One day in my field

Fieldwork is the most fun part of being an anthropologist. However, there are so many details that are often easy to forget when talking about fieldwork. Since I promised to be a foreign correspondent of sort, I thought I would take this opportunity to take you with me to my field. I spent time between June and December in a South Indian city interviewing people who were involved in organizing and ensuring vaccination there. I have removed identifiers of the city from the text to protect the identities and offices of my participants. One of the most memorable phases of my fieldwork was trying to get official permission to talk to the officials in the city.

The big white Victorian-era building fitted in with the rest of the colonial architecture on the road connecting the headquarters of the Corporation and the busiest railway station in this part of the country. The Corporation is the governing body, similar to the municipality in the Netherlands. This road houses some of the most significant remnants of the colonial past that were a shaping force in the history of the city. I was there that day to meet the Deputy Commissioner of Health for official permission to research vaccination governance. I had taken the car to my destination and even the brief walk from the main road to the big arches of the building’s entrance was a punishment because of the heat. The sun seemed to be intent on burning you.

Right past the gate was a barricade with two men at a desk behind it. They noted down my particulars and asked me where I was going. I was then allowed to approach the building where yet another security officer, this time in the classic beige uniform, asked me which department I wanted to be in. After another round of making my case, I was allowed to walk into the building. There was a decorative canon in the lobby which while decorative did not help with the narrow crowded corridor through which you had to pass. Walking past that, I was greeted by a deeply engraved wooden staircase fitted with red jute carpet. They muffled your footsteps and I wondered if I had dressed too informally in my weather-appropriate slippers and cotton kurtas. Most people who passed me were in similar clothes. Some though were wearing formal shoes and had their shirts tucked in. I figured that these were the more “official” bureaucrats, the civil servants. The rest were peons and helpers who were more casually and weather appropriately decked.

This building houses all the offices of the commissioners of the GCC. Every officer also had a Personal Assistant (PA) assigned to him. This PA would then have assistants depending on how important the commissioners' role was. Furthermore, there were individual security personnel for each of these commissioners. The Deputy Commissioner of Health’s office was tucked into one corner of the huge building. There was a row of plastic chairs arranged outside for visitors. His PA’s office was at the side with a separate door to access his room. This was my first stop and I recalled a friend saying that knowing the middle man can save you a lot of time in the field. I had no idea how to get into his good books. So I just hoped being respectful, and humble would help. I interrupted him with a soft “Good Morning Sir” and offered my letter.  

He skimmed through it briefly before telling me that I could wait and the DC would arrive in some time. There were many files and papers around him and he had barely glanced at me. When I stepped out again, I realized that the high ceilings (part of the grandeur of the colonial past) were a bane in the heat of the tropics because the fans were that much further away from you. I pulled my chair closer to the PA’s room. There was a table fan at his desk and I could get some air my way if I placed the angle right. It was 11.25 am.  I started a wait that was the first of many and longer than I always expected.