Road to Gautam’s PhD Journey

August 27, 2020

Meet Gautam, an awardee of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Dean’s PhD Fellowship. The FASS Dean PhD fellowship is one of the highest honors awarded to the top few incoming PhD FASS Students, with a cap of maximum three recipients annually. Recipients of the FASS Dean’s PhD Fellowship will attain an extra year worth of funding in addition to the NUS Research Scholarship. In this feature, Gautam will be sharing more about himself and his research project.

As a teenager I searched novels for sentences that felt true, and later grew fond of stringing together moments in my writing. Before starting my PhD at NUS, I was working on a creative writing MA at NTU. The MA thesis traced my prodigal-son journey to the US, hiding hurt of migrating from small-city India to Singapore as a tween. Where that story was a chance to travel past dysfunctional bits of the global as I came to terms with Singapore, the PhD allows me to ask more methodically what may replace that which I have critiqued.

My research then is focused on ways of reframing Indian Ocean histories of migration and environmental transformation to allow for alternate terms of belonging in global cities like Singapore, Bangalore, and Dubai. Having grown up a Malayali migrant into the Tamil-majority Indian-diaspora experience in Singapore, I focus specifically on these two South Asian language-diasporas and their attempts to make Malaya and the Persian Gulf home over the last century. I look for historical commonalities between post-nineties migrants like myself, and the pre-Cold-War generations I moved into, hoping to find terms which may persuade the latter to more systematically extend generosities to future migrants.

With the Tamil and Malayali diasporas, I am particularly fascinated by how their movement and terms of stay in the last century have been shaped by the oil-driven industrialization of ex-colonies. And how these patterns of industrialization and emissions will likely shape future movement (forced and voluntary) out of monsoon-fed coastal regions of South India, vulnerable to climate disasters, toward global nodes. In the narration of these movements, I see English as a key language of translation between two diasporas and three regions, navigating patterns of industrialization shaped by Cold War policies and the dance between British and American interests in the Indian Ocean. I also hope the study of two diasporas may create a framework that can be applied more broadly from Philippines to Myanmar to Egypt.

Within the discipline, my proposed essay collection adapts Amitav Ghosh’s explorations of the histories of climate change, migration, and global capital, from a predominantly Bengali standpoint to a South Indian context. Archival material from a Ghosh-inspired historian’s work, Crossing the Bay of Bengal, connecting South India and Malaya, form the basis for the creative strands. While the essay form extends Ghosh’s discussions within The Great Derangement about the suitability of different literary forms when tackling climate change. My project also tries to insert itself into the gap Rob Nixon highlights between traditions of postcolonial ecocriticism and North American environmental writing.

Undertaking this project at NUS is a rare chance to be close enough to issues to change my mind. To be able to fly Scoot to Madurai, take a bus up to Penang, spend weekends at regional archives, learn Tamil, work closely with local experts on these themes, and build relationships that can shape knowledge. NUS’s joint-programme with King’s College also provides an opportunity to work with creative nonfiction faculty and access the colonial archives in London. At a time, when research on Asia is often written out of faraway universities, when Anglophone writing from the peripheries is often studied separately from regional language literatures, and writers are increasingly reliant on the university for jobs, the time and freedom the NUS PhD allows to pursue a question in this region through a hybrid critical-creative thesis, is precious.

(Contributed by Gautam)