Breaking Away

I don’t remember the last time I sat down, with nothing to do, and stared blankly at the evening sky. I often find myself casting about for something to do, which is to say I often find myself without work, but this is not the strange part. And I do occasionally look up at the evening sky, but it hasn’t ever been this deliberate.

On my request, after a day spent isolated in my windowless studio apartment in [the city] – a room I felt I ought to leave on account of the irritatingly fine cement mist that buildings undergoing renovation shroud themselves in, and the fact that the silence I expected to enjoy during this isolation was frequently interrupted by the sound of pneumatic drills – the city municipal corporation promptly dispatched an ambulance that would drive me to the [local hospital], where I would begin a 10-day quarantine. You see, I had tested positive for COVID-19 just the day before. After a few routine tests were done, I was prescribed a course of medication. “Plenty of fluids, and plenty of rest,” advised the nurse from behind a face shield and baby blue scrubs, both a few sizes too large for her. I entered the room that was assigned to me at the hostel, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it had a small balcony with an old plastic chair.

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The Mine Field

Prologue:

It was a very hot summer. As part of the unwritten curriculum, we undergraduate students were expected to do summer internships, for the long period of 3 months, outside our parent institute. As a naive second year, who hadn’t done an internship in the first year, I eagerly sent mails to many professors all over the country. Amidst the pile of rejection emails, a positive reply set my spirit high, and I committed the first mistake in ‘Mistakes in Academia 101’— stepping into the lion’s den without noticing the pile of bones behind the rock, i.e., choosing my professor without approaching people who had already worked under them. In my defense, they had no doctoral fellows or postdocs, not that I would have done that.

Let the first professor be ‘Prof. X’. Prof. X did all the formalities for me to be accommodated in their institute. And thus I set out, to a far off land, a place where the heat can claim you. We met, and they were put off since I seemed inadequate as I hadn’t had the relevant courses so that they could pose a problem and expect me to solve it. So they said, let it be a reading project, and suggested a book. After reading the portions they had suggested, they gave me another topic to read. This continued for quite some time-the changing of topics-they had no clue as to what I should be doing, and kept giving me random topics. Then they went away for an academic conference.

No guide, no friends. The people there spoke a different tongue. I was lost. During my brief stay there, another Professor there, who took interest in me, since we spoke the same language, suggested a book. So, I decided to settle on the book, read, and make a report about what I read from the book. Since I knew MATLAB, I made graphs of surfaces and curves, and added them to the report. I sent Prof. X an email, telling them that I was reading that book. Days passed, and I had to leave. My guide hadn’t returned yet, so I sent another email, asking when they would come back.

 This is the reply I got:

 “U take the sign of (another Prof) and leave the (institute) today itself. In case u r not doing any work and just gossiping around.

I don’t have time to answer your nonsense emails which are driven by other influences.”

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I Am Now the Perfect Academic

I’ve found myself spending a lot of time staring very closely at things recently. There’s a moment in the movie Blue, a lyrical piece about a woman coming to grips with the death of her husband, when she slowly dips a sugar cube into her coffee and she watches the coffee as it diffuses layer by layer into the cube, always getting ever so slightly higher in the cube than in the air.

My partner, my lover, she’s still alive, but I also am facing the prospect of losing her, even if only for a few years. She is trying to cheer me up, making funny faces and jumping around in a futile effort to make me look at my computer screen, where she takes care of me from the other end of the earth, and make me feel better about life. I cannot take my eyes off the muscle at the base of my thumb, watching in rapt fascination as the lines appear and merge and split and disappear as I slowly, ever so slowly, move my thumb. Or I watch each car as it passes by on the sliver of highway visible from my home. The object of my rapture is not important, it is an empty pitcher into which I blankly pour my brain so that it may take a different shape. Any shape but the shape it is in if I look at her and let myself feel.

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Higher Learning and Exclusion

Recently GroundXero published an article detailing a shocking episode that happened in an elite research institute in the country. The issue and the subsequent struggle reported here has echoes of practices prevalent in most campuses in India, which is why we have elected to republish it here.

This atrocious casteist and classist episode happened in a premier research Institute recently, where a few students demanded that hostel toilets be exclusively used only by the students, and hence by fiat security guards and house-keeping staff (who clean these toilets!) were not allowed to use them. The Institute administration had put exclusive boards “for students only” outside each bathroom.

A few students and faculties opposed this and eventually the boards were removed, but the struggle to restore the dignity of those who were humiliated continues . These students and faculty members summarise the entire episode here. They do not want to name the Institute or their names to be made public.

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The Subtle Problem of Exclusion

My story is a collection of my experiences and some “subtle” issues that I faced during my PhD. I intentionally call these issues “subtle” because for a lot of people, the things which bothered me wouldn’t even be noticed. When I used to share these with people around me, the reactions I got were more like

“These are not real problems!”

“This happens to everybody, so it’s normal and you are supposed to face this!”

“You should ignore it!” 

“People face much bigger issues, compared to those your life is very good. You should appreciate that!” 

I do agree that some of these are valid points and some of these are probably an attempt to make me feel better but none of these helped me. Instead, they caused me more discomfort and self-doubt.

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We Are No Longer Afraid: On Institutional Responses to COVID-19

The following is a (lightly edited)1 document authored by students at a prominent institute of higher education. The document, which was shared with Notes on the Academy, speaks of the institute’s ham-handed and bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Interspersed with the excerpts are commentary (italicised) along with links to similar reports from other institutions of higher learning.

[Our university] attracts the sharpest minds, and provides ample research opportunities. But, like all other systems with entrenched hierarchical power structures, [our university] faces several issues unique to it. What the coronavirus has done across the world is to bluntly magnify the issues that existed before the pandemic started. We started writing this article in July, but did not send it anywhere because we was afraid of the repercussions. Now, after all that has happened, we are no longer afraid.

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My Language Barrier

When did you get interested in your current field of study?

I got interested in the field of Architecture when I was looking at options to pursue for undergraduate studies. I wasn’t very passionate about the subject at that point, it was more of a convenient path I took because I had an interest to pursue something in the creative field(arts) along with something technical and this seemed like a good fit.

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