Intellectual Exceptionalism of Academics: Another Brick in The Wall 

Trigger warning: This article contains mention of suicide. 

Student: “Sir, Dad ke stroke ke baad se do mahine main theek se concentrate nahi kar paya thaa (Sir, I couldn’t concentrate for around two months after my father has a stroke).”

Director: Do mahine khaana peena chhor diya tha? Nahana chhor diya thaa? Padhayi kyun chhor di? (Did you not eat food for two months? Did you not bathe? Why did you leave your studies then?).

Student: Sir…

Director: Mr. Lobo, Sunday afternoon mera beta train se gir ke mar gaya thaa… Monday morning ko Viru Sahastrabuddhe ne issi college mein lecture diya tha (Mr. Lobo, my son fell from train and died on a Sunday afternoon… the next morning, I, Viru Sahastrabuddhe delivered a lecture in this college). So, don’t give me that nonsense… mein aapko sympathy de sakta hu, extension nahi… (I can give you sympathy, but not extension).”

Bollywood buffs must be familiar with this conversation from the box office hit 3 Idiots where the ‘strict’ director denied an extension a student. The student later dies by suicide.

Though this fictional conversation took place in an imaginary prestigious science institute, the post-Covid situation appears to have made it a ‘model code of conduct’ across institutions in India. I do not believe that it is something novel – like COVID-19 – but it is a virus that has been contaminating academia for many long years.

During this second wave of the pandemic, when everyone has lost someone – parents, relatives, friends, colleagues or neighbours – news of death has become mundane. When we hear of the untimely death of someone, there’s nothing we can do but pray for our safety and that of our loved ones. When uncertainty clouds the existence, certainty is an overestimation.

In this context, a large number of students at different universities and educational institutions have been seeking extensions, cancellations of exams, postponement of presentations and so on. My university inbox has seen a deluge of such requests. However, as expected, there has hardly been any response from the faculty members or the authorities. And if at all there is a response to any personal grief, it reads: ‘Sorry to hear about this! But how long will you take? Today, or tomorrow?’

Therein lies the rub. How long does it take to work through the grief of losing someone? How long does it take to mourn a life lost? The capitalist logic of production fixes the temporality and considers mourning as a non-productive activity. It is looked down upon either as a part of ‘leisure time’, or as an excuse. Every time you talk about death, somebody will be there to advise you: ‘You have to get out of it. You can’t stop working right away. All of us are suffering, still working.’

This combination of suffering and working is what makes a character like Viru Sahastrabuddhe tick. The narrative that you must work and produce even if you are not emotionally stable comes from the trope of dividing the personal and professional. Since our childhood, we are taught to not lapse them into one.

While we are not allowed to mourn even the death of our near and dear ones, we are taught by those Great Social Scientists (who at conferences and seminars are otherwise visibly sensible) and Bigshot Professors that ‘mourning is a political act’.

Last year, during the first lockdown, when migrant workers were desperately leaving the city in millions and images of rotis on railway tracks were sledgehammering our drawing rooms, I was attending a virtual talk by a renowned social scientist of our time where the ‘theoretical Brahmins’, as Economic and Political Weekly editor Gopal Guru once said, were busy theorising the deaths of ‘empirical Shudras’.

During that talk, I got to know why mourning must be political. The speaker quoted Judith Butler:

“Learning to mourn mass death means marking the loss of someone whose name you do not know, whose language you may not speak, who lives at an unbridgeable distance from where you live”.

Mourning as a performance or/and a political act notwithstanding, we are not even allowed to recall the touch and smell of those who are not longer with us, or the voice that will never be heard again. Schedules of work in progress presentations, assignments, thesis and meetings determine how long you can sit alone and think of the time you didn’t talk to her just because she was late.

We, students and fellows across universities, are burdened with what I want to term the ‘Sahastrabuddhe narrative’. There is no essence of empathy and compassion, the only thing that we are forced to comply with is the ‘logic of production’.

This narrative comprises of two specific components – masculinity and intellectual exceptionalism.

Masculinity lies in the roots of these narratives. It is not different from ‘mard ko dard nahi hota (men don’t feel pain)’. The perception that academics must be immune to grief and continue their theoretical ventures is nothing but the masculinisation of academia. On the one hand, as most of the professors across universities are male and prone to showcase their masculine features, overcoming grief is the norm. On the other, this sidelining of grief and ‘getting back to work’ is considered as one of the finest features of an intellectual.

There comes the second component – intellectual exceptionalism. The great intellectuals become ‘greater’ if they can endure the pain or loss silently and can overcome it the way Sahastrabuddhe did to deliver a lecture the very next day after his son’s death. Even in the everyday narrative, the exceptionalism of any poet or singer is established citing their capacity to overcome the grief of losing relatives or family members. Whenever my father used to play Rabindranath Tagore’s song ‘Aj Josna Rate Sobai Geche Bone’, he would tell me that Tagore wrote it as everybody went to cremate his 12-year-old old son.

Did it make him greater? Was it necessary for my father to refer to such endurance to add more ‘greatness’ to an already Great Poet? Literature definitely can be an expression of grief, but to consider the capacity to overcome it as a norm to be ‘great’ is a part of ‘intellectual exceptionalism’.

In this period of death and mourning, when life has become as feeble as our sensibilities, we must introspect our human existence. Can we actually plan anything for tomorrow while the fear of death encapsulates my present?

Death has never been so mundane. It has taught us to enjoy and preserve every moment of life – not only with a ‘productive purpose’ but sometimes without it. Before I take a deep breath and continue mourning the lost souls, here are a few words from an interview Butler gave last year:

“To survive, we take something in. We are impressed upon by the environment, social worlds and intimate contact. That impressionability and porosity define our embodied social lives. What another breathes out, I can breathe in, and something of my breath can find its way into yet another person. The human trace that someone leaves on an object may well be what I touch, pass along on another surface or absorb into my own body. Humans share the air with one another and with animals; they share the surfaces of the world”.

Abhik Bhattacharya is a doctoral fellow at School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi, and works on systematic exclusion and urban spatial segregation of Muslims in Jharkhand.

Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty