Sometime in mid-2020 I experienced a huge dip in research motivation. Perhaps this was COVID-precipitated, or perhaps it kicked in more naturally, a ‘growing weariness with the world’ as one grew older (though not wiser). Regardless, I felt a creeping cynicism around the ‘value’ of my research, depleting reserves of research motivation and a loss of faith in the idealism underpinning the central idea. How far did I see my future in academia, and indeed, why, was it worth the whole struggle after all?
As severally new tragedies unfold in contemporary South Asian history and politics (the field I research), researching the legacies of a 75-year old trauma (the Partition of 1947) somehow felt meaningless. Why write a good piece of academic literature, and work hard at producing it, if it hardly made any difference to real lives in today’s world? In response to, and solidarity with, my ennui-laden remarks, a colleague wondered if there was any job worth doing that didn’t involve saving lives on the frontlines of the pandemic.
Amid this flurry of niggling doubts, and seeming existential crisis, our two foster cats, Squeeky and Tootie, arrived in the UK in mid-November. They flew to us all the way from Israel, preceding their parents’ move to the UK, and need fostering until they can be reunited. We welcomed them into our home in Manchester just in time for Diwali, the biggest festival of the entire year celebrated by family and friends back home. It felt like serendipity: I had lost my father, last in a line of renowned veterinary doctors, in January 2020. Diwali, a festival of homecoming, felt so barren and incomplete without his presence. And yet, a cousin sister on his side of the family recommended us as foster carers for the cats, and they truly felt like a Diwali blessing upon our home.
As cheesy or predictable as this will sound, I felt a complete emotional turnaround within a week of the cats’ arrival. The last time I had owned a pet was at the very young age of five, and so, welcoming ‘Squeeks’ and ‘Toots’ was a return to childhood joys of connecting with animals, the fulfillment of a three-decade old dream.
The last five months have been a joyride, a rollercoaster, a reassessment of life goals, and an inundation of cats into my phone memory space. I have grown accustomed to cats for the first time in my life with some help from my more experienced ‘Cat Dad’ partner: learning to worm my way into their fussy little hearts, being charmed by their self-assuredness, their transparency in stating their ‘demands’ (as opposed to what can only be described polite ‘requests’ from dogs) for cuddles, playtime and attention.
As I noted above, Squeeky and Tootie entered our lives in November 2020. Freakily enough, the Google Photos algorithm showed up a photograph from November 2019, of two street cats patiently waiting their turn to be fed by a munificient Istanbul shop owner, in the shadows of the Blue Mosque. One is a white cat with beautiful black patches all over him, a brother of Squeeky, as it were; while the other is a pretty Calico, just like Tootie. Serendipity or just random freak coincidence?
Apart from being particularly entertaining flatmates during lockdown, Squeeky and Tootie have also helped us acknowledge the fulfillment of life’s daily pleasures–of being watered and fed regularly, and of finding warm corners to snooze in. Watching Tootie ‘discover’ the litter-box everyday, all agog at the wonder of it’s door flap; and seeing Squeeky transfixed by her favourite yellow-pink feather catcher, or chasing the same ball of wool on a daily basis, has been a source of great mirth and much laughter. Humour and the comedic was the lens through which I viewed our two cats’ antics for the longest time.
Until one day, in the not so distant past, the penny dropped. This capacity to be intensely interested in how things function, the proverbial ‘curiosity of the cat’ as it were, resonated with me at a very primordial level. What, after all is a researcher in the Humanities (or any other discipline, really), if not intensely curious about the world around them? Attention to unnoticed detail can amplify old, familiar stories and concepts into newly resonant narratives.
This sense of wonder at the world, of being deliciously perturbed by its mysteries, of an itch to figure a problem out, and then ‘chew’ on it (quite like Squeeky does with her feather-catcher)–was essentially what defined my journey as a researcher.
With this rather inane and wholly unexpected nudge back into research, the agonising stopped. After all, many of the questions I had started my project with remain largely unanswered, patiently awaiting excavation. This insight is hardly a complete salve to my deeper questions about the disconnect between academic research and real life issues. But I can distinctly sense a steady trickle re-appear in the dried up well of research motivation. It’s time to chase that ball of wool again and begin the unravelling!
By Radha Kapuria