What We Remember (feat. Downloadable Masters Essay)

by Sidin Vadukut in


Around this time last year, as some of you may be aware, I enrolled in a Masters program at Birkbeck College in London. For some years now I had nurtured this plan of going back to college and learning something entirely new—maybe History or Design or some such. But mostly history. And then last summer I was spurred into actually taking my applications seriously after running into a Twitter acquaintance who has since become a good friend. This doctoral student at Warwick University told me to stop wasting my time and immediately email professors all over London.

One thing led to another and by August 2015 I had admissions to the MA History course at UCL and the MA Historical Research course at Birkbeck. Both, obviously, as a part-time student. (Not that the full-time course was impossible. It is just that I didn’t want to take a risk. I am an Indian journalist you see. It has been years since I did any actual work. So I decided to complete my MA over a less hectic 24-month period.)

I finally chose Birkbeck and have had the time of my life ever since. It has been very challenging. The average class requires some 200 pages of reading and plenty of thinking. And this is if you just restrict yourself to the compulsory readings. Optional readings often run into hundreds of pages more. Per lecture. Crazy. There are no examinations to pass, thankfully, as each module is evaluated via the submission of a 5000-word essay.

Which is what I wanted to blog about in the first place.

For my first module, on the theories and methods of historical research, I submitted an essay on the declassifications of Soviet archives on the Space Program and the Nazi-Soviet Pact. How did these declassifications take place? How did Russians receive these declassifications? How did they react afterwards?

(Why did I choose this topic? Two reasons. There was an excellent exhibition on the Soviet Space Program taking place at the Science Museum when I was choosing topics. And secondly the Netaji Bose files were being debated at the time. Click. Click.)

You can download and read the essay PDF here. I am happy to report that essay was marked well and I passed the module.

But ever since the essay I have been fascinated by a particular aspect of post-Soviet life in Russia: public memory and collective memory. How do Russians, old and young, process their past history?

No-one, I think, has asked this question better than Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich. Her latest book is Secondhand Time. Lithub ran an excerpt from the book this week:

“So here it is, freedom! Is it everything we had hoped it would be? We were prepared to die for our ideals. To prove ourselves in battle. Instead, we ushered in a Chekhovian life. Without any history. Without any values except for the value of human life—life in general. Now we have new dreams: building a house, buying a decent car, planting gooseberries… Freedom turned out to mean the rehabilitation of bourgeois existence, which has traditionally been suppressed in Russia. The freedom of Her Highness Consumption. Darkness exalted. The darkness of desire and instinct—the mysterious human life, of which we only ever had approximate notions. For our entire history, we’d been surviving instead of living.”

You can read more here. You can also read an interview with Alexievich here.

I cannot wait to read Secondhand Time.

Anyway… more on the MA and my experiences going back to university in future posts. Cheers chaps.


Letter from Milton Keynes

by Sidin Vadukut in


In between P.V. Sindhu’s and Sakshi Malik’s triumphs, the Olympics helped to generate great levels of national self-indignation. And this, inevitably, led to Indians—you, me, Shobhaa De—indulging in what I think is a particularly Indian form of solutionism.

What do I mean by this? Firebrand technology writer Evgeny Morozov is a staunch critic of modern-day technological solutionism, something The Guardian defined as “the idea that given the right code, algorithms and robots, technology can solve all of mankind’s problems, effectively making life “frictionless” and “trouble-free”.

My definition of Indian solutionism is slightly more global in terms of agency but local in that I confine it to Indian problems. Indian solutionism is the idea, perhaps increasingly widespread, that all of Indian problems boil down to one or two drivers that can easily be rectified if only certain agents would modify their behaviour. We see this solutionism in play during every moment of national indignation.

More here.


Hero

by Sidin Vadukut in


All my life I have wanted to be a hero. I've wanted to be the guy that does the right thing when everyone is else doing the wrong thing. Or not doing anything at all. Rescue babies from fires. Tackle terrorist on the plane. Catch children falling from the balconies of medium-rise buildings. Be the one metallurgist in the stadium when the police are trying diffuse the bomb and the last hurdle is a general knowledge question: "What happens when you rapidly cool austenitic steel without giving time for the carbon to diffuse?"

"MARTENSITE! MARTENSITE!" I would scream, bounding down the steps, thus saving everybody in the stadium and subsequently appearing on News Hour.

The closest I've ever come to doing anything remotely heroic is staging a walkout from my class in engineering college. Not because I am Malayali--*laughter*--but because the night before somebody fell off a hostel terrace and died, and the authorities were trying to hush it up by acting as if nothing happened. Oh and I also broke a story on CWG 2010 corruption long before it became cool to do so.

Anyways. I digress. This is a story of a true hero.

But then Norman did something else. “I believe in what you believe. Do you have another one of those for me ?” he asked pointing to the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the others’ chests. “That way I can show my support in your cause.” Smith admitted to being astonished, ruminating: “Who is this white Australian guy? He won his silver medal, can’t he just take it and that be enough!”.
Smith responded that he didn’t, also because he would not be denied his badge. There happened to be a white American rower with them, Paul Hoffman, an activist with the Olympic Project for Human Rights. After hearing everything he thought “if a white Australian is going to ask me for an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, then by God he would have one!” Hoffman didn’t hesitate: “I gave him the only one I had: mine”.

I've read this story many times before in different places. And each time I am moved tremendously.

The White Man in That Photo


Ugra on Karmakar

by Sidin Vadukut in


In India's Rio Olympic contingent of 100-plus, Dipa Karmakar's presence is undeniably the most unexpected. Her joyous arrival has driven her sport out of the shadows, and uncovered her home state Tripura's four-decade-old romance with gymnastics. It's a sport that India follows at the Olympics usually with a detached sense of wonder, lacking any personal investment. Until Rio 2016.

You will not read a better long-form piece on Indian sports anywhere. Ever. The kind pf piece they should teach at journalism school. Brilliant. Sensitive but detached. Here.


Underrated fiction

by Sidin Vadukut in


COWEN: For fiction, what would be the country or region — now, what’s a country, what’s a region is even up for grabs — that is really underappreciated relative to what it has done? If you say, “Oh, classic Russian fiction,” even if people haven’t read it, people know there’s a lot there. You probably wouldn’t pick that. What’s the counterintuitive pick for most underrated region or country for wonderful fiction?
ORTHOFER: Underrated, I would absolutely think the regional language and literature of India. I think surprisingly, even though, perhaps, English is the main literary language of India and a great deal is locally translated, even there much of the vernacular literature still isn’t available in English.
What one can see of it and also in part hear about it — we’re missing an awful lot. There is a literary culture there, especially, for example, in Bengali, but we’ve had that since Tagore. One of the remarkable things is Tagore won his Nobel prize over a hundred years ago, and there are still novels by him which haven’t been translated into English. He is really a very good novelist.
It’s truly worthwhile, and this goes for many regions. The southern region of Kerala where they write in Malayalam — there’s remarkable literary production there, and we just see so little of it. Also, what is available, because a fair amount is — it tends to be underappreciated, especially in America and the United Kingdom. It hasn’t really reached these shores.

More here. The whole collection of Conversations are great and are also available in podcast form for on-the-go listening.