– Shreyashi Dasgupta*
“If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress”- Barack Obama
I often sit and reminisce about my academic journey, and when I do, I deeply acknowledge the role of PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research) and its flagship Youth Fellowship Programme. It all began in Sophia College for Women where my undergraduate degree gave me several opportunities to work on a range of eclectic projects. These years also forged my desire to pursue a career in research. But I was apprehensive about walking down the path of research without an advanced qualification. I had two choices: to invest in a Masters Degree or to take up an internship for the first-hand experience of doing research. I chose the latter.
Considering that I was a first-generation college student, the decision to pursue a career in research was not an easy one; I was the ‘first’ in my family to want an unconventional career. In 2010, when I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree, I came across PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Programme. The fellowship encourages youth in Mumbai to undertake research projects on urban issues in the city. I spoke to the coordinators, formed a group and applied for the fellowship. It was my first step in trying to unravel the process of research. This independent fellowship was designed outside of a typical academic curriculum and introduced me to the ethos of ‘democratising research’. Over the course of time, I was also introduced to the work done by the founder of PUKAR and renowned anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai, who till date remains an inspiration.
The year-long PUKAR Youth Fellowship honed my research skills and shaped the road ahead of me. I valued PUKAR’s mentorship process as it gave me the space to explore, learn, and understand both my ‘self’ and the surroundings. Seeds of my love for cities and their complex sociopolitical dynamics were definitely sown during the fellowship. We were encouraged to write our autobiographies and made to reflect the choices of our research topic and its inextricable link to our daily lives. Suddenly, there was a revelation that research is not a detached process but very much embedded in the questions we encounter every day.
The diverse cohort of fellows made my journey all the more interesting. For the first time, I attached importance to my experiences as a first-generation learner with a distinct socioeconomic background while learning from the stories of the other fellows who came from unique backgrounds themselves. In that sense, the whole process was a fusion of ideas coming from different sources and driven by a common purpose. I learnt skills that are a must for any ethical and committed researcher: formulating succinct questions, doing a review of the literature, interviewing people confidently, documenting the research process in a coherent and uncomplicated manner, engaging with the community and an introspection of the process at every stage.
I am extremely lucky to have found a lifelong mentor in Dr Anita Patil-Deshmukh through this fellowship, along with other fellowship coordinators who encouraged me to aspire and unleash my potential.
Most humanities and social science colleges during my time did not have a thesis component at the Bachelor’s level. The Youth Fellowship filled that void in my formative years and its framework was a building block to learn the process of research and gain analytical skills. PUKAR’s approach to research is tailored as per the needs of the project and their use of unconventional methods such as games, group assignments, photography, videos, reading literary works in more than one language and other modes are helpful for a novice researcher. I so enjoyed my stint as a PUKAR Youth Fellow in 2010 that I applied for the PUKAR Advanced Youth Fellowship in 2011 to further nurture my research skills. That eventually paved way for my application for a Masters degree at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.
Over the years, I have valued the skillset I acquired as a youth fellow in PUKAR. It has helped me in imbibing a grounded approach toward my research topics and ideas. After the completion of my Masters Degree, I pursued my passion for research more vigorously and landed with a full scholarship to pursue MPhil and PhD at the University of Cambridge, U.K. My interdisciplinary research training took shape at PUKAR and was later sculpted in TISS, giving me a vantage view of working and living in the Global South. Research at Cambridge has added a Global North dimension to it. Inspired by the barefoot approach, my ongoing PhD broadly engages in conducting comparative urban research in housing in South Asia from an ethnographic standpoint.
Recently, I have also co-founded and co-convened an ongoing initiative titled Cambridge Urbanism in the Global South Working Group. The group has allowed me and my colleagues at Cambridge to pursue a similar quest to bridge the gap between the production of urban scholarship on cities from diverse perspectives, highlight the emerging literature in different languages, methodologies and initiatives by students and professionals working on/from the Global South. Decolonizing urban studies/urban geography movement is now gaining momentum in the Global North. I thank PUKAR for my initiation into this space at an early juncture of my career, using which I have discovered a vast world of untapped knowledge outside the Euro-American context.
(*Shreyashi Dasgupta is the Jawaharlal Nehru Cambridge PhD Scholar at the Centre of Development Studies and Girton College, University of Cambridge, UK. She was a part of the PUKAR’s Youth and Advanced Research Fellowship from 2010 to 2012).