Dispatches from the Field: Dennis McGilvray, June 2012






Photography by Dennis McGilvray

Photos from Sri Lanka
(click the last picture to see all of Dennis McGilvray's photos)


29 May 2012

Dear All,

It is 2:30 PM in Akkaraipattu, Sri Lanka, and Nilam and I are dozing in our room after a heavy chicken biryani lunch at BMH Hotel (i.e., restaurant). The marriage interviewing project is beginning to shape up, now that I have become acquainted with how to operate my digital voice recorder. [I have sent a separate plea for technical help with audio file conversion to Grant.]  So far, I have interviewed 7 couples about their matrilocal marriage "stories," plus interviews with a low caste temple priest, a high caste sorcerer, and a Sufi sheikh. My introductory Tamil patter is getting more polished each time. Nilam and I have borrowed a pair of external computer speakers from his niece so we can listen to the interviews together on my laptop. Still, as the recording time steadily adds up, I am worried about the arduous process of translating and transcribing all of this babbling in Tamil, a portion of which I do not immediately understand.  When Nilam and I get back to our room at the ANH Guesthouse, we are generally exhausted by the interviewing and the withering heat, so we have not been devoting enough time to actually listening to the recordings and extracting the useful passages. If I could only obtain some cold beer in this "dry" Muslim town, I'm convinced the dialog transcription process would move along much more efficiently.

This morning I interviewed my old Sufi Sheikh friend, Makkattar, about his constant use of a cellphone to confer blessings and curative incantations to his followers, some of whom live in Denmark and New Zealand. He claims he receives 1000 cellphone calls every day from disciples and seekers asking for his divine blessings via cellphone.  His followers regularly give him the latest model cellphones as a devout gift to their Sufi master, and he in turn passes his used cellphones on to his favorite followers, who treasure the worn-out equipment that has touched his saintly ears and transmitted his saintly words.  He said he has gone through 50 cellphones in the past ten years, each one acquiring barakat from heavy use. Spiritually speaking, this is a win-win form of recycling.  I am thinking this might be a good topic for an article in the New Yorker, inshallah.

Meanwhile, I will attach a few photos of the people I have been interviewing about marriage.

Love to all from the lower latitudes,




7 June 2012

Dear friends,

My month of research in Sri Lanka is winding up, and I thought some of you might be interested in a quick final report along with a few more photos.

My main goal was to collect some individual first-hand accounts of how young Tamils and Muslim couples in Akkaraipattu are getting married in the period since the tsunami (2004) and the defeat of the Tamil Tigers (2009). I already have tons of detailed fieldnotes on marriage and kinship from my fieldwork in the 1970s, so a comparison with contemporary marriage practices may indicate what sorts of social and cultural changes have occurred over the past 40 years. Using a digital voice recorder (technology I have seldom used in the past) I interviewed about 10 young Tamil couples and 10 Muslim couples, inviting them to share their "marriage story" (திருமண கதை) with me if they wished.  In most cases, it was like turning on a fire hydrant: the stories gushed forth so quickly that I sometimes I didn't have my recorder ready.  The utter counterproductiveness of IRB "informed consent" regulations is immediately revealed in situations like this. The first newlywed Tamil couple I visited for an interview were married last May, and I was present at their wedding. In fact, I even appear in their professionally-produced wedding video!  However, when I visited them again this time to see their new baby and ask for their marriage story, they froze up and became apprehensive when I recited my long statement in Tamil about confidentiality and informed consent, and in the end, they declined to be interviewed. The clumsy IRB consent protocol had signaled something ominous and frightening, precisely the opposite of what is required in ethnographic fieldwork.  So I quickly learned to let people pour forth their marriage stories first, then assured them afterward about confidentiality.  Then, of course, many of them were disappointed to learn that their true names would not appear in my book.

What I have been generally discovering is that traditional arranged marriages and Dravidian-type cross-cousin marriages are still very common, but love marriages and inter-caste marriages are clearly on the rise. The wedding rituals for the Hindu Tamils and the Tamil-speaking Muslims have changed in different ways over the past 40 years, the results of both Hindu Brahminical influence and Muslim Islamicization (and also TV and Bollywood movies).  However, the matrilocal marriage residence and dowry property system remains intact, with parents of a daughter required to provide a dowry house to attract a suitable son-in-law to live with her.  This works great for most brides whose parents are sufficiently wealthy to at least provide a house-building plot, but for the poorest women it gives them no means of attracting a husband. (Men generally do not inherit parental property: it all goes to women as dowry.) The solution in some cases is for the daughter to work abroad in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf as a housemaid for years at a time, sending her wages back to Sri Lanka to get her own dowry house constructed. In many cases, the wife retains exclusive ownership of the dowry house throughout the marriage, and her husband is in some sense her house guest.  Of course, there are lots of variations and exceptions, and there are some delightful stories of how love marriages got launched through cellphone and text messaging mistakes.

A secondary topic I explored on this trip is the variety of student artwork painted on the external masonry walls of schools in the eastern region of the island.  I have promised to come up with a paper about this "wall art" (சுவரோவியம்)  for the Madison South Asia conference in October 2012, so I have been snapping photos of these student paintings everywhere I see them.

I will attach some photos with this message to give you a glimpse of my fieldwork milieu, concluding with a focus on nutrition.

With sweaty best wishes from Sri Lanka,