Heisenberg in Bhavnagar

Perhaps Werner Heisenberg’s most notable contribution to twentieth-century physics is his eponymous Uncertainty Principle, which stipulates that the position and the momentum of a particle – two fundamental measurements that define its existence in space and time – cannot be simultaneously determined to an arbitrary degree of precision. In measuring one quantity, you necessarily disturb the other, such that the original coordinates can never be recovered and the subsequent trajectory will never be the same. This is a foundational tenet of quantum mechanics, and it gives rise to some of the most enthralling paradoxes of post-Newtonian physics [1].


Werner Heisenberg [2]

Source: [3]

To my knowledge, Heisenberg never dabbled in journalism or the development sector. Barring a brief worldwide lecture tour in 1929, he probably never visited India. But his presence was felt in a small Gujarati village one Sunday in late November, when I visited my fellow AIF Fellows Maura Deignan and Noel Benno at their host organization in Bhavnagar. Maura and Noel work for Shaishav, an NGO that campaigns for child rights and the abolishment of child labor. I visited in my capacity as a PARI “journalist,” but also as a curious friend and a staunch believer in the idea of equal educational opportunities for all children, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances. As I rode pillion on Noel’s bike through the dusty backroads of Bhavnagar, past lowing cows and chai stalls and rusting railroad tracks, I naively looked forward to passively observing a Balsena – or “children’s army” – after-school enrichment session. Nothing could have been further from what actually happened.

Bovines and biking in Bhavnagar. Pictured: Noel Benno. PC Maura Deignan.

Biking and bovines in Bhavnagar. Pictured: myself and Noel Benno. Photo Credit: Maura Deignan.

I’m afraid Maura and I caused rather a ruckus when we stepped across the schoolyard threshold and ducked into the darkened classroom. Swarms of children plucked at my kurta, snatched at my hands and hair, shrieked in various falsettos, begged me to sing them a song or teach them a game, and bellowed their choicest English phrase at me from across the courtyard. Since we were there for monitoring and evaluation purposes, we pleaded with the teacher to calm the children and continue with her regularly-scheduled programming, but to no avail: the studious atmosphere had been irrevocably shattered, and the teacher knew better than to try to cajole or discipline the children back into submission. We played a few feverishly energetic games of Duck Duck Goose and Snakes and Ladders and then, as if summoned by some inaudible bell, the class rowdily and rapidly disbanded into the twilight.

Indulging in a Maria von Trapp moment at an after-school enrichment session in Bhavnagar. (We sang "You Are My Sunshine.")

Indulging in a Maria von Trapp moment at an after-school enrichment session in Bhavnagar. (We sang “You Are My Sunshine.”)

I asked Maura if, in her experience, the children had ever become desensitized to her visits, such that classes could proceed as usual. She told me that in the three months since she had arrived in Gujarat, it hadn’t happened yet. I found myself fervently wishing, as I have so many times before and since in India, that I could be an invisible, anonymous observer: blending in with the crowd, quietly going about my work, unencumbered by this conspicuous foreignness which I wear like a heavy cloak. But wherever I go – even in the most metropolitan of cities – I’m thwarted by my otherness; I am constantly betrayed by my own skin. 

In retrospect, I suppose I should have known better. A similar episode unfolded during the first week of the Fellowship, when an exposure visit to one of the after-school reading programs sponsored by the Organization for Early Literacy Promotion quickly devolved into a bunch of 5 to 13 year-olds going bananas over my novel appearance. The incident left me wondering whether my visible alienness would always impede my efforts to work in the development sector. The same scene played itself out in Kanchipuram, where I visited Kattaikuttu Sangam (Cal Brackin’s host organization) to document an all-night kuttu festival. In the small city of Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh, a local reporter got wind of my and my co-Fellow Sarala Kal’s presence and published an article (in Telegu!) about our work in the area. A rival paper quickly followed suit with its own coverage of our visit. No matter that my name was mis-spelled as “Jelivia” – the damage had been done. I was no longer an anonymous observer in the community. Like it or not, I left ripples in my wake. 

And it happened again in Odisha, when Caleb Christian and I visited the seasonal hostels where the children of migrant workers receive government-subsidized room, board, and schooling during their parents’ absence. Caleb was there to assess the hostel facilities, in conjunction with AIF’s Learning and Migration Program (LAMP); I was there to collect interviews for a PARI piece on seasonal distress migrations. Both of us were given similarly lavish receptions. On several occasions, I was ushered into the main administrative office of a hostel, plied with snacks and sweets and Sprite, and treated to an elaborate (and rather conspicuously scripted, if you’ll excuse my cynicism) recitation of the myriad assets of the institution. Perhaps some, or even all of their lofty claims were true. I certainly hope so. But I wondered, as I was led past shadowy classrooms/dormitories in which dozens of children stared back at me from a handful of narrow cots, whether a foreign female like myself could ever hope to access the “real scoop” – the unedited story.

Visiting a seasonal hostel in Odisha.

Visiting a seasonal hostel in Odisha.

As it happened, I was accompanied by a sizeable police contingent for the duration of my time in Odisha. We conducted many of our interviews on the border of Chhattisgarh, which was (and continues to be) a hotbed of Naxalite activity. I naively assumed that the police escort was standard practice for development specialists and field workers in the region; it was only later that I discovered it was a special precaution just for me, since the dissidents could potentially target foreign nationals for political leverage. I shudder to think of the expenses accrued on my behalf, and of the police resources diverted from other, more pressing local concerns.

