Born and educated in Calcutta (now Kolkata), my fascination for stories about the Sundarbans, the largest natural habitat of Bengal tigers – famous for their man-eating habits – eventually led me to anthropology. I undertook fieldwork for nearly two years (between 1999 and 2001) in the West Bengal Sundarbans and was awarded a PhD in Anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2004.
I view the relationship between humans and their environment, specifically in relation to wild animals and climate change, along with issues of development, justice and discrimination, as being at the core of my research. These have been explored in my first book Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans (Routledge, 2010) and in articles. This region, famous since the 19th century for its distinctive plant and animal wildlife – especially the ‘man-eating’ Royal Bengal Tiger – is currently the scene of conflict between politics of global conservation and local inhabitants’ struggle for subsistence through both traditional and new globalised means. That is one strand explored in my research. But, at a more fundamental level, my book explores the human/non-human interface more directly: how people living in these impoverished islands interact with the tigers of the region and how their perceptions of tigers and locale articulate contradictory understandings of sociality.
My field, environmental anthropology, offers me opportunities for dialogue with the public to which I make a distinctive contribution; I teach a course called “Beasts, People, Wild Environments: South Asia”, I review for journals in anthropology as well as conservation and wildlife, I am an Associate Editor of the journal Conservation and Society, am currently writing on the Indian Anthropocene, the body and caste and have helped various media houses and journalists in understanding the Sundarbans or the Bengal delta (The Independent, NPR, Down to Earth, Earth Island Journal, Sahapedia, Daily Star, The Telegraph).
I have also been engaged in interdisciplinary research that brings together anthropological, historical and sociological methods and materials. Between September 2007 and August 2009 I was a researcher on an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project with Professors Joya Chatterji (History, Trinity College, Cambridge) and Claire Alexander (Sociology, Manchester) and conducted extensive fieldwork in Bangladesh and India. The first of the two publications I have co-written is: The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration (Routledge, December 2015). This book challenges a predominant assumption of theories of diaspora, namely that migrants settle in the West whereas, in fact, most remain in, or very close to, their own countries and regions of origin in the Global South. Dealing with the experience of Bengali Muslims, our research fills in the major gaps in historical and contemporary empirical knowledge about these communities, interactions with their ‘host communities’ and their links to those left behind. The second publication, a teaching resource booklet, comprises a comparative inter- and intra-national approach, spanning Bangladesh, India and Britain, and explores key sites within these nation-states. It is linked to a companion website (www.banglastories.org/) where through various life-stories, pictorial narratives and a historical timeline, it is possible for British-Bangladeshi children to get a greater sense of the histories of their ancestors, explore different phases of migration and settlement, and understand the shifting formations of ‘community’.
I have had the good fortune of teaching at the departments of Anthropology, London School of Economics, Goldsmiths College and the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) between 2003 and 2006 and of being a research fellow in places all over the world where I have met scholars with whom I have the immense honour of collaborating on various projects. The places have been the Agrarian Studies Program, Yale University, New Haven; the International Institute for Social History (IISH), Amsterdam; the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden; Jawaharlal Nehru Institute for Advanced Studies (JNIAS) at the JNU, New Delhi; Jadavpur University, Kolkata; the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge, UK; the Centre d'Études de l'Inde et de l'Asie du Sud (CEIAS), Paris.
The modules I (have) taught / teach at NUS:
Other teaching interests:
I have been very fortunate to supervise and/or be examiner for some great PhD students:
16/12/2018 Thesis examiner of Alexandra Stadlen – Anthropology, LSE – ‘Weaving Lives from Violence: Possibility and Change for Muslim Women in Rural West Bengal.’
09/18 – to date PhD advisor of Lakshmi Pradeep – NUS, South Asian Studies – on symbolic and environmental meanings of coral reefs in Lakshwadeep islands, Arabian Sea.
09/14 – to date PhD advisor of Souradip Bhattacharya – NUS, South Asian Studies – on Indo-Danish Heritage sites and the working classes of Serampore, West Bengal.
09/17 – to date On the thesis committee of Calynn Dowler – Anthropology, Boston University – on water, climate change and environment in the Indian Sundarbans.
11/18 – to date On the thesis committee of Miriam Jaehn – NUS Comparative Studies – on Rohingya refugees’ journeys across Asia, particularly Nepal and Thailand.
11/18 – to date On the thesis committee of Marine Bellégo – Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, History of Science – botanical gardens of Calcutta, 1871-1914.
09/12 – 12/15 Thesis committee member of Ambika Aiyadurai – NUS Sociology – who successfully defended on hunting practices in frontier Arunachal Pradesh, north-east India. Dr. Aiyadurai is now working as an Assistant Professor at IIT Gandhinagar and continuing her very fruitful collaborative research in biodiversity conservation, human-animal relations (especially those of the indigenous people the Mishmi and the Meyor) and conservation and development in one of the most remote and little-known places of India.
