Absence in the Time of Covid

27 May 2021

Poulami Roychowdhury

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Who on earth coined this phrase? According to a cursory google search, it was the Roman poet Sextus. I have no idea who he was, and I don’t know if he really made this statement. Has anyone experienced this sensation other than Sextus? The answer must be yes since it is a well know proverb. For my part, I would highlight a different relationship. “Absence makes the heart forget.” Or maybe: “Absence makes the heart not give a shit.”

Absence is something the ethnographer must contend with. Especially in times of Covid. I am a sociologist who grew up in the United States and now teaches at McGill University in Canada. Much of my research, however, is based in India where I conduct participant observation of women’s interactions with criminal justice institutions. I last went to India in July 2019. It is now May 2021. Given current travel restrictions and the fact that I am seven months pregnant, it is unlikely that I will return for another year and a half. All told, I will be away from my research site (and the place where I was born) for three and a half years. That is a long time. What are the effects of this protracted absence? The last time I was absent from someone for just a tenth of this time, I decided to divorce them.

Over the past year, I have attended numerous interdisciplinary Zoom workshops with North American and European sociologists.  Everyone in these workshops is worried about their ability to gather data during the pandemic. How can we deal with this fundamental research prerogative – knowing things – people have wondered out loud. The concern is real: Covid has created unprecedented barriers to knowledge as travel comes to a halt and different parts of the world are seized by crises at different times, leaving those who may be able to gather data sick and communication channels muddled. These knowledge production problems are especially relevant to places like India, where transparency can be quite poor, aggregate data such as the Census either halted or unreliably gathered, and many people’s lives and experiences remain beyond the reach of existing platforms.

But the barriers to knowledge accompany something else I have heard little discussed: barriers to empathy and care. To communicate the complexity and vibrancy of the worlds we study, to write a convincing ethnographic story, the ethnographer must care about the world she studies. Don’t get me wrong, you can dislike something you care for. But you need to be emotionally invested in your research site and able to feel (to however a limited degree) how the people you study feel. And in my experience, absence does not lend itself to such sentiments.

A memory from my fieldwork in West Bengal, circa 2010. Photo by author.

Absence tends to create disregard especially when the ethnographer is socially advantaged relative to her research subjects (which is almost always the case). Disparate levels of privilege and social realities encase the three years I will be separated from the place and people I study. I live in Canada, a welfare state with universal healthcare and paid parental leave. I have a tenure track job and earn a decent salary. I am rarely physically vulnerable or emotionally distressed. Perhaps Sextus lived in a world where Roman culture and Roman institutions were so ubiquitous, he could move anywhere in the empire and still be surrounded by the sounds, smells, food, sociality, daily routines, and basic expectations that surrounded him when he was physically close to his beloved. Maybe that’s why he was able to muster up the requisite love (and go further, aggrandize it!) while he was away. I frankly know very little about ancient Rome, so I am unable to verify this supposition.

To communicate the complexity and vibrancy of the worlds we study, to write a convincing ethnographic story, the ethnographer must care about the world she studies. Don’t get me wrong, you can dislike something you care for.

I find it easy to care about India and ordinary Indians when I am in India. Hardship is proximate: a taxi driver recounting his medical woes, the woman who cleans our apartment building mentioning her three-hour daily commute, homeless children sleeping dangerously close to the curb. Being out and about doing research creates further alignment. The heat and pollution: they drown and debilitate me like those who work and earn a wage. The lack of public restrooms and crowded public transport: my stomach hurts and I worry about sexual harassment like the women I study. The delays and indifference of public officials: I wait and feel neglected like other Indians who seek help from the state. Despite the inequality between myself and the people I study, there is some common experiential basis on which I can base my inferences about their lives. The experience allows me to relate, however minutely or incompletely, to the challenges they face.

The feeling that the experience of being in India creates has lasting effects: it stays with me after I leave my research site. It allows me to remember, empathize, and write with a richness of perception once I return to my home across the seas. The feeling is like my body, which is slightly foreign for a while as I walk around New York or Montreal: thinner than when I left, my sensibilities still adjusting.

I remember a particular encounter with a cupcake that epitomized how presence, being proximate to one’s research site, is advantageous from a research perspective. After a two-year data gathering stint in India, I had returned to the United States and set myself up in an apartment that overlooked the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. After settling in, I decided to treat myself to a cupcake. The cupcake cost me something close to $4, which at the time was equivalent to ₹200. That wasn’t a huge sum of money in India, but it was enough to buy a decent roadside lunch for four people. I didn’t enjoy the cupcake very much and I enjoyed the other patrons even less: wealthy, white, Park Slope mothers with armored strollers who looked stressed out and behaved as if I was there to hold doors open for them. To this date I don’t know if it was a bad cupcake or if the disparity between where I was and where I had been was simply too great. The cupcake and its clientele epitomized the unfairness of the world. I felt the unfairness at an embodied level and my feelings impacted my taste buds.

