Maternal instincts or (please let it be borderline and no more) insanity?

Spent the afternoon working from our dining table for a change of scenery since my desk is now beginning to get boring. No green thoughts happening in that space as of this morning which is why we need to part company for at least a week. Maybe that'll bring back the mystery in that relationship! Speaking of which, I really need to do something new to my bedroom walls. But this post is not about that.

So I make my way back upstairs around 7 pm. Plan of action: put laptop away on my desk and call it a day as far as the little thing - aka dissertation chapter 3 or is it 4? – I’m working on goes. So as I’m about to enter my room I bang the top left corner of my laptop against the door's frame. And it doesn’t even take me a split second for me to say right away “poor baby” as I gently caress the corner that I banged as I would if I bumped the head of a baby I was carrying. Complete with sympathetic pout and a tone pregnant with concern. And as I checked for damages my reaction (finally!) struck me. I said “poor baby” to a laptop and meant it!!!!! Hello? Earth to me?

Okay I’ll admit I’ve been thinking about making it to motherhood someday in hopefully the not very distant future (gotta find Mr. Right/Perfect or, to be slightly more realistic, Mr. Not Perfect-But-I-Love-You-Anyway; men with the phonetic sound "sh" anywhere in their name please do not bother to apply though because I have a theory about this) but this was a tad ridiculous. Then again I have a gorgeous, pretty, still shiny powerbook that might need TLC to keep it that way. After all, with my various plane trips, my machine has been through enough. What with having to go through all that screening in those dirty, plastic, scratch-happy containers without so much as its sleeve? I mean is that really necessary? After all, my laptop doesn’t have to be subjected to this cruelty at airports outside of North America.

Hmm….am I just going insane? I think I am. It’s like I’m having a “Gilmore Girls” (drama/comedy about a mom and her daughter living in suburban Connecticut that has become my shamefully bad habit/indulgence for the past month) moment. I declare tomorrow as an official writing hiatus. Writing this post I'm convinced that I need it desperately to say the least. Maybe I’ll just read something so I don’t feel as guilty! Or I'll watch a film related to the India-Pakistan conflict that I haven't included in my dissertation.

So was this behavior maternal instinct or (borderline) insanity? Apparently my own embarrassment at my reflex response to this wasn’t sufficient so I’ve decided to share it with all passers-by of this blog.

PS – For anyone who is wondering, the powerbook is fine. Just woke up from its sleep a bit wonky and I’m really hoping it isn’t scratched because I hate that and will obsess, albeit in varying degrees and less frequently as time passes, about it till I can purchase a new machine. This is not looking good people! But I will survive. Okay now that horrendous song (“I will survive”) is soooo staying in my head till tomorrow – yikes!


Yesterday rocked -no pun intended!

In between all the social commitments that seem to have turned my life into a bonanza of the super-hectic kind, I’ve been striving to be productive in terms of my research and writing. On my to-do-list for this month: a chapter for a book project on biographies and International Relations. I’m happy to report that the first non-nonsensical draft where I express myself in complete prose was completed yesterday. Even happier to report that it literally rocked my world, specifically the world that I inhabit as a(n) “(aspiring) scholar”. (Relevant aside: when exactly can I start claiming that I am one of these i.e. a scholar as opposed to one of the aspiring kind? Is being one tied to finishing the Ph.D. or something more or perhaps something less where something along the lines of treading down the ABD path will do?). But a little more background before I talk about how my world was rocked.

The book project for which I’m writing this chapter brings a bunch of infinitely cool (read: brilliant and fun) professors and grad students interested in exploring the question of how our biographies are relevant to the construction of knowledge, specifically in the field of international relations (broadly defined). Why is this an important question to raise and spend time on? Well, the rationale, at least for me, is that the field of international relations as a whole might benefit (read: learn to be somewhat humble about both its aspirations and achievements) from exploring how knowledge is constructed from the positions that each scholar occupies. The way I see it, these positions emerge from how scholars have worlded in a Heideggerian sense; or, simply, traces how each of us understands our (collective) experiences since they have an influence on the questions we ask and, subsequently, how we go about answering them. Sounds simple enough right? Hardly the kind of stuff of which epiphanies that could rock our worlds are usually made of. After all, one is simply narrating/articulating what has influenced oneself. No surprise there – we know how the story ends and how it begins in a lot of respects. But it isn’t that simple – or, at least, it wasn’t that simple for me…and I loved every second of it.

