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Picky variety: I do not want to be a narrative, but I want to create my own

YIF was a year of “academic freedom” for me. It was a place where I did not have to fit in but felt like I could belong

Surabhi Shirish Kulkarni

28 August, 2023 | 4m read

“She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric.”~The Hours

The first time I read Virginia Woolf, it felt like reading my alter ego’s journal. The ‘History and Politics of Representation of Madness in Literature and Art’ was a process of knowing that I am not the only one having eccentric thoughts about insanity, delusion, disturbed minds and the effects of Unity of Effect from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Philosophy of Composition. With Prof. Satyendra Singh’s unrelenting voice constantly reminding me to honestly be myself, as I read the literature I had looked up to all my life, I got closer to the person that the societal connotations had never embraced. “Your piece is darker than the painting”, he had said when he read my journal entries where I had positioned myself as Goya while he painted Saturn Devouring his Son. The fellowship further exposed me to my inner voice—from queerness, the role death played in human lives or the deduction of philosophies in my own way. It was okay to ask questions and not have answers. What mattered was having your own opinion that you could back up, and no opinion was also an opinion.

I am not going to say every course was life-changing, but each one made me think in a way I would not have otherwise. Similarly, not every conversation left a mark on me but played a role in the YIF experience. Having faced emotional isolation, bullying and exclusion at a young age, all I have wanted to do is to nullify the silencing of mental health disorders as much as I could as an empath. Empathy has made me unlearn the fundamental standards of society. People matter to me—their feelings and the ability to get into their shoes and understand where they come from. How else will one change the world unless one unveils it?

With the kind of range of picky yet accommodative passions that I have had in life, I never understood why I should put blinkers on my eyes when choosing a career. I did not want a box—whether it was a job or a postgraduate degree. Like any mortal, I struggled to swallow the rock-hard truth that the answer “Who am I?” would not be easily accessible. For example, my choice of music is multi-genre. I prefer eating in variety, not quantity. I like fostering stray cats and dogs because I find joy in them. I have tried my best to systemically un-condition myself and apologise to myself at every step when I sway away from my beliefs. I analyse each task by sketching mind maps and taking detailed notes. How I take my coffee depends on my mood, and I cannot keep my mouth shut when I witness injustice. I like writing in public places but only while alone. I love to complicate simple human emotions with poetry, and I find the weirdest business ideas in making mundane human chores hassle-free.

YIF was a year of “academic freedom” for me. It was a place where I did not have to fit in but felt like I could belong. I remember relentlessly scrolling through Universities that could draw all my aspirations together until I stumbled upon the YIF. It offered multi-dimensional courses, and I knew in my heart that this was the umbrella that checked all the boxes on the list of things I wished to learn in pursuit of my Ikigai. Stumbling across YIF was a substantiated validation for me. A place that harboured all that I was skilled in, home to all that I enjoyed doing while instigating all that I was interested in learning but never had the opportunity to. Fast forward to February 2021, I remember the one week of refreshing my inbox every 15 minutes for an answer from the University I had been trailing for the past two years. I remember my father taking me on a long drive to calm my “expecting the worst” anxieties hours before I finally got my acceptance letter. That night, we were celebrating the 13-year-old me who would go from being called a confused daydreamer to being recognised as the Young India Fellow of the 11th Cohort of Ashoka University.

I will not lie and tell you that it was all good. There were nights when I was amidst fellows and felt like I wanted to leave and just be by myself, reading or scribbling at the library. There were nights when seeing the same faces got to me, so I just made friends with new people. Random people I would bump into at the Fuel Zone at 2 AM, were probably closer to me than my floormates. There were times during class when I would look around and feel like all the people participating were trying to play a character they aspired to be and not trying to be the person they actually were. It was all very confusing yet introspective at the same time.

Mostly, it was about noticing things and observing what was unsaid—reading between silence and noise. About how the RH5 and Library building rose high up on me at 9 PM, almost cushioning me from the judgments surrounding me while I lay floating in the swimming pool. It was about the luxury of the silence that the water allowed me to have. It was not about the parties thrown at midnight but about the breakdowns at the bleachers with three friends who are now family to me. I would not say my favourite papers were the ones I wrote comfortably in the library, I would say that the ones most appreciated were probably the ones I wrote over four straight days of no sleep and high caffeine intake.

During the CW course, I was never unsettled witnessing Woolf’s fight with Bipolar Disorder, seeing her self-annihilate to rid her family of her madness and go down the rabbit hole of existentialism. I could resonate with how literature was all about finding a muse in the most immaterial things. This spirit of finding a grounding while engulfing the self-awareness the rest of the fellowship experiences made me go through was similar to how I have grown as a poet—wanting to be understood by others while trying to get close to understanding myself.

Right from working with the Outreach team, Red Brick Words Club, spearheading the making of our Yearbook, and contributing actively to the Friends of YIF and Fellowmpics—I could set my own trend instead of hopping onto one by climbing into different shoes as an artist/writer, leader, entrepreneur, brand strategist and of course an empath. Ultimately not fitting into a narrative but creating my own as the creative powerhouse I have lived to be—being picky yet embracing variety.

(Surabhi is a Young India Fellow from the batch of 2022 and holds a Bachelor of Business Administration with a focus in International Business from MIT WPU. She currently works as an Assistant Manager at Ashoka University in the Alumni Relations Office to help engage the alumni community around the globe)

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka