[Badly Written] Confessions of a Graduate Student Who Listens to Nujabes

[Alert: early morning ramble which lacks in coherence and quite possibly a point]

My first year as a graduate student has come to its official close and truth be told, I still don’t understand what happened during the past eight and a half months.

All I see is a well-defined blur.

It’s all been  smothered with far too much paper, theoretical conversations about Foucault (i.e. the apparent master of the rest of my academic career) well over my head, marking papers which made me hate my eyes, and constant self-reflection which has resulted in both heightened self-esteem and dramatically suicidal moments for my tear ducts. I have seen the ugly side of everything I had always seen as beautiful, perfect, prestigious and fulfilling.

My most striking lesson learned has been the dangers of the institutionalization of knowledge.

Actually, let me rephrase: the dangers of the pursuit of knowledge. Period.

Awhile ago a friend forwarded me a song by now-deceased Japan based hip hop producer and DJ Nujabes featuring Cise Starr of CYNE and Akin:

Cise Starr’s generally amazing lyrics and flow throughout the song aside (to be discussed later), this one particular verse caught my ears immediately:

I’m just a Vagabond, with Flowers for Algernon

The reference had completely caught me off guard. I had first read Flowers for Algernon during my first year as an undergrad in 2005 on the suggestion of a good and well-read friend. I remember reading it and writing it off given its tone which to me read like one of Ayn Rand’s bad philosophical harlequins. Too on-the-nose and filled with awkward sexy-talk.

But the surprising reference by Cise Starr to Flowers for Algernon sparked an interest within me to revisit this apparently classic tale which explores, at the deepest and most basic level, the idea of the pursuit of knowledge.

I really needed it.

In our pursuit for knowledge – especially those of us who take it on as a career – we become completely consumed by its self-fulfilling pleasures and its exclusive glamour. The Ivory Tower becomes a compound as opposed to a single building. We are simultaneously living within it and critiquing what we first found to be its greatest architectural merits. We become so lost within this pursuit, which we are told as per the wisdom of the ancient Greeks that it will help us answer the perennial “Who am I?”, that we forget that perhaps while knowledge was meant to be pursued – we’re actually chasing something which has disguised itself as the answer.

In Flowers for Algernon, Charlie Gordon wants nothing more than to be smart. At first, because he has both a sincerely thirsty curiousity and a strong willingness to please his teacher. As he begins to accumulate knowledge (check the above-linked wikipedia article for the plot), he becomes more inquisitive. It’s good. He begins to see things more clearly; the bliss of ignorance is completely smashed. He realizes truths pertaining to his own life and condition and begins to be unable to cope with them properly. He falls into somewhat of an existential crisis.

“Now I understand that one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be.”

He wants his bliss back. He wants his happiness back. He is able to learn any language, decode any code and understand any mathematical equation – but he is completely unable to understand love. He is unable to comprehend human interactions, emotions, relationships. He attains an infinitum amount of knowledge, but he is far more alone than he ever was with his IQ of 68. He shuns others while others slowly begin to shun him. He becomes hard to relate to and difficult to talk to; his work and his pursuit of knowledge is his priority. Everything else becomes secondary. But Charlie Gordon slowly does realize the importance of relationships and of emotions – how integral these are to living “the good life” which have been seeking for so many millennia.

Okay. So a bit of an extreme example – but see where I’m going with this?

Academia. Pursuit of knowledge as found in books. Formalized education. Grades. GPA. Transcripts. C.Vs. Articles published in journals. Conferences attended. Lectures held. This isn’t the road towards fulfillment. It’s a (perverted at times) part of it but it’s not all of it.  Whatever “it” is – it’s not as though you can ever really be fulfilled. Nothing satisfies us – our history is the greatest testament to this. Our hunger is insatiable, and that’s cool.

I learned this year, as a grad student, the importance of relationships: friendships, parents, love and the weird momentary affectionate connections made with pigeons when you share most of your zaatar with them. These matter a great deal. More so than any Homi Bhaba text I’ll (attempt to) read. There is an abundance of knowledge available to us from our own interactions with one another, our own engagement with one another and our exchanging of ideas with one another – our own species and beyond. But we’re so just stuck that there is only one way to ever gain knowledge. Legit knowledge. The sort of knowledge that saves us from dreaded bliss.