In my chapter, I use four different experiences in which others have reacted to my name in distinct ways. I elaborate then how this has influenced the way I approach my dissertation project. (For those of you who haven’t heard me talk about it to death I’m looking at how the India-Pakistan conflict has been sustained by focusing on a genealogy of boundaries/bounding practices/difference.) Let me also tack a disclaimer here before I go any further: I do not believe that my life thus far has been some kind of teleologically determined forward movement culminating in this particular dissertation project. Far from it. It’s more of a “particular time” feeling for me. That is to say, for now, I look to certain experiences and interpret them in particular ways as tied to who I am as a scholar – aspiring or otherwise. It’s entirely possible that these stories will point me in a different direction another day or when I’m thinking about them in a different context at a different time. It’s also possible that I might look to different stories, to different experiences when I think at another time about the questions this book project on biographies raises. But what matters in the here and now is that this is the story I like to tell myself about one aspect of my-self.

Now let’s go back to the world-rocking thing….

As I started working my way towards a conclusion for the chapter I felt uncomfortably overwhelmed. Not the kind of overwhelmed where I felt I had to just walk away from this for a while. Rather, the kind where I knew that to get somewhere I had to forget thinking about what I was writing/typing and just type away without trying to first formulate and evaluate the argument in my head. That feeling when you know so many thoughts are percolating their way up – thoughts that are so intimate to who one is – that it’d be like trying to struggle against a monsoon current if one tried to think through it first. Of course, like anyone who has ever been caught in a monsoon current knows from experience, one usually tries to move against it to break free. I did the same with these thoughts at first. But there came a point when I knew I had to let the wave take me where it wanted to rather than figuring out my direction beforehand. (Of course the wave was not external to me but you know what I mean?)

And so I typed. And typed, And then I typed some more. And then some more typing happened.

What I ended up with when I felt ready to stop were 4 or so pages of stuff I obviously knew about myself but that felt new or surprising to me in that I’d never put these ideas together in quite the same way before. Kind of like what you intend the “you know?” to stand in place of when you’re talking to someone whom you’ve known for eons so you sort of expect them to understand what you’re talking about without having even finished the thought. Similarly, these thoughts that I could now see on my screen were not alien to me but they were new to me in that it was the first time I’d seriously forced myself to push them through.

And then it happened. I’d finally articulated my personal beliefs and values as a scholar for the first time that I knew of. Scholar-virgin was, so to speak, no more. This stuff that stared back at me from my laptop’s screen was no longer a funny-in-my-tummy or an idea in my mind for me to grapple with and process some more. It was “out there” in a strange way. Out there for the world to see. And, more importantly, out there for me to see. It was then that my world rocked.

It felt incredibly surreal. It was just so strangely powerful to see my identity as a scholar extended outside my body, my mind, my tummy, my gut, and just about any part of me that is connected with me in any physical or quasi-physical way. It suddenly had a different kind of reality for me – one with a different texture if that makes any sense. All these thoughts had percolated up as coherent and connected prose for the first time and it felt kind of unbelievable. It was like I was reading someone else’s biography and perhaps feeling that it could be my story too but it distinctly felt like someone else’s because it was no longer inside me.

For a few hours I felt as if everything had come tumbling down and I just didn’t know how to deal with seeing what felt somewhat alien yet all-too-familiar because I’d never extended all of it beyond myself per se. In other words, I felt that so much of me – so much that was intimate to me – had come tumbling down. But this tumbling down wasn’t the kind you experience when, for example, you lose your first love. Instead, this felt good. Damn good! In fact, the more time I spent digesting the words that appeared on my screen the more I felt like I was on top of the world.

So what I’m trying to say is this was one of those unsettling experiences when you feel like you’re stuck in the eye of a hurricane but are enjoying the wind (understatement for a tornado I know but that’s the feeling I’m trying to convey here – an unbelievable, can’t-put-into-words-kind-of-enjoyment of what feels life-threatening because it could end your world but when all is said and done you’re standing in the shining sun unaffected by ruins and rubble that might be surrounding you in the aftermath of the hurricane) in your hair.

