Unearthed: Amrita DasGupta

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Editor’s note: This post is part of an occasional series entitled “Unearthed.” Launched by Heather Green in 2019 and currently edited by Heather Rogers, Unearthed features emerging environmental historians discussing what brought them to the field, why they value environmental history, and how it connects with life outside of academia. Find all the interviews from this series here.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, hobbies, etc…)?

Born and raised in Kolkata, India, I have a Bachelor and Masters of Arts in English followed by an M.Phil in Women’s Studies. I’m currently pursuing a PhD in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. I also have a professional degree in drawing and painting which speaks to my love for anything artistry. I love gardening, taking care of special needs animals (especially cats) and have recently learnt bee keeping and pottery from kind communities at my field site. I belong to a family of Partition survivors, my father had witnessed Partition firsthand as a kid and thus, much of my research work is informed by it.

What brought you to the field of environmental history?

As you can tell, there was no way that I should have done environmental history. My academic background is anything but environmental history. I would say that certain geographies, its resident communities, their ecosystems, and habitats always attracted me to difficult questions. Such questions would bewilder my parents. To find answers to these “problematic questions” I found my way to environment and history of locations, and later moved to environmental history. I am reminded of an incident: Every year we visited the Sundarbans in West Bengal, India for winter picnics. I was very curious about the people living in the reserved forest. The Royal Bengal sightings pulled us to the destination annually and till date even after six years of thorough research I have not seen one Royal Bengal Tiger but have always witnessed dead bodies of tiger attack victims. Anyway, when I visited this tiger reserve with my parents as a kid, I would be intrigued about the human-animal relations there. But somehow these deltaic inhabitants were deleted from the tourist consciousness whose purpose of visit were fueled by the flora and fauna of the region. So, all my questions about the people’s lives in the delta would be met with one answer: “they have a difficult life.” The why, from when, and how of “living” these “difficult lives” would always go unanswered. Therefore, I had to find my academic way into the discipline to answer the why, how, and when.

What is your favourite part of doing environment-focused historical research?

My favorite part will always be knowing the communities I work with and being touched by their warmth and kindness.

What part of studying environmental history most excites you? What is most daunting?

The most exciting and the most daunting part is the archives. The immeasurable excitement of researching in archives and finding lost portions of history scribbled in some handwritten letter or contract and understanding them by reading “against the gain” is something I will always cherish. However, this excitement is soon diminished once I am unable to find a necessary file as they might have been misplaced or destroyed.

Where is your favourite place to be?

I am very adaptive. I can stay in any locales and make myself happy whether it’s urban, rural, arctic, or tropical. If I get to choose, I will always pick a rural space in Bengal, where I can have my own farm to take care of animals and do subsistence farming. I love the greenery around with a bright sun shining in the sky. Maybe one day, when I retire, I will shift to such spaces of comfort. Till then I will work hard towards building such a future.

Other than your current focus, what is another area of environmental history that interests you?

Apart from my current research, I am interested in environmental history of places affected, destroyed, and abandoned by effects of nuclear power plants and weapons. This would encompass but not limited to: Fukushima (Japan), Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Japan), Chernobyl (Ukraine), Pokhran (India), Sellafield (United Kingdom), and Three Miles Island (United States).

Do you have a favourite book, podcast, film, work of art related to the natural world that you would recommend others check out?

Recently, I have been very impressed by the documentary “All that Breathes” by Shaunak Sen.

Why do you think environmental history is an important field of study?

Environmental history will always hold importance as it is one of the plausible ways of finding the when, what, where and how of people and place. It helps to draw a continuity from ages far away to recent times. It also allows you to comprehend why the present looks and performs in the way it appears and acts.

Where can folks follow your work or connect with you?

I can be contacted on my twitter account @AmritaDasGupta9.

Feature image: Courtesy of Thermo Fisher Scientific.
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Amrita DasGupta

Amrita is a third year PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She is also a visiting researcher at the King's India Institute and a guest teacher at the London School of Economics (LSE). She completed her MPhil titled ‘Bonbibi’s Sundarbans: Tiger Widows and Water-Prostitutes’ from Jadavpur University. It interrogated the impact of/relation between animal-attack widows and the changing norms of widowhood in relation to sex work in the Sundarbans. Her PhD examines transnational water borders of the Indian Ocean World and trafficking in humans, especially in the mangroves ecosystems expanding from India to British East Africa.  Amrita's short documentary, “Save the Sundarbans”, was awarded the cinematography award, script and editing award. She has published in journals including the Economic and Political Weekly, Gitanjali and Beyond. As a SOAS Digital Ambassador Amrita regularly writes for the SOAS blog.  Some of her academic works are listed below:   2021   1. “The Need for an Anti-Trafficking Act for Sexual Servitude” (5 February 2020), SOAS  COP policy Briefing.   2. “Sars of History” Gitanjali and Beyond, Issue 5: Creativity Special  Issue: The Unity of All Things; ISSN 2399-8733.    2020     1. “Hydrocultural Histories and Narratives from Sundarbans”, INSEEEES 3(2), July 2020, New Epistemologies of Water.  2. The Pandemic, A cyclone: (De)Politicising the “Private” in Bengal” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 55, Issue No 39, 26 Sept 2020.

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