Emslie Horniman Award – Ian Cook

Home Past Awards Emslie Horniman Award – Ian Cook

Award Holder: Ian Cook
University: Central European University
Title of Research: The City as a River: A Rhythmanalysis of Mangalore


My research utilises a novel approach to the anthropology of time and space through a relational inquiry into the practical rhythms of urban life – rhythms that mediate and constitute realities in urban India. The research folded class and power into urban spaces and time by embedding the inquiry in everyday life. India’s ongoing rapid urbanisation, in part linked to the economic liberalisation begun in the mid-1980’s, is producing a multitude of overlapping rhythms that open up both possibilities and constraints for urban dwellers across the country. The research examined how the river-like rhythms ‘dress’ a city’s inhabitants and, in doing so, increase and diminish opportunities to exercise ‘urban agency’. Focussing on the interaction of bodies, nature and objects, I undertook a ‘rhythm analysis’ of Mangalore, a rapidly urbanising mid-sized city in south India. There has been very little written about rapidly developing small scale cities, despite the evidence that more people will live in such cities than in the mega cities in the ‘Global South’ in the coming decades. I argue that analysing urbanisation in such “third tier” cities has not only great relevance in India, but can considerably enhance our understanding of urbanisation processes in general.

I postulated that the (in)ability to harness the city’s rhythms, which leads to greater and lesser degrees of urban-agency, rests upon certain combinations of repetition and difference, a mix of cyclical and linear rhythms. Accordingly, I researched amongst different groups in the city at different times during my research – circulating vendors, auto rickshaw drivers, temple pujaris, call centre workers, housing agents and transnational migrants. This of course was to cast the net too wide – and I narrowed down my choice of groups over the course of the fieldwork – in the end focussing on auto drivers, vendors and housing agents, but the theoretical direction remained the same.

In this narrative report, so as to give an ‘engaging sense of doing fieldwork’, I will focus on one aspect of the research: learning. Both how my informants learnt the city – in this case auto drivers – and how I, as an anthropologist attempting his first ever serious ethnographic research – learnt about both their lives and how to do anthropology.


Semi-structured Interviews

In total I conducted 116 semi-structured interviews in Kannada and English and had many many more informal talks with both ‘informants’ from the chosen groups and ‘experts’. I differentiate between the two here for methodological clarity. By informants I mean those with whom I did long-term participant observation, whom I revisited throughout the entire period of research and whom are the main focus of the dissertation (whose worlds I explore phenomenologically).  The interviews changed slightly from one group to the next and also developed as I reflected upon the answers and my language skills improved. By experts I mean people whom I met usually only once, but in some cases multiple times, to speak with about a particular topic (i.e. the head of Mangalore Urban Development Authority or a market trader who was involved in the struggle over space for vendors) and for whom I prepared individually tailored interviews.

The semi-structured interview for informants involved questions about their work, questions about their everyday rhythms (i.e. ‘please describe everything you did yesterday from when you woke up until you when to sleep’), questions about the city (which included in some cases the drawing of a mental map and subsequent follow up questions) and a short life history. These interviews lasted between 45 minutes and two and half hours. After initial problems with using a sound recorder, during which people closed up (possibly to do with such equipment’s association with journalism), I decided against recording the interviews in most of the cases and rather wrote down what people said in a notebook. However, during the final two months of the fieldwork I began filming interviews. For this I returned to many of my closest informants and made fresh interviews, which covered some of the same topics. This produced an element of performance on the side of the informants, which was interesting to compare with the paper and pen interviews I had conducted earlier.

Participant Observation

The semi-structured interviews with experts and informants were a constant feature of the fieldwork, however it was the daily participant observation stretched out over the research period that forms the backbone of the ethnographic data gathered. The focus on everyday life, daily rhythms and the interaction of people with the cityscapes around them led me to spend a lot of time with people, doing what they do.

