Marooned on a Tropical Island; Trying to Write
02 March 2022
“Pullavarayar – Pulutha Madu Porukki (one who collects decaying cow carcasses – a scavenger)
Kandiyar – Kadai Porukki (one who frequents and collects leftovers from shops – a beggar)
Vanniyar – Valiccu Nakki (one who scrapes clean and licks – a miser)”
Pullavarayars, Kandiyars and Vanniyars are surnames of three of the most numerous clan1 groups in Pullavarayan-Kudikadu and Vaduvur, villages in central Tamil Nadu. Vaduvur, where I did my ethnographic fieldwork, is also my ancestral village from which my family had migrated to settle in Singapore. When I asked my Vaduvur-born mother, Jeyakody, what this throwaway rhyme which she had recited while I was growing up and I was reminded of when I heard it again during my fieldwork meant, she laughed.
“Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a way to make fun of our fellow villagers and close kin (affines)”.
It is an alliterative, mildly insulting comical rhyme used to affectionately tease. Since my father is a Kandiyar, my mother – from a Vanniyar family – often mocks him with it. In turn, I tease my mother since her thrifty ways did appear to substantiate the epithet of ‘one who scrapes clean and licks’. This verse, redolent with my Vaduvur interlocuters’ dark humour, also evoked my mother’s no-waste ethos.
My maternal family had clawed their way from landless labourers to themselves becoming landlords largely due to my maternal grandmother Pattu’s forethought, diligence, and prudent management. My maternal aunt Chinnappa sighed,
“Every cent she earned, scrimped and saved, she put towards buying land. My mother died much too soon. If she had not, we would have bought several more acres of land”.
Her daughter, my cousin, Sami-Ammal teared up,
“Even when she was allocated just one sack of rice to feed five people over an entire year, by the end, she would still have a pile of rice remaining from this meagre share. That’s how careful she was. Grandfather used to say that, just when it came time to eat, she was no longer alive. She died without enjoying the fruits of her labour. Grandmother could barely eat rice2 three or four times a year. But look at all the rice we waste now”.
Having lost her mother when she was just seven years old, my mother Jeyakody had to stop schooling and assume responsibility for the household and farm. Both her elder sisters were married with their own households to run and there was no one else. The thrifty habitus wrought out of the struggle against dire poverty and inculcated by her mother stayed with Jeyakody even as her own material circumstances changed. Jeyakody wrings every possible drop of use out of something before she even contemplates discarding it.
At the onset of the pandemic, I had been working on the ritual cult – both in temples and in homes – of a mother goddess who had migrated with her devotees from rural Tamil Nadu to Singapore (Arumugam 2020a).
As the disease and its effects began to unfold, I could access neither the public worship nor the private rituals.
What was an anthropologist of religion whose work critically depends on participating in and observing rituals supposed to do now? The pandemic itself could become a subject. And I did write two short blogposts about Tamil Hindu aetiologies of epidemic diseases – one on sacred ethnomedical plants and another on the anthropomorphic poetics underpinning the worship of/through idols. Then what? Without fresh data, what could I write about? This is when my mother’s prudent strategies, borne out of the need to survive, indeed thrive in the face of privation, began to inspire my own management of scarce ethnographic data.
When I did fieldwork for my PhD thesis in Vaduvur in 2008, I generated so much data that I could not use all of it. Indeed, what I had proposed to be just my first chapter ended up being my entire thesis instead. I had had the luxury of spending twenty months in the field, undivided time to concentrate almost exclusively on generating data and being able to depend on the kindness of extremely articulate interlocuters. Apart from the information – on kinship structures and ethics, sacrificial worship to tutelary deities, conflicts over shared territories, practices of local adjudication and self-governance, election campaigns for local political office, the everyday life of ordinary people as well as my interlocuters’ theorizations of their own worlds – that I had used to frame and flesh out my thesis on vernacular political imaginaries in rural Tamil Nadu, I still had a lot of excess data. A surplus that I was just going to leave, undeciphered, untheorized and unwritten about, in my notebooks. I could afford to be selective, wasteful even. These were halcyon days of plenty.
