OIV Blog – French Institute of Pondicherry

Charlotte Evans, Economic & Social History, Lancaster University ( 2020 Cohort)

It was around 5 AM local time when I stepped out of Chennai International Airport, bombarded by taxi drivers asking where they could take me. I searched the crowd for my name on a placard as the sun rose above the city. Here I was, in the state of Tamil Nadu, South India. I blinked and exhaled, the chaos and noise of the city waking up around me. After beginning my 1+3 PhD studentship during the pandemic and not even being able to visit my CASE partner: the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh for the first few months of my studies, this trip had always felt very far away.

I had finally made it to India.

Eventually, I did find my driver. He’d very helpfully written my name in yellow highlighter pen which was exactly the eye-test I’d needed after a ten-hour flight. Then began my four hour drive south along the Bay of Bengal to the French Institute of Pondicherry.

My PhD research focuses on the Kaveri river, one of India’s seven holy rivers. It flows from the Western Ghats, across South India through the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu where it meets the sea and forms a delta. My project is concerned with the hydro-social history of the river catchment, building an interdisciplinary study of this river’s past from its physical geographies, the empires that have risen and fallen here to the people that depend on its water every day. A big focus of the project is on GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and mapping, looking at how the landscape has changed and how projections of the landscape through mapping have been used to control and exploit during the period of British colonialism. I’m hoping to re-claim mapping using modern digital techniques to tell the story of this river catchment and the lives within it in the context of its past and its future. 

The team hosting me at the French Institute of Pondicherry have been researching the history of the Kaveri delta, right back to the Chola Dynasty (9th – 13th Century) through translating inscriptions on Hindu temples. They conduct regular visits to the delta, a little further south from Pondicherry, to speak to the local people, mainly farmers who depend on this fertile deltaic plain. Agriculture has been practiced in the delta for centuries; with evidence of river management dating back as far as 150 CE in the form of the Grand Anicut canal. During the period of British Colonialism (1858-1947), this ancient canal system was extended to increase the area of cultivatable land, creating a ‘new delta’ in the district of Thanjavūr (previously Tanjore) after the opening of the Mettur dam in 1934. Rice is the primary crop of the delta, but further east you’ll find shrimp farms where the saline sea water encroaches into the delta. There’s complex, intertwined environmental and social histories at play in this mosaic landscape. This institutional visit was my opportunity to work with highly knowledgeable scholars in the field and discuss their research and experience. Further, it was an invaluable experience in understanding the more everyday cultural differences, which I believe is greatly important in any research conducted overseas.

This trip was my first time in India and on the Asian continent. I was disappointed in myself at first that I found the culture shock so hard to get to grips with. I threw myself in completely at the deep end, eating out with other academics in the institute (note: don’t trust a South Indian’s spice tolerance levels) drinking chai and south indian coffee in the afternoons and even darting around the town on the back of a motorbike. Yet still, when the evening came and everything was dark by around 5:30pm, I found myself nervous to go out alone. In fact, it took me a week to go out in the main part of town alone in the daytime. It also took me some time to notice that when people shake their heads from side to side in South India as we would to say no, they’re actually saying yes. This led to much confusion at restaurants. Honestly, it was strangely off-putting to talk to someone thinking they’re completely disagreeing with you when instead they’re essentially nodding their heads in encouragement.

Then, there was the dreaded ‘Dehli Belly’. I loved the food I’d tried in the first week of my trip despite learning that having a high spice tolerance for English standards does not translate. However, what everyone I’d spoken to at home had warned me about eventually caught up with me. I got food poisoning. In fact, I got food poisoning twice in my three weeks in India which, granted, was quite unlucky. It took me another two months at home to be able to look at curry again. Being sick and so far away from home really made the loneliness kick in. And, as if by some magical pathetic fallacy, the monsoon rains had arrived. One of the other researchers went out on his motorbike to fetch me an electrolyte drink and some plain toast on a particularly rough day. Unfortunately, after the first week of adventurous eating, I could only stomach plain pastas, pizzas and boiled rice.

Yet, despite all the challenges and showering with a bucket for three weeks, my overseas visit was an incredible experience. The knowledge I picked up in just three weeks was beyond helpful for taking my PhD project further and understanding the intricacies of life in the Kaveri catchment. I made great friends and extended my research network in ways that are almost impossible through digital connections alone. It made all my international zoom calls feel like they’d paid off. I got to explore a part of the world I may have never visited without this opportunity, and I got to call it work. It sounds corny to say, but the hardships of the trip have only made me stronger as a person and more sure I can depend on myself. Anyway, they make great anecdotes when enough time has passed that you can laugh about getting a huge hornet out of your room at 1 AM.

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