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  • Writer's pictureSiddharth Kutty

Studying in Strange Times

We have all had odd experiences lately. Odd in the sense that they could not have been imagined before 2020. The pandemic in which we have all learnt to live saw us do strange things. I couldn’t have imagined meeting a friend who resided in the adjacent building, less than two hundred metres away, solely through video calls. I couldn’t have imagined spending two weeks in a single room. I certainly couldn’t have imagined spending half of my time at the university away from the university.

I am one among many who had begun college when life was interrupted by the surge of the virus – beyond the dependencies of school life but not quite possessing the independence of adulthood. Our classrooms became two-dimensional, literally and figuratively. Once physical spaces, they now existed on our computer screens. While our peers and professors occupied pixels, we still occupied a tangible space, and in that sense, our homes simultaneously became classrooms too.

This transformation of the classroom changed how we learnt. I was introduced to archaeology through PDFs and pictures, through videos and virtual tours, but was denied the chance to visit an archaeological site. So, I explored the wonders of the archaeological world within the confines of my home.

Unfortunately, the timing was such that both archaeology-specific courses which I was lucky enough to take as part of my undergraduate degree were held completely online as they coincided with the dreaded “waves”, periods where the virus’s toll became increasingly severe. Both courses would have otherwise involved field trips to archaeological sites. Pandemic-imposed budget constraints and travel restrictions delayed excavations where I had hoped to intern in the summer of 2021, washing away my chances to visit and learn at an archaeological site, be it with my professors or with archaeologists heading field work. My fascination with archaeology born out of these courses has convinced me to explore my interest in ancient history through archaeology in my higher studies. Strange times, however, have brought about the curious case of producing a prospective archaeologist who has never set eyes upon an active excavation. Of this group of pandemic-students of archaeology, I presume that there are other soon-to-be archaeologists in the waiting who too have not had the chance to familiarise themselves with their future workspace.

I wrote a semester-long thesis without meeting my advisor in-person even once. When I was unable to access some books I needed for my research, she couriered them to me from her personal collection and when I was done writing the thesis, I couriered them back to her. When my turn to present my thesis came, I was at my dining table, desperately hoping that my microphone would not pick up the noise of clinking crockery in the kitchen and that my usually temperamental internet would behave itself. Perhaps, in a few years, we’ll all look back and marvel at the strange circumstances we lived within.

However, we all found ways to keep going. Some of us faced greater challenges than others but we all adapted and overcame. Though I could not gain experience at an excavation, I did manage to get an opportunity to conduct some archaeological surveying as part of a larger project studying Delhi’s medieval fortifications. As a resident of the city, it was surreal to once again use the metro and commute “normally” following an extended period away from it (and the rest of the city) due to the danger of the virus. I found myself appreciating what I had otherwise deemed mundane. After being forced to stay at home and being denied the chance to meet friends, getting around the city and interacting with others had gained a new-found significance.

Now, as things seem to going back to normal, I too am slowly returning to old ways. A lot has been said about what comes next: fears regarding a “new normal”, periodic normalcy or, indeed, the return of the normal. Ironically, all of these normals seem abnormal to me. Can there be a “new” normal? If normalcy is seasonal, is it really normalcy? And can we return to how things were? Wouldn’t that be strange, in its own way?

We live in strange times. I wonder what historians of the future will make of it; what future archaeologists will unearth from our strange lives.

(Reproduced as received; not edited by Permanent Black)

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