Guest Blog Post: Why I Tell Narratives by Yogesh Mishra

Yogesh Mishra is a postdoctoral fellow at IIT Delhi (India). His doctoral research focuses on everyday life in Kashmir. Inspired by feminist writings, he is learning to appreciate the power of narratives, stories, and (auto)biographies oscillating between poetry and prose as a medium of expression.

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Recently, a 19-year-old Kashmiri student forwarded me a newspaper article, which he had written for an online newspaper. This article was about the history of Kashmir, a piece based on the historical facts and accounts of popular understanding of a six-decade-long conflict, i.e., the Kashmir conflict. I asked him why he does not write something about his own experiences growing up in a conflict zone; his journey and his first-hand experiences, detailing the human side of this conflict, not just some facts or numbers, but lived realities. To this, he replied, “People (readers) would dismiss my writings considering it an emotional outlet or my narratives might not be considered good for the theoretical framework; not a serious attempt, as I am being told such writing lacks a theoretical foundation.” I could understand his situation and his leaning towards facts and ‘serious research’, abandoning his personal journey in one of the most militarized zones in the world. This 19-year-old boy was telling me something, which I had been advised, rather, instructed several times in the last couple of years. I remember, in one of the conferences, after my presentation on ‘Everyday Spaces in a Contested Land’, a young woman commented that what I had told them was all stories. She said, “Where is a theory in these narratives?” These narratives, according to her, were not fit for an academic audience. I wish I could tell her that those so-called narratives were about the lived realities of the people from the Kashmir Valley. Kashmir is a contested place, where life happens amidst ruptured routines, crackdowns, encounters, and under the shadow of perpetual violence. I wish I could tell her, as many feminist scholars also argue, that it is not about choosing between subjectivity, analytic rigor or validity of narratives, it is about theorizing the links between everyday experiences, and ‘knowledge’. And for those working on feminist methodologies, theorizing links between experience and knowledge has been a central concern (Gelsthorpe, 1992). Similarly, feminist scholars argue that there is no distinctive feminist “method”; instead, feminist analyses should be cognizant of the nexus of knowledge and power (Subramaniam, 2016). Therefore, in this direction, narratives of lived realities and everyday gendered experiences, hidden in the banality of life, provide an entry into lives of people where spoken words emerge containing vivid details of everyday routine highlighting the micro-structure of the power hierarchy, often ignored in search of something spectacular.

For my doctoral dissertation, following the works of feminist geographers, I made an attempt to look into the mundane aspects of everyday life in Kashmir. My engagement with feminist geography was new. But, I realized the need to engage with everyday narratives where everything else appears subsumed under the rubrics of nationalism, ethnicity, and similar discourses avoiding gender dimensions and neutralizing the experiences of the Kashmiri people.

At times, puzzled and perplexed by the ‘concerns’ of my friends regarding ‘lack of theoretical rigor in choosing everyday narratives’; ‘not so academic endeavor’; or, ‘having a tone of ethnographic supremacy’, I used to turn towards scholars like Hannah Arendt who says that storytelling is a strategy for transforming private into public meanings. For me, the narratives of loss, grief, trauma, love, fear, compassion or embracing several such emotions were a methodological entry point to understand socio-cultural processes at various scales.

As a poet and scholar, Audre Lorde writes that poetry is a medium to express one’s hopes and dreams; it is about survival, struggle, and change. In her words, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizon of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives” (p.186). I knew that a single narrative or even more than a few could not capture the lived realities of Kashmiri people. However, I learned that those stories, poems or couplets were much more than the fragments of ‘truth’ or reality. I saw these stories as part of a larger narrative, giving a sense of a larger societal structure. These stories were also about place-making processes, and meanings attached to various spaces. I could understand how deeply people’s lives were embedded in multiple discourses enduring intersections of conflict and struggle for peace. Further, I was also able to grasp how these experiences, grounded in local geography and embedded in different spatial-temporal contexts may drive methodological innovation.

Everyone has a story, a story of her own. As Joan Didion says, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This is exactly what I could sense in the stories shared with me by my respondents, highlighting a diversity of contexts, and multilayered everyday experiences captured in those stories – sometimes in parts, in fragments, or occasionally as ‘stream of consciousness’. My limited understanding of feminist methodologies allowed me to be sensitive and reflexive towards my personal relationships with my respondents who were at the center of my research. I also imbibed a sense of reflexive practices, the importance of reflecting on the position of a researcher in the field or meaning of ‘epistemic privilege’.

I relied on those words, words full of emotions, feelings, experiences, lived realities and carrying much more than I could ever read. At last, I want to quote Simone de Beauvoir as once she said: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.” And to me, stories, poems, (auto) biographies and narratives of everyday lived realities open a window to bring such voices into the research process. These narratives make visible the invisible existence of those who occupy different spaces and are grounded in the specificity of one’s own lived experience.

References:

Byrd, R. P., Cole, J. B., & Guy-Sheftall, B. (Eds.). (2009). I am your sister: Collected and unpublished writings of Audre Lorde. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Didion, J. (1979): The White Album, Simon and Schuster. New York.

Gelsthorpe L. 1992. Response to Martyn Ham- mersley’s paper “On feminist methodology.” Sociology, 26(2), 213-18.

Subramaniam, B. (2016). Stories we tell. Economic and Political Weekly,51(18), 57-63.

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