In the case of moving vendors, this type of research involved walking the streets with them as they sold their wares and, wherever possible cutting coconuts, carrying flowers and trying to persuade customers that the fish was fresh or the magazine subscription necessary. Walking is a particularly good situation for informal talks; there is something about the rhythm of walking in the city that does not make silences uncomfortable but, at the same time, necessitates a certain amount of chat. Moreover we would come across the both the expected and unexpected during the walks further stimulating questions, conservations and observations.

In the case of auto drivers, most of the participant observation took place waiting on the stands. The size of an auto made it impossible to move with the driver unless I was a getting a ride as a customer myself (which I did many times and conducted informal interviews like this too). It was not legal for me to work as an auto driver (I got my provisional licence, but after passing the test you must wait one year before being allowed to work, something which my research visa would not have allowed in any case). Waiting at auto stands was a fruitful way of getting ethnographic data (stands also act as sites of information transfer between auto drivers) as there is a steady mix of regular and non-regular drivers who stop at the stand waiting for customers. Being white naturally aroused curiosity, but I turned this on its head and used it as a way to talk with drivers about their life, city and work. I did most of this participant observation at a stand on the edge of the city so as to minimise the novelty of my presence amongst drivers and surrounding locals.

In the case of housing agents, I observed their everyday life as they searched for opportunities around the city, as they waited for work, as they called numbers, as they visited  buyers/sellers or tenants/landlords and when they arranged paperwork.  Some were full time agents, whilst others also ran small shops or worked in any number of jobs, and so often I spent time with them as they engaged in non-agent related work. I drove around those who did not have their own vehicle on the back of my motorbike to make myself as useful as possible.

Rhythms lend themselves to be audio and visual representation. Accordingly, I captured people’s bodily movements and the related interactions with the cityscapes around them on video camera and sound recording devices during the final two months of fieldwork. I started to film only at the end partly because I was aware of the affect filming might have on other aspects of the research. However I documented such rhythmic interactions on with still photographs throughout the research period. This, far from closing doors, actually led to invitations as many people wanted copies of the photos I took.

With all the informant groups, as I was not only interested in in their everyday working lives but also in all aspects of their lives including important weekly, annual or one time life events. Accordingly I accompanied them on trips back to their native villages (in the case of moving vendors, most of whom came from outside the city), during festivals, for visits to ‘wine shops’, to temples/churches/mosques, at family celebrations such as weddings or birthdays or to watch films, eat food at home or simply to ‘timepass’ in public.  

Library and Archival Work

I spent time in the libraries of Mangalore University and St. Aloysius College reading unpublished PhD dissertations, locally published books and other useful secondary sources that broadened my knowledge of the history and culture of the region. I also conducted research in the Basel Mission Archives and associated churches with primary and secondary sources so as to piece together certain historical aspects relating to the city.


I first met the group of auto drivers whose regular stand is at McDowell’s Gate when I was waiting to be picked up by my motorbike driving instructor after about three months in Mangalore. The instructor was late, and so I was left standing on the corner of the road trying to blend in as much as a tall, ginger, sunburned foreigner could. An auto driver, who I later learned was called Stan and was not a regular at the stand himself, was tasked with calling me over as he had the best English. They wanted to find out what a foreigner was doing at this rather remote edge of the city,
“Which country?”
“Where going?”
I was asked. He was not trying to get me into his rickshaw, but wanted to learn about who I was, what I was doing and so on. I struggled to answer in my then terrible Kannada, much to everyone’s amusement and delight. They proceeded to try to teach me dirty words in Kannada, and I knew we would be friends.

As I started to go back over the next few weeks we slowly and painfully learned about each others drinking, smoking and pan chewing habits, whether or not we were married, who had worked in the Gulf or not and about the rather strange idea that a 29 year old could still be a student. Dhamaraj, a heavy drinking unmarried man in his late thirties, with a cheeky smile he claimed used to make the local girls swoon, was always at ease whilst waiting for customers in McDowell’s Gate. Born and raised just a few hundred metres away he was well known and well liked as he constantly joked with everyone and about everything, especially himself. The fourth time we met, Dhamaraj started to tease me about how long I had been in “school”.