I am always keen to discuss potential masters, PhD and postdoctoral research topics in the broad field of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Religion as well as Environmental Humanities (including human-environment and human-wildllife interactions). My geographical strength has been South Asia but I am now expanding my horizons to engage with the anthropological literature on Southeast Asia ('It's too crazy, lah') and China ('Reworlding the ancient Chinese tiger in the realm of the Asian Anthropocene') in articles and in upcoming projects (I am part of a team looking at Climate Change in the Bengal and Mekong deltas). As Anthropologists we have been taught to recognise the fact that many of the ways with which we humans make sense of our worlds cannot be confined to political or disciplinary boundaries and therefore I, along with my colleagues, welcome studies that challenge boundaries. This is why Singapore, with its multicultural background, and South Asian Studies at NUS, with its faculty coming from various disciplines, is a great base for interdisciplinary research, teaching and learning.
My research centres upon the ways in which humans make sense of their world and is guided by the question: how do we as humans relate to the non-human world, and how does that world influence us?
Four main themes are at the core of my research:
1) Climate change, Eco-psychiatry and Mental Health
Mental illness and suicides are very widespread in deltaic Bengal – especially in the Sundarbans region. One of the ways in which people fall prey to mental illness is through the ‘fear’ contracted after having seen or been in some sort of physical proximity with the nonhuman world. Following Descola and those who have worked on various forms of human-animal environments, my research explores the ‘nonhuman’ (which includes in this case animals, spirits, certain trees, gusts of wind, etc) to discuss the natural world from the Sundarbans islanders’ point of view. When someone ‘catches fear’, that person is seen as needing to be cured of it lest it ends up disturbing the person’s mental well-being and potentially causing death. The ‘cure’ is usually provided by a ritual healer, customarily a person who also works in the forest, and is a ‘tiger-charmer’. Research in ethno-psychiatry suggests that ritual healing may actually be therapeutically effective. However, for one to be able to account for how it works in the case, for example, of human/nonhuman environments, one has to understand a particular cosmological worldview where nonhumans are seen as being part of a common world with humans and not one where they are seen as separate. My research delves into what ‘ecopsychiatry’ might mean from indigenous healers’ perspectives.
2) Dunhuang paintings of 'monk with tiger'
Buddhist and Islamic connections between Central Asia, South Asia and China are yet to be explored to their full potential. Taking the figure of the tiger as a pivot, my research tries to contextualise the ways in which histories of circulation, in the context of Asia, have been written (apart from some exceptions of course) to valorise either nation-states or perceived religious traditions. The argument proposed is that not enough has been made of the fact that the 9th and 10th centuries were incredibly important periods in relation to shared religious beliefs throughout Asia. For example, could the Dunhuang paintings of ‘monk with tiger’, even though depicted as ‘Buddhist’ by scholars on China, be really, ‘Islamic’ ? The trope of the Sufi saint accompanied by a tiger is one which exists all through South Asia, South East Asia as well as Mongolia and northern China. How does one uncover the long history of circulations and mobilities that have stretched beyond the confines of either India or China via the painted figures of monks with tigers?
3) ‘(Re)thinking the environment and the nonhuman in the Indian Anthropocene
Over the last decade, we have seen the emergence of an Indian revivalism of “nature” – one that is steeped in notions of Vedic philosophies and expressed in the Indian middle-class’ keenness in consuming ayurvedic products and practices. These have been branded and repackaged as authentically ‘Hindu’, whether these be practices (fasting, yoga, astrology, vastu sastra, etc to help couples have ‘designer babies’, build homes, or plan travels) or products (such as those by Patanjali, Dabur India ltd, Sri Sri Tattva, etc believed to be natural and ancient and therefore beneficial for the body), and taken up by an avid middle class. This use of ‘nature’ in contemporary middle-class India contrasts with the ways in which modes of engaged multi-species environments and environmental ethics are and have been lived out by the non-urban majority of Indians. Highlighting the recent ethnographic contributions on the debates over environmentalism and caste to talk about the body, my research critically examines why non-vegetarianism and the consumption of meat, especially beef, has become such a site of contention in certain parts of India. This leads to an analyses of the Indian middle classes’ contradictions and paradoxes when it comes to thinking about the human body and that of nonhumans, and how these contradictions and paradoxes return to deep-seated ideas about caste.
4) Subaltern identity and religious pluralism in the last forty years in Bangladesh and West Bengal
This part of my research examines the long tradition of religious pluralism that has existed in Bengal. Highlighting examples of practices that blend traditions from different religious spheres (Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian), I offer a fresh look at the nuances and complexities of these practices and underscore the transformation of these interrelated processes in order to allow a re-think of the question of ‘religious plurality’ (especially in relation to today’s socio-political context), a question that has become prominent in anthropological and political discussions of the last couple of decades. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, interviews with individuals from resettled and marginalised communities, this is also an exploration about what it means to be Bengali when one is not elite.
