"For as far as I can cast my mind back to, I have always been thrilled by storms. It may have to do with the fact that I was born on a very rainy dawn one late May day, three decades ago. Or just that as someone who exercises considerable restraint in expressing herself (except in writing) I found in the high theatrics of lightning and thunder an outlet for my own repressed emotions…. And then came yesterday.”
The prose above is a segment from Rituparna’s documentation of ‘Amphan.’ Delectable as her writings are, there is also a fair share of insights in viewing the world from her lens. You’d know after you’ve read this piece
My first recollections of oral literature growing up, as for most of us, would be fairy tales, bedtime stories, just gossipy stories all around--Bengalis have a vigorous 'adda' culture which encourages verbal expression and articulacy. Addas in their conventional form are tea shop discussions--gathering at a tea stall to just gossip, share news, play a game or something. It was a very middle-class, male public pastime earlier, but it has spread beyond that. You can see it in the way public places are built in Bengal's cities and towns, and the pace of life people prefer to lead. But it also spills over to homes, and the way people entertain guests at home. I didn't grow up in Bengal, only visited it for holidays twice a year, but the talent and preference for adda is very enmeshed in Bengali culture. You only have to visit any of the C R Park markets to get a feel of it; you'll notice people are not just there to eat or shop and thus there are proper open-air seating arrangements outside restaurants and eateries. I grew up in a part of Delhi that abounds in Bengalis (in and around C R Park), and my parents preferred the company of other pravasi Bengalis, so, I would hear the adults speak of things related to culture and politics, apart from just plain gossip. A lot of it trickled in, I suppose, apart from the other cultural influences Bong kids grow up with--a taste for books, music, art. Although I didn't see all this as 'literature' back then. But my insatiable fondness for stories of all kinds must have begun with them.
As far as more 'literary' literature is concerned, I trace my fondness for reading to primary school--perhaps fourth standard or so, when I would see my brother (a few years older than myself) reading abridged Sherlock Holmes stories. Those books made me curious, as did the usual diet of Famous Five and Hardy Boys and later Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. I preferred the quiet of reading to more physically demanding activities. My earliest and most memorable training in reading was with British popular literature. I couldn't always get the cultural references in them of course, but their mystery and humour appealed to me and I still love revisiting Wodehouse and Christie as comfort reading, even though my reading taste has expanded in all sorts of directions since then.
My journey towards the ‘academic’ pursuit of Literature was a rather roundabout one. I scored well in all subjects at school and shared the common misconception that the most intelligent students end up in the Science stream and the rejects in Humanities. I am very ashamed of this today. In hindsight, I can say today that I spent the two most memorable years of school life in XI and XII when I opted for Humanities--with Home Science. I realised then that I was studying subjects not just because I was told that they were important and more brainy somehow, but because I genuinely enjoyed them and I could draw connections with the world I inhabited. Also, I could stay away from the rat race of tuition and entrance exam coaching classes. I could enjoy school and leisure. The credit of this good choice lies, you might be surprised to know, with my parents--who gently encouraged me to give the 'arts' a chance and not dismiss them as lesser somehow. Some teachers and neighbours were disappointed though .
But I resisted taking up Literature in college all over again. I think this was because I was quite clueless, as I believe school students still are, about what an undergraduate programme in English entails. I applied for all Humanities courses I was eligible for, across DU, and enrolled for an honours degree in Psychology. It took me a week to realise that neither the degree nor the place was a good fit, so I went and enrolled myself in an B.A.Hons degree in English in another DU college. The change was an exhilarating one and I finally knew this was going to be an enriching journey. The transition to MA was smooth. But I had doubts again after MA and there was a break before my PhD, where I spent one year working in editing at a publishing house, and another, teaching in some DU colleges.
About a year in publishing was sufficient to convince me that I belonged in academia. The corporate world was not for me, nor a 9-to-5 desk job. So, I sat for the NET exam and after clearing it, began teaching in DU. Being a teacher was both exhilarating and frightening. It also brought me clarity about pursuing academic research. In teaching I found my vocation, but equally felt anxious about not knowing enough to teach other impressionable minds. So in a way, I thought of doing a PhD in order to become a better teacher, because I knew I could contribute as one to academia, which is an extremely important space for learning and unlearning worth protecting and nurturing, and had given me much to be grateful for. Not only that, though. I also yearned to get back into academia as a student. So it was not like I had this thrilling research question that would not let me rest. I took up the PhD as an intellectual commitment towards my own growth, and the finer details followed.