But, in a way, I want that bliss back. I want to be able to watch Iron Man II and not think about the glorification of ‘privatized world peace’ and ‘privatized weapons manufacturing’ as well as the seriousness of the implications of drone attacks in Pakistan for the future of warfare. I just want to look at Robert Downey jr. and be like whoa, major swoon. I just want to be able to not force myself to bite my tongue whenever the opportunity arises for the gross intellectualization of an everyday topic of conversation (see: the unpaid labour of cleaning the bathroom). I want to be able to talk to anyone, relate to anyone – to not become like a Charlie Gordon. I want to not know everything. I want to be ignorant of a lot more than what I am aware of – as per Socrates’ greatest piece of wisdom (damnit, I couldn’t resist). I just want to keep it real.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a die hard whatever I am.

I’m just a little insecure about my future phD applications. That’s all.

So, seek your knowledge, be it in dusty books through which you tirelessly peel or in the company of loved faces who don’t know the first thing about the feminization of gay culture  – just remember:

It’s The Knowledge Of Self
Understanding Of The Things Around Me
That Becomes The Wisdom That I Need
Living This Life To The Best Of My Ability

– Feather

Wondering about Kashmir

There are many things that have become a part of me during the past 11 years since I last visited Pakistan, the country of my birth and origin. All memories. Every image, every sound remains as crisp as ever.

There was always an odd stillness in the air whenever the electricity would go out. A stillness which would be silenced by everyone in the packed household running around to either take a nap or sit outside in the garden and watch the kids pretend they were the 1999 World Cup Pakistani team.

I always wanted to be Shoaib Akhtar – my first crush as an 11 year old, following Leonardo Dicaprio and my 6th grade Social Studies teacher Mr. Haubrich.

But there is one memory in particular that I have never been able to let go of – Kashmir.

My maternal grandparents home was located in a compound in the region of Gulberg in Lahore. In 1999, Lahore was in it’s heyday. Nawaz Sharif, an unfortunate distant relative, was still in power as Prime Minister and had made his home city as beautiful as possible.

Then again, a lot of things seem more clean and modern when compared to the ever-present-dusty-dirty nostalgia that defines the streets and corners of Karachi.

Next to my grandparent’s home was the chowky-daar compound: where all the compound’s ‘security guards’ stayed. They were all Pathan, friendly and they often had their kids with them who would play around the dusty grounds with whatever toys and balls they could get a hold of.

As my cousins and I also spent a bit of time outside, we’d often hear the other children playing, laughing and screaming. They were just like us, with a thick white cement barrier standing in between.  Even then, however, that didn’t stop their fulfillment of their curiousity about the kids next door. Often times, they would peer over and talk to us – sometimes. They were more often than not extremely shy.

There was one child in particular who caught my eye and my heart: Kashmir.

He was beautiful. Taupe skin, green blazing eyes which I have never encountered since, golden hair and a smile that left you in tears. And his name. Kashmir. As a Kashmiri, his name resounded with me – the beauty of his name was reflected perfectly and without hesitation in him.

He must have been around five years old. He was kind, but witty and sharp – that tongue of his was quick. He shyly smiled at the girls and was quick to get active and run around. He had not time for conversation – he had football to play and siblings to chase.

I only spent around two months in Lahore before returning to Karachi for the remainder of my six month stay. During these two months I never got to know Kashmir beyond the large white barrier that stood against us, but an irrevocable imprint was left.

Today, 11 years later and thousands of miles away, I still often wonder about what happened to Kashmir. I wonder about the sort of young man he might have become. I wonder if he’s even had that chance in a country ridden now with instability, violence and desolation. I wonder about what he’s doing, what he wants in life and where he situates himself in the slowly crumbling society around – especially as a Pathan, an ethnic group which faces much discrimination in Pakistan for being associated with the Taliban.

I wonder if he’s picked up arms.

I wonder if he’s been caught in a crossfire. Or in one of the many bombings which have shaken the region.

It’s silly, really. That a young boy of a mere 5 years old whom I met 11 years ago – and even just barely at that – still remains with me. And so deeply. These days, for some reason, he is more present than ever in my mind. Thoughts of him are not accompanied by happy memories but more so with aching speculation of his present and future.

I hope Kashmir is safe. That he is alive. That he still has that sly innocence about himself and that he, most of all, is happy.