I Felt Alienated At LUMS Because Of My Non-Elite Background
Ahmad Riaz Lodhi shares how he felt alienated at LUMS as a student on financial aid.
Some time ago, I called my first roommate at LUMS. We connected after a while but it wasn’t difficult to pick it up again from where we left it. This relatability and ease comes from a shared experience, the experience of being a National Outreach Programme (NOP) scholar at the country’s most prestigious university.
I joined LUMS in 2015. Coming from an economically disadvantaged background, I was reasonably excited and determined to use this opportunity to create a better future for myself and my kin. Before talking about what I experienced and how I reacted to it, it is important for you to know where I was coming from.
I grew up in a small urban center after spending my first three years in a village, thereby developing a strong connection with that rural setting (and hence that love for Gabriel Garcia Marquez). Like all other people uprooted by the growing industrialization, I encountered everyone espousing this intense desire for material “progress” in my surroundings. Naturally, I thought it to be the only way forward (wish I had read Eqbal Ahmad at a younger age).
I was good at conventional studies. I usually topped the class by the virtue of being better able to regurgitate the information provided to us in the name of education. On the whole, I was considered a bright kid with good prospects.
With this background, I came to LUMS. The first shock was bound to be that of economic disparity. The places most of us NOP scholars come from are generally egalitarian. Even if there are any economic discrepancies, you’re not made to feel them much. Here on the other hand, are the rich kids with all those airs around them though this wasn’t shocking since you are already expecting that stuff. But the gross display of their cultural capital and their monopoly over it, speaking flawless and fluent English in a particular accent, listening to particular music, wearing those brands, indulging in what appeared to be deep philosophical conversations (without knowing an iota of what they were actually talking about) and not admitting anyone uninitiated in these ways into their circles, was what unsettled and alienated us from the beginning.
We were the kids who grew up listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Jagjit Singh, and we were not being able to connect with anyone there without taking those fancy names of what for us were entirely exotic bands. You would notice an occasional smirk when you pronounced something wrong and God knows that in the previous 12 years of education, we were not taught to pronounce even ‘women’ correctly.
You’d not be able to sit in a group if you haven’t watched a particular English series. You couldn’t talk about poetry if you hadn’t read the Western poets. You’d say ‘Iqbal’ and the response would be: “oh you’re a typical desi-intellectual who doesn’t understand how the world works today!” The divorce between the sensibilities of the ruling class and the culture espoused by the masses is nowhere more evident than in such settings.
It might read like generalizing all my university fellows, many of whom are of course intelligent, diligent and considerate but I am trying to sketch an overall experience of the interaction of the majority of the underprivileged students (mostly NOP scholars and at times those on financial aid) with their bourgeoisie fellows.
Exceptions are always there. Also, this issue is not limited to a one particular university. Many financially underprivileged students in other places go through very similar kind of ordeals. In order to gain entry into the elite gangs, you have to become what you are not and this mostly ends up badly for the aspirants since they lack the means to sustain their charade for long and even if they arrange the finances, where are they going to get the cultural capital from? Which infact is even more necessary than the financial capital to make friends.
There I was, uprooted from my cultural background and thrust into a new setting without any financial or social pillars of support. Inevitably I felt alienated. Facing a ‘crisis of modernity’, I lingered towards meaninglessness sprouted by this rootlessness which resulted in my becoming a nihilist. You see, this was a reaction to the social and in some ways political turbulence that I experienced (and there lies a connection between Rousseau’s experience of the early eighteenth century Paris and my experience of the early twenty-first century Lahore). With the advantage of hindsight, I can see many people around me feeling this same alienation and some of them trying to end it by passing themselves off as something they are not and inevitably failing at these attempts.
Many others experiencing this predicament responded by adopting an existential approach, managing day to day affairs and crossing the boundary line of graduation. Very few adopted the reconstructionist line by “reconciling their tradition with modernity” since it is the hardest thing to do i.e. to find an alternative which reconciles your past with your present. I fell victim to the revolutionary line i.e. to wrap up the system and start afresh (more of an anarchist there), thereby dropping out in 2017.
All I have learned is that in order to deal with the turbulence you are bound to experience in your life, it is imperative to find a method which takes you forward while keeping you rooted somewhere so that you may not lose your direction and have something to fall back on.
Basically “to reconcile where you’re coming from with where you find yourself in”. I owe my debt to Eqbal Ahmad, Pankaj Mishra, Naguib Mahfouz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez along with Allama Iqbal for rescuing me from where I was. They taught me, in James Baldwin’s words, “that things that tormented me most were the very things which connected me with the rest of the humanity”. My advice to anyone going through a similar experience is simple: Read!