Like it was for countless other people, Anthony Bourdain’s untimely demise earlier this month came as a shock. This was one celebrity death that felt like a personal loss because I learnt a lot by watching the man and his interactions with people and aspired to be as comfortable as he was when riding a bike in Hanoi or sharing an exotic meal with a stranger. As a chef, a TV host and a writer, Bourdain exuded curiosity and a genuine interest in bridging the gap between cultures.
If you ask any member of the Rang De Impact team, they would most likely cite travel as the best part of their job. We get to travel to off-beat places that don’t feature on any tourist map, get invited into people’s homes and get to marvel at the diversity within the country.
While the travel sounds like fun, it also can be disorienting — our field visits last anywhere between three to seven days, during which we spend a lot of time on the road or in waiting rooms. We interview women, sometimes one on one, sometimes in groups — maybe we have lunch or tea with them — and then we are off to another location because another set of women are waiting for us.
At the end of a long day, we come back to a cramped hotel room to order in room service and catch a few hours of sleep. And as the days spent on the road increase, the more one ends up longing for one’s own bed. The more elaborate the restaurant preparation, the more one craves the comfort of a simple home-cooked meal.
That said, I have team members, much younger than me in age and experience, who come back from a field trip with the most interesting stories about the people they met. And I am envious of their ability to establish a connection so quickly with a stranger, their ability to share their dreams and aspirations.
Interviewing people is a skill — some people are lucky to be born as great conversationalists. Others like me (naturally shy) have to push themselves to open up and coax information.
When I first started going on field trips back in 2014, I had trouble asking personal questions to women I had literally met just two minutes before. Being reticent myself, I worried whether they would see this as an intrusion of their personal space. I stuck to the questionnaire we devised so that I did not miss out on any crucial information and noted down the answers faithfully in my notebook.
After the first two days, the answers became increasingly predictable — so much so that I started writing them down even before the borrower had finished answering. And when I got back to the hotel to type out my notes, I realised that the borrowers were losing their individuality and becoming interchangeable.
So I started going off script, jumbling things up, began asking a few unplanned questions and got surprising answers. A wry smile here, a lament about uncooperative in-laws, and suddenly the profiles of the women became sharper. That day when I sat down to type, I could recall their stories better because they seemed a little more rounded, a little more real to me.
The main goal of our field trips is to monitor and evaluate impact, and sometimes in our quest to gather quantifiable data, we become fixated on the questionnaire rather than the individual. These days, whenever I find myself in the danger of reducing the individual to a data point, recall this little snippet from an NPR interview with Anthony Bourdain
“Journalists drop into a situation, ask a question, and people sort of tighten up. Whereas if you sit down with people and just say, ‘Hey what makes you happy? What do you like to eat?’ They’ll tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food.”
Thank you for everything you represented, Mr Bourdain. Rest in peace.
By Tanvi Negi
Tanvi Negi is the Chief Impact Officer at Rang De