- Recalibrating (Field)work
I want to discuss some parallels and intersections between my fieldwork and my professional life, especially teaching, and how the changing focus of my research has raised different questions for me, both professionally and personally. Some of these questions interrogate how identity claims operate in attempts to forge recognition and solidarity in different contexts.
Visibility and Invisibility in the Field
I began traveling to India in the 1980s and conducted my first research in 1989–90, and have been able to go back to the field several times since. I’m a white, cisgendered woman entering a variety of spaces in Tamil Nadu, interacting with a variety of people, in urban and rural settings. For the first several years I was working in India, I did not reveal to anyone that I am a lesbian and have a long-term partner, now my wife. This involved subterfuge, because even decades ago I was the age when I should have been married and nearly everyone asked whether I had a husband and children. I gave answers according to context and, attempting to be polite, played by the rules. Sometimes I just said I was unmarried, but at other times I judged it to be more prudent to make my female partner into a husband, as I did with one of the families who was very kind to me during a period of research in the Chennai area. The senior woman in the family taught at a college in Chennai and was quite helpful with my work on Hindu temples; the family had a car and enjoyed going on expeditions, and seemed to appreciate my company. I always bought petrol for our adventures. The family included a twenty-something son who was in college. He would [End Page 100] sometimes accompany me alone to places, sometimes to translate, and I worried that if I were an unmarried woman this easy relationship would be suspect. Of course, it ate away at me that I lied to this kind family, but I enjoyed their company and their knowledge and companionship contributed a great deal to my work. Perhaps the family would not have cared, but I was too afraid to risk being honest; the loss would have been too great. So I kept up the charade.
I conducted my dissertation work on the smallpox goddess Mariyamman, and since then have been interested particularly in forms of village Hinduism, including those practiced in Chennai. In 2006, I visited a temple to the goddess Angalamman in the Choolai Medu area of Chennai during a festival; in the crowd of devotees I observed a few people dressed as the goddess and performing elaborate rituals. Through interviews I found out that some of these people identified as aravanis, at that time the most common Tamil term for individuals assigned male at birth who inhabit more visibly feminized bodies, called hijras in other parts of India. Currently the most common Tamil term for such individuals is thirunangai, which can mean either “sacred woman” or “half male, half female,” definitions that resonate for many within and outside the thirunangai community. I also found out that many thirunangais were ritual experts for Angalamman, a goddess who is central to thirunangai identity and community.
For the last few years, I have read more deeply in queer and transgender scholarship and activism, and I have more fully focused my research among people who identify as thirunangai. I continue to explore the worship of Hindu goddesses, and many thirunangais serve as ritual experts not only for Angalamman, but also for Mariyamman, Kali, and other goddesses, participating in worship that is usually public. In addition, I have expanded my focus beyond religious rituals into a broader exploration of thirunangai identity and community formation. It is an exciting time to research the changing status of thirunangai, transgender, and gender-fluid people in India, and especially in Tamil Nadu, where the state government has instituted several reforms, the effects of which I am attempting to document. In the many years I have investigated goddess worship in Tamil Nadu, with a few exceptions, my questions have not been greeted with suspicion...