Anatomy of a project abandoned: How I failed to navigate personal relationships for oral history research: Piyusha Chatterjee

Durgapur Thermal Power Plant from the highway

This is the story of a research project that was abandoned. It’s also the story of my love-hate relationship with my first research project and, for lack of a better word, the failure to execute it. After living with this project for the first two years of my doctoral program, when I realised that I couldn’t continue working on this project anymore I wrote a conference paper to bury its memories. Then it took me three more years to revisit this project and to write this blogpost. The problematics I discuss here are not the reasons why I abandoned the project for dealing with these challenges would have only enriched my research. The reasons for abandoning the project were personal but I cannot deny that some of the anxieties that I bring up here were tangled with the reasons for not working on the project.

This now-in-box project aimed to trace the history of an industrial “new town” of India, Durgapur, though the personal life stories of its residents. These industrial new towns were purposely built from scratch after India’s independence to propel the country into “modernity” after centuries of British colonial rule. Durgapur was envisioned as one such place. I was working on a project to record the growth of this new town that was powered by hydroelectricity and steel and its transition into a city with global links through intergenerational interviews.

My ethics application at the university read something like this:

“In newly independent India, people from surrounding regions moved to the city for jobs… Along came educational initiatives and facilities of technical and vocational training of the youth for their employment in the factories. Over the past sixty years of its existence, the city has grown manifold and its population has doubled. Several of the industries have undergone the cycle of growth, closure and revival.

Since the 1990s, with the liberalisation of Indian economy and the sudden growth in the information and communication technology industry in India, the city has undergone a transformation. Many of the second or third generation of the families that had once moved to the city in search of jobs have now moved out of there and settled in the IT and finance capitals of the world….”

When I think back at why I chose to work on this project, it was because I thought I understood this city in a personal way. I knew people who lived there as family and friends. The city was nothing like where I had grown up and it made me curious. I thought it would be easy to reach out to people for interviews and that I will be able to hold an insider’s view of the place. Well, I was soon to find out that belongingness is always negotiated and lines between insiders and outsiders are fuzzy if not indeterminable.

Before I get into my anxieties about the project, I need to provide a little background to how I came to think of myself as an insider there. I am not from Durgapur. My former partner grew up and went to school there. The family has a connection with the city that dates back to its early years. I have heard dida, the grandmother, talk about the visit of Queen Elizabeth-II to the town in 1961. I grew up in Assam and in Uttar Pradesh, but my mother tongue is Bengali. My connection with Durgapur developed through my former partner. It was a place where we had friends and family; a place to escape to during holidays. I felt at home there in a way that I hadn’t felt in any city before that. You see, I have always lived a linguistically fractured life. Bengali was the language at home but when I stepped out, it was either Assamese, Hindi and English; later it was Kannada and now it’s French. I never formally learnt to read or write Bengali. I’ve always had to connect with the world in a different language than the one I connected with at home and with family. My friendships and work were always in Hindi and English and negotiating with the world was always a mosaic of languages.

Durgapur felt different. I did not have to slip in and out of languages. Just speaking Bengali would do. Steel towns, such as Durgapur, were assembled by bringing in technological know-how and expertise from across India. Engineering professionals, doctors, educators and administrators, who moved to the town in the early years, had diverse linguistic background but settled in, often picking up the local language, and always shared the language of science and technology. That, and with Hindi and English for official correspondences and archival work, I thought I was well-equipped. And with family connections, I very quickly assumed I had an insider status.  Familiarity with the city had made me curious about its past and its future. I often wondered about people’s connection to the place. It seemed Durgapur’s residents, wherever they went, had a shared sense of identity that came from many different things— going to the same school, working at the same place, or living in the same neighbourhood, and memories of festivals, celebrations, shops and people. And they also shared a present through their connections with other places. If one of two generations of a family had lived and worked in the steel and power plants of Durgapur, and its ancillary industries, the young generation that was leaving the city was coalescing elsewhere, in the IT hubs and financial capitals of the world. A significant number of families that had a member or two working in the industrial plants in Durgapur, also had a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister in Bengaluru, Boston or some such place. While the past of the city was shaped around India’s temples of modernity, as the iron and steel industries and dams and power plants were once described by the country’s first Prime Minister, the future was clearly linked to the Silicon Valley. In the fifty years or so of its existence, fortunes of this city had waxed and waned. Memories of industry closures, labour unrest and unemployment were as much a living history as the early years of growth, development and prosperity. My interest was to engage with some of these apparently opposing dynamics through oral history interviews with long-term residents of the city and the young generation that had moved elsewhere but still had a connection with the place.

