Once upon a time in India

One of my research projects focused on HIV prevention for female sex workers in India. For many of the readers of this post, that may seem far removed from your daily reality, as it speaks to not only cultural, but also socioeconomic difference. Further, and let’s be honest here, it would be a vast understatement to say society’s feelings about sex are “mixed”.

Some of my time there was overwhelming, much of it was heartbreaking. But, amidst the new sights, smells and sounds of these this far removed place, I not only discovered common ground and camaraderie with the women I aimed to study and support, but also other citizens of this not-so-far-away place.

While I was in India, I always used the same phone booth. For the owners of the booth, this meant I spent a considerable amount of money there. As a token of their gratitude for my perceived generosity, the phone family invited me to their home for lunch. I couldn’t possibly say no, so naturally, I found myself in their home where I was welcomed by an overly enthusiastic young man who barely stopped to smile between snaps of his camera, as he photographically captured his new guest – beaming with pride and an unabashed smile. Another member of the welcoming committee included a cat who only ate boiled eggs.

Before I had a chance to settle into their home, my gracious hosts approached me with a traditional sari. Their enthusiastic gestures clearly indicated they wanted me to put the outfit on and model it in their presence. My interpretation of their not-so-subtle body language was correct, and after I donned the garb, I began to eat my meal.

The clicking of the camera never ceased: steeped in unfamiliarity and willing to concede to various role expectations – this is the life of an anthropologist.
The lunching with the snap-happy youth and feline with particular palette are not where this narrative ends – not at all.

After we finished the meal, we hopped onto an auto-rickshaw – no helmets necessary (apparently). They took me to my preferred phone booth and wanted me to pretend to make a phone call, and I played along. However laden with comedy this scene may sound, embodying different roles is so definitive of an anthropologist.

Another thing this scenario reminds us about anthropological work is that you presence changes their lives. I talk about this often in my classes with the hopes of demonstrating sometimes, their work can be really negative and complicated, but other times, it can be benevolent and happy.

But regardless, we’re always playing roles: empathetic observer, confidante, friend, source of knowledge, foreigner…the list goes on.

Some of the publications & projects I’ve worked on include the following:

  • A Painful Power: Coming of Age, Sexuality and Relationships, Social Reform, and HIV/AIDS Among Devadasi Sex Workers in Rural Karnataka, India. Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology, University of Manitoba
  • Orchard, T. (2007). In This Life: The Impact of Gender and Tradition on Sexuality and Relationships for Devadasi Sex Workers in Rural India. Sexuality and Culture 11(1): 3-27.
  • Orchard, T. (2007). Girl, woman, lover, mother: Towards a new understanding of child prostitution among young Devadasi sex workers in rural Karnataka, India. Social Science & Medicine 64(12): 2379-2390[1].

Find more of my titles online via the Western University website.