“DIASPORA HOST(ELL)ING INTERNATIONAL…”
The rhythm of doing fieldwork(s) between London and Amsterdam, in October and November 2018
by Sara Bonfanti
The Post revisits my last European fieldtrips, planned around Diwali Festivals celebrated in the Diaspora, but lighting plenty of further insights…
Autumn just kicked in, as yellowed leaves began to fall, I was swept away by the windy urge to reengage with my field sites in Europe, bulimic of life as I’ve always been, and of research work since I had its first bite. Mindful cognizant of having to care for my kids who had just returned to school, I resolved to give myself a fortnight in London and Amsterdam, in order to catch up with my empirical work and local interlocutors. My Homing contract claimed more interviews to be carried out in both cities, esp. with my group of reference: migrant residents (or resident migrants?) with some South Asian background. A quick look at the calendar backed up my plan: Diwali 2019, Festival of Light, fell on Wed 7th Nov., and yet, for my lucky chance, the main public celebrations were held on Sun 28th Oct. in London, and on Sat. 4th Nov. in Amsterdam; whatever the stars might say, most people could revel only off from work, in festive times and spaces arranged purposely.
I booked my flights and some lodging, though I deliberately left blank spots in my travel plans, believing that it would be wiser to remain open to flukes and casual encounters. As the art critic Daverio (2018) recently commented “Touring the ‘Beautiful Country’ (Italy – the Bel Paese as described by Dante) requires time. It demands an anarchic organization, yielding poetic insights”. Doing ethnographic fieldtrips and touring the world share some common concerns, nonetheless the ambivalent relation between hosts and guests, informants and researcher, which inform the ways places come to be seen and experienced (Smith 1989).
Fig. 2 Wall painting realized by school kids and placed outside St. John’s Anglican Church in Southall
As my ethnographic ‘pilgrimage’ site, I first stopped over in Southall, “sensational” like local youth voiced on a mural, the borough that keeps entrapping all my senses every time I return to inhabit it for a spell. This time, accompanied by a colleague of mine, novel to the place, we treated ourselves to a luxury stay: Mehfil Hotel is the best rated guesthouse just off the railway station on the Green. While its rooms furniture and service look plainly British, a few details remarked the South Asianess of the premise: from the towels on the bed folded in the shape of a peacock, to the two-option breakfast served in the morning (English sausage and eggs or Indian parantha). The owners are second-generation Punjabis whose parents moved to Britain half a century earlier, and they have since made a living catering for co-ethnics who come to visit friends and relatives from abroad, or fellow Brit-Asians who trip to London’s Little India in search of their home away from home, desh/pardesh. Renowned for its tandoori cuisine, on Saturday night Mehfil Restaurant gets particularly crowded: middle class families dine out to celebrate karva chaut, the break of a week’s fasting that Hindu women observe in order to preserve their husbands’ health. While “DIL – Diwali in London” is set to be the South Asian event of the year in the City, most Southallians don’t seem excited at the idea of celebrating their most felt annual festivity in Trafalgar Square, with lit. ten thousand global tourists or white Britons, who do not even know the reason why they’re there cheering. None of the Brit-Asian people I hanged out with that week would participate in the much paraded city event.
Not the Sikhs, who celebrate on Diwali date the release from prison of their sixth Guru, as we learnt from our friends in Park Av. Gurdwara (where we were invited to help as sewadars, volunteers who offer their time in the preparation and serving of staple food in the langar, the common kitchen). Nor the mixed couple who invited me for lunch on Sun. 28th in Brent (London natives with an Indian and Greek ancestry respectively), insisted for me to stay with them in the afternoon and share good time with their Jewish neighbours, rather than mingling with throngs in the City. For Hindus, the true meaning of Deepavali begets enlightening one’s consciousness: staying in with dearest ones placing fire lit candles on the windowsill would be much proper than joining a mass carousel; eventually paying a visit to the local mandir to listen to the epic tale about the victorious return from exile of Lord Rama. Neither my next host Siddha partook in the hyper advertised fête, a Hindu young professional in the estate market who had moved to London six years earlier and rented a fine flat in Kensington (despite hiding rat traps from my view). When I arrived, he was packing his suitcase with M&S Jaffa cakes to bring over to his family as a gift for Diwali, which they would all party together in Delhi soon.