Simply stated, this felt undoubtedly unsettling but unusually gratifying.

Now that I’ve had time to sleep this feels even better. Trust me - a mind-fuck like the one I went through, though enjoyable, requires serious rest to be completely digested.

It feels incredible to have gotten all of that outside my system as it were and into my other system – my beautiful, year-old but still shiny PowerBook. It feels good to have allowed the monsoon current take me in directions I didn’t quite anticipate. And I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the hurricane winds blowing through my hair….actually, to be precise, through almost every fiber of my being!

So now that I can articulate my beliefs and values as a scholar can I take the “aspiring” out and call myself a “scholar” even though that Ph.D. is still at least a year away? After all, if I can explain to you what being a scholar is all about for me shouldn’t I (finally) be able to claim that identity?

Either way – hi ho hi ho, onwards I go. Until next time :-)....


What's in a name you ask?

I discovered today that there is an another person in North America with the e-x-a-c-t same name as mine. Not only does she have the same first name and last name as I do but she spells her last name exactly the s-a-m-e way I do. Now of course my name isn't copyrighted or anything but I seem to have gone through my entire life thus far without meeting someone with the exact same first and last name as mine. And I don't know anyone personally with the same last name as mine who spells their last name the same way that I do. Go figure!

So now I'm totally curious about this person but have yet to google her. Just wondering though if there are any other overlaps between us. Do we share the same birthday? Is she also getting a PhD? Does she try to have the flowers on her bed-linens facing the head of the bed? Is she also doing laundry this minute?

Speaking of which, the dryer beckons and the cake in the oven that I'm baking for my parents 30th wedding anniversary needs checking. Cake first!


A different side of bilingual

I’d planned on posting something related to a chapter I’m working on finishing but a different experience seems to have taken center-stage today.

I happened to meet a couple visiting from Aligarh, India on my train ride back home to suburban town, NJ from Manhattan earlier this afternoon. To make a long story short, the train stalled on the tracks minutes away from the Newark Airport stop for about 20 or so minutes. Noting that the three of us were the only South Asian looking faces amidst seats occupied by faces belonging to other nations we exchanged looks of annoyance about the delay which then evolved into a full-fledged conversation about my dissertation. (I’m writing about boundaries and the India-Pakistan conflict and, among other things, one of my foci includes immigrants who picked either country at the time of partition/independence.) It was then that I discovered that this couple had migrated to India from Pakistan merely days before August 14, 1947. (August 14, 1947 is the day Pakistan came into being as an independent nation.) As they shared their experiences with me I continued to ask them one question after another. At one point during our tête-à-tête, both husband and wife added that they were enjoying our conversation thoroughly not only because they were reliving experiences that hardly anyone asks them about but more so because we were chatting in Urdu – something they hadn’t done since the two weeks they had been here and were already missing. I guess that might have jinxed it because in asking my next question I stumbled trying to remember the word for “guilt” in Urdu/Hindi. Of course I remembered “guilt” but really wanted to recall the Urdu version since our conversation thus far had been completely in the latter and it seemed to be going so well. At first I blamed myself (mostly in my head) for being a bit rusty; I’m more accustomed to an English-Urdu combination that I speak with my parents and friends so speaking purely in Urdu doesn’t come too easily to me in that I have to make a conscious effort to do so (Speaking purely in English I’ve gotten tons of practice at ever since I moved to the US about 11 years ago). I eased up on myself however when neither of us managed to come up with the “right” word. I figured if the folks from Aligarh (one of the main centers in British India for Urdu learning) couldn’t think of it then I need not beat myself up! Tired of searching, the couple came to the somewhat Whorfian conclusion that the equivalent of guilty doesn’t exist in Urdu because it’s a sentiment we don’t really feel. They explained that while we have words in Urdu for “guilty” used in a legal context we don’t have one for the everyday emotion referring to the bad feeling one might have when not doing something they feel they ought to have done. Now, the couple insisted this is because “we in the East don’t shirk from our responsibilities so we never have to worry about this emotion” but I don’t buy that one. Although I didn’t disagree with them either because we were about to pull into my stop plus we’d exchanged numbers so I could talk to them some more about their experiences migrating from Pakistan to India in 1947.