Where do I stand?

As a wife, daughter-in-law and friend, I had access to my potential research participants’ private lives. Stacey Zembrzycki (2009), in her work in Sudbury’s Ukranian community, writes about negotiating her grandmother’s friendships and relationships while doing oral history interviews. For Zembrzycki, her grandmother became an ally in her research. My situation was somewhat similar. Dida seemed to know everyone in the city, and she would introduce me to her friends and acquaintances, both as a member of the family and as a researcher. Conversations about my research topic unfolded in very personal ways, between personal stories and while building and maintaining personal relationships.

In Durgapur, when I spoke Bengali, people were amused. As I worked my way through the Bengali newspaper in the morning, dida couldn’t help but smile. I realized I had very compartmentalized uses of languages. In linguistics, it’s called “code-switching”. In her study of an all-male card playing club, Anna de Fina (2007) illustrates how language can determine and is used to negotiate insider/outsider identities. I switched languages— Bengali helped me to show a connect with the place and its people; English pronounced my researcher identity.

One of the long-standing concerns of oral history theory has been about devolving the power of the researcher in the field through collaborative practices and a shared language that would allow research participants to speak for themselves in the research project (Miller, Little & High, 2017). In Durgapur, though I literally spoke the region’s language, my origin and my status as a foreign university-based researcher made me an outsider. And my Bengali had its limits. Personal relationships to the place and people further complicated things. The researcher in me had to constantly negotiate these relationships, which could both open and close doors. As a woman from a particular household, I inherited the family’s social relationships, which if it worked to my advantage in establishing contacts, also wrapped me in social expectations that I couldn’t just shake off. I remember the day I realized it was going to be a difficult to do research in Durgapur. Dida took me to visit an old friend, someone who had moved to Durgapur when the town was still coming into being.

I was introduced as the daughter-in-law of the family and dida’s friend noted my clothes – I was not wearing a sari – and the absence of jewellery on my body. Though unintentional, I was breaking a social norm there and it bordered on disrespect towards others— the family and their friends. Meanwhile, the comment angered me. I have no particular fondness for jewellery. And let’s just be frank here— a sari is not as comfortable as a salwar kurta on a hot summer afternoon. And I was too preoccupied with the prospect of meeting a potential research participant to pay attention to my other identity as the bau-ma or the daughter-in-law and the woman of the household.

The comment had set me back more than I realised at that moment. Throughout the afternoon, I barely asked any questions though the two old friends spent a couple of hours reminiscing the old days. And it wasn’t out of shyness towards fieldwork for I had done a fair amount of oral history work in India before that. I almost felt paralysed by the social norms that I was being asked to navigate. Could I have put on my researcher’s hat or would that have been considered a transgression? I wish I had pushed through. But as a researcher, I had felt powerless as my other social identity, as woman, a daughter-in-law, and a family-friend took up all the space. I hadn’t imagined that my research could be challenged by my personal relationships to this extent. I am sure if I had returned to the conversation another day and all by myself, I would have had regained some control of the situation. But that never happened, and I will always wonder what stories would have come from such an interaction.

