Madam Deputy Chancellor, Dr Christine Nixon, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice President (Global Engagement) Professor Abid Khan, President of the Academic Board, Professor Ben Canny, distinguished visitors, members of faculties, Graduands and guests, it is a great honour and privilege for me to be invited to present the Graduation Address today.
I must admit that when I was invited to address this august gathering, I tried to remember how I had felt as a young graduate. To my dismay I could not recall the graduation address during my time. I imagine many of you will have the same thoughts tomorrow morning and I assure you if we run into each other I will certainly not be offended that you won’t remember a word of what I say today. 🙂
This present moment is incredibly important to commemorate and to live within it. It rests on a solid foundation of years of hard work that you as students and your faculty members at Monash have mutually created; your family and friends have nurtured this process of creation with their love and support. Today, you should experience that thrill of being free; not just from university life and duties, but free to walk on the path of your choice, free to dream.
But, to quote William Butler Yeats, in dreams begin responsibilities. This precious freedom puts us on a path of great responsibility; let me share with you, why.
I attended one of India’s most prestigious undergraduate Arts colleges for women in Delhi University, Lady Shri Ram. Since then my own education has taken me to various countries and I have had to walk many different paths. My college had two mottos: One, rather facetious and informal, which we had inscribed on our T-shirts (we don’t believe in miracles, we depend on them!) and living in India, this made complete sense. The other was a Sanskrit verse, Sa Vidhya Ya Vimukthaye, meaning that alone is knowledge that liberates. My first higher degree in the prestigious college which had Nobel Laureate, Aung San Su Kyi as its distinguished alumna, among others, set me firmly on the path of liberation, not just in terms of my academic qualifications but in all the skills I had learnt to navigate through life, to realise my identity and to deal with equanimity any obstacles and challenges that came my way.
Friends, I was born in a village and had a rather modest upbringing in a very small town in the state of Bihar in northern India (lagging behind on all development indicators). Patriarchal practices and norms in these parts still include abortion of female foetuses, child brides and widows, dowry deaths and everyday gendered violence against women and girls at the intersections of caste, class and religion.
My mother was married at the age of 13 and she always reminds me that for three years before the actual marriage her family were trying to find a match for her. As was the norm, she married into a very conservative, patriarchal family where girls were not sent to school and some were married off as young as 10 years! Girls slaved at housework till they could be married off after much dowry negotiations (usually between male members) and then raised children in their new homes. Bereft of identity or any social or economic security, in the parts of the world I spent my formative years, women were/still are non-humans, subjected to extreme forms of violence and subjugation. You know, many women are still nameless; having taken on the identity of wives and mothers they do not even remember their own names!
My mother was born in independent India but with little freedom in her personal life. She never attended school and she cannot read or write. To this day it remains her biggest regret and also inspiration as she talks to the community about the importance of education for girls and the need to end female foeticide. My mother’s story is not unique; it is the story of thousands of girls and women in many parts of the world. In fact, it took a Pakistani teenager Malala Yusafzai to remind us of the violence faced by girls in some parts of the world just to be able to go to school. It is through my mother’s enormous efforts and the hardships she endured that my siblings and I had the privilege of the best education in the country. The kind of knowledge we had access to, is what leads to a free mind. It makes us cherish the value of liberation from all social and cultural constraints that is imposed on us.
Dear Graduands, if it is one value you must uphold in the highest esteem, it is freedom that comes with the outstanding education and opportunities you have received at Monash, one of the top universities in the world today. Your relationship with Monash is based on that ideal of freedom, which is yours to behold and celebrate. It is that sense of freedom, which has stood me in good stead and has led to this splendid opportunity to address you. Today it is I; tomorrow it could be one of you!
The other most important message that is much needed in the very violent and dangerous world we inhabit is that of hope. It is very much a part of the Monash ethos. As you know, the University takes its name from Sir John Monash, who contributed to almost every level of Australian life. Not only do we carry his name, we also take inspiration from his life and philosophy. You have all perhaps walked past the statue of Sir John Monash outside the Menzies building and even read his famous words inscribed there, Make it your creed to equip yourself for life, not solely for your own benefit but for the benefit of the whole community. Humbling thoughts expressed at the graduation address at Melbourne University, where he was honorary Vice Chancellor. His other powerful words that always stay with me are: The best hope for Australia is the ballot box and good education. It would apply to any other country too! I would urge all of you who haven’t, to read the biography of the man who did not believe in giving up; whose entire life was a story of enormous courage and hope.
Sir Monash had applied for a double degree in arts and engineering at Melbourne. He was not a good student, and failed his first year! He was bright but had too many distractions. Drama club, the theatre, student politics, lack of finances, his mother’s long and fatal illness and a young romantic heart! Monash never gave up hope although it would take him nine long years to complete his engineering degree. He also read Latin and acquired a law degree, apparently without having attended a single lecture (not advising you to do that). He was Australia’s most illustrious soldier and one of the greatest public figures. His perseverance was sustained by hope and optimism, always.
Friends, we are living in very difficult times (not any different from the times of Sir Monash when colonialism, the world war and great depression affected the lives of many). My students and I often despair in our classes that violence and utter disregard for human life and values are here to stay. Yesterday we marked a year of the Sydney siege infact. Only hope can make us compassionate and empathetic; it can restore our faith in humanity and the purposefulness of human life.
