As I See It

the ticking clock

across oceans she flew,
a special clock hung around her neck 
like a noose rooted to her rich land
by blood. 
with no consent it bleeps daily 
reminders to reach milestones she fears 
in nightmares - one is numbered 25.
ancestors chant commands (from unwritten books): 
it's time -- the clock has struck
26 she is running now.
no one but everyone chases her.
in this race, girls run faster than boys 
for there is no shame greater than a woman 
unmedaled. 
afraid, she is running 
out of years. 
her clan weeps begs prays
soothsayers cry prophecies 
of failure. words and tears are wasted minutes
seconds away from public dishonor
disaster. 26 howls the clock
she runs 27 in circles
caged by sacred time and fear,
alarmed forever by the cultural parasite.
.
.
.
where people are raised with ticking clocks,
there is a time and age for everything
even love, sex and happiness.

 

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new year fears II

after too many fearful evenings spent
under lone orange lamps, i learned: 
tomorrow comes anyway. 
there is pain of the skin and not 
of the skin. but our skin is more 
tender than we are vulnerable. that night 
on the terrace she showed me invisble pain 
in red bruises to prove to me her ache 
i saw pain of a lover for the first time. 
somedays we plead to walls 'cause they are 
hearing, 'cause we give more words than we collect 
these days. i learned early: pillows absorb more 
than people. at least we have books 
to calm our frights, tell us others too closet fears
beneath insta-smiles and cheery banter.
if only on the sidewalk i could see your ache 
in a nod, would I be less lonely 
or more afraid? maybe we smile 
when our eyes meet 'cause atheists too need 
hope at bedtime. this year i must
remember: to give is truly to listen
in silence. we are not coping victims, 
we are here to build, laugh, cry, fight new
experiences. maybe today is just about having
today.

new year fears

poetry, layered under her skin,
pleads to see light but refuses
to take form with stubborn arrogance. 
words dance on her tongue
threaten to jump but cling
to the tip like nervous divers. 
home is a state at the tip of her tongue. 
she feels the orange warmth of the familiar 
but unsaid words and unworded feelings ache
like frozen fingers begging
for the wait to end. 
forever a to-be poet, she lives the
pleasure and pain of slow time. 
she isn't a poet
yet.
like they say: 
you're a poet only if you're a poet.

austin

you spread out 
like a to-go box of texmex dinner 
colored like people rushing 
across dean keaton dressed in confetti. 
in the evenings you are mellow.
the sun is pink and grad students amble on 
exhausted sidewalks. 
older men pace against blinking red palms
making me nostalgic for my lost youth. but 
I jog too, sometimes, 
on soiled sidewalks hidden by black trees
wearing shirts umbrella-ing my shorts 
breaking bounds I was born with. 
I run kick old rules I laugh 
aloud. how I pleasure 
demolition.
but in the dark it feels like you
got my back, austin.
you are American when you christen me new 
some days but truly you are Indian -
you do more yoga eat more naan
than India. 
like me you are 
your own home, austin
you give no fucks about purple bald heads 
or doggies who come to class.
you are weird, like home, austin. 
your light shadows my bedroom white and warm.
your people want to say my name
a second time. 
weirdo you are home now.

 

 

Labels are adamant 
they don't save space for pointed knees
like sandpaper they smoothen edges.
I am afraid to be caged 
in words I love
to be jelly in a pretty moulds.
I want to flow like wine like champagne
dripping, bubbling, gushing like water 
from a maniacal hose.
I fear labels for they freeze 
you into ice blocks
you break into shards.
instead I wish to be the surging ocean.

 

 

note to self

To study the social sciences is hard, sometimes even traumatic, because you begin to constantly critically examine everything — not just all that you come across but also all that you’ve known well, including your own self. Learning then is not merely a method to achieve grades or win a job. It is to apply what you learn to your body, thoughts, actions, to unlearn to live the known way, to undefine labels, and to evolve constantly. Sometimes you wonder if the convenient ignorance accorded to you by your previous academic choices was better for your peace of mind. You even wonder if you are too serious, too neurotic, too complicated to be able to wade through the tides of the liberal arts. You no more know how to enjoy a meal, a movie, a stand-up comedy show, a vacation, a relationship, even a friend’s wedding without feeling flustered because you cannot unsee the politics that lies in front of you. You no more know if what you see is what reality is, because others seem to be seeing butterflies and finger chips instead. Your family and friends advise you for  the sake of your own happiness to not be so sentimental, to not make things bigger than they are. You tell them that their placid nonchalance and their ability to laugh off tears has sustained problems by refusing to acknowledge them. Your friends and family label you as argumentative, too sensitive, aggressive, even Marxist. You are aware that your anger sinks any probablity of sustained happiness but it doesn’t matter because you don’t want the selfish happiness born out of silence, complicity and blindness. Your happiness is defined differently now. Your strength and peace comes from your struggle, from your fight. You might, on some days, feel afraid of having to exist a lifetime while smiling through these painful times. Remind yourself, you aren’t alone.

