The Jhurest Year of My Life

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

Aug 26, 2017-Fooling Oneself In August 1988, 29 years ago this month, I started a new phase of my life: graduate school. Three months earlier I had graduated from Brandeis University, located just outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts, US. Just before graduating, I had decided, without ever visiting its campus, to pursue the PhD programme in economics at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in Philadelphia. At Brandeis, I had graduated near the top of my class and had been awarded several honours: summa cum laude (signifying highest honour based mostly in terms of the grade point average), Phi Beta Kappa (a merit-based honour society to which one gets elected), high honours for the senior year thesis, and a prize from the department of economics (that was my major subject). Despite all these honours and achievements, I had little confidence in what I was about to do in graduate school.

In September 1987 (when I began my fourth and final year of college), I had started preparing my applications to several of the top PhD programmes in economics in the US. I took my GREs and got a perfect 800 in math and respectable scores in the English and analytical sections. By the end of the third year, I had taken plenty of math courses, including multivariate calculus and a two-semester course on mathematical statistics. During the fall 1987 semester, I was taking a course on ‘Real Analysis’. The courses I had taken at Brandeis in economics and mathematics and the grades I had gotten in them meant that my applications to the PhD programmes in economics looked solid on paper.

My applications and the accompanying transcript, however, did not state a crucial fact: by September 1987, I already knew that I did not want to become an economist. I did not like many of the discipline’s assumptions about how people behaved in the real world and thought that its pretentions for precision built upon mathematical models were all part of a big disciplinary farce. But I did not have the confidence then to act upon my belief. My undergraduate education had been very weak when it came to social theory or even history. I had taken a course each in sociology and anthropology but had learnt virtually no social theory in a systematic manner. The lone course on history was focused on world systems and was clearly inadequate for any understanding of the modern world. I had taken the distribution requirements in the humanities, namely, two courses on the “great” books (including those written by some fiery feminists), but they did not provide me any foundation to pursue a degree in literary critical studies.

In the summer of 1987, I did think about applying to graduate schools to study something else in the social sciences: sociology, anthropology, or even history. However, given my weak background on all these subjects, I simply lacked the courage to proceed along a new path. I also did not feel like taking some time off from school to work in the US or return to Nepal. Hence, I did the easiest thing: applied to PhD programmes in economics. I was eventually accepted by three departments with full scholarship but chose to go to UPenn over the others. Effectively, I had postponed the moment when I had to face the truth. That would have to wait until June 1989.

Struggling in PhiladelphiaIn August 1988, I arrived in Philadelphia, a city which held a very important place in the history of the US. I checked into the Graduate Student tower, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with a law graduate student. Located conveniently near the middle of the campus, this living arrangement was excellent. The classes started and I took the standard year-long sequences in microeconomics, macroeconomics and econometrics. As a fourth course, I also took a “math for economists” class which mostly covered stuff that I already knew. During the second term (Spring 1989) I took the second part of the three sequences and a fourth course in history.

As I had expected, the math used in my economics theory classes did not scare me. I did the assignments regularly. Several people had told me that there would be cut-throat competition between economics graduate students. Initially, I was wary of this but soon enough, I made a small group of new friends, with whom I would meet often to solve the tough problems in our assignments. They and many others in my cohort of students turned out to be very helpful and friendly.

But since I had already decided that I did not want to complete a PhD in economics, my struggle became different and was hidden from my friends. At the end of the first year, the economics department required all the members of its incoming class to take the preliminary PhD qualifying exams in the three year-long courses (micro, macro and econometrics). Some weeks into the first semester, I thought that passing those exams would give me the best pretext to say “bye bye” to economics for good. It was, I told myself, important to pass those exams since I did not want to live with the possible stigma of people thinking I quit economics because I failed the preliminary qualifiers. Since I no longer had the passion for studying economics, the possibility of failure loomed large and that was a scary thought.

In the meantime, some weeks after I moved to Philadelphia, my then girlfriend (who was then a student at Brandeis) let me know that our relationship was over. This was a shock that I was not prepared for. I was already a student in a graduate department where I did not like the discipline I was studying. Now there was the emotional landslide to deal with. The resulting depression was overwhelming. With support from a friend and my sister (who were both undergrad students in two different cities in the East Coast of the US), often in the form of long phone calls, I pulled through those dark months, fighting off self-destructive thoughts and hoping for an escape to another intellectual world.