“3rd standard was enough for me!” he said making us laugh, “I didn’t want more.” Again he makes me tell everyone how I went to school till 16, then college, then university, then a different university and then started a PhD and came to Mangalore. He was convinced that now I was at the local Fisheries College because I stayed close by to it. Every time I told him “I came to Mangalore to learn about you. About your life. I will write about auto driver’s lives for my university then take an exam about it,” he thought it was a joke. After a while he became serious and said, “you finished all this school. But me, I know the city. I only finished third [standard]. I don’t know English. I don’t know how to read. But I know Mangalore.”

I started to think about how someone comes to ‘know’ the city – how they learnt it. Of course there are many different things to ‘learn’ about the city, but one of the most immediate – and certainly the most immediate for me as a new arrival in the city, was how to get from one part to another. For me that meant trying to buy a map – but no ‘proper’ map of the city exists. There is a tourist map that is ‘wrong’ – at least it is wrong if you follow the logic that streets on a map should be arranged in the same configuration as in reality; there are the online openmaps and googlemaps that miss many of the streets (probably because many streets are hidden by trees from above, and because streets are changing rapidly with the numerous new housing developments); and then there are various specialised maps (e.g. by the Mangalore Urban Development Authority for planning) none of which are much use for day-to-day navigation. The lack of maps means that those from outside have to ask for directions – something that was refreshing compared with the smartphone happy Europe.

Nearly all of the auto drivers in Mangalore are locals; born and raised in the city. Their city has changed immensely over their life time, especially in the last two decades with heavy industrialisation, a boom in educational institutions and a vast array of new housing projects. I wondered how such a rapidly changing city could be mapped. Accordingly, I employed the technique of mental mapping with the auto drivers – I asked them to draw the city with the places that were most important for them. This was problematic in two ways: first of all many of the drivers associated such pen and paper activities with formal school and refused to do it (even some of my close friends who I’d known for over a year), something that was in part related to a low level of literacy amongst them (which I overcame by offering to write the names of places if they drew the map); secondly, and more interestingly, this type of spatial representation of a city was an alien concept to a majority of the drivers. This led to some amazing maps being produced –  one a vast array of points that I could not write the names on quick enough, one with parts of the city drawn as shapeless blobs instead of roads and one that related far more to temporal ordering than spatial ordering.

This, in turn, sent me back to thinking critically about mapping – even the ‘phenomenological mapping’ route I was following. I realised that the act of mapping itself was such a strange idea for many because it was an external representation of experience. Cityscapes, like all landscapes, are not separate from those who inhabit them; humans do not construct their landscapes external to them, but rather humans-landscapes produce each other through a dialectical relationship that is shot through with both repetition and change. How can we freeze lived reality and inscribe it on paper? Being an auto driver requires more city-knowledge then just being familiar with street names. He (for in Mangalore it is always a he) must understand the times and spaces of a city together, its rhythms: Pumpwell Circle is busy on a Friday afternoon because of the Friday prayers at the large mosque there; during a strike you can take customers to peripheral parts of the city, but not the centre, as the unions who enforce the strike will only be active there; there are times of the day when it is okay to overload your auto as the police are inattentive. Moreover, each cityscape is resplendent with memories, histories, futures, dreams and desires. The learned environment is part of the individual and externalising it into something abstract for a well meaning but ultimately confused anthropologist is extremely hard.


This, in a way, mirrors the problems of putting down on paper everything I learned (and continue to learn) about Mangalore. In ‘mapping’ all I have discovered I want to remain faithful to the multiple temporalities of the city – and to reflect the changes and movements that often social scientific writing can obscure. To do so requires a commitment to an ongoing learning, to try and see the mass of ethnographic data like an auto driver sees the city; to, at each abstraction, force myself back into the experience of fieldwork. The award from The Emslie Horniman Fund gave me the opportunity to truly learn the city; to live for a sustained period of time in amongst the people whose lives I wanted to learn about.