1992 was a very important year for me. A turning point, you could say. A coming of age even. I can’t pinpoint to a particular moment or event for there were many that made the year so memorable. But two of them were really special and, interestingly (or maybe not !) both involved travel. It was not the kind of travel I do today; rather, it was travel for the purpose of study as part requirement of the Master’s programme in Geology I was pursuing at that time.
In May 1992, I arrived in Bhuj (in Kachchh district of Gujarat) with AK, a classmate, to undertake a 15-day field trip for our Master’s dissertation in Geology. Though both of us were based in Bhuj and had a common faculty guide, we had separate field work sites (about 15 km away) and our field work was individual. Our faculty guide was scheduled to join us in Bhuj after about 10 days when we would have finished the bulk of our field work and be able to present our preliminary findings to him.
I was very excited about this field trip to Bhuj for this was to be my first solo field trip. Previously, I had always been part of a larger group of classmates. Having a geological hammer, compass, and topographical map all to myself and not share it with anyone made me feel quite grown-up, important and empowered ! 😛
The first day of field work was exhilarating and as perfect as a young geologist like me could hope for — excellent rock exposures, variety in rock structures and textures, fossils, some intriguing geological puzzles… It was also very distracting, but I soon settled down and within the next day or two established a field work routine.
Due to the intense summer heat, it was impossible to work through the day. Thankfully, since the days were long — sunrise was around 6 am and sunset around 8 pm — AK and I found a way to make best use of the daylight hours. We did field work in two shifts: the first was from 7-11 am and the second from 4-7 pm. In between the two shifts, we would return to Bhuj, have lunch and spend the afternoon discussing our field work, or nap or read a book.
Except for a family of stone-cutters and a couple of men from the armed forces, I never encountered another human being during field work. The former offered me tea and the latter subjected me to a lot of questions. They were especially suspicious of the map I had, but I had all the permission letters and proof of identity with me. After a general caution to not venture beyond a point (which they marked on the map), I was let off. In spite of practically no human contact in the field, I never really felt alone as there were always other living creatures around — birds, lizards, geckos, etc.
Initially, field work was fun and I looked forward to the surprises I uncovered every day. The only exception was the snake I uncovered, while shifting a large stone slab. I think the snake was more scared than me for it slithered off as fast as it could in the opposite direction. That was the last time I shifted anything during my field work !
But as the days went by, I felt a growing sense of dissatisfaction with my field work, or rather its outcome. While all my observations, sketches and mapping seemed to be in place, I was frustrated at being unable to join the ‘dots’ to get a complete picture of what I was doing. The dissatisfaction soon gave in to dread and on the eve of my faculty guide’s arrival, I was in a pretty bad shape. I had worked myself up into such a state that I was unable to do anything in the field that day, except for climbing to the top of the highest dungar (hill) to cry my eyes and heart out and end up with a headache !
It was not only field work that I was disturbed about; it was also the place that I was staying in, or rather the questions and comments that AK and I got from the people there. We were put up at a local NGO, which functioned as an office during the day and a space for students like us to base themselves and sleep there at night. In addition to AK and I, there were 5 other students from a design school in Ahmedabad for their internships/research projects.
The NGO was used to students from the design school staying with them and working with people on various projects. They didn’t know what to make of AK and me, who worked with rocks and stones. Some of their questions and comments on science in general, and Geology in particular were genuine (like “What is geology?) that we were able to answer. But there were many more that we just didn’t know how to respond. For example, “What is the social relevance of what you study?” or “Science is a waste and the government shouldn’t be spending on students like you” or “Look at the design school students. Their projects are all about making people’s lives better. Who’s going to be interested in yours?”.
I was used to being asked as to what Geology was all about, but had never come across anyone who questioned the relevance of a particular field or discipline of study till then. Dismissal of Geology as a useless subject shook me up very badly.
By the time my faculty guide arrived in Bhuj, I had calmed down sufficiently enough to present my field work findings to him and also blurt out that I knew my work was incomplete and not up to the mark. He didn’t say anything then, but later on in the field he said that he would have been surprised and even upset, if I had attempted to connect the dots based on only the field data. I needed to get back to the University to do additional reading and conduct lab tests on the rock samples I had collected. Only when I correlated the field data with reading and lab tests, would I be able understand the relevance of my study and join the dots convincingly. I was suitably chastened and relieved at the same time, if you know what I mean.
My faculty guide left the next day saying that he was satisfied with our work and Ak and I could return to Pune. We spent the next couple of days finishing field work, taking photographs, and packing our samples for transport back to our University in Pune. We also did some sight-seeing, including tagging along with one of the design school students, RM, who was rather keen on showing us what ‘real’ field work was all about.
RM took us to Dhamadka, a village known for some extraordinarily beautiful block printed cloth it produced. The “field work” had to be seen to be believed — she marched up to the village cooperative store and proceeded to try to bargain for block printted material that she wanted to buy. The manager of the store was polite and firm in his refusal to bargain, which resulted in RM stomping off from the store cursing and swearing at him. AK and I couldn’t stop exchanging sly looks at each other or passing comments in Marathi all through the return journey to Bhuj. 😉
Back at our University in Pune, I successfully completed my dissertation and defended it in a tough oral examination, got a distinction, graduated, got a job, moved on… It has been 23 years since that summer of 1992 and the experiences gained and the lessons learnt are helpful even today.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people I met at the NGO I stayed in. Their comments and questions helped me look at Geology from an outsider’s perspective and understand where their ignorance was coming from. That interaction also spurred me to not only read up and research the NGO sector, but also develop an interest in social sciences.
That field work in the summer of 1992 was not just about Geology, you know. It was one of life’s little lessons. Each time I find myself rushing towards making a snap decision, I recall my dissertation and the different parts that went into making it as a whole. That is enough for me to curb the impulse and think out my response or decision. The summer of 1992 also helped me consciously learn to be patient, which has been one of the most difficult things for me to develop. Can’t say I have succeeded, but I’m getting there. I think.
Perspective and wisdom are always gained in hindsight. Better late than never, I say. 🙂