Family and the field

By the time this incident took place, my research question had crystallized around gender and class divide that seemed to be at the core of the organisational logic of Durgapur. The Grand Trunk Road runs through its heart with the industrial area is to one side of the highway and the residential areas and markets concentrated on the other side. Durgapur’s development was predicated on hydroelectricity production, steel plants, heavy machineries and chemical fertilizer factories. N. Vijay Jagannathan (1987), in a study of Durgapur’s growth and sprawl over the years, notes how urban planning of the township was overwritten as the town developed into an important urban center for trade and commerce. The wide roads and spacious houses of the planned township, organised in blocks around sectoral markets, are now interspersed with dense clusters of buildings that developed around market areas.

Class was scripted into the plan of the place as senior officer residences were separated from workers quarters. Having the family at the center of my research worked both ways. I am not sure I would have had access to a lot of the knowledge about the place without them, but they also shaped my research practices in ways that I couldn’t control. There were pockets of abandoned school buildings, factories and residential areas where wild vegetation had taken over the space. If there were busy markets packed with shops, cars and people, there were also sleepy areas where not even a bird flapped its wings on a summer afternoon. Old quarters that were built as per the plans of architects Joseph Allen Stein and Benjamin Polk had been modified to suit the residents’ needs. I met families that had lived and worked in Durgapur for more than a generation. Then there were families that had moved to the city for work and never left. There were others who lived in the industrial townships and rural towns around Durgapur, for whom the city was a lifeline— for education, healthcare, consumer goods and a connect with the rest of the world.    

Given these industries employed a predominantly male workforce, the city also seemed spatially gendered. There were spaces of production and then there were spaces of social reproduction. Most of my interactions with people were limited to the side of the highway where life unfolded outside the factories. On a rare drive to the part of Durgapur where the industries are located, I was accompanied by the whole family. It was like a small celebration of the past. When I stepped out of the car to take photos, someone always stepped out with me and I often felt everyone’s eyes on me— for being a woman, for being an outsider, for being the person who was taking pictures of a place that by no means was a tourist spot. In the old days, dida said, there were buses that brought workers to the plants. Women occasionally used bicycles and it was rare enough to be noted in memories of “those days”. Now, Durgapur runs on cars, two-wheelers, and rickshaws. If it were not for the family, I would perhaps not have access to many parts of the city. And it just so happened that whenever I wanted to step out, someone always accompanied me. It did make me feel more secure though it shaped my interactions with the place too. People I had never met before welcomed me into their life for my connection to the family.

My previous experience of interviewing for oral history projects at the Centre for Public History in Bengaluru had taught me that gender, class and caste can influence conversations— they could create opportunities or prove to be impediments. Alessandro Portelli (2018) writes that the interviewer and the interviewee both play the role of the observer and the observed in the interview interchangeably. At interviews, I was always observed – through questions about my family, education, etc. – before I was allowed to ask my questions. In the end, the success of my interviews depended a lot on being able to successfully negotiate the gender, caste and class norms, which shaped our interactions. In Durgapur, a new layer of complexity was added to the situation because of my personal connection to the place. It also meant that this piece of personal connection to my research coloured my perspective. The family’s stories were shaping my research questions, just as the relationships were defining my research practice.

Lisa Ndejuru (in Miller, Little & High, 2017), talks about her collaborative work with the Rwandan community in Montreal, relates an incident when she was trying to encourage people in the community to talk as part of a playback theatre initiative. She realised that she had to “talk” in order for people to understand why they should talk and then decide if they wanted to talk. It meant making herself vulnerable first if she was asking that from her participants. While her research unfolds in the very particular context of people affected by mass violence, the lesson learnt is at the core of oral history practice. For me, doing an oral history project in a place where I had family and friends meant I had to let go of my carefully constructed self of a university-based researcher and open myself to people’s gaze that fell on my personal life as much as my research. This needed work because no amount of readings on research methodologies could prepare me for this.

Was I ready to listen?

Portelli (2018) writes that seeing and listening to the other person in the interview space is key. The oral history interview is a conversation that unfolds between two people through a reciprocation of interests as both parties bring their agendas to the interview space. What did this mean for me in a research context where my identity was shaped by my personal relationships above else? I did not have control over how I would be received by people and whether I would ever be able to establish myself as a researcher over my other social identity. But on my part, was I bringing too much to the table?

