Most readers here know that my wife Bhāvanā and I conduct our research together. She’s short, I’m tall; she’s indigenous Newar and speaks English with a Scottish accent, I married in and speak Newari with an appalling accent that kinder friends describe as Scottish. This match offers extraordinary opportunities but also poses sharp challenges, especially when the politics of fieldwork in a threatened indigenous community slam up against the vicissitudes of academic research. I’m an accredited outsider who married into an old Tulādhar family; Bhāvanā is a superbly cultured insider who didn’t just cross caste lines, but married all the way out. We chose to use both names, and our children speak good Nepāl Bhāṣā and know how to do a pūjā in proper Tulādhar style. Through Bhāvanā we have access to networks and a family reputation that validates and undergirds our research ethics; through me we have access to academic networks for funding and disseminating our work. We keep parallel field notes and recordings and sometimes, but not always, share them. That we can do fieldwork as a family is the result of a deeply shared love for Newar and Himalayan cultures and landscapes as well as some difficult compromises.
This last month has been extremely challenging for us, in a way that doesn’t get covered in Russ Bernard’s Fieldwork Methods. A former student approached me some years ago to ask if they could film our research, and I encouraged them to pursue the project. It became clear that they were committed and enthusiastic, and were actually going to come to film us. What a wonderful opportunity! Within our family we discussed this very carefully and decided to send a careful email explaining that they would have to gain the trust and respect of our whole family in person before proceeding.
After considerable effort they arrived here in Nepal. It soon became clear that they had done very little background work on Nepal and worse, regarded us as a researcher and his ethnic housewife. Although the materials and emails we had sent showed a picture (literally!) of us working together, their publicity never mentioned Bhāvanā. In speaking to me they were deferential, but in speaking to Bhāvanā and her family they were abrupt and dismissive, bluntly ignoring her frantic attempts to rescue them from a predatory hotelier. The final straw came when, in a deeply fraught conversation about trust, the project leader expressed surprise that Bhāvanā was in fact a Newar and a Buddhist (let alone a scholar).
For Bhāvanā that was enough, and she made that clear to me in unambiguous language. I have wrestled with the politics of indigenous rights and sovereignty for many years, most recently in work with the IUCN. As someone who has been accepted into a Tulādhar family my responsibility was clear: we ended the collaboration that day. The round of emails on that day made it sparklingly clear how deep the prejudices we faced were.
One good thing has come out of all this. The question of authorship and voice has been a stubborn trouble for us; early in our relationship, Bhāvanā was unsure that anything more that a ‘thanks to my wife for her assistance’ was warranted. We had agreed at the beginning of the Wellcome Trust research project that the papers and books from this work would be co-authored (in fact, the Bania histories book is being written together with our respected and patient informant, Professor Amrit Man Singh Bania). The sheer idiocy and pointlessness of this latest encounter has persuaded Bhāvanā to take on a more public and more aggressive role in her–and our—research.