Crawling through coral reefs: A year at the YIF
The unquenchable curiosity and unwavering commitment of the Fellows to add to the discussion made me feel like an overflowing jar of honey at the end of each session
Akhil TP25 August, 2023 | 4m read
I do not remember what I was expecting when I went to Ashoka University mess for my first breakfast from the IIT campus. But it was not anything like I had seen before. Bright lights and broad laughs rendered me blind and deaf. Cutleries were clattering behind when I saw the buffet beaming, luring me in. It was as if I had entered an alien planet. I fell ill and it took me a week to get adjusted to the bright, colourful, smooth, and packed environment at Ashoka University.
I wish my first days at Ashoka were as colourful as the beautiful red bricks that embraced me for a whole year. However, I just lay there like a pupa, which the students fondly call the Ashoka Bubble, waiting to be eclosed into the wonderful world of dust and stain. Of anger and hatred. Of envy and jealousy. Inside the Ashoka University campus, people seemed too nice to be true. It took me a while to be as soft and as vulnerable as other Ashokans.
To understand my plight better, it is essential to mention my past education. My undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in physics were at Pondicherry University and the University of Hyderabad respectively. Both were Central Universities. Both of them did not isolate me from the outside world. In fact, I used to cross the university gates to take my mind off academic life. This was the first time I was studying at a private university. Ashoka was close to Delhi, yet far far away from it.
As months passed by like autumn leaves, I got more used to the system and started to interact more with the YIF community. As an Ashokan, I never felt I belonged there. But, the Young India Fellowship, felt like a second (or in my case fourth or fifth) home! Each fellow I had talked to had something to offer—from the way they spoke to the way they thought, listened and took action.
This motley group of multifarious talents always had interesting questions to ask. Their unquenchable curiosity and unwavering commitment to add to the discussion made me feel like an overflowing jar of honey at the end of each session. I learned a lot from aspiring writers, biologists, engineers, lawyers, literature scholars, and social scientists in the class. My learnings in these topics were usually limited to books intended for a general audience. But with the fellows, I was able to get a more nuanced and practical understanding of varied domains.
The fellowship had over twenty courses. Each was different in difficulty and enjoyability. In some courses, I felt like I was in a traffic jam. A few made me feel as if I was gliding through a mountainside. A couple of courses made me angry. A couple of them made me sad. Overall, most of the courses, in some or the other way, disillusioned us from the world we see on screens and in texts; and the world we hear from radios and bus stands. I was also disappointed with some courses as their syllabi were very familiar. My disappointment, like rain clouds on a summer day, was swept apart by the bright rays of doubts and perspectives from fellows new to the subject.
As an aspiring novelist, the year-long Critical Writing program was of immense value. The critical writing course was like crawling through coral reefs. I love reading, thinking, and writing. I enjoy spending long hours ruminating beside the village pond or beneath the mango tree that overlooks it. Yet, almost all of my thoughts and conversations were with the ideas or the author. While there were numerous instances where I disagreed with authors, I had not made it a habit to keep a minimum level of criticality to the text. In critical writing, not only did we debate the ideas but we also discussed how the ideas may have originated, their socio-political context, the background and ideology of the author, and so on. Furthermore, the logical structure of the arguments in many texts, most of them scientific papers, was inspected critically to find inconsistencies that might have been missed even after reading the text a few times.
This was one of the hardest courses I have ever done. It was also one of the most fulfilling ones. After critical writing, now whenever I read a book, I think about what could have made the author imagine such a world. From this course, I learned how easy it is for human beings to be persuaded by a good narrative. I learned that it takes active, constant poking at the arguments and claims made by the authors to construct our own understanding of reality, which is, after all, a construct, no matter how sinuous or solid it may seem.
It has been a little more than a month since the YIF coursework got over. Thinking of the past year, I still feel a stab in my heart, a gleam in my eye. The memory of YIF falls heavy on me; a memory the future yearns to cherish and relish.
(Akhil is an aspiring novelist from Kerala. He likes to read, feel, imagine, write, and think. When he isn’t doing any of these, you can find him on the football ground or in the badminton court. His hobbies also include cycling and playing chess. Akhil was part of the twelfth cohort of the Young India Fellowship and holds a master’s degree in physics)