On the day the New Education Policy was announced, a friend texted me, “The government has finally got back at you – they’ve discontinued M Phil altogether.” I was then on my second M Phil course. Unlike my students whom I had just finished teaching, I was never really keen on writing statements of purpose for possible summer internships which could add to their CVs. Dissatisfied with my job after I had finished my first M Phil, I had decided to apply for another one, knowing that it would hardly mean anything for my career.

More than a year into my second research programme, I had become used to the surprise by now. Why would anyone do something that would mean nothing tangible for their careers? Why trudge through an ever-increasing list of books for what people in our world call “literature review”, download PDFs, visit archives, conduct fieldwork all by yourself, often for very little money?

Researchers would find it hard to describe this to others in normal circumstances, but how does one explain this during a pandemic? No wonder we’d like to return cross-eyed from social media posts to the PDF we had taken a break from. When we like isolation so much, wouldn’t we like the isolation the pandemic thrust upon us?

Yes and no. But mostly no.

The process

Research in various disciplines is very vast, and each discipline mandates its own disciplinary rigour. What is common to serious researchers, however, is the sense of oneness with one’s research topic. Historians specialising in specific fields and time-periods take up research questions which require them to visit specific libraries. Here they find either their friends and or foes, or, as was the case with me at Natyashodh Sangsthan, no one except the librarians and staff.

It is difficult to explain the thrill of seeing files numbered DL/145/1556 open up for you, as if it holds some kind of secret that would answer a troubling question in the head. For those who grew up in the ’90s, remember Aman Verma creepily saying “Khuljasimsim” to make middle-class India believe neo-liberalism was actually working? Remember those empty boxes and the disappointed eyes of a middle-class uncle who doesn’t win a refrigerator?

File no DL/145/1556 is often like that. It leads to more files, more questions, and seldom answers anything. So how do we deal with this? The point about research, however, is not answers, but questions. Finding a good research question is a quest in and of itself. What the pandemic has done is stop this quest in some ways.

It’s important to understand the process of writing a dissertation to know the frequent disappointments and occasional breakthroughs a researcher goes through. Writing a dissertation is the last stage of the research process. While the exact procedures may vary from one university to another, and across disciplines, the researcher is expected to pass what is known as the research synopsis in front of an official committee before embarking on the dissertation.

In the social sciences and humanities, this usually consists of, among other aspects, the literature review, chapterisation, scope of the study, and the research questions. The literature review is a qualitative survey of the research already done in the field. This gives the researcher an idea about how they can intervene in this project.

The next stage varies according to the specific disciplines. An anthropologist is expected to visit her “field” and take “field notes”; the historian is usually expected to do extensive archival work. The final dissertation gets written after this, but, as is often the case, some of these processes overlap. While actually writing the dissertation, some questions may come up when the researcher makes a connection, or reconsiders a point they had hypothesised.

But a new claim always needs proper substantiation, and the ethnographer may want to return to the field, the historian to the archive, the chemist to the lab, or the literature scholar to a rare manuscript in a library, to see if it indeed can be elaborated upon. All of these are impossible longings for the researcher during the pandemic.

For instance, Arundhathi, a researcher at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies in Tata Institute for Social Sciences, Mumbai, works on “women’s experiences of using the local trains of Mumbai”. She studies the mechanisms by which “gender and mobility influence each other.” The pandemic effectively stopped her mobility while she began writing her dissertation.

“Writing during the pandemic was scary because of the realisation that I could not go back to the field or my participants in case my data was insufficient. I had to make do with whatever I had. I also had to contend with the realisation that the research field that I left behind is no longer the same. Granted that the field is never a static entity, but, in my case, there is a radical break from the past. For instance, I no longer have the luxury of hopping on to a local train any time I feel like it.”

People travel in trains for a variety of reasons, but for Arundhathi, it is a field that she inhabits and observes. Among the pleasures in life for an ethnographer is inhabiting and observing a field. There are some quiet moments of introspection within a field which an ethnographer will not experience during a pandemic.

But the pandemic has also opened new questions.

Work / write from home

It would not be unfair to say that the new normal of “work from home,” which, for us, means writing from home, has made us think of home in new ways. I spent the most amount of time at my home in Calcutta in seven years during the pandemic. In the initial days of the lockdown, I was writing a chapter focusing on an essay by the late Bengali actor and critic, Keya Chakraborty.

The remarkable essay asks why household work is the sole prerogative of the female actor when both the spouses work in the theatre. Reading this alongside critical literature on what is known as social reproduction theory, I could not ignore how especially relevant questions about work in general and housework in particular, which serves the interest of global capital, are when “work from home” is the new normal.

Even though I was writing about a historical past in an attempt to compose what I had courageously called “A Feminist Historiography of the Progressive Amateur Theatre Movement in Bengal” in my synopsis, I could not ignore how much of our past lives on in our present.

Added to this was the constant guilt that I could not participate equally in the household work because of my writing commitments. In order for me to produce a dissertation, others in my family had to take up the majority of the labour of reproduction in the household. I had to eventually take on this responsibility after the lockdown was relaxed and the members of my family, all of whom are engaged in government service, or, as the new term goes, are “essential workers,” had to dangerously leave home for “work”.

Guilt, however, was not exclusive to me for me. Diva Gujral, a PhD scholar at University College London, said, “I felt guilty writing – how can one focus on one’s own goals and career advancement in the midst of the footage emerging from India of the migrant workers struggling to get home? It often felt anti-human to be productive, or to even want to be productive, and I think that feeling really stayed with me. It’s definitely changed how I see the university and my role within it.”

Suraj Harsha, who finished their MA dissertation for their course in Sociology and Social Anthropology at TISS Guwahati, also wrote a paper for a conference in August, “Dragging Queer Home to Violence.” In this paper, they discussed the issues of doing ethnography during a pandemic. Ethnography requires researchers to visit a place or meet people to collect data.

Harsha had to consider the ethics of virtual ethnography: “One of the leading scholars in sociology in India recommended finding ways through virtual ethnography to reach them and acknowledge that the respondents may not have access to resources, but with violence at home, how are we to reach people for ‘data’?” Home may be a space for nostalgia for several people but it is also a place where prevalent social hierarchies are maintained and perpetuated. Reaching out to people locked in their homes for interviews through technology may not always be a sound, ethical practice.

Mounting problems

The incentives for research are quite low already, and things have only been aggravated in the pandemic. The UGC has extended deadlines for the submission of dissertations by a semester, but some universities like JNU, have charged tuition fees from doctoral candidates in the new semester. For researchers in the STEM field, the pandemic has completely disrupted the regular work of those engaged in labs. Researchers who had completed their doctoral work and had postdoctoral offers from other labs had to sit idle with no pay until labs could reopen.

That’s not all. Recently, the National Eligibility Test (NET), a flawed nationwide test which determines eligibility for teaching and research, was postponed two days before it was supposed to be held. Current and prospective researchers were tweeting with the hashtag #ReleaseNTANETAdmitCard, demanding to know where they have to travel during an ever-increasing surge in new Covid-19 cases, days before the exam.

Oh, did I mention that Hany Babu, my former professor was arrested while I was writing my dissertation?

Before the lockdown, during an interview for a PhD funding scholarship at a university in the UK, I was asked why I wanted to get a degree there, when my proposed research was on Indian theatre. “I’m tired,” I said.

Souradeep Roy lives in Calcutta. He tweets at @souradeeproy19.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.