In 2020, everything changed. Regulations to prevent the spread of Covid-19 meant that I could no longer travel to conduct fieldwork in Tamil Nadu. As lockdowns, social distancing measures and restrictions on communal gatherings came into effect, I could not even conduct fieldwork locally, in Singapore. Online telecasts of temple rituals documented mechanical processes bereft of a congregation and the ambience their co-presence produces. Stranded at home and adrift from fieldwork, I was scrambling for data to sift through, theorize with and write about. These are unnerving days of penury.
After cracking open eggs and emptying them into a bowl, Jeyakody runs her finger around the shells to get every bit of the egg white out. Rinsing rice four times, she uses the water from the first three rinses to water her plants while the fourth one becomes the liquid basis for the accompanying curry. Even the residual heat that remains after she has finished cooking in the rice cooker or on the induction stove is used to heat cups of water or tea.
Gleaning refers to the practice of salvaging residual crops from fields that have already been harvested. Data-scarcity forced me to scour my already picked over and used fieldnotes to see if I had overlooked any materials that might still be useful. Information that I had once dismissed as of little or no value were now scrutinized for alternative understandings. Severed from completed manuscripts, these shadowy spectres continued to haunt. Poring through my notebooks, I revisited phrases, descriptions and ideas evoking occurrences during my fieldwork. Several notes referred to the materiality and meanings of meat in the rural gastronomic landscape. In my completed writings, I had focused on the significance of animal sacrifice to not just the ritual economy but also the constitution of kinship and especially the vernacular political imaginary. However, I had not grappled with the implication of flesh and fish in my interlocuter’s foodways, labour practices and routine life. Having deemed these issues too banal for anthropological theorizing, I had not engaged with the everyday appeal of meat – how my interlocuters relished eating goats, chickens, and seafood, how these foods formed the basis of convivial communal feasts, how meat was exchanged as valuable gifts among kin, and especially the taste of flesh and fish.
Redressing these lacunae, I began writing about just these routine matters. Since they stemmed from and centred upon simple anecdotes, I planned for these pieces to be short, narrative, and reflective rather than analytical or theoretical. As I became immersed in the writing, however, insights that had initially been submerged began emerging. In the intervening years, my perceptions of what was analytically significant had changed. India too had changed. The incendiary gastro-politics – whereby the actual foodways and carnist inclinations of, at least in Tamil Nadu, 97% of the population is marginalized while a powerful minoritarian ethics and aesthetics of food is upheld and perpetuated – propelled my focus on meat. One of the pieces remained a short deliberation on the exchange of preserved flesh and fish in nourishing diasporic kinship. The other, however, on the offering of meat to ancestors and the post-worship feasting, became a much longer than usual journal article.
Together with gleaning, I began mining too – drilling deep into my own family history and socio-cultural practices. Auto-ethnography, where one’s own lived experiences is used as data with which to interrogate social phenomena, is a long-standing practice in anthropology. My family’s ritual life – that at once draws from traditions in our ancestral village in Tamil Nadu but has also adapted and innovated based on its relocation to urban, multi-ethnic, and cosmopolitan Singapore – is rich and textured. While they have always inspired my interest in popular Hinduism, now these family rituals became the main subject of my ethnographic writings. Also, I was irritated. When I gave an online talk about my ongoing research on women’s domestic rituals to mother-goddesses, several questions alluded to how surprising it was that people offered meat to the deities. That an audience of anthropologists and sociologists in India was assuming vegetarian offerings to be the default provoked me into writing the aforementioned lengthy journal article describing in almost tedious detail my family’s meat-centred offerings to our ancestors in our own home.
Description, in this case, is thick not so much for the sake of providing explanatory context and subjective meanings but to reiterate the presence and substantial resonance of carnist worship. Against hegemonic framings of vegetarian offerings as the default in Hindu worship, I privileged descriptive minutiae so as to render meat-offerings not deviant or unusual but so habitual as to be unremarkable, even banal. Likewise, an intimate post-parturition worship to a mother goddess among my extended family necessitated the offering of specific types and cuts of flesh and fish. Comparing these domestic rituals exclusive to women with the male priest-led public worship to the same goddess in specific Singaporean temples which I had already been documenting, allowed me to theorize the gendered premises of specific rituals and their implications for cultivating fertility. Shedding some light on the worship practices unique to and innovated upon by the Tamil Hindu diaspora in Singapore, these pieces served to reiterate the diversity of Hindu ritual and gastronomic practices.
Not throwing away leftover dried-fish curry, Jeyakody repurposes it into a new dish by mashing it together with boiled cassava tubers. She soaks left-over rice in water overnight and eats it with pickles for breakfast. The flesh of the ridge gourd becomes a stir-fry, the green peel is made into a fresh chutney to accompany thosais (savoury rice crepes) and idlis (steamed rice-cakes). All the pits, peels and stalks from her kitchen become compost for her plants.
The expression ‘nose to tail’ (and its plant equivalent ‘root to shoot’) encapsulates a culinary philosophy that meticulously utilizes every possible part of an animal. Letting nothing go to waste emphasises respect for the resources (water, fossil fuels and labour) that went into raising the animal. In the face of anthropogenic climate change and the precarity of food systems, using the entire animal is an environmentally and ethically sustainable practice. Similarly, profligacy with data – just using the prime and choice pieces – is no longer sustainable. Given the lack of new fieldwork, I had to use every bit of the data that I already possessed.
An almost throwaway fragment in my fieldnotes referred to the Minis – amoral spirits inhering to the land and water bodies – that must be propitiated with animal sacrifice to secure fertility. Initially encountered in my mother’s stories about growing up in Vaduvur, the Minis did figure in my earlier writings. They had, for example, fuelled ruminations on the interpenetrations of sacrality and monstrosity in popular Hinduism (Arumugam 2020b). By and large however, I had employed the Minis modestly; merely as symptoms of more serious and significant religious, political-economic, and ecological transformations. Faced with data scarcity, these once negligible scraps became the main entrée and repeatedly so. In one instance, these same Minis inspired me to reflect on how I became an anthropologist and my research interests. In another instance, I used the Minis to substantiate an interrogation into the inherent insufficiency of rituals and ultimately the limits of anthropological theorizations in accounting for the numinous. In yet another example, the Minis propelled my analysis of the power of stories and storytelling to constitute a region and its people as well as a corpus of anthropological literature.
Reconsidering what I used to casually discard, I had to wring every bit of value out of every single morsel of data. From casual observations to incidental insights to seemingly throwaway phrases, I tried to use as many parts of the body of data as I could. Privileging fixity, holism, coherence and finality, anthropological publications do disservice to the multiple, unstructured, and indeterminate ways in which people actually live in and understand their worlds. Analysing the same issue repeatedly, each time using a different interpretive permutation, makes available the alternate, manifold and open-ended possibilities underpinning a single subject.
Scanning the verdant ground or overgrown fences in urban Singapore, Jeyakody can recognize herbs, fruits, and edible foods from her youth in rural Tamil Nadu. She collects coconuts that have fallen off of trees along the roads to use in worship at home and in temples. She gathers ponnanganni (dwarf copperleaf) leaves to cook as greens, vallarai (Asian pennywort) leaves and pirandai (Veldt grape) stems to make into pesto-like chutneys and vettrilai (wild betel), tulasi (holy basil) and karpooravalli (Indian borage) leaves to brew into herbal tisanes to relieve coughs and colds. Sourcing cuttings of these wild plants, she replants them to flourish in her own garden.
In “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography”, Günel, Varma, and Watanabe (2020) argue that, even before the pandemic, ethnographic pieties about long-term, in-person, immersive fieldwork had become difficult on not just epistemological grounds but also because of gendered, financial, logistical, political and ecological concerns. Proposing ethnographic protocols “designed around short-term field visits, using fragmentary yet rigorous data, and other such methodological innovations”, they suggest working with rather than against the “gaps, constraints, partial knowledge, and diverse commitments” inherent to knowledge production. Expanding what is considered “acceptable materials, tools, and objects of … analyses”, the authors propose workable methodological strategies to generate data in these strained circumstances. Such heterogenous and fragmented approaches have similarly driven not just my methodological strategies but also my research inspirations.
