The YIF Experience


If you put ten bumble bees in a box, this box is going to mean a unique thing to each bee in the box. And if these are a rather expressive bunch of bees, you might also get to hear how peculiarly each bee made sense of that box. This is exciting. Wait. Pick these bees from an assortment of orchards. If you give them sufficient time and space, the bees may build the box afresh into a hive. Add access to a garden. With a stock of exotic flowers carefully handpicked. I let you imagine the hive, the nectar and the honey.

To those readers who detest metaphors:

A science major in school, an integrated masters student from IIT Madras in English Studies and a Young India Fellow; my credentials have consistently required an explanation. Upon call, I write the most recent one, about the Young India Fellowship.

The application was curious enough for me: elaborate and sharp, making me reconsider how I judge and present my past activities. It was a space where I could not just list things and leave it to the panel’s judgment. I had not yet proposed the fellowship or Delhi to my parents. I sneaked in an application and it has proven fine.

When Delhi beckoned in the form of a personal YIF interview, it was the fag end of their interview rounds. Wading my way through suited up and corporate sounding candidates, I met a professor of art on the other end of the table, tired after rounds of interviews, tackling me with wit, literary theory and an engaging conversation on picking suitable fellows – I had made my decision.

So had the panel that evaluated me, thankfully. During the short span that we spent waiting for the fellowship to begin, a highly active Facebook group talked. They talked in such flurry, beginning from regional meet-ups to dress etiquette, that some of the silent ones began dreading those highly social monsters we were about to face.

Why am I spending paragraphs writing about the journey to YIF? Hold your wonder for all my perceptions turned in a roller coaster after I entered my hostel. In an urban village tucked in South Delhi, each of these shadow monsters and many other unseen beings joined us in flesh.
That was when I realized person by passing person, everyone was a story. None complete. None completely readable.

Our work schedule was pacy. We were packed with a series of short month-long terms of coursework and a longer experiential learning project. We were churned through every course we underwent into randomly allotted groups. Then there was the hostel, various dinners and group discussions. We had to get acquainted with all the ninety nine around us.  The courses, each of a different kind, braided along with our projects, passions and each fellow’s area of interest, did some magic in restructuring our perspectives about various issues.

Each professor who facilitated a course came with some phenomenal work. Each, an inspiring teacher in his/her own right. Guest lectures almost every second day by sponsors and veterans kept us from getting stuck to just the courses. The speakers and facilitators most often brought in conversations about live or red-hot recent projects.

We would learn about how the industrial production and national development have led to much violence in a module on the sociology of the environment. An expert opinion on the necessity of intensive technology in agriculture in India and its energy efficiency, would follow. Ideological heterogeneity and severe frank disagreements about issues meant some spice in our daily lives.  We would walk back to the hostel carrying fiery debates inspired by these sessions to sink them all in dinner.

Unlearning was on schedule too: to set ourselves free on canvases, sketchbooks and meaning in a course on art appreciation; to a course on visual communication where we made tight creative sense of an urban space; to psychoanalyses of the verbal wildness of Shakespeare and his adaptations; to clear ambiguity out of our words over evenings of academic writing; and to even further essentialize our worlds to its sheer rules and their intense complexity with some mathematical thought.

Yes, there were exams and assignments. But, how they happened is a question to ask. Very often we had the freedom to choose the medium of our assignments: videos, animated films, performance sketches, puppetry, poetry, illustrations, music and of course the academic papers. Examinations meant batches of often overnight tutorials by fellows who are acquainted with the field or have paid attention during classes.

To surprise each other had become a routine amongst fellows. One more dancer to count or another logic whiz, they kept surfacing. Events that we hosted and organized came with a higher rate of surprises. A fervent traveller once helped me back after an injury. ‘This is a probiotic, this is your antibiotic. Make sure you have them after meals. This other one doesn’t matter’, he said nonchalantly. I gaped. I had forgotten that he was a bio-chemical engineer.

The hostel also created densely private bubbles of like, hate, love, fear, ennui, glee, gossip, rumours and an array of other human emotions. These bubbles I shall leave unanecdoted.

The structures of the fellowship were fluid and even nebulous occasionally. It had neither the support nor the discomfort of much history as we often find in institutions like our own. The fellows could significantly, though feedback, influence how decisions are made. The administration knew the pool of fellows as closely as in a kindergarten. ‘You did plan putting us together in a room, did you not?’, ‘Do you watch all the hostel CCTV footage?’ ‘Are we all in a panopticon design?’. I relished how we were a small group with a highly accessible administration, quite like a cottage industry of education.

I should not leave you without the flipside. There were moments when it got claustrophobic too or when things did not go quite well. That was when we ran out to the wider lawns of Delhi to rescue. An abundance of a city, it served us with its culinary riches, art, history, two waves of elections and often just space.

While we were still basking in the comfort of YIF, the administration announced the Ashoka University. It became official from being a myth. The fellows took to it with a mixed basket of reactions: A private university? International standards? Outside Delhi? I went blank. Quite a few of us did not comprehend what it meant to our relationship with YIF. Months of deliberation and conversation all around us about how this institution is being built have tried to change us. The university became tangible by every passing day: the buildings, the library, how the students shall function, access, people who shall be in it, the academic planning. We began feeling and engaging with the intention of this institution. Now, I (the least) carry a sense of having been with a hope’s baby steps.

Smruthi25th of May 2014, Delhi. Eight at night. I boarded a cab to the railway station with a year packed in a bag. Monsoon seemed to know its place arriving to punctuate the goodbyes. What I recounted in the cab might be more functional than bees to this article: I had sought the fellowship for its convenience. I had a big picture in mind. The fellowship neither denied this big picture, nor did it simplify and frame it into specific a job description, a profile, a department or a research question. Now, thanks to the year, that big picture is certainly of a higher resolution.

P.S: Do not ask me if bees find nectar sweet. I do not know.

Author bioSmruthi walked out of IITM with an integrated masters in English Studies in 2013. She is a Young India Fellow (2014). As of today, how non-native languages are taught to pools of children in schools around is bothering her.

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