Thursday, July 06, 2017
Why Am I Writing The History of Calcutta University?
For the last year or so, I was trying to achieve a balance between my academic and commercial work. I am lucky in a way because I love the work I do, so it's more than the usual striving for balance between what one loves and what one has to do. Though I get paid to do it, my commercial work is exciting - global, touches many lives and involves ideas. On the other hand, I see my future - few years from now, perhaps - in teaching and writing, and hence, the academic work that I am doing is more than a hobby. Though it still remains a balancing act, I don't necessarily see this as a dichotomous relationship - one or the other - and believe I should do both well.
This brings me to the update: That, while I have prioritised on commercial work in the last 10 days or so, I have also made significant progress in focusing my mind on the subject of my research: A history of Calcutta University! In a way, it is obvious: This is the first modern university in India, which happens to be my Alma Mater, in whose labyrinth I spent my undergraduate years. But, in more ways than one, it is not at all obvious as a research subject: I, for one, am no subscriber of the Whig narrative of Indian history. Besides, educational history is mostly boring, one of 'acts and facts' as one educational historian has described it, and I am hardly interested in that sort of work. And, finally, choosing this research subject perhaps instantly disqualifies me as a Historian: The privileged part of an underprivileged society does not interest many historians. And, besides, university histories are usually commemoration volumes, and in some odd cases in America, Coffee Table books: They are of interest neither to the students nor to general public.
In fact, I do hope that I shall improve how I describe my research, because, right now, it goes something like, "I am writing the history of Calcutta University, but I am not interested in usual history of an institution". Yet, there is no other shorthand I could readily use. Like, I can't really say I am attempting to write the history of Higher Education in India after 1857, because, at once, this is more ambitious and more boring. The scope of such a study would be even more enmeshed in 'acts and facts'. While the policy manoeuvres of the British Colonial Administration is very much my interest, my ambition is not to write Educational History: I am attempting to study privilege and how it changed the Indian society.
I shall claim that there is a crucial link between my commercial work, my academic pursuits and how I see the world, and it is this: I believe that the two building blocks of current social order - Market Capitalism and Liberal Democracy - rests on the central assumptions of Meritocracy and Openness of Opportunities. The secular faith that keeps the world moving is that better people have a way of succeeding, at least in a broad sense and in the long run. If this does not hold - and indeed, we know that this does not hold true in too many cases - we will have to find another way of organising the society, either by returning to God, or its alternatives in fate or a superman. My commercial work is based on working on the edges of the privilege and exploring the possibilities of social mobility. My political engagement is to ask the question whether the founding assumptions of Liberal Democracy and Market Capitalism hold true. My academic work will be to explore the historical origins of privilege, in a variety of contexts and ways, and I see exploration of the history of Colonial University - Calcutta University being the first one in India - as a contributions towards a better understanding of the same.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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