I know what you’re thinking.
“Oh god, another one of these posts about how some ‘lost’ girl had a life changing experience and “found” herself.”
But no. This isn’t about that. This isn’t about how I found my true calling or had an intense, life-altering experience through some formula. This is simply about becoming aware. Of discovering parts of myself that I hadn’t quite come across before and that surprised me, in ways good and bad.
How did it start, you ask? Well, actually, it started a few weeks ago when I told my mum that there was a screening last night. “A screening for what?”, she asked. “Some movie?”. A little taken aback but nevertheless patient, I said, “No ma, the election!”. She nodded her head and said, “Oh, right. But why would you stay up to watch that”. It wasn’t really a question as much as a comment, something that was sort of obvious. And the obviousness of it is what got me thinking.
Before I moved abroad, I would probably have had the same response as her. It simply didn’t make sense for a random person in India to actually make the effort of staying up to watch an election in a country half-way across the world. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t have cared at all or wouldn’t have read about it (though there are enough of those people too). It’s just that my gathering of information or news about such an event would have been from the perspective of a curious observer at best. Not from that of a person who felt engaged and involved in the process, and certainly not one who necessarily actively participated in discussions and debates about it.
Being in India as a twenty-something who grew up in a very globalised world, I was concerned about the world, yes. And I also debated and discussed these things with the people around me. But I (and perhaps all of us) still had a chronic case of tunnel vision in some sense because no matter how much I read and absorbed from the media, I was often missing one crucial component of the process of real engagement – a wide range of opinions, especially from people who were directly affected by these international issues. And that changed when I came to Oxford.
I don’t know whether it was because the graduate community in Oxford is truly a melting pot or because it was my first time interacting with such an international group of people, but the process of doing so was refreshing. While sometimes this did make me conscious of how little I knew, it also gave me several opportunities to learn and for that I am eternally grateful.
But this was the part that I expected. Curiously though, there are two other things that these interactions helped me unpack. Curious because they were unexpected and I never quite realised that they needed unpacking at all.
The first was my own identity as a young Indian abroad and what that meant to me, personally, academically and professionally. When I graduated from law school in India, it was fairly clear to me that I wanted to use the skills I had acquired to do something for my society, however big or small. The feelings that the 2014 elections evoked had made me certain of that. But it wasn’t until I had to witness my country publicly erupting into chaos over issues of freedom of speech and expression in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) episode that I became truly cognisant of just how angry I was. Having to sit across the world from the action and watch helplessly as things happened often brought tears of frustration, which then quickly turned into a resolve to do more.
Before this, I had always chosen to keep my politics largely to myself, making a conscious choice to be respectful of others’ views and not wishing to spend energy and effort on fighting. However, in an effort to organise a panel discussion on this issue here in Oxford, I got dragged into some very heated conversations on the matter and in the process, got a good snapshot of what the situation on the ground was like. To be honest, that jolted me. It was one of the first times I had to deal up close with a political issue that way and people who I had never expected to side with such a move surprised me by speaking out vehemently in favour of the crackdown on free speech. It made me realise that not speaking up was not an option anymore. It was time to accept and embrace politics as an issue of public debate and throw myself into the deep end of engagement on these issues, irrespective of the mode of such engagement. At the same time, my constant encounters with issues of colonialism and the developed-developing divide among others, gave me a mixed sense of pride and motivation that I had never quite felt before. When you live in a country where everybody is Indian, your identity as one of them can be largely irrelevant. But living abroad made me identify as an Indian in more than just the ticking-of-the ‘Asian – Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi’-box-on-forms sense. It made me feel like an active part of a polity, a society, a country.
The second was more generic but equally, if not more, important – an understanding of myself as a person. Honestly, even today, if I read this about someone else, I would be skeptical about what it really meant. But my experiences here really did make me reflect on several parts of my life and personality in a way that I had never done before. I learnt that if I wanted to maintain relationships, I would necessarily have to put in some effort into them and I was past the stage in my life where my lack of keeping in touch could be passed off as “oh, she’s too busy with school and exams and a billion other things”. Equally, I learnt that I didn’t have enough hours in a day to be friends with everyone and that I would have to accept the fact that I probably missed out on some great friendships, but revel in the amazing ones I already had. So I learnt how to prioritise. I also learnt that I could push the limits of my own capacity if I just put in enough effort. I even learnt (with some difficulty) to say no to things AND not regret it!
More than anything though, I learnt to be comfortable in my skin. To be comfortable with my choices – social, academic and personal and to not live my life by external barometers. People who know me may find this strange because it’s not that I was ever uncomfortable, I really wasn’t. But I just hadn’t had a chance to think about these things, to really make a conscious choice about these matters. However, as an international student part of a diverse and large graduate community, many of my notions and beliefs were constantly challenged and in working through those challenges, I was forced to think about these things. It’s funny because just yesterday I was explaining to a friend why I chose to come here for my master’s degree when I could have gone into the same job that I intend to pursue after completion, without the degree itself. Indulging my academic side, extending my student life etc. were all part of the plan. But as I look back on my time here so far, I think I can safely say that my greatest lessons have come not from books and professors, but from my everyday experiences and conversations. And above all, from learning to discover who I really am.