Climate change and the Anthropocene; the human/non-human interface; anthropology of the environment, particularly wildlife conservation in South Asia; kinship; gender; postcolonial and subaltern history; Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and their interconnections; migration trajectories in South Asia; Inequality, the body and notions of health; Eco-psychiatry and non-western understandings of 'mental health'; Diaspora literature.
My first book Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans (Routledge, 2010) is an anthropological study of the human/non-human interface in the mangrove islands of the southern part of the Bengal delta which are the Sundarbans. Acclaimed for their unique ecosystem and Royal Bengal tigers, the key question explored is: what do tigers mean for the islanders of the Sundarbans? The diverse origins and current occupations of the local population produce different answers to this question; but for all, ‘the tiger question’ is a significant social marker. Far more than through caste, tribe or religion, the Sundarbans islanders articulate their social locations and interactions by reference to the non-human world – the forest and its terrifying protagonist, the man-eating tiger. The book combines ethnography on a little-known region with contemporary theoretical insights to provide a new frame of reference to understand social relations in the Indian subcontinent.
My second book The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration (Routledge, 2015), co-authored with Professors Joya Chatterji (Trinity, University of Cambridge) and Claire Alexander (University of Manchester), is about the experiences of the Bengali and Bihari Muslims who left India for East Pakistan after 1947 when India was partitioned; for the purposes of this book I conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, between 2006 and 2009 and wrote three of its chapters. Our book highlights how migration into the region started long before the Partition of India. Between 1911 and 1931, for example, the eastern zone consistently recorded the highest number of internal immigrants and emigrants in British India. This was true both for men and women. The census figures suggest that by 1921, almost one in ten of India’s population, or some 30 million people, were internal migrants. In other words, in 1921, the number of people who were enumerated as internal migrants totaled more than the total number of journeys overseas migrants made over the course of an entire century! By 1931, 6 million people had moved within and from the greater Bengal region. This is already twice as large as the entire Indian diaspora worldwide in 1947. Our study supports Aristide Zolberg’s two most significant claims: first, that ‘nation-making is a refugee generating process’ and, second, that the vast majority of the world’s refugees, since the second WW, have stayed within their regions of origin in the developing world, with only a tiny minority migrating to the countries of the industrialised West (Zolberg and Benda [eds] Global Migrants, Global Refugees, 2001. We too observed that where refugees did cross national borders, most have stayed close to the borders of their countries of origin.
We wanted our work to be disseminated rapidly, so in both cases we chose Routledge, a publishing house which offered to publish our books nearly simultaneously in the UK, in India and in the US within the first year of publication. In a concern that our work reach the wider public, we set up along with the help of the Runnymede Foundation, a website (www.banglastories.org/) where through various life-stories and pictorial narratives, high-school students, principally British-Bangladeshi ones, can get a greater sense of the histories of their ancestors, explore phases of migration and settlement, and understand the shifting formations of ‘community’. We have also written in the media and our work appeared in the Daily Star from Bangladesh (Chatterji) (Jalais)
Book reviews, small entries, outreach and jottings
2018 Member of Movindeltas project which is an international team of scholars applying to the European Commission for the call: ‘H2020 LC-CLA-05-2019 – Human dynamics of Climate change’ to work on the topic in the Bengal and Mekong deltas. We are the recipient of initial seed money from the ANR (Agence National de la Recherche) for the “montage de réseaux scientifiques européens ou internationaux” (MRSEI - translated for the 'Setting Up of European or International Scientific Networks', awarded €30,000).
2012 Start-up grant for ‘The Delta Dwellers: Religion and Subaltern Bengali identity in Contemporary Bangladesh and West Bengal’, NUS, S$ 25,000.
2011 ‘Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans’ long listed by the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS), Social Sciences category.
2006 – ’09 Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), U.K., under Diasporas, Migration & Identities large research grants for ‘The Bengal Diaspora’ (with Joya Chatterji and Claire Alexander) £ 500,000.
2011 Arts and Humanities Research Council, U.K., travel grant for ‘Early Bengali Printed Materials: Digitisation and Research (1778-1914)’ workshop with the British Library and the National Library, Kolkata, India; approx. £ 1200.
2004 ‘Malinowski Memorial Research Fund’, LSE, Anthropology; approx. £ 500.
2004 ‘Radcliffe-Brown Trust’; Royal Anthropological Institute; approx. £ 400.
2003 European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) – travel.
2000 – ’03 Research Studentships and travel grants, Department of Anthropology, LSE.
1992 – ’97 Scholarship from the French Govt. for DEUG, DULCO, and DREA.