Bhrigupati Singh’s Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India, due out from The University of Chicago Press in March 2015, is, as his commentators note, a book about many things. Bill Connolly attempts a list in his comments: Waxing and waning intensities, territorial and temporal crossings, thresholds of life, bipolar sovereignty, erotics and agonistics, agonistic intimacies, traveling gods, teasing songs, spiritual attachments to life, illegible zones of threat and possibility, intensities deeper than deep play, cultural “settings” and rules of eye contact, erotics, aesthetics and life, divine migrations, a positive frugality of desire.” Lisa Stevenson says of it: “It’s that kind of book” as she draws out what it is to speak from the side of life.
It’s inviting and capacious nature embolden me to take a different track across it by way of introducing it for this book-forum in Somatosphere than the conceptual foci that informs the generous and probing comments to the book by Bill Connolly, Swayam Bagaria, William Mazzarella and Lisa Stevenson. I wish to focus on Bhrigu’s ethnographic descriptions that present an iconic landscape of post-colonial rural India with the sequestering of forests, settlements of nomadic communities and the concurrent extension of mechanized agricultural practices, the growing exposure of the rural economy to capitalist forces and the expansion of the welfare state. At the same time, Bhrigu’s thick description also draws into this landscape the fluctuating presence of the state, (a theme attended to by Swayam Bagaria in his comments), the thickness and complicity of relations produced of prevailing caste sociality, its transection by transactions with gods and animals, and, always, the quality of singularized striving that militates against any commonsense presumptions that this place in Shahabad, Rajasthan is “bare life,” “virtually unthinkable (1).”
Within this descriptive fullness, shot through with rhetorical questions, wry reflections, the alert establishment of analytic difference and that of sensibility from what has prevailed in scholarship and the active birthing of concepts, I find a minor note that suggests to me a new way to think of the craft of ethnography. More specifically, I find enticing the play of rhythm and animation that hints that ethnography may be the speech of one caught in such play and perhaps it has always been that way. Let me illuminate what I mean with a few examples from the text.
Alike Malinowski, Bhrigu provides us a scene of the anthropologist’s first entry into his field site. While the scene is worth reproducing in whole as it will undoubtedly stay in the minds of those who read it, let me draw attention to two elements within it that show what I mean by rhythm and animation:
As our bus neared the village of Mamoni, my destination for now, I was startled by a luminous orb hovering close by, atop a low hill. I had seen it before. Nonetheless, this was the first time the moon chose to reveal itself to me…No wonder dogs howl and tides stir. Ours are water bodies too (7).
Suddenly the planetary is amidst us, with the moon reaching down to impress itself on our sense perceptions but also enfolding us, along with dogs and tides, into its circumambulation around the earth. We are reminded perhaps for the first time of our watery constitutions that make us open to such rhythmic influences.
Further on, Bhrigu writes: Nearer still, just outside our window, were trees, a few of which seemed to be twisted with distress. Others stood swollen and proud. These are typical postures…The trees, like other inhabitants of the region, were recovering from a trauma [of] two successive droughts…(ibid.).” These are not frozen postures but momentary stills of lively trees in the process of germinating, growing, adapting, twisting and dying.
Such rhythms that either issue through this landscape or evolve out of it, and animations that double the lives and liveliness of the landscape are sprinkled throughout Bhrigu’s ethnography. In speaking of Thakur Baba, the deity who is the subject of chapter two, Bhrigu writes that people say of him: “this is his area….’This area’ was an uncertain demarcation, but the gesture seemed to indicate proximity and locality, a portion of the earth rather than an infinite sky (33).” We are drawn into another cosmic interplay, this time between the vastness of the sky telescoping a moving point on the earth’s surface. Or, ahead in chapter three, Bhrigu asks when passing a shrine to Thakur Baba: “’Are the deities offended by the cutting of the forest?…’ ‘Why would the deities care?’ Bhagirath replied. ‘They are hungry for incense’ (79).” Even the appetites of gods are animated and nuanced.
The rhythms and animations are not the effects of Bhrigu’s writing alone, as the reflexive turn within the writing of ethnography would suggest, their original impulse perhaps being to take down the authoritative tone assumed by master anthropologists, such as Malinowski. Yet they are not the effects of evocation either as Marilyn Strathern writes in Partial Connections (2004), evoking multiple worlds and perspectives. Rather Bhrigu’s focus is on transections, amplifications and depletions of forces accomplished across what he calls thresholds of life, the concept William Mazzarella most explores in his comments. And one knows to write about them because, given attentiveness, one inevitably becomes immersed in this sea of exchanges, or the earth reaches up to one. Recall Bhrigu’s dreams in the chapter on Thakur Baba and his fainting spell during one of the festivals for Tejaji, the deity of whom he writes in chapter seven.
Can one say then that ethnography is the product of possession, of the state of being possessed? But Bhrigu’s is not the tortured expression of witching and being bewitched that we find in Jeanne Favret-Saada’s Deadly Words (1981). There is even a slight tone of detachment noted by Bill Connolly in his comments. Can we speculate that the tone is less detachment than a striving for impersonality to recollect for us the impersonal dimensions of the rhythmic and the (re)animated? Given that entropy is woven into Bhrigu’s equally historical and ethnographic descriptive of life in Shahabad, can its presence within the book make ethnography a re-animation of the genre of natural history in which a decisive rhythm is that of life and decay? These thoughts on the craft of ethnography, among many others explored by the commentators, are encouraged and taken a long ways by Bhrigu’s book.
Naveeda Khan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Muslim Becoming: Aspiration and Skepticism in Pakistan (Duke 2012) and editor of Beyond Crisis: Re-evaluating Pakistan (Routledge 2010).