My introduction to Durgapur was through the family. I already had in mind some of the stories that I wanted to hear more about. What would that have precluded? Dida had told me stories about her childhood and her early days in Durgapur. In a way, her stories were my stories. Her history has shaped me as a woman. I had been brought up on similar stories from my grandmother and mother. They spoke of aspirations and experiences that never found expression in public life. These stories were told in the kitchen, in between domestic chores, always meant to remain just that— stories. Some stories angered me but, as family, I also couldn’t ignore the serenity and forbearance with which she and the women in my family had talked about these events and experiences. They brought up matters very close to my heart, things that I could link back to my own growing up as a girl and to how my life was shaped by these gendered social norms ­and expectations. I had an insider’s agenda in looking for the stories that I was looking for. What would I have done with those stories? Was I ready to listen or was I too angry to see the other person’s interests in telling me those stories? The search for distance, here, was not about an objective point-of-view but about giving space to the other person’s subjective self to unfold and shape the narrative.

There was a dilemma here. I was going to tap into a network of family and friends where relationships had already been established and it had nothing to do with my identity as a researcher. As a family member or friend, I was privy to a lot more than what was likely to be allowed in public. There are differences of opinion with family and friends, intimate details about private lives, and hopes and dreams that never find expression in public. To me, who was familiar with the social norms and codes of behaviour, it seemed like a betrayal if I were to bring up some of those matters on record. According to Alexander Freund (in Sheftel and Zembrzycki eds., 2013), oral historians have a tendency to want to fill out silences with words to give the oppressed an opportunity to register their voices and yet silences, like lies, secrets and deflections, serve important purposes in communicating meaning. Would it have been fair to bring up matters that were important to me as a researcher, but my research participants did not necessarily want to address or bring up in the interviews? Was I to question what they were willing to tell me in the interview against what, I thought, needed to be told?

As a student of oral history and all the discussions around sharing authority in research and collaborative practice in the field, it seemed like the wrong thing to do— to push my agenda on them. I realized that if I were to continue working on this project, I had to have a more open mind about where this project would take me. It made me ask: When are stories worth telling in public? There is no one answer but it’s definitely worth a question engaging with in oral history research.

A version of this blogpost was presented as a paper at the 2018 Annual Conference of OHS and OHNI on “Dangerous Oral Histories: risks, responsibilities and rewards” in Belfast.

Piyusha Chatterjee is a PhD candidate in an interdisciplinary program at Concordia University in Montreal. Her doctoral research investigates the place of the busker in the political economy of Montreal using oral histories and archival research. Her research interests include oral history, labour in the postindustrial/cultural economy, informal work and the working poor in the Global North and Global South. Before returning to school for her doctoral studies, she worked with newspapers in India for eight years. She was introduced to oral history when she started working as a curator with the Centre for Public History at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology. 


Abrams, L. 2010. Oral History Theory. London: Routledge.

De Fina, A. 2007. “Code-switching and the construction of ethnic identity in a community of practice,” Language in Society 36: 371–392.

Jagannathan, N. V. 1987. “Planning in New Cities: The Durgapur Experience,” Economic and Political Weekly, 22(13): 553-558.

Miller, E., E. Little and S. High. 2017. Going Public: The Art of Participatory Practice. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Portelli, A. 2018. “Living Voices: The Oral History Interview as Dialogue and Experience,” The Oral History Review 45(2): 239–248.

Sheftel, A. & S. Zembrzycki. 2013. Oral History Off the Record: An Ethnography of Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Zembrzycki, S. 2009. “Sharing Authority with Baba”, Journal of Canadian Studies 43(1): 219–238.

Published by Indira Chowdhury

I am a writer, researcher, teacher and oral historian based in India.

One thought on “Anatomy of a project abandoned: How I failed to navigate personal relationships for oral history research: Piyusha Chatterjee

  1. Enjoyed reading this blog! Brings up a complex issue about “The Family and the Field” that I have faced as a researcher too. Interesting work, Piyusha!


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