Intro to the Field


Dharamsala welcomed me with warm waves of memory and an angry fever that lingered for days. On my first day, while I sat in a canteen, inquisitive and nervous, waiting for the office at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives to open so I could collect my keys, my ears were battered by the clamor of construction. There is perpetual construction in Dharamsala, as if it is a town that is always in the state of becoming. I learnt that they were expanding the office space of the CTA (the Central Tibetan Administration, the name of the Exile Government). People say that the unending construction will collapse the space, but every year more buildings are built, more space is created out of no-space.

In the canteen the tables were all taken. I sat on the parapet. The man running the canteen was new. He brought me a chair to sit on, because Tibetans believe that the cold floor can make you unwell.

I looked around at new faces. I had lived here for several months, just a year ago, and yet the faces were unrecognizable. That’s when I spotted her, a warm memory of my past; an old friend, speaking to one of the groups of monks having lunch. I called out to her. Her twinkling eyes and warm smile made my nervousness evaporate. In the one year that I had been gone, Tselha had become the National Director for SFT (Students for Free Tibet), a prominent youth political organization in Dharamsala, championing Rangzen (རང་བཙན) or independence for Tibet. She had come to the library to give a talk to a group of Indian students about the work that SFT does. Tselha is a passionate activist, incredibly hardworking, sharp witted and astute. Her clear intelligence has problematized so many set concepts I had learnt in my anthropology classes. She was the subject who wrote her own narrative and often, with her, I became not an anthropologist, but a scribe.

Being in Dharamsala reminded me again of how the field always challenges the sanctity of theory. When you are in the field, the ‘field’ never really exists; the field only exists in theory.

Every day I walk down from Mcleod Ganj to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, I meet people who smile warmly and ask (ག་དུས་ཡོང་བ་ཡིན) when did you come? Or (བདེ་བོ་ཡིན་པས) how are you? Each of them have stories, have a life that expands beyond categories—subject/informant, situated/global, and so on. Meeting them I want to be a storyteller. I want to write many stories about many lives. Lives of exile and escape, of nostalgia, of loss, of regeneration, of hope, and of infinite warmth. I want to write about their love for Bollywood music and their incredible capacity to sing songs throughout the night, I want to write about their uncompromising generosity, their passionate and differing viewpoints, their internal anxieties, I want to write about their quite resolution to be Tibetan, in their own differing ways, amidst historical erasure.  But singular stories will take away from the collective story and perhaps, as an anthropologist, I have silently promised them a collective story to the best of my narrative ability. So, as I grapple with ideas of subject, field, informant, I remind myself that many of them will never be subjects, they will be teachers and friends; that Dharamsala will never be a field, it will be another home, and by trying to tell a collective story I will never erase the kaleidoscope of lives and dreams that have made Dharamsala what it is.

As I sit here in Dharamsala, I wonder not just about what the place means to me, which is more complex and variegated than can be captured, but also about history, about memory; I wonder if, perhaps in the future when the world of the Tibetans has changed, Dharamsala will be remembered as a space that became a home for a people without a country.


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