Akbar Bhawan

Lives Under the Influence: An Ethnobiographical Study

Introduction: Interviews and Ethnography

I had been fumbling with the ethics of constructing a life history. So I decided to narrate a life under influence.

In university, I learnt that ethnography was the primary tool of an anthropologist. It is a method that involves participatory interviews of people in order to form a suitably comprehensive understanding of the culture and society they are steeped in.

Now, the process of interview is an intrusive incision into other lives. An article on the nature of interviews, read long back in school, explored how the ‘interview’ was interpreted by various people through the ages. The memory is vague and it is difficult to distinguish names. But considering that this piece itself is based on the vaguest of details collected through the interview, I will try to rely exclusively on oral historical narrative.

That is to say, just the remembrance of things and their proliferation in the present time. It isn’t nearly as academic in nature as you would hope such a piece to be. But then again, this text is collecting the history of people as they see it. No matter how academic it pretends to be, histories are personal. Histories are discursively created and subjectively experienced. Perhaps this blog is an effort to document the subjective process of creating history; in other words, ‘living’.

The enjoyable little article I mentioned before traced the emergence and reception of interviews in an age where the interview was brilliantly distrusted, but nonetheless widely utilized. People like Rudyard Kipling were quoted, calling it nasty things. But the same people were later found inflicting those nasty things on other luminaries of the age. The interview, thus, came alive as an inconveniently useful thing. And the inconvenience has been tangible in the practice of interviews in my personal life.

The terrible thing about interviews is that their beginnings are always abrupt, unlike conversations. The nature of recording history has to be fragmented. Otherwise it would be an unresolved narrative riddled with plot holes and unsolved mysteries. As Neil Gaiman has stated, both explicitly and implicitly, it is the mystery that endures. So what are we trying to do with the interview of a person’s life? Understand it, record it, analyze it, or simply illuminate it as a narrative?

Purpose of the text

I am simply jotting down the stories I have been told. They have been semi-private in their nature, according to the character of the building where these lives had ended up. It was an 11 storeyed monstrosity of Brutalist architecture called Akbar Bhawan, New Delhi, India. Once upon a time it used to be a hotel. But following a property dispute, its ownership changed several times, until the building was leased to South Asian University. The University functions out of that one building till date, housing class rooms, hostels, office spaces as well as laboratories.

This interview reflects the nature of that building. Everything is somewhat public, and somewhat inconsistent.

This is the life history of one of my friends and classmates, collected as a practice exercise in ethnography. We discovered that things in the narrative gained, or lost, significance in retrospect. The process of communication seemed to allot further importance to mundane events. Hopefully, these statements will make more sense by the end of the blog.

The interviewee was one of the many people from Afghanistan staying within the boundaries of the building, whose eventful life is inextricably linked to the country. Let us call him Amir K, in reference to one of his favourite poets.

Amir K was interviewed in an informal environment where both he and I were smoking hash. I was reminded of an article called ‘The Beer Talking’ that had been part of our under graduate course on Gender. It explored the masculinities of a group of college students as investigated through a conversation while they were drunk. It was consensual. This paper hopes to normalize the idea of a narrative provided, under the influence, if not factually, then at least emotionally. And since the names have been changed, the facts already take on a fictional nature. Therefore, the approach to life histories, in this case, becomes a focus on stories being told and retold.

Amir K’s Life

A forgotten migration

Amir K begins, appropriately enough, with an event of his life he doesn’t remember; moving from Afghanistan to Pakistan by crossing mountains. The memory retains its vagueness as he states that this was a story related to him over the years by the members of the huge family who moved with him, which included, along with his parents and siblings, grandparents, uncles and aunts. He starts by describing a childhood filled with the nostalgia of someone who is old, but not old enough. His family appears in the background in vague details, such that they don’t exist individually but as a unit. He only gives details of members when absolutely necessary to the narrative. But it doesn’t feel like an omission. It is simply a way of perceiving the family’s details as intrinsic to his own self.

