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Remembering the Field

Drawing by Samira Jain
I have not taken any photos of any of my field experiences in Bihar, mostly due to an inexplicable sense of discomfort in taking photos of people and their surroundings (even when they’re not study respondents or have given permission). Our intern Samira Jain, a very talented design student, found a way around this. During the 2 weeks we spent in the field together, she effortlessly documented the landscape, faces, and events in a series of visual narratives (the above illustration is an example).

Since my drawing skills are non-existent, I started recording short phrases or snippets that could trigger my memory. I’ve picked out a few of these snippets from my field notes below and described  their corresponding stories:

‘Look up’ : This was a day when I accompanied a surveyor for an interview in a village in Samastipur. We found the respondent sitting outside and asked her where we could find the head of the household (in this case, her husband). Without saying a word, she slowly and ominously lifted her index finger and pointed it to the sky. We speculated what this gesture might mean. I asked my surveyor, ‘Is she saying her husband passed away?’ to which he replied, ‘Not sure..maybe she’s saying that God is the head of her household?” All of a sudden some small branches hit our heads, and we look up a very tall tree to see a man’s face emerge from the leaves --- the woman had been pointing at her husband who was up the tree.

The man then refused to come down because it had taken him too long to climb up, so we went through an absurd process of screaming survey questions to an obscure face in a tree. This attracted some attention, with people stopping to ask us “Madam, are you ok? …Who are you talking to?”

‘Sinking in water’: Distance was a major problem in our fieldwork, and staff had to cover between 8-12 km by foot since transport was difficult to find. Given this, we were always looking for short-cuts to get from point A to point B. During one accompaniment, we decided to walk through a  shallow-looking river to get to the other side of the village. Unfortunately, the river got deeper than we anticipated as we walked across. Three-fourths of the way through, we got stuck  in waist- deep water, shoes in our hands, surveys over our heads, toes wiggling in what I think was just very slippery mud, and hopelessly stood there pondering how to get out of this predicament.

‘Leg Pain’ : We were piloting our financial education modules to a small group in a village in Sitamarhi. One of the men who sat through the training was suffering from muscular dystrophy and was in a lot of pain judging by how he winced with his movements. But for the most part, it wasn’t pain that was expressed on his face. It was worry and stress. After the training, he spoke about how he couldn’t find work, the long process of getting treated, and the bills he had to pay to travel and to find places to stay. It was again a reminder of what ultimately takes a toll on a person. More often than not, it’s the process more than the problem itself.


  1. :) Very insightful on the challenges a survey team faces on a regular basis.


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