Medical Anthropology Research in Tamil Nadu

Lily Shapiro

Lily was a SITA student in spring 2007. She is currently pursuing a PhD in medical anthropology from the University of Washington. This week she shares with us her “somewhat haphazard” time in India, “as [she’s] taken what opportunities presented themselves and slowly built them into a more concrete direction.” One of those directions includes research in Tamil Nadu about reconstructive plastic surgeries that occur as a result of factory accidents.

Lily on a trek in Uttarakhand

Walking home in Madurai with a friend in 2013, we stopped at our usual tender coconut seller. Having just had a large coffee, I made the mistake of telling him that I didn’t need a coconut that day. “Appadiyee colla kuudaatu” (“you should not say so”) he scolded, as he proceeded to cut open a coconut for me, chiding me firmly in Tamil about how to take care of myself in the summer heat. At the end of my coconut, and his lecture, he steadfastly refused payment. This incident remains one of my most delightful memories of the three plus years I’ve spent in India.

I first came to India as a SITA student in the spring semester of 2007. I decided somewhat on a whim to study abroad with SITA, but in retrospect it appears as a critically important decision and one that has continued to exert influence, even nine years later.
Lily’s family with her host family in Madurai

I have recently returned from another trip to Tamil Nadu, where I spent two months conducting initial dissertation research in Coimbatore for my PhD in medical anthropology. My dissertation project investigates reconstructive plastic surgeries that occur as the result of factory accidents in Coimbatore. Worldwide an estimated 2.2 million people die each year due to work-related injuries and illnesses. The number of injuries is far greater than the number of fatalities; every year, more than 260 million accidents occur that cause the injured worker to lose at least three days of work (ILO, 2012). While recent catastrophic accidents in the South Asian textile industry have garnered warranted political, social, and academic attention, my project takes as its point of entry not large-scale industrial disasters but rather daily occupational injuries and their attendant surgeries. Such surgeries, and the narratives that accompany them center on a moment of rupture and the attempt to repair it and demand that we rethink the common assumption that extreme poverty or death are the stakes of an unexpected illness or injury for much of the world’s poor given conditions of neoliberalism. Exploring this nexus of work, care, and the body, my project asks how and why this is the case.

I first came to India as a SITA student in the spring semester of 2007. I decided somewhat on a whim to study abroad with SITA, but in retrospect it appears as a critically important decision and one that has continued to exert influence, even nine years later. I have vague memories of the hectic arrival in Chennai, the jetlagged orientation in Thanjavur, but my clearest memories of course are from Madurai. As I became closer to my host family, I came to look forward to arriving home in the afternoons, being told to go upstairs and wash my feet and face, and settling in to whatever was on tap for the evening, sometimes a trip to temple or an exhibition, more often being fed more dosas than I could eat, playing with my host nieces, and watching music videos. SITA’s strong emphasis on homestay was crucially important because it so happened that my host father and host brother were (and are) both plastic surgeons in Madurai, and were instrumental in making connections with surgeons at a Coimbatore hospital, which now serves as the main field site for my research.

My first real fieldwork experience, it taught me the troubles of poorly crafted interview questions, the (sometimes days of) patience required to make meetings happen, and the delight of being welcomed into someone’s home or yard.
Lily celebrating Pongal at the SITA Center

When the SITA program wrapped up in the blistering hot Madurai April, I decided to stay in India through the summer. I spent an incredible two weeks traveling in North India with friends from SITA, went to Thailand to clear my visa, and returned to Chennai for the summer, where I lived with my host sister’s sister and her family. I spent that summer working on a small research project for a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine about household water treatment practices. This involved traveling for several weeks to rural areas of Tamil Nadu and conducting interviews with mothers and grandmothers about their drinking water. My first real fieldwork experience, it taught me the troubles of poorly crafted interview questions, the (sometimes days of) patience required to make meetings happen, and the delight of being welcomed into someone’s home or yard. Getting out of Madurai and learning to navigate India (somewhat) on my own, though difficult, helped me develop both my self-confidence and career trajectory.

About a year after I graduated college in 2008, my now-husband, Matt, and I were offered and accepted an opportunity to run a public health, randomized, controlled trial in Bhubaneswar, Orissa. This was for the same London School professor I had worked for in Chennai. Living with a partner rather than a host family in India was a surprisingly different experience. I relished the freedom to walk around the house in my shorts or go jogging in the morning, and our mobility on the weekends as we motorcycled around Orissa. But it was undoubtedly more difficult to integrate with our neighbors and neighborhood.

My increased understanding of Tamil changed my perception of Tamil Nadu once again, allowing me to access ideas and spaces previously closed to me, while also revealing in other ways the shallowness of my understandings.
Lily water sampling in Orissa

After a year and a half in Bhubaneswar, we moved to Seattle so I could pursue my PhD at the University of Washington. Having completed my coursework in Seattle (and a summer in Madison studying Tamil with Dr. Arun at UW Madison’s South Asia Summer Language Institute, which I highly recommend), I returned to Madurai for ten months of intensive Tamil language studies at the American Institute for Indian Studies. My increased understanding of Tamil changed my perception of Tamil Nadu once again, allowing me to access ideas and spaces previously closed to me, while also revealing in other ways the shallowness of my understandings.

The foundation and relationships I developed as a SITA student continue to be very important, and I’d recommend to anyone who’s interested to make the most of the random and varied opportunities traveling and working abroad have to offer — it’s hard to see where they’ll take you, but you can be sure it will be fascinating!
Lily and classmates traveling via train during her SITA semester

Staying involved in India over the years has been both a challenge and a pleasure. It’s been fascinating to see how my relationships there, and my relationships to the places I know there, have changed as my own life has evolved. Most recently being there as a pregnant woman opened up an entirely new set of conversations and experiences. And I’m sure being back as a new mother will likewise bring its own unexpected challenges and rewards. The foundation and relationships I developed as a SITA student continue to be very important, and I’d recommend to anyone who’s interested to make the most of the random and varied opportunities traveling and working abroad have to offer — it’s hard to see where they’ll take you, but you can be sure it will be fascinating!

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