Encountering Eleanor Zelliot in the Field
Fieldwork is rollercoaster of emotion. I go from one high of discovery, to the next low of feeling like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. In these low times, I have a source of inspiration that helps me remember the bigger picture: the memory of Dr. Eleanor Zelliot. Eleanor Zelliot is credited as being among the first American scholars to study Ambedkar and Ambedkarites, but aside from that she is remembered as an ally, activist, and simply as an incredibly special person by Ambedkarites. A few times during my fieldwork so far, people have asked me if I knew Dr. Zelliot, and have shared stories of her with me. I am told fondly that she would take any opportunity to get to know people and share something with them – going into the kitchen to help prepare food or trekking out with the other women in the morning to relieve herself without the aid of indoor plumbing. India was different back then when she first came, they always tell me, but she endured all of the difficulties and inconveniences to connect with people and learn about their lives.
“Maybe you will be the next Eleanor Zelliot,” some people have said to me after sharing their memories of her. Anytime someone says that to me, it feels like an impossible compliment. How could I ever live up to such a person who was so humble, intelligent, kind, and beloved by so many people? To me, Eleanor Zelliot is everything any junior scholar could wish to become. Not only did she make an indelible mark in terms of scholarship in her field, but she went out of her way to work with and for the people she studied. To be thought of as following in her footsteps makes me feel both a serious burden of responsibility and a charge of inspiration and gratitude. I am so fortunate to be able to draw upon her hard work and to feel the goodwill that her genuine kindness and friendship has left in the community I am working with. While sometimes in discussion we get wrapped up in thinking about the unkindness and potential violence of academic pursuits to the point of paralysis, the memory of Dr. Zelliot has made me feel the true beauty that comes from seeking human understanding and connection. I deeply admire Dr. Zelliot’s ability to show the beauty and power of an oppressed community while also shedding light on caste oppression. I only hope that in my growing love for Maharashtra and its people I am doing any sort of justice to the comparison that others have made between us, and maybe one day I can feel that I deserve it.