Nandita Das

A lifetime of fellowship

  • September 1, 2014

This is coming to you from a charming 19th century mansion-turned-office in New Haven, a university town in Connecticut, USA. I am here for the Yale World Fellows Program, a thoughtful course on leadership, where eminent Yale professors and practitioners from varied backgrounds interact with us, a cohort of 16 fellows. Among us are the likes of a prominent Syrian Arab Spring activist, a presidential candidate from Iceland, a ‘near future’ designer from Italy, an operations head from Doctors Without Borders. After our first round of sharing, most of us confessed to feeling “I am the mistake, and the rest so accomplished!” 

Now all comparisons have ceased and the joy of this journey has taken precedence over all else. I reckon my next four columns will be about different nuggets of this experience. I could easily write about each of the Fellows, professors, the Program itself, the beautiful campus and its architecture or maybe about my new life-juggling my role as a fellow and a mother, without the Indian support system of family and house-help. 

But so far, nothing has been as unique as the “shopping period”. While the term is consumeristic, befitting America’s reputation, the exercise actually is fascinating; in the first two weeks of the term, students get to pick their courses by attending scores of classes before settling on their favourites. This puts the onus of making the class interesting on the professors, who do their best to woo the students. Have our teachers ever experienced such performance anxiety? Could an undergrad ever simultaneously take astrophysics, philosophy and music in our rigid educational system? 

More than 3,000 courses are on offer. Some have fascinating titles like Humility, Managing in Times of Rapid Change, Visual Storytelling and even Listening to Music. Some are delivered in seminar style with 10-15 students, heavily based on class discussions, while others are lecture style, with more than 50 students per class, but even here student participation is crucial. 

We, too, browsed online, looked up the buildings on the map and navigated from one class to another. It wasn’t easy, as there were too many choices and too little time. We exchanged notes, went to each other’s classes and honed our lists. I finally settled on only two courses, as I have a four-year-old to care for and I aspire to use this time away to work on my forthcoming film script. 

My knowledge of gender issues has largely been India-centric. So, to get a broader perspective, I chose Women in Global Affairs. I was struck by the level of intellectual deliberation and more so by the genuine desire to understand the complexities of gender issues across cultures. While there is a lot of reading required to be able to fully participate in this seminar class, I have never been more excited about studying! The other course that I settled on was Ethics, a big lecture-style class. I have always been curious to explore fundamental questions like what makes one act right and another wrong. This course is all about diving into the provocative question: “Why be moral?” What got me hooked was how simply the apparently star professor explained philosophical concepts within our everyday context. 

Thankfully we are not ‘crediting’ classes and only ‘auditing’ them, which means that we won’t be graded and we are free from the pressures of exams. Also this fellowship is a two-way street, as we are expected to interact with the Yale community and give talks about our work. In my case I will also be screening some of my films to generate conversations around their themes. 

Amid all the academic learning, I know that there is a lot of life learning that is also happening. Not often have I embarked on a journey, knowing it is going to be a significant one. After the orientation to the four-month-long Yale World Fellowship, it feels as if it is going to be more like four months of orientation for a lifetime of fellowship.

Virata Parvam


Director: Udugula Venu

Language: Telugu

Character Name: Shakuntala

Key Cast: Kundan Alexzed, Chakrapani Ananda, Banerjee

Feastivals and Awards: NA

Film Stills: 9

BTS: 11