Numbers: The new hegemon in research

When I started out with the social sciences, I didn’t know much more than that I would fit here. I was, until then, a student of computer science and a coder at Microsoft, yet mostly unhappy. Locked in my Hyderabad room, I spent hours writing on my blog my uninfomed commentary about social happenings, which felt closest to the kind of thing I wanted to do. It was this which led me to realize my interest in research in the social sciences. Driven by an imagination about what it would be like to do research and a belief that the other side possessed the meaning I sought, I left my carpeted Microsoft life to take up research.

I was going to do research but I was completely unaware how one really did that stuff.

Before I moved to Delhi, where I was going to take up the liberal arts program at Ashoka University that would help me transition to the social sciences, I raced with time to complete thick books stacked next to my bed. I read history and sociology, even fiction. I made extensive notes. How else was I to prepare for research, whatever that is.

On one afternoon in my first few months in Delhi, I received an email about Christophe Jaffrelot’s project on syncretism. It was the first time that I came across that word, but the world renowned professor was looking for a team of research assistants and I was going to apply. As I understood later, the project aimed to study dargahs, which are tombs of Sufi saints that have been thronged primarily by Muslims but also by Hindus and Sikhs for over 8 centuries. These spaces, which were born out of ideals of anti-institutionalization of religion, embraced humanistic values such as equality, and have survived as shared religious spaces despite the contemporary culture of riots. The research project sought to understand how religions interact in these spaces today, in order to determine whether mistrust and communalism have seeped into the dargah as well. We were to observe and interview devotees and pirs in dargahs, and shopkeepers in vicinity. I jumped on board quickly. In the months that followed, my team and I spent many days at dargahs in Delhi, Agra, and Meerut. Field work, I realized, is harder than it seems at the outset. You have to deeply understand the local culture, be sensitive and empathetic to gain subjects’ trust, and adeptly manoeuvre through conversations, while battling the sun, exhaustion, and the brunt of judgements from random people who you’d never see again. It is even more difficult when you are an outsider to a community, seeking to study things that are considered controversial in it. To be a non-Muslim, South Indian, female student conducting research about interreligious relationships in a largely Muslim and male dominated space, in an aggressive city was often consuming (to say the least).

It was during this period that I met Neil Lutsky, a sharp psychologist, a caring mentor, a wonderful friend, and everyone’s favorite professor. Neil introduced me to quantitative methods, which are typically more specific, more binary, and less exploratory than qualitative methods. He emphasised, in his critical thinking undergraduate class that he allowed me to attend, that example is not evidence. The more I worked on my research, the more I realized my tendency to develop a memory bias for vivid interviews and stories, which were not necessarily a better depiction of reality.  Good and longer interviews impacted my judgements and clouded my perspective. What if persons with tolerant views were more willing to participate in interviews than those with hatred for the other religion? This would bias our results. My teammate noticed that interviews with Muslim men took a different direction when he wore a skullcap and began conversations with the typical Arabic greeting ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’.  When we began writing up our work, we were determined to not be influenced by these biases. It was terribly difficult. How were we to build a narrative and conclude our research if we couldn’t focus on our best data? We tabled our interviews, categorized them, and counted similar opinions, all to escape bias, and also wrote a qualified conclusion.

After all of this, could there still be biases in our work? Definitely. This leads me to ask: Can research ever be completely objective?

Post this project, my interests began to incline towards social psychology, a discipline that happens to revere experimental and quantitative methods. Classes on statistics and experimental methods taught me to break down research problems, devise hypotheses, and design simple experiments to verify them systematically. Quantitative research typically works with research questions that are narrow and specific. Experiments manipulate a causal variable while controlling other extraneous factors and observe its impact on another outcome variable, thereby efficiently testing causal claims. Data, in a psychologist’s computer, is a table of numbers, and analysis is statistical tests performed on these numbers in order to determine the probability of the hypothesis to depict reality.

Most academics would agree that research in the social sciences is easily classifiable into quantitative and qualitative research. This division happens at a macro-level; disciplines self-categorize into one of the two paradigms of research, with their members often staunchly believing in their discipline’s ways and even dismissing other ways of research. American political science, for example, does not think much of European political science anymore for the latter still relies on observation and conversation. Psychologists describe sociology as the discipline with important questions but poor methods. There seems to be an invisible hierarchy, with numbers being placed higher than all else. I found myself throwing my weight toward the quantitative side of this tug of war. I began to rest my faith in the certainty that numbers seemed to provide.

My master’s thesis was an experimental study aimed at understanding collective experiences of anger. Common understanding of riots tells us that anger amplifies when experienced in groups. Some preliminary empirical evidence supports this claim. But it is largely unknown what conditions are required for anger to amplify. My advisor, Kai Qin Chan, a group of wonderful undergraduate research assistants, and I sought to investigate this. For example, Would anger amplify even if people in the group don’t overtly express their feelings? Must members of the collective perceive themselves as belonging to a group for the phenomenon to occur? I was particularly interested in anger against social injustice as would be experienced in protests. We invited college students to participate in our study. Each participant watched a video depicting injustice as a result of monetary influence in psychiatric diagnoses, alone or in groups of three or five. We manipulated participants to view the others in the room as ingroup (similar others) or outgroup (dissimilar others) members. We planned to compare self-reported emotion ratings of participants to see if there was any effect of group size or group identity.