One of my most memorable Heisenberg Moments occurred at Vidya Vanam, a school for adivasi children in Anaikatti. I was interviewing a dozen or so fifth graders during a recess-hour badminton match; they took turns fielding my volley of questions between volleys of the shuttlecock. My phone rested casually on my knee, recording our conversation, and I thought nothing of it until I caught sight of several students quietly informing their newly arrived comrades about the microphone. I switched off the recorder, but I was unnerved. My questions had been innocuous enough – “What is your favorite subject in school?” “How far away do you live?” – but I had no way of knowing whether the answers I received had been genuine or amended for the tape recorder’s benefit. The children’s wariness seemed to imply the latter.

Students at Vidya Vanam enjoy recess.

Students enjoy recess at Vidya Vanam.

Reflecting on these experiences – on the countless times when my efforts to “observe” and to “learn” were inevitably thwarted by how I look and who I am – I recalled an anecdote recounted to me by Meherish Devaki, a PARI colleague and an Ashoka University Young India Fellow. The story was originally relayed by A. K. Ramanujan in a collection of his essays:

“The [following] anecdote shows… that the observer, the discoverer, the historian or the collector soon becomes a part of what he works with. Murray Emeneau, the eminent American linguist, studied the language and collected the songs of the Todas, a pastoral tribe in the Nilgiri Hills in south India, in the early 1950s. When he visited the tribe again a few years later to continue his work with them, to his great surprise they sang him new songs about a white man who had collected songs among them several years earlier. He had created a tradition by studying it.” [4]

On that same trip to Bhavnagar, a few evenings later, Maura and I sat cross-legged with a gaggle of teenage girls, ages 16 to 18 or so, in one of the village dwellings: a modest kitchen-turned-bedroom, with sacks of rice and shiny tin plates and a colorful Hindu calendar lining the walls. They were shy at first; but their curiosity about these strange, pasty visitors outweighed their reticence, and soon we were in the throes of a lively exchange. They wanted to know all about life in America: about our customs, our clothes, our TV shows, our college experiences. They asked if we were married and did not bother to conceal their mingled shock, amusement, and horror at the answer. They demanded to know why these two women in their late twenties and early thirties hadn’t yet tied the knot – what could be wrong with us?? – and we tried to explain, with the help of our translator, that people tend to get married later in America, and that we still had to finish our schooling. It was only then that I noticed the faces at the kitchen window, peering through the grill from the deepening gloom outside. A cluster of aunties, perhaps the girls’ mothers, were listening intently to our conversation. Their expressions were inscrutable, though I thought I registered a glint of alarm in one woman’s eyes. And while we meant no harm (and it would of course be rather presumptuous to assume that our friendly cross-cultural dialogue caused any consternation within the village), I couldn’t help but wonder whether our amiable chatter about college majors and travelling – experiences that were perhaps out of reach for our young interlocutors – had inadvertently sowed seeds of discord or discontent. 


The Balsena girls Maura and I spoke with in Bhavnagar.

Werner Heisenberg was a manipulator of molecules, not men, but his principle applies to the macroscopic human world, too. It’s the fundamental paradox of fieldwork, as well as physics, that when you observe a system, you necessarily disturb it. Once a particle’s momentum is measured, its position is altered irrevocably. Once the particle’s position is probed, a fraction of its momentum is dissipated as heat, and the laws of thermodynamics forbid its recovery. A class, once disrupted, can never quite regain its former atmosphere of concentration. As soon as the tape recorder is in the room, narratives change. And an outsider like me, despite all her good intentions, can never really interact with a community without changing it forever. This principle is not necessarily good and it’s not necessarily bad: it simply is. Yet it must be borne in mind, lest we mistake the ripples of our own making for still waters.

[1] Beyler, R. “Werner Heisenberg.” Encyclopedia Britannia, n.d. Web. 01 May 2017. <>.
[2] AFP/Getty Images. “Werner Heisenberg.” Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 01 May 2017. <>.
[3] Amend, Bill, and Randall Munroe. “Guest Week: Bill Amend (FoxTrot).” XKCD: A Webcomic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math, and Language. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2017. <>.
[4] Ramanujan, A. K., and V. Dharwadker. The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

  1. Deepa Patil
    Deepa Patil

    I remember our first visit to the OELP library! Thanks for sharing and reflecting on other “Heisenberg Moments” you have experienced since then. This was a lovely look into your thoughtful navigation through the communities you have been working in and artful, interdisciplinary thinking.

  2. Tali

    Brilliant piece, Olivia! The point you bring up with A. K. Ramanujan is especially thought provoking.

  3. Sumedha

    Amazing piece Olivia. The Ramanujan reference puts the development work in a different perspective. Integrating science with social sector-makes it so easy to understand and relate to.
    Also, you write so well 🙂

  4. Janan Dave
    Janan Dave

    This is so thoughtful and well-written, and something I think a lot of us (whether outsiders because of skin color or country/place of origin) have felt during our time here! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Alex Counts
    Alex Counts

    Very nicely written. As far as I can recall, in the late 80s and mid 90s when I traveled through rural Bangladesh, whenever I spent more than a few weeks in a place and people were able to speak to me in their native language, the fascination with me being a foreigner usually went away and I was able to blend in, sort of — at least for periods of time and with certain people.

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