When I began to apply for a PhD, I had a very different research topic in mind from what I eventually uptook. But around the time I was applying to IITD, something I was reading set me off on a different route of curiosity, with new questions and with more immediate relevance to our contemporary realities. At the spur of the moment, I looked up more on it, saw that the research area was virtually untouched, and wrote out a fresh proposal. I couldn't see the shape of my thesis clearly at all yet, but I had lots of questions which I was sure were important and would lead me on an exciting research journey. I had heard vaguely from friends about the HSS department at IITD, but frankly, had not given it serious consideration initially--another preconceived notion about studying Literature in a Science and Technology institute that turned out to be very misleading. It wasn't amongst my top priorities. I had applied to a few UK universities and gotten through, but without funding. So I thought I would apply again the following year, but in the meanwhile, I looked closer at the IITD application procedure, discovered that I was eligible to apply, and sent in my application. At that time, we only had an oral interview, not a written test as a preliminary round, like we do now. I thought I had a vague idea about the research proposal and was so sure I wouldn't clear the interview and was very surprised to know that I did! But I was even more surprised at how warm and engaging a place the department was, what good work was being done there, and how exciting a truly interdisciplinary department could be. IIT itself I found to be a dynamic place, and undoubtedly, the support it provides in terms of infrastructure and funding is something I am grateful for. In short, I soon decided to stay.
IITD has a very different study and work culture from DU. The support we received as PhD candidates in terms of stipends and conference funding was helpful. I found the pace of the semester a bit rushed and I took time to get used to the grading system, and before I knew it, one semester was over. It was also refreshing to know that teachers here could design their own courses, that Btech students had to sit for some or the other HSS course, that UG and PG students could sit for select classes together (and I learnt considerably from these interactions). The coursework phase was rigorous with readings and for a while it seemed strange to sit on the other side of the classroom again, but I soon fell into the rhythm of things.
I remember how disconcerted I felt once I cleared my comprehensive exam and the routine of coursework was missing. I took about a semester to get used to this new rhythm, and was considerably daunted that it was all up to me now: something I am sure many new researchers grapple with. My PhD supervisor has throughout given me a free hand to work at my own pace and in my own directions, and I am very grateful to her for that. I could not have come this far with rigid restrictions. I cannot say I have made the most of all this leeway granted me academically, but I do think I have grown over these years, and not only in terms of my research. I have come to realise that the space and time one is allowed in these research years can do wonders for exploring different facets to one's talents and personality, and I have shamelessly taken advantage of that.
The last two semesters have been difficult to concentrate on thesis work and my writing/editing is going on very slowly, especially under lockdown; I find myself very affected and disturbed by what is happening in the world around us, and I am trying to erect a new, more ruthless work schedule for myself. For disciplines like ours, one needs to constantly remind oneself of the point of it all, and how one's contribution is not self-indulgent, but important, even though the humanities may not be seen as 'relevant' or 'immediately applicable' in the way our current academic systems are built.
Perseverance is a key component of any long-term project, and when it is a solitary research project like a PhD, it can get incredibly challenging to hold on to the steering wheel. I remind myself from time to time that this research is important, that my contribution matters, that this journey on which I have learnt so much is ripe for its next milestone, that there is no such thing as a perfect thesis--one just has to wrap things up at a point. Others have helped me realise that it's best to look at the PhD phase less as an opportunity to do groundbreaking research, and more as a training period for further research/academic life. In that sense, it helps to keep one's ambitions modest and to go about it in small, incremental steps. I don't always succeed and fall as much for the impostor syndrome as the next person, and this is where reading or hearing about other people's PhD experiences is important, to gain perspective on what can be a lonely, frustrating affair. I have made sure that I have been in touch with friends and family even when I felt like withdrawing into a shell, and they have been a very sensible and sensitive support system. Basically, writing a thesis is not a one-woman job. You need a whole ecosystem that makes that one thesis possible.
Early on into the PhD, a few of us in the department used to run a Film Club that served as a 'regular social gathering'. It petered out over time. I am very fond of swimming, so that was a great calming and physically stimulating ritual in the summer. I LOVE the IIT swimming pool. I also enjoyed going on long walks across campus. We have a research scholars' room where we can go work in silence and see our fellow scholars, but it's not really a space to talk and unwind. I am not on campus anymore, so I don't have access even to that now. Most of my unwinding happens on social media. While it is true that social media can be quite a distracting, exhausting place, I have found wonderful kindred spirits there--writers, artists, researchers, journalists, activists--who have helped me maintain a healthy perspective on things outside the thesis. I have learnt a lot there and found a medium to express myself, and a ready audience as well. It can be addictive though, and I have to remind myself that this cannot replace other forms of human interactions. In a way, I am singularly well-suited to the new normal of virtual interactions that quarantined living has enforced upon us. But thankfully, I am with family now, and just their presence is a source of great comfort.
Apart from this, I have other interests that I have invested time and energy in through these years, and sometimes allowed to take over my attention from my thesis. I find myself most engaged intellectually and emotionally when I am reading and writing, apart from watching films. I write book and film analyses, personal essays, lengthy Facebook posts, and have recently stepped into the field of literary translations. Two activities I have added to my routine under quarantine are doing video read-alouds and recitations, and maintaining a diary. All of these together help me stay within the field of conveying, absorbing, and analysing narratives--in that sense, I see them all as interconnected activities that feed into each other. My writing improves, my intellect grows sharper, and my research gains from it all.