After all, let aside my Buddhist and Christian Asian informants in London, who did not have a spiritual reason to revel Diwali, it was not that surprising to see that British Asians would still acknowledge the Festival of Light, though their way of celebrating was more minute, familial, and homely than a big event could offer. Institutionalized and commercialized festivals might attract curious globetrotters, many benevolently committed to partake in a glitzy version of British multiculturalism, but Brit-Asian citizens seemed to look down as a charade to the DIL that the City of London had orchestrated (and profited from). More than pan-Asian, the “Diwali in London” was critiqued by some of my research participants as a cosmopolitan parade of their homeland tradition, turned into a consumerist potlatch (Mauss 1925) where they had no wish to compromise.
I left Britain for the Netherlands on Halloween night, a Celtic fest that Christianity incorporated to mark the Eve of All Saints’ day: in a carnival like topsy-turvy, darkness reigns over the calendar and has to be rejoiced. While Amsterdam is recommended for being the best party city for the spookiest of nights, most of my collaborators there (Hindustanis, Dutch Asians and Indian expats) were getting ready for their own Diwali event. In the city of tulips, windmills and canals, albeit November weather was pretty gloomy, I took abode upon invitation in a newly refurbished bed and breakfast run by the aged parents of a dear informant in Zuid-Oost, the south-east end of the city, burgeoning with rampant middle class foreigners. The couple of spouses, ‘Overseas Indian Citizens’ naturalized Dutch, had left Gujrat forty years ago to settle in the Netherlands, moving from Den Hague to the capital, and there managing to purchase one and then two small guest houses which thrived since the city became evermore Euro global decade after decade: a tourist target first, a professional destination then. In their budget Hostel, considering its material culture and maintenance (plain white&grey spotless interiors, daily scrubbed by a Polish maid), food and hospitality practices (continental breakfast buffet with Dutch Speculaas cookies, and bike rental at the reception), it was evident that the Subcontinent was more absent than present, possibly evoked by smell in the masala teas selection provided in every room. My inviting host is a bright second-generation Dutch Indian woman, who has lit. capitalized on her own mixed cultural capital, establishing a no-profit Foundation for the mutual participation of natives and migrants in Dutch and Indian cultural events. Yearly, Diwali came as a date not to be missed, and her Foundation led the negotiation with the City Council in order to make everything run smooth and successful.
That weekend in Amsterdam, while my Sikh informants were organising their small scale public salutes in the two local gurdware, and my Hindu ones were doing the same co-opting me to help them prepare prasad food to share, the City Diwali boded to be a much acclaimed revelry. The outcome did not fail on its promise. Set up in a heated circus tent in Amstelveen (next to the new shopping mall in the borough home to the recent Indian ICT Diaspora), I spent all Saturday attending that glamorous event, which featured ongoing Bollywood music performances and workshops (my beloved mehndi tattooing included) and offered plenty of food stalls with profuse exotic dishes (where Caribbean Hindustani and south Asian tastes combined in a melting pot over the times and places the Indian diasporas spread), next to draught beer booths that no Dutch could do without. Garments, colours and idioms from every corner of the globe proved that the party was experienced as a cosmopolitan Incredible India! show as much as a significant re-enactment of cultural identity by the multiverse south Asian residents attending, a “staged authenticity” (MacCannell 1973) flexible enough to be enjoyed by many, each with their own re-appropriation of meaning. I loitered there until the fireworks were lit, eyes up to the sky, hand in hand with the small daughter of another research participant, both chuckling and kidding which one of us had won the best mehndi.
