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Reading While Writing While Reading

By Bhoomika Joshi

As writers, scholars, teachers and researchers, we read. We prepare for each day and for the course of our commitments with reading. That is our labour – to read. To read with attention and passion in equal measure. Reading to a large extent is our initiation into academia – our introduction to what we define as our fields, our disciplines and our interests. We write far less than we read in our academic lives, especially if you are an ethnographer like me. We read to appreciate, to reject, to engage and to insert ourselves into discourses we may never write about. Once we have read, we imagine we can write. As academics, we re-read with the same labour as we rewrite, and often we re-read to re-write. We write between the lines with as much astuteness as with which we read between the lines. Both reading and writing are equally exhaustive, evocative, cathartic and methodical. However, we seemed to have arrived at a situation where the flourish of writing is expected to burst through the din of reading. When writing can’t wait, reading must. The copious years of reading must funnel into the writing that becomes our mark on the academic world while our reading lists rest listlessly in footnotes and bibliographies. Writing, increasingly, is deemed as the end of reading.

Our academic training ends up slotting reading and writing as discrete activities. More than often, writing comes after reading – we mostly read so that we can write. Rarely does writing precede reading. The relationship between reading and writing has become that of a follow-up, determined by the logistics of input and output. We depend upon reading to fix the gap in our writing, like a searchlight that can help us put things in their place. We troubleshoot writing malfunctions by reading. This is the strangest distortion, perhaps even an inversion of the writing and reading process to the extent that we tend to believe that we cannot write until we read. Surely, it is a gesture of gratitude and of assuring our self that we are never the first to tread our particular path. But we are also led to believe that reading must not come in the way of writing. Reading can be instrumental but must not be disruptive. The ways in which academic writing is published, read and studied establishes it as an outcome of reading. Writing is deemed eventful, marked by a date that becomes a biographic sliver while reading just passes by.

The strangeness of this distortion and inversion confronted me acutely as I prepared myself for fieldwork. What will I carry to read with me? The question nagged me. I transitioned to academia after a few years of not being with it. During these years, I read choicely. My reading choices had become a maze, flowing into each other as much as straying from each other. The fear of being ill equipped with reading had hounded me during coursework since I could no longer read by prescription alone. So, when I prepared to depart for fieldwork, a sense of choice filled me again. As a student of anthropology, I have been encouraged to rest on ethnography as a way of writing, thinking and practising research. For each ounce of weight, I had given to preparing for writing ethnographically, I had barely thought about reading while writing ethnographically. This question nagged me to the extent that I got nervous about reading altogether. Unlike the time spent directed by readings during coursework, fieldwork writing could not be curated by a list to read. Reading extensively had helped me arrive at the possibilities of ethnography but now I felt limited by it.

Unlike reading, I knew I was going to be writing a lot. After all, one had learnt enough about the excitement as well as the ennui of fieldworkers and their constant companionship with fieldnotes. Writing, unlike reading, I was sure was going to be daily work. That is what the end of a fieldwork day is (supposed to be) made of – it was not a choice I had to make. I was going to write – to remember, to record – like a scribe. It reminded me of what Rangnath, the protagonist said to the truck driver who gave him a ride to Shivpalganj (where he was headed for ‘research’) in Shrilal Shukl’s Raag Darbari (Rajkamal 1983). When the driver asked Rangnath about what he was up to, he responded wittily, “Ghaas khod rahan hoon, ise angrezi mein research kehte hain”/ “I have been digging up grass, what is known as research in English”. I imagined fieldwork writing field notes as laborious and as ordinary as that. However, my preparation to dig up grass, analogically speaking, had been mostly through reading. In yet another inversion, I was going to write the most I ever had before, and read the least while I did so. Ethnographic writing, I was going to realise soon, is rarely ever an aftermath of reading. On the other hand, it constitutes much of the reading one does as an ethnographer during fieldwork.

I have written everywhere – on the phone, on small scraps of paper, on the margins of the newspapers, on voice recordings to myself – in three different languages. I have scanned odd things, drawn descriptive maps and sketches, and often indicated my mood with a choice of a certain colour in ink. I have re-learnt a language I thought I knew well and coined a few neologisms of my own, and actively stocked pamphlets and brochures. My recordings are noisy, and rarely if ever ‘neat and clean’. And there is the field notebook, which I had first actively distinguished from my personal journal. Very quickly, and reluctantly on my part, they became one. Now, I have a field notebook, a more reflective notebook, a notebook for indexing archival research, a scrapbook for newspaper cuttings, a notebook that my fieldwork companion wrote in, and two annual planners. And I have photos of course, several photos – which renders my experience into a visual archive. I have some sarkari documents, and two folders among others on my computer, one of which says “fieldwork data” and the other “fieldwork written up”. I have material from institutionalised archives with institutionalized access, and those that are part of public memory and circulation. This is what my writing looks like – very different from the neat and measured proposals I had directed it with. The first few months I joked defensively each time someone asked me about my “research”. I could have said ghaas khod rahi hoon/ I am digging up grass in as much as I said, “I feel like I am compiling a handbook, perhaps an encyclopaedia”.

