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Nightmarch: Among India's Revolutionary Guerillas


To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed Alpha Shah’s Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas both as an ethnography and as a “non-fiction” fiction. I was surprised because like some of my classmates have mentioned before me, I also struggled with Shah’s (2017) delineation of the aspects of participant observation as a revolutionary praxis in ethnographic theory, particularly intimacy and estrangement and activism in tandem with ethnography. After reading Nightmarch however, I understand where her theorization of participant observation stems from—a situated knowledge about a particular way of life alongside Kholi, Gyanji, Somwari, and among others. 

Shah (2017) argues that anthropologists and ethnographers “must work ever harder at alienating [themselves] from [their] worlds to dive into those of others” (54). I had a hard time digesting this argument. Why must we leave our experiences as if they were interchangeable pieces of clothing at the doorstep of our fieldwork? After all, ethnographers are no longer framing their stories with arrival stories that tangibly mark their entrance to the field. However, the nature of the fieldwork in which Shah finds herself obviously requires her to estrange herself from who she is upon entering the field—no longer accessible to call her husband, no longer Alpha Shah but Durga, her nom de guerre (loc 1017), and ultimately no longer a woman but “dressing as a man” (see chapter 6). Without warning and preparation, her intended trip of two days to the “underground” world stretches into a week-long nightmarch from Bihar to Lalgaon and inevitably estranges her from herself. In this sense, I appreciate Shah’s dedication to inform future ethnographers of precarious nature of unexpected and unplanned encounters during fieldwork.


I still have questions however: What about ethnographers with not necessarily studying ways of life that are not perilous in nature like hers? Or are we all become “attracted by the romance of [the idea of] revolution” (loc 3783)? With this romance in mind, has the praxis to alienate ourselves before embarking on the fieldwork then become a must-prerequisite of sort in ethnography? (A prospective PhD student with an interest in joining visual anthropology once lamented her desire to do fieldwork with environmental activists but she wonders if the images of those activists would be “photogenic” enough.) Are our decision to do fieldwork in particular places with particular communities stemming from our desire to “experience what it was like to be continually ‘on the move’” with the hope that that experience will complete our research and our forever shortcomings to become “professional revolutionary” (loc 1060)? 


These questions are perhaps my critiques of Shah’s Nightmarch in disguise. But, her discussion on renunciation and revolution enlightens answers to some of the questions if not all. The revolutionaries like Gyanji renounces his life to join force to make an impact on the world; they must in the process sacrifice a variety of things in life and as a result, they join the martyrdom. “Sacrifice became seen as a crucial means for people to enter an imagined world that is sacred, that is ‘other-worldly’, and brings its influence to bear in the world of their everyday lives, a world that is prosaic, transient, and ordinary” (loc 1351). As ethnographers, we are in one way or shape sacrificing our own ways of being in life—comfort, familial connections, etc—when we derobe ourselves of our ordinary roles in life as daughters, sisters, mothers, brothers, fathers, friends. Shah notes, “most acts of sacrifice take place through symbolic violence” (loc 1367). If one of our praxis as ethnographers must be to sacrifice ourselves in the pursuit of ethnographic knowledge, we must also pay attention to any violence—even if it is being done to ourselves—committed in the name of our sacrificial careers as ethnographers. 

© 2023 By Lion with a Flowing Mane.

All Myanmar Image Courtesy by Chu May Paing.