A Day In My Classroom.
Meet my Virani parivaar - The memory maker, the one trained in the classics and more.
As your eyes start gliding through these words to make sense of what I am saying, visualise me as Tulsi from the ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ intro. She welcomes you in and takes you around the house along with her, giving you a sneak peak into her life. She shows you the house she lives in, the people she lives with and the different bonds she has with each of them.
For the purpose of today’s newsletter I am Tulsi, and a lecture I attended is the Virani household that I want you to have a glimpse of. If you stick around long enough, I’ll tell you all about the module, my classmates, their background and my professor.
9 AM lectures in London winters are the bane of every college going student’s existence. By the time you walk to the campus, your nose is running faster than Milkha Singh, your hair is all over the place because of the wind, you are sleep deprived, sweaty, shivering and out of breath. It was exactly one such morning when I attended my first lecture for ‘Community, Religion and Conflict in South Asian History’.
Having had countless heated, and seemingly futile discussions with people about the communal divide in India, I had often questioned about the origins of this conflict and how far back does it go. So when it came to choosing my modules for term two, choosing this was a complete no brainer.
After entering the class, having caught some breath , I started to look around. The stare of a student in a class full of unknown people is a mix of an eagle and a rabbit’s stare. There’s sharp judgment, but also immense caution. After the brief subconscious scan to locate the pretty girls, I noticed the diversity of the classroom. There were a lot of non south-asians in the class. I was impressed and curious at the same time. Why the hell were these goras interested in this module ?
The nervous murmur died down as professor Roy Fischel walked in and introduced himself. He then requested all of us to introduce ourselves by telling him our name, where we come from, what had we done so far and what made us interested in his module.
I could feel a collective sense of “Ughhhh, here we go again….” from the whole class. We had been through this too many times to be excited about it anymore. Half the heads in the class dropped into their phone screens, yours truly included.
“Hi, my name is Aranya, I am from Chennai and I am doing my MA in Postcolonial Studies. My background has been in sociology and the focus of my undergraduate dissertation was on witchcraft practices in India and looking at it from the perspective of gender”, said the girl first in line to introduce herself. Had I just heard postcolonial studies, sociology, witchcraft and gender in the same sentence ? What the hell is postcolonial studies really ? What work do students with this degree do ?
Before I could process the barrage of questions in my head, the girl next to her said, “Hello, my name is Prateeksha and I am from Hyderabad. I am doing postcolonial studies as well and I am interested in understanding the interlinkages between food, diaspora and identity in South Asia.” By this time, I had opened my notes to scribble down all the alien words that people seemed to be saying, as if all this was the most obvious information on planet earth. Strangely, the rest of the class did not seem too rattled by this information. It seemed like I was the only one who was confused, curious, excited and just startled by what people had studied and what they were studying.
When it was turn for the boy sitting next to me to introduce himself, he said, “Hello everyone, my name is Mahrookh and I a Tamilian Muslim, born and raised in Singapore. My background is in linguistic studies.” I had heard people say that they had done a BA in English literature or Hindi literature, but linguistic studies ?
On came the next one. “My name is Deeksha and I am doing literary and cultural studies at SOAS. Before coming here, I had done another postgraduate degree in education and there my area of focus was on how historical education can be used and abused to change the social fabric of a society, and also on how architecture can be used to further historical knowledge.” The big words and complex sentences seemed to be getting to my mind. My typing on the phone had started to lag behind the speed of introductions.
Caught up between simultaneously trying to listen and type, I missed the beginning of the next introduction, just before the end of a sentence again caught my attention. I heard someone end their introduction by saying “my general training has been in the classics.” As the class moved on without batting an eyelid, my inner voice shouted, “એટલે સુ ????? કયા ક્લાસિક? સુ ક્લાસિક ?” (What do you mean by classics ? Which classics ? What classics?).
The spate of big alien words continued unhinged. If someone had studied post war political history in Taiwan, someone else was interested in “looking at memory making in the context of the partition of India and Pakistan.” Memory making ? Most parents in India slip into a coma if their child walks up to them and tells them that she wants to study filmmaking. Parents barely even know that filmmaking is a legitimate career and there are colleges that teach that. Then who are these parents who happily let their kids go study memory making ? Did they not have questions like I do ? If I am 0.1% of India, are these classmates of mine the 0.00001 % ?
I am not looking down or eulogising the career choices of any of these people, mind you. For me to make a judgment on any of this, I first need to understand what it means. And I am saying this not just in context of what people are studying, but also who these people are and what is making them choose this path in life. What makes a Canadian dude interested in Afghan history and understanding how it got affected by the religious flows that came in from Pakistan ? People around the developing world are dying, and I mean this literally, to migrate to Canada, and there are people in Canada wanting to study religious history of Afghanistan ?
If feeling extremely inadequate as compared to one’s classmates wasn’t enough, there was more in store for me. At the mention of a student being from Karnataka came up, the professor’s eyes lit up with joy. “Where in Karnataka ?”, asked Fischel. The student responded. On hearing anything other than Bangalore, my cow-belt conditioned mind switched off instantly. The student and Roy then went on to talk about some place in Karnataka like two long lost Kannadigas re-united at SOAS. The professor then went on a long, adulatory spiel about the beauty of the temples of Hampi, the phenomenal marvel of the mosques of Bijapur, the importance of Ramayan in his life and how much he loves Jodha Akbar’s music. Just through his immense breadth of understanding and knowledge about India, he had managed to collectively put all of us Indians to shame. None of us had really read the Ramayan, been to Bijapur or Hampi. It was not a bad shame. It was the kind of academic shame that makes one intellectually thirsty. That makes one want to engage with the world around them more deeply.
Despite all its brutality, I have not missed a single 9 AM lecture by Fischel so far. And then I have a 3 pm class that I attended once, and never again. The sheer drabness of that lecture is beyond me. Unfortunately, such classes have always outweighed the 9 am delights, irrespective of where I studied. Centres for education, at least the ones I have been to, have always had the Viru Sahasrabuddhes of the world outnumber the Ram Shankar Nikumbhs. And that, I believe, is the tragedy of my life.
Except for the name of the professor, all the names in the post have been changed.
Recommendation of the week :
If I think of all the times I heard the word “philosophy” in a day to day conversation, I can mostly think of it being used in a sarcastic tone. “Chal ab philosophy jhaadna bandh kar”, “ Mere life ki philosophy hai…” and the likes. Try doing this experiment with yourself. Ask yourself if you have questioned what philosophy really is, what does it actually mean, how is it relevant to you? You may not be able to code yourself, but you know what software developers do. You may be a complete Aurangzeb, but understand what artists do. So it is okay if you don’t have any idea about what philosophy is, but do you know what is its role in society ? Why are we all so clueless about philosophy ? I have certainly asked these questions to myself and have found no answers. My first recommendation today is a random newsletter I came across, and it seems to answer these exact questions in a very simple way. Do give it a read !
Time for another experiment. If you are a guy, this one is especially for you. Try it. Before you read further, think of five names in your head that you think are geniuses in their own right. They could be from whichever field. How many women do you have in your top five list ? For 99% of you, there would be maybe one, or no woman on the list. Is it because women are just stupid ? Or is there more to this than just that. Read the piece below to find out.
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