Thinking with Place: Encounters with India

Back on Canadian soil I revisit my seemingly never-ending web of data, a desk overflowing with sticky-notes, pictures, art clippings, video files, penciled quotes and anecdotes – fleeting memories and endless curiosities – the mismatched traces of my existence in India. Holding onto the eclecticity of these scattered pieces and thinking about where to go next, I have been feeling increasingly appreciative and connected to the value of Place in research.

Growing up in a dominantly westernized culture, rooted in the “coproduction of capitalism and science” (Smith, 2008 as cited in Tuck & McKenzie, 2015, p. 635), I have been nurtured with an ideological sense of social separation from the land I inhabit. Common North American, neoliberal descriptions of the place I live might infer that I am indeed existing in a sort of bubble – the human world, a place that is disconnected, even superior, from the organic spaces around it. In my Vancouver home, I live with walls around me, I walk on a floor suspended from the earth and I look outside through the protection of my glass windows. My skin is warm, my feet are clean and I hold an assurance of safety in a man-made isolation. Many of the families I spent time with in India operate in homes with walls which have holes where the sun and wind peek through, the kitchen floor is compacted dirt and the windows are steel bars with no coverings. Without notice or consent, a home is shared with an ecology of uninvited local critters and changing weather – the lines distinguishing the human and natural world are inevitably blurred. What comes to mind for me here is the seemingly undeniable relationship between encounters with Place and socio-economic status. With concrete and glass framing my experiences, how have I been engaging with Place- and to what capacity?

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As I sit with my data and delve into theories of Place, I am beginning to understand more deeply that experience is never outside of the environment in which it sprouts. Thinking with new feminist material ontology, each piece of data I hold carries rich histories and meaning rooted in the Place it grew from. Wrapping my hand around a pencil I received from a teacher in Siolim, its wood painted yellow and heavy with weight – a child’s name etched along its side – I am all of a sudden carrying with it the stories and experiences of my research site. Materials such as this hold agency and cultivate affectual responses as I encounter them. Touching them inevitably influences the ways in which my body is becoming in time and space – their affects increase my capacity to act. At a molecular level, both parties within this encounter are becoming in influence. With this said, my messy desk of data is oozing with reverberations from India and my research process ought to be explicitly informed by the power of this Place and the sensations that its materials provoke. Tuck and McKenzie (2015) support this idea and  further challenge assumptions about the where of post-qualitative research by arguing that Place is actually something bigger than what we may traditionally assume.

Place is not merely a neutral backdrop, a bounded and antiquated concept, or only a physical landscape… Place is mobile, shifting over time and space and through interactions with flows of people, other species [and] social practices. At a more localized level, place both influences social practices as well as performs and (re)shapes through practices and movements of individuals and collectives. Place is interactive and dynamic due to time–space characteristics. Disparate realities determine not only how Place is experienced but also how it is understood and practiced (e.g., in relation to culture, geography, gender, race, sexuality, age, or other identifications and experiences)” (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015, p. 635).

In this vein, being critically informed by the Place I am engaging with requires me to pay attention to spatialized processes of settler colonialism and extend beyond considerations of the social to more deeply consider the land and materials itself and its non-human inhabitants and characteristics as they determine and manifest place (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015). As a white-bodied and privileged visitor in India, I find it especially challenging to respectfully and meaningfully share my explorations while grappling with the political backdrop and colonial manifestations at play in the school sites I researched with. Holding these tensions at heart, engaging mindfully with my practice requires a critical commitment with relational ethics and accountability to the people and Place I am participating with (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015).

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As I share my experiences of India through artistic memoir, I must acknowledge that each of my expressions is indeed only an interpretation of events. Saturated in my own bias and with the multiple and ever-dynamic happenings of materials and Place, my presence is entangled not only with the space I inhabit but also with the places I have inhabited – the multiple histories and sensational geographies of my existence up to this point as well as the potential for beyond. While seeking to avoid the limitations that arrive with attempted representation of a Place or affect, I utilize poetry – playing with words and rhythm to give my experiences with India, the Place which cultivated my research, a body. In no way do my words account for India as a Place, or even begin to grapple with its complexity. As I sit with these experiences and etch out a map of my data, this is merely a place for beginnings. 

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India is a kaleidoscope that never stops turning

She is a bag of marbles that makes her own probability

A tipped over paint truck whose colours seep into every crevice

A force of smells

Of bread, of sewage, of metal, and sweets

Of life, death and everything in between

She tastes of humidity – thick, wet

Flavours of cumin, of chilli, of cinnamon and sweat

She is a 500 pound load upon a rusty 2 wheeler

The seemingly impossible, inventive and able

 

A fast-forwarded race through a maze with no end  

A concert orchestra in the disjointed swells of their warm up

Every instrument in the throes of a score, never in-time but in it together

A short straw among others, a tossed coin that never lands

She begins from the middle, and tells of no end

She is the grey, the sticky, the messy between

 

A magical fall down a rabbit hole, and an honest slap of reality

She is not a picture to be taken, or destination on a map

She is a series of combustions, of conflict and confusion

Strung with beads of temporal clarity

She is an event

Colourful and vibrant in her happenings,

She rests only for a second, in places beyond the familiar

 

She is a sister’s smack and a mother’s hug

A child’s giggle, and father’s belt

A grandmother’s stare and a neighbour’s honest wave

She is the wildness of impulse held together by duty

A climb to the top, the familial pursuit of survival  

She is the anomaly of a moment from chaos – hovering in time, in pause

She gives a million reasons to pull it all apart, and one love to keep it together  

 

She is a winding ride on a coastal highway

A salty taste of air, of skin

She is the sweat on my brow and the dirt in my nails

The scrapes on my legs and the hope in my heart

She is the curiosity of a million lost pieces

And the glue that holds them in hand

 

Loud, ravenous, and present in her quarrels   

She is a quiet mind in the busiest of places

She is the city, the desert, the mountains and the plains

A Bengali morning and an Arabian night – She is calm but never asleep

She is the clanging of tin cups and the smoothness of masala chai

She is a tight grip on the doors of a rail cart, and the freedom of the body that sways outside

 

She is the heartbeat that echoes through car horns, market calls, and charging animals

The comings and goings of 3 oceans that meet at her base

A mix-matched quilt of 29 states and 150 languages

She’s made of cows, of pigs,  30 pound rats

And a billion human lives

 

She is the law of the people, the morally criminal

The malice of some, and the passion of many

The ill, the grieving, the ones who give up

The lost, the cheated, the unspoken code

Of love, of hate and of the ways in which things get done

The inexplicable coherence of millions of lines

Dancing in every direction with the speed of a hummingbird’s wings   

She is the sweat between bodies

The fluid in pathways that lubricates movement

Never seen and always felt

 

She is the generosity, the forgiveness, the love that holds space

The heart of the universe and the mind of its people

She is the inherent potential that lies in every single molecule of this place

And the motivation that keeps them going

 

 

Tuck, E., & McKenzie, M. (2015). Relational validity and the “where” of inquiry: Place and land in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry, 21, 633-638.
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