The idea of controlling all but a couple of intended variables sounds neat on paper but is difficult to achieve, especially in experiments involving groups of people. At the end of our experiment, we found no influence of group size or identity on anger. That is, our statistical test tells us unequivocally that anger did not amplify when more people were present when participants did not openly express their feelings. However, how are we to know whether there is truly no such effect or whether the execution of our experiment was flawed (ie) other unintended factors had inadvertently influenced the outcome?

Had our results been consistent with our expectations, I wonder if we would have doubted our method.

It is reasonable that empirical methods are considered important since these are less prone to researcher’s bias and provide more mathematical certainty in conclusions. But is that sufficient to justify the superiority of quantitative research over qualitative research? This change in paradigm forces one to ask if the new hegemony of numbers in social science is warranted or reasonable.

In my last term, I took a course on field research methods. The instructor, Valentina Zuin, busts the qualitative-quantitative dichotomy in her classes. Are qualitative and quantitative methods equally capable of answering the same research questions? If they are employed to study different questions, she asks, is it even logical to compare them in the first place? That is, qualitative research typically starts with broad questions that may not even know at the outset which variables matter. For example, what characteristics of election candidates do voters give most importance to? If I were to administer a quantitative survey to study this question, I would need to know a possible (and exhaustive) list of characteristics that voters might consider before casting their votes. Without such knowledge, my study would have to depend on assumptions. In Valentina’s class, we read an article about reasons why residents of rural India defecate in the open even when latrines are available to them. The authors collected through focus group discussions that women went in groups to the fields to defecate together and chat about their day, suggesting that open defecation was a recreational activity for the rural woman—a perspective that surprised the authors. Had the authors chosen a quantitative method, recreation would have never featured in their survey.

Quantitative research requires at least preliminary knowledge about variables that could matter for the outcome being studied because such research usually starts with a hypothesis or a focused question that examines the effect of one variable on another. For example, the effect of the education level of a candidate on voters’ likelihood to vote for him/her. Where there isn’t sufficient understanding of underlying variables, observation, interviews, and other similar methods could provide useful insight into the subject of study.

Even when a researcher is savvy of the important variables influencing a particular outcome, a qualitative understanding of the social context and culture in which the study is being conducted is necessary. I am reminded of a recent experience at Ashoka University. After complaints about inefficient handing of waste on campus, there were efforts focused on designing interventions to increase students’ tendency to segregate waste. My groupmate and I, observing students’ waste behaviour for our class project, noted that janitors on campus emptied both organic and recyclable bins into the same trash bag, rendering students’ segregation tendencies inconsequential. It took us a few minutes of observation to understand that the problem wasn’t with students. Qualitative research could help us frame and refine questions for quantitative research.

Some kinds of questions will always be the playground of qualitative methods. Investigations about one-time events placed in a unique historical context will have to be qualitative as it would be impossible to recreate the event or its history as it occurred. Open-ended, exploratory problems are also the arena of observation and interviews.

It seems that qualitative and quantitative methods are used to answer different kinds of questions and for different purposes. Any hierarchy among them seems illogical and unreasonable. Comparison of the two methods would essentially be a comparison of research questions. It leads us to ask: Are some kinds of research questions always better and more important than others? If not, it might serve us better to respect other disciplines, and take from them to better our own.

words don't live inside of me anymore
i realize nor do feelings
except the feeling of missing
the house i'd built years ago
for words and feelings

to men

Had your antigens lost their way,
you’d be her – naked, bitten,
like a half-eaten browning apple
on Sonepat’s street edge.
Rikshaws would stand by to watch
white nipples gleaming like eyes in darkness, staring.
and maroon hues blend into black forming patterns;
you would hear them say, “she sleeps
in the gutter when her brothers look away”,
and pedal away in a cycling race
because whose job is she anyway?,
They would wheel back home to tighten
their behens’ windows.

Cameras would arrive to flash and scream prayers
for the brother, father.
Who would whiten their shame?
who would whiten the black spot
where you lay naked,
penetrated?

Oh dear, wait.
Your antigens found their way.
not mine.
You took away my voice
for a ransom that never arrived
and my muted words die
as you close my book.
I cease
’cause it is your day today.
Your card shows XY;
Your antigens found their way
you won the game
It is your day today.

when Madras was drowning

This feeling is deceptive
like a timely stranger. 
My hands are useless for 
they are not so long 
to pull you out of hungry
waves.
I drown my sentiments, the 
bloody liars.
Did the stunted tamil identity
that I forgot in the kitchen 
store of our old rented house
find its way to Sonipat today?
.
I push in tears for they are of guilt
of a survivor, safe, watching,
shamefully liking, sharing in instant clicks. 
Tears are easy scripted acts 
for the stage.
how true are my tears for broken bones of 
familiar strangers?
.
I make poems
while your feet don't reach the ground,
while your lunch floats away,
while you gasp pleading bubbles
to the ceiling- 
What a traitor I must be.
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