I was blocked not just physically (from travelling) but also mentally during the pandemic. Data through fieldwork is not simply evidence to substantiate arguments. Fieldwork inherently inspires new ideas. Working on a project stimulates meanderings, digressions, and picaresque twists into more, new, and other ideas for further projects. Stymied at every turn and struggling with motivation, I was bereft of ideas. Unable to shift my geographical location, I changed my literary landscape. Reading anything other than ethnographies, anthropological texts, and social science research, I ranged over writings on food, nature, films, and travel. I explored literary fiction, short stories, essays, plays and especially poetry. Even Facebook despatches, Instagram posts and tweets on mythology, symbols, rituals, and horror fed my ravenous curiosity. In these plots overgrown with all forms of free and feral thoughts which fertilized each other with wild abandon, I foraged to nourish my research and writing. Picking up, looking over, holding, discarding, returning to, rethinking, and preserving scraps of information, insights and inspirations constituted my methods. A series of tweets on the powers of stories to carve as well as map a landscape inspired an article on the theogony of another mother goddess popular in Singapore. Tracing the narrative arc and the shifts in genres as these stories travelled from rural Tamil Nadu to urban Singapore, I charted this goddess’s apotheosis – from an unjustly accused and horrifically murdered girl belonging to the potter community to a pan-Indian goddess to ultimately a diasporic deity. While I had been used to collecting stories myself, this piece was based entirely on the goddess’s myths available over the internet.
In another bout of ethnographic foraging, I gathered information on the origins and celebrations of a monsoon festival from assorted sources including medieval Tamil poems and epics, a celebrated historical fiction novel and contemporary news articles. Connecting these with the scant references in my fieldnotes about celebrating this same festival in Vaduvur motivated an article about the dilemmas of sacrality and materiality, piety and levity, asceticism and fertility as materialized in the everyday concerns and routine lives of ordinary peoples. Once again, bits and pieces were gathered from multiple and seemingly disparate sources to generate resonant and rigorous analyses.
Even as I cite specific examples from my writings, this is meant neither as a litany of productivity during a pandemic nor an ode to resilience in the face of constraints. Rather, it is a document of my desperation. Literally marooned on a tropical island, sapped of inspiration and cut off from the new data essential to writing, I panicked; became paralyzed. What pierced through this mental fog was my mother Jeyakody’s life-long disposition towards frugality and its attendant practical methods. So ingrained were these thrifty techniques in my family that, unbeknownst to myself, I had also imbibed them. Neither scholarly tomes nor sophisticated theories or even rich ethnographies, but forms of intimate knowledge, often overlooked, dismissed as trite and devalued, were the key to resurrecting my thwarted writing.
 All the three clans belong to the same Kallar caste. Clans are patrilineally traced and exogamous kin groups within a caste. Since members of the same clan share a surname and are related to in parental, sibling, and filial terms, they cannot marry each other but must marry those from a different clan. Members of all other clans, apart from one’s own, are therefore potential affines.
 Rice has been a luxury reserved for festivals and special occasions. Everyday meals consisted of millets.
Arumugam, Indira. 2020a. “Migrant Deities: Dislocation, Divine Agency and Mediated Manifestations”, American Behavioural Scientist Vol.64, No. 10: 1458-1470.
Arumugam, Indira. 2020b. “Gods as Monsters: Insatiable Appetites, Exceeding Interpretations, and a Surfeit of Life”. In Yasmine Musharbash & G.H. Presterudsteun (eds.). Monster Anthropology: Ethnographic Explorations of Transforming Social Worlds through Monsters. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 44-58.
Günel, Gökçe, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe. 2020. “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography”. Member Voices, Fieldsights, June 9. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/a-manifesto-for-patchwork-ethnography
Dr. Indira Arumugam is an Assistant Professor in the National University of Singapore. She is an anthropologist working primarily in Tamil Nadu and amidst the Tamil diaspora in Southeast Asia. Her primary research interests are rituals, lived kinship, popular politics, everyday ethics and grassroots Hinduism. Her articles on pleasurable kinship, resurgent animal sacrifice, coercive gift and electoral politics and festival ethics have been published in Social Anthropology, Modern Asian Studies, Contributions to Indian Sociology and Material Religion. Her monograph entitled, Visceral Politics: Intimate Imaginaries of Power in South India is forthcoming. She is currently working on two projects: the ritual cult of an autochthonous village goddess in urban Singapore and the contemporary resonance of animal sacrifice.