Interview by Heidi Ross
On Thursday, January 26, Anwesha Ghosh successfully defended her dissertation in front of a packed audience in LG1, room 324. Dr. Ghosh, who began her studies at the Brandt School in 2013, broke ground as she became the Brandt School’s first female doctoral graduate with the completion of her work, titled ‘Lala Hindu’ versus ‘Afghani Log’? Afghans in India Negotiating Identity and Marginality’. Her work, supervised by Prof. Dr. Florian Hoffmann, explored the settlement experiences of conflict displaced Afghanis residing in India, with a focus on pre-migration and post-migration identities. January marked a successful and productive month for the Brandt School’s doctoral program, as Asef Hossaini successfully defended his doctoral dissertation the next day on January 27.
I caught up with Dr. Ghosh following her defense to ask more about her research, as well as her experiences as a doctoral student at the Brandt School.
The Bulletin: Can you give our readers an overview of your doctoral research project? How did you become interested in this topic?
Anwesha Ghosh: My research wanted to look at the identity formation and acculturation experiences of Afghan refugees in India within the timeframe of 20 years, 1992 to 2012. It’s very interesting, you know, I have been working on Afghanistan since 2011, and as a result of that I have been attending several conferences. There was one conference [on] the bilateral relations of India and Afghanistan, and there I met this gentleman who had a Hindu name, who I thought was from India, but then learned he was from Afghanistan. So I said, “Oh really? So Hindus used to live in Afghanistan?” And then I interacted with the gentleman and he told me about the Sikhs and Hindus of Afghanistan. And for me it was very important because by that time, I had already studied Afghanistan for two years and I had never come across any information about these communities. And so after meeting him, I started looking for these communities in particular, and found that there was no information available. And that was also when I was thinking about doing my doctoral research, so it all fell in to place, and I decided that, OK, this is my goldmine.
What were some of the key contributions of your research?
There are many. From the academic perspective, just getting to know about communities which I had no clue about [was a major personal accomplishment]. Because of my work, more and more people will be able to know about their existence and their contribution to Afghanistan, which is quite significant. Also, I felt, because I did primary data based research – it was entirely primary research – I got lots of opportunities to interact with people, almost 110 interviews. And each and every interview was so enriching. Most of my interviews took between 2 to 4 hours, and they were not very structured. But the amount of information I got—which can also be a burden at times—gave me this whole feeling of knowing about something that nobody else knows, and that is incredible. Because I could not find any information in the languages that I know–English, Hindi, Bengali– the more people I interacted with, the richer my knowledge base became. And that is a very important takeaway that I find: The relationship you develop from interaction. I’m the type of person that can only work with relationships, and I ended up developing relationships with my respondents, and that was amazing. To be invited in to their homes, their lives. For dinners, for shopping, gossips. My research is full of those anecdotes.
Can you tell us about any highlights from data collection? Any special memories/events during the interview process?
Very many, but the most interesting one was a meeting I had with a passport forger. So, most of my respondents did not have a formal refugee status, nor did they have citizenship. Some of them did not have any documents! And there was this one girl who needed to get a passport [forged] in order to travel, so she was meeting a passport forger and I accompanied her. And the passport forger was very excited to see me, because, you know, two costumers means more money! And he offered to provide a passport with the country of my choosing, but I declined [laughs]. That was a very interesting experience.
The other one was the felicitation by the community. Because nobody has worked on this community, they were very happy that, for the first time, a researcher was taking an interest in them. So this community felicitated me in a very big way. And because of this, I got access to members of the community much more easily, because they all knew me. So that was really great.
You were also interviewed on local television. Can you tell me about your T.V. experience?
It was a bit unnerving for someone like me, who has not been in front of the camera that much, and they put a lot of make-up on me [laughs]. But overall the experience was good, more so because I didn’t realize that there would be so many people interested in this subject, honestly. It was a half-hour long interview and it went quite well, because as I said, there’s no information available on the communities, so anything and everything I said that day was information for them. From the response, I came to realize that, probably, there were more people who were interested in this than I was imagining there to be. That really helped, to reach out to common people. With papers and articles, you can only reach out to a certain community: academics. But with these mass media, your topic becomes way more accessible.
What are your plans now? E.g. research follow-up, book publishing?
[Sighs.] For the next fifteen days, I’m not going to do anything. I’m just going to relax. I’m not even going to read newspapers! But after that, I intend to start working on my book, because I plan to publish my thesis as a book. In fact, I’m planning on coming up with two monographs: one, a shorter version with one of the introductory chapters where I look in to the comparative experiences of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. I, along with my advisor, am planning to come up with that chapter as one monograph, and publish the rest of the chapters as the main book. So I will start working on that.
What will you miss most about the Brandt School/Erfurt? What will you miss the least?
My office. I lived there! I had a pillow there, I had my tea, I had my chocolates, I had my chips, I had my socks! I think of it as my home, and I’m really going to miss it. Also, I really enjoyed Erfurt. When I moved from Berlin to Erfurt, I was thinking, “It’s such a small place, I can’t live here!” But you know, over time, I came to feel that Erfurt is the perfect place to do your research, because it’s not too big, not too small, and you don’t have too many distractions. So it’s a place you can really focus and be at peace. And as far as the Brandt School is concerned, I have only had good experiences. The staff, my colleagues, everyone was absolutely incredible, so overall it’s only positive memories I’m leaving with.
How do you think the Brandt School and your mentors helped to prepare you for your professional life or career?
The general process, the fact that I was being mentored by two accomplished, experienced, kind academics… to see them, how they conducted themselves with their supervisees and the points they raised, how they dealt with difficult situations… these were all lessons for me. Because I want to remain in academia, and eventually, one day, I will also be supervising somebody, and these impressions will always remain in my mind. The strong sense of backing that I got from my supervisors, that I felt like, no matter what, they’re behind me– this sense of security they provided me–this is definitely something I learned from them. And if ever, God willing, I get a chance to be in a similar position, this is something I would definitely try to offer my students.
Finally, do you have any advice for current PhD students, or those thinking about doing a PhD?
To the current PhDs, I just want to say this is probably the last chapter of our lives when we really get to give so much time a particular research topic. Because after that, in any field, we won’t be able to get this much time to devote to one topic. So I think this is the best time to gather knowledge. I think we will be utilizing these 3 years for the next 30 years of our lives. So if we have a solid information base in these 3 years, we are absolutely solid for the coming years for sure. If the base is strong, everything will be fine, and I think this is the period to create the base.
For those thinking about doing a PhD… a PhD is like a relationship. Be very sure if you want to get in to the relationship, because you will have to be with this subject for the next 3, 4, 5 years, and if you’re not interested, if you’re just doing it for the degree and think, after three years I will be a doctorate, I would say that you’re not ready for it. You have to be really passionate about something, and then it will be easier to do a PhD. I’m not saying that nobody does it any other way, but if you are really passionate about something, then these 3 to 6 years will be a cakewalk.