Academic writing is cultivated to demonstrate what and whom you read. The practice of citing and referencing aside, when we write, we think of whom we have read and who will read us. As a bilingual writer and reader, my fieldwork writing compelled me towards reading choices that spanned my social and literary bilingual field-worlds. These were the kind of texts that were barely ‘referenced’ in the ‘relevant literature’ that had made up my proposal writing. I began with reading authors who wrote of and in the social worlds of my ‘field’, and exclusively those who had not been translated to the language of global academia, whose work had (yet) not become the subject of scholarly criticism and discussion in dominant languages. I began to curate a scene that dotted such writers – of pamphlets and poems, of novels and pop songs, of weekly news and slogans. Each time I made a choice about reading, I felt anxious – about judging who deserved the seemingly exceptional durée of fieldwork. I set up challenges for myself – to read simultaneously a work of a career academic from what I identified as ‘relevant’ to my research interest, and someone removed from the world of cross-referencing and academic publishing. I poured over literary magazines and novels to devour the various genres of writing that convey a sensibility that is not merely academic. My writing sensibility has been challenged by both the scene I have curated and imaginatively inserted myself into and the ‘academic scene’ I am expected to enter, pre-curated for me. Do I have to alter my reading choices once again when I ‘write up’? The idea of reading as such often impedes my writing. But it has also made me realize that our choice as readers of academic texts is limited by the expectations of us as academic writers. If we still exercise some amount of discretion in what we write and how we write it, reading is set apart from that choice we have as students, scholars, teachers and researchers. In its academic avatar, reading is prized mostly for making its way into writing.

Vinayak, the protagonist of Ramesh Chandra Shah’s Gobar Ganesh (Rajkamal 1977), is insisted upon by his uncle to write him a limerick for a beedi (cigarette) when he is caught writing a poem at the back of a receipt bill, as a test for his claim to be a poet. The uncle, Mathur Kakka, suggests that it should neither be too long nor too short. And that it should also be easy to render to music over a mic so that thousands of people at a fair are able to notice it. He adds that it should also refer to all the other beedi brands in the market and poise itself as the best! By way of example, Mathur Kakka tells Vinayak that he should keep Charan Singh in mind for inspiration, a man who is very popular for singing a well-known ballad from the radio station daily. Vinayak feels mismatched between Charan Singh, a folk ballad broadcast from a radio station and Maithilisharan Gupt and Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ who have been taught as poets to him in school.  Much like Vinayak, and his mismatched relationship with Mathur Kakka’s suggestions, reading while writing can be mismatched, fraught and fragmented. Writing and reading are acts of inspiration. More and more however, we have divorced reading from inspiration and imagination. And reduced it as a means to an end which makes reading and writing, as well as readers and writers suffer. In its academic avatar, Vinayak has only to read to write. And that is why we need to think about reading and writing together, and most importantly, about reading while writing while reading.

Ethnographers are advised and encouraged to keep writing through the duration of fieldwork, the preparation for which constitutes mostly reading and least writing. There is a series of breaks in our craft, in our disposition. Speculative writing prior to fieldwork must give way to particular field note writing during fieldwork and a peculiar template of academic writing after. At least, that is the formulae we come to bear. Somehow, reading is not imagined to be either fraught or fragmented. We read widely, and selectively. We read primarily within our disciplines, and very rarely outside it. We read for initiation and we read for closure. However, if there are prescriptive forms of academic writing that are being contested, academic training predisposes one to prescribed forms and content of reading that are seen as more readily acceptable in writing. What we read determines, to a great extent, what we write. And fieldwork and ethnographic writing will tell you that what we write determines, to an equally great extent, what we read. If it takes us long to understand how only one kind of academic writing is not the final and only way of communicating our sensibilities, it takes us even longer to understand how only one kind of reading can neither prepare us nor make its way into the kind of sensible texts we want to write and read. Reading while writing while reading is just that – to read and write in conversation with each other – an opportunity and a practice that can push the separation between reading and writing.

“She was Having a Field Day” Image Source Bhoomika Joshi

Bhoomika Joshi
is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Yale University. Her research interests include the study of generation, identity and region as articulated in the discourses on development, mobility and religiosity in the central Indian Himalayas. Dull days of ethnography compel her to write Hinglish poetry and Hindi prose. She is a soon to be published author in Hindi with Lachchi by Vani Prakashan, and blogs infrequently at Merrily, Ordinarily.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Monica #


    August 9, 2019

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