Have you ever thought how you ended up with your particular thesis topic? Some of you will have your thesis topic handed to you by a supervisor, but many will have chosen a path deliberately. A few of us might have developed a craving during the childhood, prompted by listening to certain stories or reading certain comics or tourist guide books. For some of us, the topic idea took hold during undergraduate days, under the influence of a professor, or the course material itself. For many of us, pointing out a particular episode in life as the focal point which started it all may be difficult. The idea grew in us over time, like a seed waiting for a favourable condition to sprout and spread its wings.
I have been doing fieldwork for sometime now, but the journey so far has not been easy but enjoyable. Making up my mind and mustering courage to do a PhD has not been easy for me. I remember my mom saying ‘high school is the most decisive in your life’ and I have heard this sentence repeated with a twist after every other course that I have completed. I feel that PhD is a brave step for someone who has been trained by others throughout his/her life, similar to the moment the mother bird pushes the fledgling out of the nest out into the world. For this reason, the gestation period of PhD can be arduous and difficult. Not because it is boring, but because it is mostly a productive solitude: a time of deep reflection. You will need to keep your ship sailing through unfamiliar seas; it’s important to think about how to guide it through safe waters.
I have found a way to get through this turbulent phase of my life – it may work for you too. For a moment, don’t think about your PhD. Instead, think about when you decided you wanted to work in a particular scholarly field? You might not have known exactly what you wanted to do in that field, but thinking about that moment is important because it can motivate you when times are tough.
I never had an inkling that I would finally come to do a PhD on social hierarchy among Muslims in India. I studied English literature during my undergraduate days. I walked across the streets of St. Petersburg with Fydor Dostoevsky and enjoyed listened to the singing of the nightingale with John Keats. Though I did not picture myself writing such stories or poems, I thought I would make a living at least by teaching them.
During my Masters degree, I happened to read works that problematised the history of English literature. For the first time, I came to know that what we refer to as‘English literature’ today was first conceived in India for colonial purposes and then got established as a form of knowledge in Europe. I think this insight had a profound influence on me, particularly on thinking about the formations of disciplines in modern times. I think this interest had a direct bearing on everything that I took to reading from that point on.
I was encouraged to read on history of Muslims in Indiaas part of my Master’s project. I think it was this fortuitous episode that changed the course of my life. Surveying the writings on Muslims in contemporary India, I could feel a deep uneasiness growing in me, a sense of foreclosure, an absence of serious and empathetic understanding of Muslims in India. I noticed political expediency or rather contingency determining the scholarship on Muslims in India. Discourses running into binaries of secular/communal, moderate/extremist, traditional/modern largely determined this scholarship. I really felt I wanted to do something about Muslim communities in India. It was this sense of urgency that kept me working on issues related to Muslims in India.
Deciding on what I wanted to work on for my PhD was quite another matter. I had to read some literature and find a problem from the available materials (or the reasons for an absence of materials). For myself, I wanted to think about the complexities of social lives of Muslims in India, which cannot be straitjacketed into the binaries I earlier mentioned. Therefore, I decided to work on the social organisation of Muslims in India.
You have come to your area of research through your own, idiosyncratic way. The deeply personal and intimate reasons for doing a PhD should be cherished. For one thing, it can remind you why you are the suitable candidate to do what you are doing. If you really feel passion for the topic, no one else can do the way you do it, at least not with the grit and fervour.
You have your own story to tell, I am sure. Aren’t we the sum of our individual experiences? Take a break from your hectic PhD and reflect on why you are doing what only you can do. Weave your individual stories together and think back to them. You will surely find it within you to keep going. Solidarity!
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