Every time a research mission ends, and I get on board a plane heading home, I feel my entrails twisting with sourness: “wish I had stayed longer, done more with this or that person…”, and deadly anticipate that I am supposed to write a Post (or an ethnographic note to share with the Team) after fieldwork is done. Not that I loathe the task, but it always takes me ages, partly because I take notes only by handwriting while on field (noblesse oblige: despite the digital era, neuroscientists confirm that amanuenses are smartest), thus shifting my medium for thought is a pain in the arse. Partly because to put in prose my organized anarchy is no easy deal, composing a linear text from shared fragments of life in unfamiliar happenstances. If only going through the photographs I took, time and again, has helped me to infuse consistency in my ethnographic writing, then I can foresee (or at least hope) that my New Year 2019 resolution will aid me to find a new method to express my results. Having in mind to turn my ethnographic work to visual research and creative analytic practices, my next prose shall take the form of a screenplay: “a postmodern literary exemplar [which has the] ability to remain contingent, share authority over interpretations, and represent complexity and multiplicity through polyvocal juxtaposition” (Berbary 2011: 189).
When’s my next home visit scheduled? Which route will I take for my next homing walk along? Who will my hosts or attendants be? How may I keep on arguing about “diversity” (Horst & Bivand-Erdal 2018) with my own voice but accounting for my informants’ loans, as I follow the research trails of home and mobility with south Asians in Europe? No doubt that kinship, my longstanding interest and a theme of concern within the Homing framework, has been a rod light for my enquiries so far. Nevertheless, as a feminist ethnographer (Skeggs 2002), concerned with feminist ethics and the responsibility for my authorship, I could never conceive of shooting a documentary movie within a family’s home. Private home videos make a legacy for households across generations, and to me, as a researcher of relatedness and a mother of young kids, such setting is the backdrop of everyday intimate performances that I would not wish to display nor to see on a screen. On the contrary, the other home I have insisted on investigating for the past two years, the semi-public home space of worship houses, lays itself relatively open to my ethnographic gaze and ambition as a filmmaker. Relative is the access that I will be granted, even in those temples where I have already been welcomed (despite being a woman and agnostic in a ‘main-male-stream’ environment), now that my intrusiveness and plea for commitment from my interlocutors are going to be more intense and demanding. There might pass a few months, before I upgrade my filming skills and select which three houses of worship will host my crew: ideally a Hindu mandir, a Muslim masjid, and a Sikh gurdwara, randomly chosen in Amsterdam, London and Milan. I cannot imagine a better home place in which to see and technically reproduce where people (un)make relatedness, between the spiritual and the secular, between one’s (ethno-religious?) minority and (host?) society. I cannot wait to re-engage with those informants who have not only let me cross the threshold of their community homes, but also made me an observing participant more than a participant observer in their sacred arena. I am willing indeed to shift our collaboration further and humbly ask for their active participation on both sides of a video camera, at once actors and spectators of a docu movie, like we all are in our daily life.
Berbary, L. (2011). Poststructural Writerly Representation: Screenplay as Creative Analytic Practice. Qualitative Inquiry, 17: 186-196.
Daverio, P. (2018). Grand Tour d’Italia, a piccoli passi. Milano: Mondadori.
Horst, C. & M. Bivand-Erdal (2018). What is Diversity? and how do we study and write about it? Oslo: PRIO Policy Brief.
MacCannell, D. (1973). Staged authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings. American Journal of Sociology, 79 (3): 589-603.
Mauss, M. (1925). Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques, In Sociologie et Anthropologie, Collection Quadrige, Paris: PUF (5th Ed. 1973, pp. 149-279).
Skeggs, B. (2001). Feminist Ethnography. In: P. Atkinson, A. Coffey & S. Delamont, Handbook of Ethnography London: SAGE Publications (pp. 426-442).
Smith, V. (Ed.) (1989). Hosts and Guests. The Anthropology of Tourism. University of Pennsylvania Press.