On PhDs, rejections, and pathways

This past six months, one of the most rewarding things has been slowly putting together CoFUTURES, inviting in fellows with whom I will be building something crazy cool over the next years, and  hopefully changing the world a bit for the better in the process. Let me put it this way: I feel really lucky that the project got the people it did. These are people exceptional in every way, who are in successful careers of their own in different disciplines and contexts but who have nonetheless decided to think together possible futures for the world, some even relocating to Oslo (which, beautiful though it always is no matter what the season, can really test one’s resilience with the cold and dark in winters if you come from the warmer world). With our weekly meetings and movies, and the passion of the discussions all around, even if temporarily all we can do is zoom, I can already tell that this is going to be an amazing experience. And then there will also be more people, which I am really excited about, so that in a year or two the dozen might double, all engaged in rethinking the whole world and its speculative dimensions from the ground up. Fingers crossed for that. I am truly grateful for this experience.

This past six months, one of the saddest things I have experienced in the same process of hiring PhD fellows is saying no to some of the most brilliant candidates with excellent proposals I have come across. With the hundreds of candidates who have applied for just the four advertised positions, these things are bound to be extremely hard decisions. Sometimes I didn’t quite know what to tell such exceptional candidates except wishing them good luck for the future even as I wished silently that there weren’t one position but two or three or half a dozen more, and we could all be one crazy bunch thinking working doing things together. Some people had projects that didn’t fit into the exact categories I had in mind, others simply because someone else edged them out a bit on experience. There were many astounding applicants who already had PhDs and were interested in pursuing a second, and I wish that were possible too.

Both these things remind me of two different times of my life connected to PhD positions. A rejection and an acceptance. The first was a rejection too back in the day exactly like the ones we have had to hand out now, from the  Commonwealth UK doctoral fellowships, where I was the sole India nominee for my field that year. I wanted to do a PhD at Liverpool, because of course. It hurt like a ton of bricks. No other way to describe it. I was a 22 year old after all. I couldn’t apply for US universities, since all those applications and the GRE drill cost quite a lot of money I couldn’t afford and a bill I did not want to saddle my parents with, nor did I want to spend money on something where the returns weren’t guaranteed.

I spent the next two and a half years doing an MPhil (a second masters), working briefly as a research assistant, and teaching. In those two years I also spent most of my time at the library and at home pretty much reading through everything I found theoretically, historically, or philosophically interesting, a quest that begin during my first masters (I bunked almost all my classes to read on my own instead), but the second masters and its flexibility gave me more time. Those reading lists went all the way from Plato to Derrida to Modernist art theory to Subaltern Studies, and all the journals and books I could find, get, or download from all kinds of sources. I was pretty good at that downloading too – so much so that a friend of mine cited me in her thesis acknowledgements as a kind of master pirate, which I still think of as a pretty cool thing. There was no money to get it all at the rate I read or wanted to read or could get from the library, even though I probably spent 80% of my income on books, so much that my friends joked that some publishers’ turnovers probably depended on me, and my dad once asked, jokingly, how much a book cost per page (it was a slim book that I had had to import and it cost half my monthly salary then). Academic piracy is after all still the reality of most of the world, even now. There’s no money for fancy research in most of the world. Before the Open-Access movement there wasn’t much of open research either. While the 20th century, including structuralism, postmodernism, postcolonial studies and subaltern studies had taken up a lot of my masters, now it was mostly a lot of older stuff mixed with a lot of absolutely current 21st century stuff. There was a lot of 18th and 19th century in my reading, because the library had a lot of those, and my MPhil courses took me in that direction. Vico. A lot of Spinoza and everything around Spinoza for a while. Kant ate up way too much time but it was worth it. A whole bunch of time on the Upanishads and several strands of Indian philosophy. Media studies. And a ridiculous amount of reading on modern drama too, oddly enough, Jerzy Grotowski, Augusto Boal, and Badal Sircar and what not, and I scripted two complete science fiction plays (which will never see the light of day). I remember spending a fortnight reading everything on CTheory for the sole reason it was open-access and seemed really cool. Trawling through journals in JSTOR or Project Muse for hours and hours on poor, slow internet in sweltering heat in the college computer rooms where the air-conditioner seemed to be just for show. I even ended up writing a thesis on degeneration and eugenics and early 20th century science fiction, which got an A and gave me an MPhil distinction and one of my first journal articles, but that’s another thing altogether. When I finally left India after a brief return to teach for a year after my PhD, I donated all my notes and printouts, things I had collected etc over 7 years of college life to my old college Ramjas department library. It was in 50 volumes or so, thick hardbound A4 books, but I am not really sure of the number anymore. There were books too, numbering in thousands, that I wanted to donate, but it could not be arranged before I left.

I was reading everything and all the time I had was spent on it. I don’t believe all that reading has ever set in or is likely to. The support I had from my teachers at Delhi University and my colleagues at St. Stephen’s was extraordinary to say the least. They indulged me is how I see it now. I think to a certain extent my students and fellow-learners at Stephen’s had to suffer through a little of all that reading too as things blended in my lectures. Hopefully they didn’t suffer much, given that I have kept in touch with many of them, but you never know when your students are just being polite and indulgent either. And I learnt a lot from them too. I also had the best mentor (may he be at peace), who basically gave me a ton of books and spent many late afternoons discussing Frankfurt School, Heidegger, Husserl, and Gadamar, as well as Foucault, Derrida, and the postmodernist bunch with me over cups of over-flavoured tea. He would sneak off to smoke a cigarette on the smoke-free campus, and ultimately he died from his smoking and drinking, but he almost quit smoking the year I worked because I couldn’t stand cigarettes and used to buy him nicotine gum. But Dr. Ashish Roy is not someone I would like to discuss now, and in any case I don’t think I am ready even now to describe the complicated nature of our difficult friendship. Every one of his students and friends has a story, and others closer to him have written a lot more. This one by Paromita Patranobish is especially beautiful.

And then, about two years later, I got accepted in a PhD programme, which was not only a fully-funded, but I could also work on science fiction: what I had prepared for four years by then. I packed my bags for the cold, dark, north which I also now call home, and I arrived smack in the middle of winter less than a week after my 25th birthday. The digression and reading helped me think through the many problems, and I do think I was more ready as a 25 year old than a 22 year old. Ten years later, here it all is, and it is what it is. But the one thing that kept me going in those two years after that ton of bricks, and continue on also within academia, is something that my SF guru Andy Sawyer wrote to me on an email right after I shared the dissapointing news, for which I will remain ever thankful, which was that I shouldn’t give up on science fiction. I didn’t.

Those with the heartbreak now, don’t give up on science fiction. There are better worlds to be made, and they are in waiting.

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