Reaching Anthropology or how I chose a risky endeavor!

Many people have asked me ‘why on earth should you change your discipline from English literature to Anthropology?’

To put it pithily I have come to love what I am doing and I have been trying to build a ‘career capital’ which should enable me to continue to do so. Not that I have been able to verbalise it earlier ever in this fashion. And I wouldn’t have been able to if I had not occasioned to read Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

When I finished my high-school, I jumped on the bandwagon and chose science as a major for the higher-secondary school. It was in the 2000s and gulf money was propelling Malabar Muslims to explore the educational avenues which remained beyond their reach until then. My parents could, until then, think of only one career option for me-it’s not actually a career option, but a last ditch effort- to go to gulf. But the lower middle-class Muslim students had started weaving their dreams since the early 2000s, and I too wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. Being a doctor or an engineer had the prestige and dignity, and one looked down upon the intellectual abilities of the students of the Humanities.

By the time I finished the school, reality had struck and being a doctor seemed unviable but it still appeared, being an engineer was still under my reach. So, I went along with five other batchmates and joined an institute for entrance-coaching. Just into a month of coaching, when I was already feeling that I was on a mistaken path, the disaffection of my batchmates with the institute encouraged us to leave. They all went to other coaching institutes and I realised I had enough of enough. If not engineering, the next thing I could try was English Literature which had the sheen among Humanities disciplines. I could not get admission in to two colleges nearby and I ended up studying at a private institute.

When I joined for Masters program in English at the Lucknow campus of English and Foreign Languages University, I began to learn that English writers such as Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens were not great solely on their own account, but they were considered greats also because they constituted a canon that was fashioned since the nineteenth century in British India within the labyrinth of colonialism. Added to that was also a learning that these writers were not addressing our own lived experiences and one should rather dabble in Indian regional literature for the purpose. But the unease with English literature was channelized by my teachers into reading postcolonial theory and subaltern history. This grew on me and I wrote my Masters project on the works of Ayesha Jalal.

I was enamoured by the writings and styles of Sudipta Kaviraj, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chatterjee, Walter Benjamin and Louis Althusser. One of my teachers convinced me that not enough studies were done on Muslims in India and Muslims remained an ‘untouchable’ domain for academic enquiries, though they form a significant quantity of the population in India. He persuaded me that since I belonged to a Muslim cultural background I could do a fantastic work on Muslims in India. And my only inclination at that time was that I wanted to fashion my work as a combination of theory and empirical research. When I joined the sociology department of Jawaharlal Nehru University, my supervisor asked me whether there were any inequalities among Muslims in Kerala and I retorted that Islam is an egalitarian religion and there cannot be any inequalities among Muslims. He suggested that I read Imtiaz Ahmad’s edited volume and meet him next week. I was shocked to read that there were social inequalities among Muslims and it closely resembled Hindu caste system. To put the story short, I was ever since hooked to learning the problem. I was awarded a PhD scholarship in 2018 by the Anthropology department of Australian National University at Canberra in Australia and I am pursuing my dream. I never thought I would end up here when I finished my high school.

I have never worried about the change of disciplines when it came to my evolving intellectual interests. I now realise that I did not have a passion to be a scholar of either English literature or Anthropology when I was younger. The disinterest in one and an inclination towards the other has happened over time as I came to devote my time and energy to pursuing what seemed valuable to me at different junctures of life. Not that I feel done with Literature per say and my forte is Anthropology, rather I have begun to think of the ways in which anthropologists can engage with literature not just as a source material but as a sphere of social activity where other categories of meaning-making such as language, caste, gender and religion get constituted. Maybe one needs to do long walks to reflect on the conceptual implications of such theoretical methods. And Anthropology is for me an exciting journey which would enable me to bridge Literature, Critical Theory and empirical research.

Most of us are usually worried about the job we can eventually get in to after acquiring a degree. And it’s with such mode of thinking that we usually take up our studies. And there is no harm in it if you come to love what you are doing. And there’s a great advantage in loving what you do, that’s my only point.

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