I would like to acknowledge here two of my students who have just received their degrees. Won’t take their names, should they feel embarrassed but they know who they are. One is a war survivor and refugee from South Sudan whose dream it was to be addressed as a‘doctor’, as he would say it. He lost several members of his family in the war in Sudan, and became a refugee in an UN camp where even getting proper meals was difficult. Then, he ultimately landed in Australia on a refugee visa, promptly availing himself of the opportunities of education that came his way. He has been conferred with his doctorate today but I can testify to the many odds he faced and how hard he worked to realise his dream. He is now ready for the new journey in his life and to make a difference to the lives of others. Another student came from small town India, little aware or equipped with the necessary skills to do an MA at Monash. Some in his peer group left their courses for the lack of trying. He always remembered the sacrifices of his parents in India and continued to work hard, even taking up part time work to support himself. Occasionally, I noted the valuable snooze time that my class offered him and I never took it as a reflection of my teaching! 🙂 He has now earned a Masters degree, which will enable him in his career in the field of development.
I am very proud of these two students and inspired by them. These stories fill us with enormous optimism and hope about the possibilities of human endeavour and community life. I know that each one of you has a remarkable story of hope and courage behind you too. Do not forget to acknowledge and share your stories in your personal and professional lives. Your hope and perseverance will inspire many around you, even if you are unaware of it.
The final word I want to leave you with may sound confusing at first. It is called rage. No revolutions, no change ever happened without the creative power of rage. Bell Hooks is a powerful writer in America whose works have inspired countless people all over the world. She has written extensively about racism against the black people talking about their rage as a healing source of love and strength and a catalyst for positive change. In a recent piece with George Yancy in the New York Times, she talks about the rage I mean.
The first time that Bell Hooks was going to meet the famous Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh, she had had a particularly bad day of racist and sexist insults. So she went to him and said, “I am so angry!” And he asked her to hold on to her anger, and use it as compost for her garden. She says, if we think of anger as compost, we think of it as energy that can be recycled in the direction of our good. It is an empowering force. If we don’t think about it that way, it becomes a debilitating and destructive force. I urge you to listen to Bell Hooks and ensure that the rage you feel can compost to grow hope and reason.
I am talking of rage that is invoked at the injustices, discriminations and oppressions that are around us, maybe even inside us. This rage is necessary for the good fight ahead. We all know Mahatma Gandhi as the apostle of non-violence. Imagine how angry he was when as a young, unknown, Indian lawyer traveling in South Africa on business, he was thrown out from the train because he refused to surrender his first-class ticket and move to the third-class compartment (reserved for all people of colour those days). He acknowledged that this was the turning point of his life when his rage at the personal injustice inspired him to fight against the countless injustices suffered by so many others every day in South Africa and later in India. He believed that as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our conserved anger could be transmitted into a power that can move the world.
I have always experienced a great deal of rage at so many things around me; not always succeeded in channeling that rage towards engagement and empathy. Perhaps wisdom dawns with greying hair! Now what enrages me is this idea that we must not talk to those who think differently, who are difficult people in our worldview. Most people think differences are non-negotiable. Imagine how boring the world would be if we all thought and acted similarly and if there were no differences? There is an urgent need to transgress boundaries and engage with an open mind and heart. There is always something to learn from recognizing and appreciating differences and coming together for a common purpose. Bell Hooks would say, beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.
Friends, I do want to leave you with happy thoughts but it would be a travesty to not recognize the enormous significance of this date, 16th of December in the struggles we have for the future. On this very day in 2012, one of the most brutal sexual assaults in India’s capital, Delhi changed the life of a young physiotherapist student and that of others forever. The dehumanizing gang rape and assault in front of her friend, in a moving bus, left her severely injured, and despite the best possible medical care Nirbhaya received, she succumbed to her horrifying injuries. Like you, she would have graduated with a degree in Physiotherapy to change the fortunes of her poor parents who had prioritized her education more than anything in their lives.
Higher education was Nirbhaya’s hope for a better future. She was a very courageous woman, and even in her injured state showed remarkable fortitude, consoled her parents and repeatedly expressed the desire to live. I am not sharing this to sadden you but to tell you the story of rage, hope and freedom that followed the incident. Hundreds of young people like you, in India, in all of South Asia, in Australia, nay in the world came out in protests calling for legal reforms and an overhaul of attitudes to women.
There is so much to learn from the life of that young woman who did not live to see the fruition of her university education. That incident serves as a reminder to us that there are many struggles ahead, and solidarities must be forged beyond borders. There are greater freedoms to be attained and many hopes to be still realised. As the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Graduands, you have deserved your success today and every accolade that you will receive from your teachers, family and friends. They all deserve an extra hug for making this journey possible for you. The obstacles you had to overcome in your journey also deserve your appreciation, for you are wiser and stronger thanks to them. Never lose sight of the privilege you have, the privilege of the best education, the best degrees which equip you with knowledge and wisdom to walk the path of your choosing and truly be the change you want to see in the world.
When you walk out of this hall after the ceremony, I hope that you will take with you a free mind, a raging heart and a hopeful spirit.
Let me leave you with the wonderful message of this Shanti Mantra in Sanskrit.
Asato Ma Sad Gamaya
Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya
Lead us from ignorance to truth
Lead us from darkness to light.