To this date I don’t know if it was a bad cupcake or if the disparity between where I was and where I had been was simply too great. Illustration by Dipali Anumol.

These days, I have no such gustatory inhibitions. I inhale $4 cupcakes with gusto and demand more. I am now one of those mothers with a threatening stroller who demands others help me and my growing brood navigate the world of cafes (I am still not white). I no longer do the mental calculation of how much the cupcake I am consuming costs in rupees, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have a good sense of what those rupees would buy me in Kolkata today. From cupcake distaste to gluttonous and irreverent cupcake consumption: a trajectory that maps my growing alienation from the world I am tasked (and paid) to represent. My life, and the troubles it holds, are significantly different than the lives of those I study.

A record of the past few months provides proof of the disparity.

March 2021: The “double mutant”

There is news trickling out of Mumbai and its surrounding state of Maharashtra about a new Covid-19 variant. The variant supposedly has two mutations that makes it extremely infectious. I am sitting in Montreal, scrolling the news out of some sense of academic duty. I’m not really paying attention or anticipating where this story will go. There is no earthly good reason for my indifference. For the last six months, I have been putting together an edited volume on the Covid 19 pandemic in India. My co-editor and I routinely exchange emails, chat about the volume, and redraft the book proposal. I really should be paying attention.

Why am I failing to register the importance of this variant even though I am writing a book about the subject? In my defense, I am not the only one ignoring the gravity of the situation. The world is not paying attention, Indian citizens are not paying attention, and Indian politicians are certainly not paying attention. Indian politicians are busy organizing massive election rallies (unmasked) in four major states with upcoming Assembly Elections. Indian citizens are busy attending weddings, visiting each other’s homes, and planning trips to gigantic religious festivals like the Kumbh Mela. People around the world do not have time to think about India. They are concerned about what is happening right around them. India is on the brink of a disaster and nobody is all that concerned.

In my defense, I am not the only one ignoring the gravity of the situation. The world is not paying attention, Indian citizens are not paying attention, and Indian politicians are certainly not paying attention.

What am I concerned about sitting in Montreal? Figuring out what kinds of lights to install in my new home. I spend an entire day shopping for lights online. I spend the next three days trying to find a reliable handyman, securing a mortgage, and comparing home insurance quotes. In addition, I am teaching full time online, doing all sorts of service for my department, trying to give talks on the book that I just wrote, cooking, cleaning, buying groceries, and taking care of a very energetic three-year old. I am pregnant and exhausted. My life feels challenging. At night I try to watch Netflix.

April 2021: Temporary alignment

My partner announces a weekend bar-b-q with two other families. I later realize he was probably quite pleased with himself for planning this event. I am always complaining about the gendered distribution of social organizing labor in our home. His announcement leads to a big fight. I scream that he privileges fun over safety. He shouts back that I am inconsistent and constantly sharing food with friends. We fight until 1 am and feel exhausted and grumpy the next day.

The fight reveals that both of us are more anxious and depressed than we realized. Canada is suffering from a vaccine shortage. We do not know when our age group will be vaccinated. With rapidly growing variants and constant news of pregnant women dying or miscarrying, I am now scared I will get this damn disease and something bad will happen. The shortage of vaccines accompanies strong regulations, the government’s only instrument to curb infections. We have been living under a curfew in Montreal, not able to leave our homes after 8pm. The last time I sat outside at a restaurant or café was August 2020, when we were in the United States. We haven’t been allowed to enter our friends’ homes since March 2020. Even an outdoor bar-b-q is technically illegal.

We decide we need to somehow get vaccinated. I call the New York state vaccine hotline and lie to a lovely woman about where I live. She works extremely hard to get me and my partner appointments for the J&J vaccine the next day. We prepare for a sudden international trip. The next morning, we wake up and learn the CDC has halted J&J vaccinations due to concerns with blood clots. We remain in Canada, unvaccinated and increasingly anxious.

Juggling social obligations, domestic conflict, scarcity, a sense of precarity and threat of illness, queues, trying to dodge the queue in a dodgy way. In a way, this is probably the closest I have felt to my research in some time.

Juggling social obligations, domestic conflict, scarcity, a sense of precarity and threat of illness, queues, trying to dodge the queue in a dodgy way. Illustration by Dipali Anumol.

May 2021: A tale of two worlds, two pandemics

I receive my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine after new vaccine shipments arrive in Quebec. My Facebook feed is full of people celebrating their own vaccinations. I always “like” their posts. I am genuinely happy for them and I believe in vaccines.

Meanwhile, my friends and relatives in India – research contacts, aunts, uncles, cousins – are unable to access vaccines. Many of them are in their 50s and 60s and have health problems: high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory disorders. The younger people are teachers, NGO caseworkers, social service providers who are still interacting with students and clients. By May 13, a mere 2.8 % of the Indian population has been fully vaccinated.