Education and Radicalism

He describes an idyllic and comfortably privileged life of changing schools, from an Islamic institution to a missionary one. The ‘shock’ of the change, which he acknowledges, is coated with the softness of remembrance. Despite the event appearing shocking (especially then, considering that he was shifted owing to development of radical Islamic ideas in him) he remembers it as a distinct past. His college life in Pakistan, in one of the ‘best’ colleges of the ‘city’, is also described in very vague details until its abrupt end. The days were ‘good’, and he had ‘fun’. His college days, in reference to his life, become a flow of time rather than events. Events become the incisions that prevent the flow of time.  His elder brother, an important office holder in the United Nations got targeted by the Al Qaeda for not complying with their wishes and funding their military activities. Their house was attacked and the open balcony place where the three brothers rested was bombed with a grenade. Another grenade was launched where the guards used to sleep. Fatefully, each of them had not been at their stations for some reason, which saved all of their lives, ensuring a frantic but safe return to Afghanistan.

A home beyond reach

He describes a while of inactivity there. But this flow of time, told in a sweep of generalizations, is different. The way of narrating it becomes conclusive, as if having a direct impact on the present. He talks about staying at home and not working or studying for a while. The key figure in this statement is the idleness of being at home. Home becomes a strange entity, with the city of Kabul growing in stature in his memory as a beautiful, almost ethereal place. He talks about how, despite the sound of vehicles at night being the same, Delhi feels so very different. His love for Kabul is expressed in fragmented sentences, which leave things unsaid. He never says what he feels about it. The absence becomes the expression.

Roots of the present

His college life in Delhi University is remembered in reference to his present stay in the same city. The city and the college seem to be treating him significantly worse. He talks about how college had been a stressful but better time. It takes a different hue in light of his present stay, which he describes as ‘insufferable’. He says it was fun and collects rudiments of anecdotes about not going to class and being with friends, which are scattered across his normal conversations. But in the context of his life-history, he keeps returning to Afghanistan and his activities there.

Dreams and Reality

As a graduate he returned to Afghanistan and became the Assistant of one of his relatives, who was a minister. His efficiency allowed him to handle both the position of assistant-ship and security in-charge. He proudly talks about how he opened the doors of the statehouse, allowing communication to flourish with the common people. This allowed direct reporting of grievances and news from people, which included tribal leaders with sufficient power. Thus, the democratization of administration allowed for an information channel to be opened that kept him on his toes. He proudly related the extravagant work hours he indulged in, highlighting his investment in public work. He is not vain of having been efficient, but happy. His collections of paranoia stories as the security chief are circumvented by the sheer contentment his narrative takes up while talking about the people’s trust on the minister and himself. It draws out his practical views and his preoccupation with policies and ground level change. He says that his interest in policy had led him to the course he has taken up and speaks of the disillusionment he faces with its unwieldy relation to reality. There is an inveterate need for public service, which according to me, he channels into nationalism. I ask if he looks at Afghanistan as the definition of what he wants to serve, as opposed to the indeterminateness of the term people. It is a leading question, and he vaguely agrees. The (dis)agreement is not as important as his future plans of setting up an institution of de-radicalization. What he wants is to create a separate perception through an epistemic break. Look at the same texts that have been interpreted and radicalized in certain senses from another direction. We bring up Gramsci in the conversation, perhaps getting ahead of ourselves. What we try to do is what he has been trying to do through his education in the post graduate level; navigate the gulf that exists between theory and praxis.

A Conclusion of Sorts

Amir K lives and dies in the vague nuances of an age. His entire being and history is defined in reference to a context. And what his life has to say for him is almost the same as what he has to say for his life.

What was revealed, if anything, in this study is the nature of narrations and perceptions of ourselves. Of creating identities through lived experiences and creating experiences through identities. Amir K is veritably Afghan and proudly so. He is a Pashto and embodies the manners that are expected of him with ritualized greetings reserved for his countrymen, and a conscious way of communication. His words are weighed out evenly, reflecting both his interest in poetry and his experience as a public servant. His narrative was sad and nostalgic as told from the perspective of life in this building. The context colours the story by being imbibed in the narrative. Life-history becomes locked in the place of interview and travels outwards into the past and the supposed future, making it part of the present.

Neil Gaiman, while writing the foreword to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, wrote how it was the future of the present the author himself lived in (which was the USA of the 1950s). In the same way, the context of the interview, in the balcony of Akbar Bhawan, New Delhi, under the influence of mildly illegal narcotics, colours how and why the story is being told and recorded. And just as science fiction novels, it is a far more intensive examination of the present as opposed to the past or the ostensible future.

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