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Culture Focus

Beyond Borders 1st Place Winner: Creation Through Connection

Illustration credit: Eva DiNino

“I don’t care about getting to know you. I want to know how you get to know.” 

With a flourish, Professor Hrebeniak dismissed the class, allowing all of us to marinate in his parting words and dissect the scrawl dictating our homework assignment for the night. Today, we were to emulate yet another author: the stylings of Raymond Queneau. 

It didn’t matter if you had never written poetry or if you had spent your life hiding inside graphic novels. You had to access your imagination to interpret a style of writing. Lend it your voice. Give it breath. 

But remember: linearity is forbidden.”

Such a strange concept. With years and years of standardized education, we are pushed to think in this singular way—where a thought lends an action which lends an outcome. But, here I stand, taking in the quaint, philosophically charged air of the University of Cambridge and told to unlearn everything I’ve learned. 

To rediscover an interconnectivity.

It was through my Creative Writing class that pushed me to start over and reinvent my thinking. The esteemed Professor Michael Hrebeniak led this course to challenge our grasp of language and interpretation. He wanted us to construct a portfolio and design a short film that transcended the past, present and future; something that transcended the banal concept of a “takeaway message.” The problem is that when we make art, we often fall into this trap of our own experiences and understandings. But, art should be a medium through which we rise above what we know and expand our truths. This is precisely what he attempted to make us see in emulating various authors’ styles and voices. For, there is no difference in what things are written about, only in how they are expressed. There is no singularity in language, only a flow. 

Within the six weeks of shuttling between classes, long hours at the Public Health laboratory and open discussions with fellow students, Cambridge taught me just how much I do not know. My knowledge was segmented and discrete—ranging from a few well-versed inspiring authors in literature to seemingly arbitrary concepts in neuroscience to a scattered, partitioned timeline of India and Hinduism. I struggled in writing my dissertations and speaking freely in conversational seminars because my thoughts did not have a sense of continuity. There was always an underlying feeling of attempting to relate but coming up short. Why didn’t the two ends meet? 

I wanted to foster an interconnectivity—to recognize all the overlaps and bridges within my erudition. 

The educational structure at Cambridge thrived through intellectual discourse. It was all about taking what you learn in the classroom, focusing in on an area of interest and creating a thesis that you wanted to defend. Such an assessment was constructive—you build off of what you love to learn. This obviously differed from the examinations back home, where it was more memorization and skimming through material to hone in on the professor’s topics of focus. Basically, you learn to “love.” But, here it made more sense. I saw a purpose for each concept lectured and each experiment studied. There was a continuous flow from one topic to the next and I flourished in this new method of learning. It became a game to constantly engage with the seemingly separate philosophies and ideals about which I kept learning; to try and connect these superficially disconnected areas. Yet, the more I spent in trying to build this interconnected web, the more in tune I felt with what I grasped. In fact, it translated into inspiration for my research project with Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury. 

From day one, Dr. Chowdhury talked with great passion about his epidemiological work in addressing cardiometabolic disorders within Bangladesh. It was fascinating to see the field of public health through great success with his numerous publications and accomplishments. With my own newfound desire for interconnectivity, I began to search for something within the public health field that would afford me this same sense of interconnectivity. And, I landed back in my homeland: India. Thus, my project began with researching the prevalence of cardiometabolic disorders in India—with a specific concentration on women and pediatric risk factors within Telangana. The proposal definitely did not come easily, especially because I kept getting so bogged down by all the nitty gritty details that seemed endless. But, it was all about the big picture; it was all about seeing the linkages between the specific genetic predispositions, risk factors and cultural prejudices to understand the severity of the issue. And, even through all of the long meetings, the critical conferences and the never-ending dissertations about my proposal, I never felt bored nor did I dread them. I welcomed these opportunities to learn because I always walked away feeling more confident and inspired with what I had gained. These discussions brought new perspectives and angles on topics on which I had never seen in another direction. But, at these workshops, I networked with people from around the world, who were engaged in all types of pursuits from working with the United Nations to being involved with hospitals in South Africa to developing PhD theses. Yet, I saw them all through the lens of continuity; each individual’s distinct area of expertise only served to make them even more connected. 

Through my time at Cambridge, I redefined what it meant to learn and to know. It wasn’t just enough to latch onto some haphazard fact, but I needed to communicate with it and sew it into my fabric of the learned. Professor Hrebeniak’s words, while unsettling at the time, made perfect sense now. It was never about the knowledge I came in with or the inspiration behind the work I created. Rather, it was about what I did with the knowledge I gained or how my work stood after its creation. Only then, can I transcend the discrete intervals of past, present and future and fashion an interconnectivity.