India is now on week three of having the highest numbers of new cases and highest numbers of deaths of any country in the world. It is due to India alone that the global case count and mortality numbers have gone through the roof, far surpassing anything the world has seen since the beginning of the pandemic. The World Health Organization has given the India variant a nicely cleansed, clinical name: B.1.617. Double mutant sounds more appropriate (not to mention easier to remember). It makes me think of the mythical hydra, with its many heads, a monstrous creature lurking in the depths eager to maim and kill.

Source: COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. Copyright: “JHU CSSE COVID-19 Data” via https://github.com/CSSEGISandData/COVID-19. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

According to official records, 23.7 million Indian have been infected with Covid since the start of the pandemic, and 260 thousand people have died. The official numbers are almost definitely wrong. The estimated number of deaths is three to five times as much as the reported numbers. Men who work at cremation centers admit they are forced to write “death due to illness” instead of Covid on death certificates. Relatives wait all day outside cremation grounds to dispose of their dead, there are so many people clogging the premises. Friends, family members, research contacts: nobody has escaped. Some have Covid, some are scrambling to locate oxygen tanks on the black market, some are taking care of sick relatives, others are grieving dead parents. Almost nobody I know in Kolkata or Delhi can get a hospital bed. Those who live in villages don’t have hospital beds to get: the nearest hospitals are 10, 20, 30 km away.

Terrible stories circulate.

  • A friend of a friend dies of Covid in Delhi. He was a white expat living in the city. He was my age. He had the financial resources to have oxygen flown to him from Israel. But he couldn’t get a hospital bed and the oxygen didn’t reach him in time. I message a friend: “You know things are REALLY bad when white expats are dying.”
  • A family friend waits terrified in her Kolkata apartment to feel the onset of symptoms. Her neighbors are Covid positive. The apartment upstairs houses the body of an elderly woman who has died from Covid. Nobody has come to collect her body. It remains there, in whatever state she was in when she last drew breath, attracting maggots. The daily temperatures in Kolkata currently hover between 88 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The humidity level is 89%. I do not want to conjure the scene that will greet whoever eventually shows up to deal with this woman’s remains.
  • My aunt’s neighborhood in Bally is seized with illness and death. A father and daughter pass away in the next house. The daughter was pregnant, just like me. She went into labor and the doctors managed to save her baby. But she died, leaving an elderly grieving mother to take care of her infant.

I post a sad message on Facebook about the situation in India with a long list of places where people can donate. It receives 54 likes. Meanwhile, a post about a recent article I published on India in the American Journal of Sociology garners 199 likes. It appears that my Facebook community cares more for academic articles about India than it does for the hundreds of thousands of Indians who are dying. I realize this is an ungenerous interpretation, but one can’t help jumping to conclusions.

It appears that my Facebook community cares more for academic articles about India than it does for the hundreds of thousands of Indians who are dying.

Today: Overcoming Absence

You may notice in the process of reading this post that I seem to care more about my research site now than I did a couple months ago. My anger and sadness are palpable, even if they may be misdirected (Facebook users are an easy target). Perhaps emotional barriers borne of distance are not insurmountable. How can one overcome the empathy and care deficit that absence creates? One way: wait until shit gets really bad. That seems to be my strategy. Things are really bad in India right now, so I am finally concerned. This does not seem to be an overly promising direction to go in.

A better way: cultivate personal relationships and stay in touch with people on a regular basis. I aspire to to do this by watching my parents. My parents immigrated to the United States in their mid-thirties. Everyone they love is still in India: relatives, neighbors, their friends from school. During normal times, they make an average of four to five phone calls per week to people living in West Bengal. Since the beginning of India’s latest Covid surge, they have been making twelve to fourteen calls per week. While they talk to people because they miss them and are genuinely concerned for their welfare, their conversations have one unanticipated consequence. They know a lot more than I do about what is going on. The stories that sprinkle these pages, stories of what is happening on the ground, of people’s experiences, I gathered those stories through my parents. It is through their extensive, well-tended, network of care that I am now able to imagine the scale of the disaster unfolding on the ground. Hearing people’s voices, listening to them, shortens the distance.

And even if it does not necessarily make my heart grow fonder, it makes it bleed a bit.

Dr. Poulami Roychowdhury is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at McGill University and her research analyzes how states regulate gendered violence and why certain incidents of violence inspire political mobilization. Dr. Roychowdhury’s first book, Capable Women, Incapable States: Negotiating Violence and Rights in India, was published with Oxford University Press in 2021. Read more about her work here.

Editors’ note: Ethnographic Marginalia would like to give a huge shoutout to Dipali Anumol, whose illustrations we have used for this piece. Dipali is a PhD Candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. You can find more of her illustrations here.

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