caught her by the hair and gave her two resounding slaps across the face. He told her – in the most abusive language – to go up to her room.

Enough was enough. Both of us sprang up to our feet and stood between the man and his wife. He was unperturbed and tried to pick up the thread of the conversation with us, as if nothing had happened. His parents said “This daughter-in-law is a bad woman and needs to be kept in control since she shames us.”

We were still standing in front of the daughter-in-law who was now alternating between weeping bitterly and screaming in rage. We had to make a critical decision. What should we do? What was our role in this situation? We were researchers who were supposed to maintain our neutrality and objectivity but was that the right thing to do? Should we not call the police’s Crimes Against Women section and complain about the husband and his parents? Should we not protect this woman who was being abused?

But before we could do anything, the daughter-in-law ran out of the house screaming and made a dash for the main gate. Not one of her family responded and told to ignore the nautanki (drama) and continue the conversation.

We said to the family that we would not be able to continue, given what had happened. We handed over the cash incentive and walked out of the house. We looked up and down the lane but we could not see the daughter-in-law anywhere. It was little after 10pm when we got into our car and drove off.

I have not been able to come to terms with that one incident even today. I felt that in order to be a “good” researcher I had betrayed that girl who was being abused and a much larger cause. Should one not be an activist ethnographer, when the situation demands?


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