RedemptionAs the saying goes, even the darkest clouds have a silver lining. In my case, there were three points of redemption in my jhurest year. First was the annual South Asia Seminar series called “Orientalism and Beyond.” It was organised by the late historian Carol A Breckenridge (who later became a member of my PhD committee), the late philosopher Wilhelm Halbfass (author of, among others, the much noted book India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding) and historian David Ludden (under whose guidance I later did my PhD). This seminar was the 44th annual seminar on South Asia held at UPenn which had the oldest South Asia area studies programme among all the universities in the US (I, of course, was not aware of all this when I decided to go to UPenn initially).

It was in this seminar that I first got to hear lectures from some of the world-class historians of South Asia based in the US and elsewhere. I also got to listen to lectures by outstanding scholars of South Asia working in disciplines such as anthropology, literary studies and Indology. The seminar series focused on different aspects of the links between knowledge and power in an intellectual world provoked by, among others, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). To me, a graduate student in economics dreaming of migrating to other social science pastures, this series opened up a world that was intellectually hard to grasp fully but was very seductive nevertheless.

Second was the set of new friends that I encountered at UPenn. At that time, there were quite a few graduate students who were interested in doing research on India. They were located in different departments: history, anthropology, folklore, economics, South Asia Regional Studies, Oriental Studies (since renamed), etc. Among the people I met that year, Mark Liechty was the only student with a direct research interest on Nepal. When I met him for the first time in September 1988, he was already a third year PhD student in anthropology. We discussed his research interests on Nepal and while I could not then understand the theoretical foundations of his intellectual obsessions, I did share, as a native informant, what I knew of Kathmandu and Nepal with him. This was the beginning of a friendship that later saw us jointly founding the journal Studies in Nepali History and Society in 1996, which both of us continue to edit. Mark’s penetrating insights about modern Kathmandu as demonstrated in his first two books and his narrative history of countercultural tourism in Nepal presented in his recently published book, Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal, have made our nearly 30 years of friendship an intellectually rewarding one for me. In addition, his humility is a constant reminder that our academic success, however limited, should not go to our heads.

Third, in Spring 1989, I took the course “Colonialism and Culture” offered by Dr Breckenridge. She was trained as a historian but was not a member of the faculty at UPenn. I took this course without informing my graduate advisor at the department of economics. The readings were extracts from social theory and South Asian history and anthropology. Not having a firm grasp of social theory, I found this course to be both frustrating and useful.

It was frustrating because I could not locate the specific readings in their proper intellectual trajectories. One week we would read an extract from a work by the French thinker Michel Foucault on some aspect of the “history of the different modes by which…human beings are made subjects.” Another week we would read several articles by the influential historian of India, Bernard Cohn, and appreciate the fact that long before Foucault became known in Anglo-American academic circles, Cohn “had begun to apply an anthropological perspective to the history of colonialism and its forms of knowledge” (in the words of his student Nicholas Dirks). Several weeks later, we would read a collection of articles on nationalism by several star social theorists. On the other hand, the course was useful to me because it was my refuge

from the depressing world of economics. As I struggled with each set of readings, I faked my way through with smart-sounding commentaries in class that were actually quite vacuous.

The escapeIn May 1989, the preliminary qualifying exams of the economics department were held. The results were published in early June. I barely passed all three subjects and was cleared by the department to continue in its PhD programme.

However, by that time, I had discussed my escape with Drs Breckenridge and Ludden and most importantly with Dr Alan Heston, who was both a professor in the economics department (with published research on India, among other things) and more importantly, the then chair of the South Asia Regional Studies Department. Dr Heston arranged my transfer to the South Asia Department with the knowledge that I would shift to the history PhD programme the following year. Since this transfer deal was done after the usual deadlines, the financial support to me was going to be meager for the academic year 1989-90 but I was not complaining. I eventually told the economics department that I was quitting its programme.

During the hot summer of 1989, I bought several new books and started completing my paper for the class on “Colonialism and Culture”. I can’t seem to find that paper but I remember working through the notion of anthropological knowledge production as a coeval process between the anthropologist as the field researcher and those s/he was studying. The influence of Johannes Fabian’s well-known 1983 book, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (through denial of co-evalness), was obvious in the way I conceived my argument. The writing of this paper was hard since I was trying to seriously engage with social theoretical texts for the first time. However, as the paper grew, it slowly generated confidence in me.

When the new semester started in the fall of 1989, I took four challenging courses: on the history of modern South Asia, on the anthropology of South Asia (with the writer Amitav Ghosh), on colonialism, culture and power and on classical social theory. As the semester picked pace and I found myself earnestly immersed in tons of assigned readings and writings, I knew that my jhurest year was over.


About the Author