As to my experience here as a TA it has largely varied on the basis of 200 or 300 level courses. I understand the tremendous pressure that students here study under, and that for many without a prior education in English-medium schools, suddenly being confronted with a Literature course can be daunting. Smaller classes work well, where we are able to engage more intimately. I have also been pleasantly surprised with the kind of interest I have seen develop in several students over the semester, even though they may not be the top scorers in that course. I have tried my best to be meticulous with feedback. In the end, I could only hope that their association with Literature would continue, and that they would have learnt to see the world around them differently than before.
The more unpleasant similarity that I see across university spaces I have been familiar with, is the mega-problem of plagiarism. It just doesn't go away. I know that academic pressure here can get overwhelming, and that priorities have to be ruthlessly adhered to, but this culture of trying to pass off another's intellectual labour as one's own--it has to go. It is lazy, dishonest, and against the principles of free, original thinking. Practices like these not only blacklist people, but also destroy academia in a fundamental sense. I don't blame individual students or universities, this is a systemic fault. For too long we have been taught that rote learning and parroting readymade answers in exams will fetch us good grades and to suddenly learn how all this is deeply flawed can be very unsettling. We try to speak about this at the beginning of term, so that there are no nasty surprises waiting later on, because grades are non-negotiable. But little can change if students themselves don't see how such practices diminish their own growth and prospects. At the end of the day, I can only hope that by the end of term, students find it well worth their effort to pay attention to their 'Hukka' courses as well.
I think our training in the humanities and social sciences helps us to ask certain fundamental questions about the very social structures that we inhabit and the value systems that we so take for granted. This involves a lot of unlearning over the years and can seem blasphemous to those who have not been exposed to such kind of critical thinking about morality and society. In this sense, it is a privilege. It doesn't automatically make anyone a 'better person', just because we have learnt the vocabulary of injustice and oppression. But yes, HSS folks would be amongst the first to raise their voices because often we see a direct link between what we have read and understood through our textbooks and classroom discussions, and what we see outside them; it's a question of integrity, not divorced from our academic lives.
This perspective isn't our exclusive prerogative of course, but it comes to us more easily. I do think the campus has begun to see itself less as an 'apolitical' space where people can live, work, study in an ideological vacuum. I also see resistance to this realisation, but also more awareness than I was exposed to in my college days. Things are changing, but much remains to be done, especially in terms of awareness and sensitisation . Two developments I am happy about are the ICC as a functioning body, and the birth of the IGES. Having been associated with both of these in different capacities, I feel personally involved in their growth.
I am also happy that students are coming together to raise difficult and vital questions about caste discrimination, communalism, LGBTQIA+ issues, financial sustenance during research years, the importance of free-thinking and dissent and questioning in a democracy--all questions that affect us very intimately. I see discomfort and push backs as well, especially when protests are planned and solidarity statements are put out, but there is still a space for negotiation, thankfully. I hope that in time, we will build more dynamic spaces for debates and discussions that will bring together people with diverse points of view, where people will feel heard and not ignored or talked over or condescended, where it will not be seen as out of place for students, teachers, and staff to freely talk about how to make our campuses, and the larger society a more inclusive, welcoming space that can accommodate true diversity. This is the only way to grow and evolve and make best use of the public resources at our privileged disposal.
I would also like to take this opportunity to speak of something that we have been confronted with yet again, after the news of actor Sushant Singh Rajput's death by suicide has reached us. I don't have advice, just an appeal. Anxiety and depression are becoming more norm than exception all around us. Students across IITs and other such high-functioning institutes (as I see them) live with tremendous pressure to 'prove themselves' academically. Many students and researchers invest years of incredibly hard work to reach here and live the IIT dream. But it's not a smooth journey, is it? Many of us struggle to adjust to the ethos on campus, others to perform well academically, still others to find a life outside academics, and some find systemic hurdles in place that we have still not succeeded in eradicating. Every time we hear of the tragic loss of life, especially that of a young person, we express shock and dismay. But we do little by way of trying to understand how things have come to such a pass, where are we failing with our priorities, our value systems, our ambitions...The world is increasingly becoming a merciless place with violence and polarisation all around--political views, climate change and natural disasters, hate crimes.
And we don't have the mechanisms to confront or cope with this. I do believe that we need more kind people, than successful people around. Or perhaps we need to redefine our notion of 'success'. We need less competitiveness and more collaboration and solidarity. Also, let us be wary of 'success formulas' and quick-fixes that promise to give direction to our lives. No number of self-help books, yoga or meditation sessions can substitute non-judgemental friendship and professional help when needed. True, there are counsellors available on campus. But we need to destigmatize mental health issues and create an environment where people do not hesitate to reach out when they find it difficult to pull through. And we need to educate ourselves about this, reach out to help each other, and be willing to listen when someone tries to share those bits of their lives and thoughts that are not full of joy and triumph. We are all vulnerable, and we are in this together. If anyone feels lonely, helpless, cornered, it is not their failure, but ours, collectively. Also, let us be compassionate to ourselves. Often we forget that we are a work in progress and no two life trajectories are the same and we each have different milestones of personal growth. It's normal to feel overwhelmed, it is abnormal to 'be positive' all the time. We need to stop rewarding the act of living in denial.