Solo Research Trips Abroad: Kolkata Calling!
Lydia Murtezaoglu is a third-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow in the English Literature and History Departments.
Research and travel as separate enterprises are tough, but combine the two and the challenges tend to multiply. A walk in the park they are not, although, as it happens, a walk in the park does help. Naturally, everyone will experience this differently. Your experience is informed by the type of research you are doing, your personal tendencies and, of course, where you travel to. My PhD, ‘Second Cities of Empire: Collecting in Glasgow and Calcutta’ sent me to the former capital of British India, Calcutta, now Kolkata.
Photo by Lydia Murtezaoglu.
Whatever you’ve heard about researching in India is probably true. It tends to be slow, difficult and disorganised. I was somewhat prepared for the bureaucracy and lengthy waiting times – nine months waiting for my research visa was thorough training on that front – but I wasn’t expecting my reaction to being so starkly alone. The aloneness can feel freeing, an opportunity to immerse yourself entirely in your work and leave other responsibilities behind. It can also feel wholly suffocating, just you and your work and nothing else. At first, Kolkata swallowed me up. My body went through something akin to trauma as it struggled to adapt to the humidity, pollution and new food. (Heat rash is not your friend, folks.) Since then, I have experienced every emotion under the hazy sun. I have hit unexpected lows: being stared at while sobbing with frustration and shovelling Cadbury’s outside the National Archives will be hard to forget. I have also found new highs: the sense of achievement when something great comes out of the archive and the kindness of strangers have surprised me in equal measure.
How I feel about my trip changes across the days, hours and minutes, with only a cracking meal or a terrible toilet in between. This is India. Nearly three months has made me partial to the first and unmoved by the second. The other day I laughed out loud because I was impressed that a toilet was just awful rather than downright appalling. How times have changed.
India hasn’t changed, though, I have. I’ve learnt that to get research done here you need three core things – patience, perseverance and resilience. Fortunately, I am not new to research, if I were, conducting a three-month research trip would be overwhelming in itself. I have researched for academic work, exhibitions and a history television programme, each had their own challenges, but none came close to researching in India. Indeed, many academics have sympathetically told me they go through the same difficulties here despite doing as much of their work abroad as possible. Whilst this reassures me that my frustration has nothing to do with my researching abilities, it doesn’t bode.
Photo by Lydia Murtezaoglu
I’ve realised we are spoilt in the UK. Firstly, archivists are incredibly knowledgeable and willing to assist. Secondly, when you request material from the archive it is usually delivered to you in a timely fashion. Thirdly, documents are not under constant attack from humidity, insects and poor handling. The same cannot be said for Indian archives. Whilst I have met with many helpful directors and archivists (the benefit of being a foreign researcher), they, too, are fighting a difficult battle. The material you request can take hours to arrive or not arrive at all. Material that does come is often falling apart. Photos are not allowed and you have to write a letter to get written permission to use your laptop. Some, like the Victoria Memorial and National Archives, are making improvements, but you get the picture. Of course, the reasons the archives are in this state are manifold, British colonialism being the main one, but that is a topic for a different post.
In India, adaptability is essential. You can’t change the way the archives work; you have to learn to work with the system as best you can. On one particularly frustrating day when I’d been told ‘No, that’s not possible’ for the umpteenth time, my mum gave me some advice. She told me to always have a Plan B, better still to have a Plan C, so when your day gets disrupted you still have other options. Of course, being my mum, she was right. Having backup plans has helped me make the most of my days. I carry around a printed article to give me something productive to do while I’m waiting at the archives. And when the archives close early or there’s yet another state holiday, I always have something to work on so that I can pack up my stuff, head to Starbucks and crack on with it. Starbucks wouldn’t be my usual choice at home, but the air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and corporate familiarity is a haven. It’s easy, and easy can feel very, very good when everything else is a battle.
Photo by Lydia Murtezaoglu
Everyone told me that three months would whizz by, that three months would be over before I knew it, that three months was hardly long enough. They were wrong. It hasn’t whizzed, I’ve been acutely aware of the days passing. Yet, without sounding too corny, this has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. I’ve met amazing people and seen incredible things. I’ve also learnt an awful lot about myself. I’ve learnt that I cry when I’m exhausted, that I am fine with being on my own so long as it’s my choice, that finding solutions to problems (no matter how small) makes me feel empowered and, most importantly, that I need other people more than I ever realised. As I finish up my trip, I have a new zest for my research, as well as a profound love of Bengali sweets, and I can’t wait to bring it all back with me to Glasgow.