What this did get me thinking about though was that being bilingual could be startling in a way I’d never thought of before. Not in the obvious “ESL” kind of way where English teachers automatically assume that students think in their native tongues when attempting to write in English but more so along the lines of today’s experience.

I for one do not have the kind of expertise to know whether or not there is some kind of fancy-shmancy, if not commonly spoken, word for “feeling guilty” in the Urdu language but assuming that there isn’t one for the time being – since I don’t know otherwise – I started thinking about how I’d responded to this situation in which I felt at a loss of words in one language but not in another. To continue speaking in Urdu, I’d tried finding an elaborate sentence to substitute for the word to explain the emotion to which I was referring. However since I didn’t have a word for it when I thought I should I found myself a bit frustrated with this communicative gap of sorts. The more I thought about this the more convinced I became that this was a sign that I shouldn’t be moving back to Pakistan any time soon. How did I get there? Not a far cry if I was thinking about how frustrated and out of place I’d felt on certain occasions during my trip to Pakistan this past winter. Hence, not knowing a word was translated by yours truly into a metaphor for my general unfitness to live in the same space I was born and grew up in!

However, now that the drama queen moment has come and gone and I’m no longer blowing this all out of proportion I find myself thinking somewhat differently about being bilingual. In this process, I recognized that I’ve never given any thought to not being able to find the equivalent of an English word in Urdu. After all, I was born and bred in Pakistan which makes me a Pakistani – speaking Urdu is what we supposedly do. (Let’s leave aside the fact that I learnt English as my first language for now). So how could I not know or figure it out? Add to that the fact that the last time I studied Urdu formally was when I was preparing for my ‘A’ Level exams in which one’s proficiency in the language is measured to a large extent by one’s ability to translate Urdu words into English. And so the realization dawned upon me --- no-one I know who speaks both Urdu and English has ever mentioned a situation in which they weren’t able to find the equivalent of an English word in Urdu. It’s like we take for granted that we could never stumble or feel like strangers in what we refer to as our “native language”.

So having pondered over this experience for the better part of today I’m reminded of a passage from a book (Meatless Days by Sara Suleri) that I’d like to share with you by way of ending this post:
“Coming second to me, Urdu opens in my mind a passageway between the sea of possibility and what I cannot say in English: when those waters part, they seem to promise some solidity of surface, but then like speech they glide away to reconfirm the brigandry of utterance. … Speaking two languages may seem a relative affluence, but more often it entails the problems of maintaining a second establishment even though your body can be in only one place at a time. When I return to Urdu, I feel shocked at my own neglect of a space so intimate to me: like relearning the proportions of a once-familiar room, it takes me by surprise…”(177).

Guess I’m not the only one then - whew :-)!


10 ABD must-haves!

In case your life doesn't revolve in some manner around academia, ABD is the (largely North American?) acronym for "All But Dissertation". Here's my take along the lines of a top-10 list:

1. A supportive family who both talk to you about dissertating and are part of the passion that brought you to this journey in the first place. Most importantly, they know and remember that you need to be loved no matter how cranky and depressed you get in the process.
2. A dissertation project that starts from the funny-in-your-tummy and that you don't mind living and breathing from now until whenever. Unless it's an idea, a commitment to which you want to give your heart and soul it just isn't worth it.
3. A chair who gets as excited as you do about your green-points (my phrase for those thoughts that fall into my head about school/research stuff that make me go "woohoo!") and cares about your general well-being and sanity.
4. A larger dissertation committee in addition to your chair that is also extremely supportive and enthusiastic.
5. A larger, but not too large, epistemic community full of brilliant minds and fantastic people.
6. A network of close friends, irrespective of their geographic location in relation to yours, who you know will always be there to remind you of your life outside the PhD realm and drop themselves inside it without their arms being twisted.
7. A good book to read every night that has nothing to do with anything you're researching - well, at least not explicitly!
8. A source of funding other than loans that will let you write/field/dissertate uninterrupted, undistracted...unless you're one of those polychronic folks who can schedule every second of their waking existence and won't be depressed about the massive debt surmounted in your name before you've even turned 30.
9. The ability to survive without instant gratification....it's definitely a long-haul thing.
10. Faith, courage, perseverance, and, most importantly, passion.