Category Archives: Arts

Life as an Indian scholar in London

MA Journalism student Vimal found studying in London a totally immersive experience, so much so he wrote a book about it. Here, he uncovers his own story and shares perspectives on the differences between the media in the UK and India, with a personal take on the COVID-19 pandemic news coverage. This is his #BBKStory.

Vimal Chander Joshi

In 2020, Vimal published his first book though he refutes any notion of being the main character in the story: “I am not Ajay but our experiences are closely linked and all the places Ajay visits are places I’ve either visited or lived in.”

Gentlemen: Stories from London tells the story of Ajay Vashishth, a young man from Delhi who comes to London and lodges in different parts of London including Bexleyheath, Ilford, Southall and Golders Green. Even with the exclusion of the Bloomsbury location, where Vimal would have spent much of his time while studying at Birkbeck, you’d be forgiven for assuming he and Ajay are one and the same.

However, Vimal insists not and divulges the details of his own upbringing, sharing aspects of life within a middle-class family, having a lawyer for a father and a grandfather hailing from Pakistan, with family members keen for him to follow a ‘conventional career path’ in either law or medicine. With gentle resistance and with more creative inclinations, he pursued his undergraduate studies in commerce at the University of Delhi then decided on journalism at postgraduate level.

In 2019, his academic transition took him to Birkbeck and a city he’d never visited before. “It was the first time I’d been to London. I enjoyed the opportunity to visit places. I would see people wearing a coat and tie with office bags and a newspaper in hand.”

He accepts that the pre-pandemic period presented him with his best chances of socialisation saying, “I attended all workshops and events which were either very relevant or marginally relevant. I would go and meet people from other departments and would attend most of the events. I never skipped any classes. I would go out with friends. I went to the library as much as I could, including at Christmas. I even met friends from my country.”

Studying an MA in Journalism was a logical choice. He’d always liked writing and was fascinated by India’s booming television industry and the increasing acceptance of a career in the media. Prior to his studies, Vimal had spent ten years working in the media, primarily in India.

He has noticed subtle differences between the news in the UK and India, “The biggest difference is the way in which newspapers are heavily subsidised in India. I couldn’t imagine spending the two pounds or so on a newspaper in India. Of course, the newspapers in the UK can be found across the world but Indian newspapers are less likely to have that international reach.”

With a pandemic still in effect and with India having faced the brunt of it earlier this year with the Delta variant of the virus, Vimal shares his own personal reflections of how the media has handled the coverage: “I felt really pained watching the Covid-19 news. I was there when Delhi had one of its earliest lockdowns and I watched how the media covered the evolution of the virus and the spread of the variant. The media has an important part to play in exposing the pandemic but there needs to be accountability and the true picture should always be reflected. But we should also balance that because the reality of the situation can also spread panic.”

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Overcoming alcohol and drug addiction to achieve a Master’s degree

Azad Ashim Sharma graduated in April with an MA in Creative and Critical Writing. Here he tells his remarkable story of life growing up, his battles with alcohol and substance misuse, starting a publishing company, and his aspirations for the future.

Azad Ashim Sharma celebrating on his graduation day

My childhood was strange in a way. I’ve come to look at it not through rose-tinted glasses or nostalgia, but through a sense of compassionate inquiry. Being raised in an intergenerational home deep in South London, I was co-parented by grandparents, who were political exiles from apartheid South Africa. My grandmother was a political activist and our family in South Africa are quite close to the anti-apartheid liberation movement.

Our family home was always busy: my younger brother is autistic, so we had a large care team. During my school years, I attended two local independent schools, and my brother, who is severely autistic, was home-schooled. I was bullied at school, which was really quite traumatic for me at the time. I sought solace in music and art from a young age and my most special childhood memories are of attending exhibitions with my mother.

My family’s love of reading certainly made its mark on me, as I went on to study BA English at the University of Sussex. After finishing my course, I knew I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in Critical Theory at Sussex. Whilst I was on track for a distinction in 2015, my mental health deteriorated. I had returned to London to look after my brother who was unwell and under-supported due to austerity. I came home to support my mother with his care and all three of us were also trying to cope with the grief of losing our grandmother a couple of years before that. What started off as something I did socially spiralled out of control into alcoholism and drug addiction. I had to drop out of my Master’s degree to contend with that dark patch in my life.

I’d always been writing poetry at Sussex and this continued during this difficult patch. I published my first poetry collection in 2018, exploring islamophobia and racism in the time of Brexit Britain. In 2018, I received a surprising invitation to read at a poetry festival in India. Reading outside in Delhi, surrounded by flora and fauna in the pleasant hazy sunshine, I had something ignite in me that made me think, wow I want to do this for the rest of my life.

When I got back to the UK, I applied to Birkbeck because I knew several alumni who recommended studying there. I managed to get sober by the time I submitted my application. For a period of nine months, I was totally integrated back into normal life. Approaching a year at Birkbeck and filled with so much energy, I founded a publishing company with two friends called The 87 Press, named after the number of my family home. Our company mission was to change the landscape of publishing, by advocating for fairer trade and more smaller presses in bookstores, but also a more clearly defined representation of under-represented writers. We started off very clueless as to what owning a company would entail, but thrived off the energy of hosting events, publishing books and visiting universities to hold creative writing workshops with students, offering them the chance to get their work published.

Everything was going really well for me, but I was growing wearisome of being ‘that guy’ that always has the lime soda. So, I started walking out the door of sobriety again. I suffer from depression and anxiety too, and everything was taking its toll. During this time, I also met the love of my life who’s stuck by me through all of this recent drama. Both her and my family have been steadfast and invaluable supports.

At the beginning of 2020, I felt really disorientated with everything going on. I needed some counselling, so I signed up to Birkbeck’s counselling service. My counsellor was wonderful and compassionate, and really listened to me. I’ve now been clean for over a year – it’s not been easy, but I’m pleased that now sobriety is my normality.

My ultimate career goal is to become a lecturer, so this autumn I’m pursuing a PhD in English and Humanities at Birkbeck. I got the news that I had been awarded funding for my PhD on the day I was a year clean, which is serendipity to the max.

I plan to continue with The 87 Press during my PhD. We’ve just published our 15th book and it’s such a joy – it continues to surprise me what our initiative can do and the people it can reach. After my PhD it would be a dream to become a lecturer at Birkbeck and have the opportunity to give back. Birkbeck really is a place that gives people second chances in life.

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Understanding the ‘Global News’ Paradigm

Birkbeck’s William Richards reflects on this School of Arts event exploring the evolution of English-language journalism.

In an era of ever-increasing digital compartmentalisation and division, what really is global news?

This was the question asked by Dr Justin Schlosberg, Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media & Cultural Studies at a fascinating talk entitled ‘The Global News Paradigm’.

Hosted online by the School of Arts on Monday 25 January, the event began with the hypothesis from Dr Schlosberg that global news is in flux and in content evolution. For better or for worse, broadcasters steeped in the Western liberal tradition of professional journalism have faced increasing competition from English-language news channels around the world.

Throughout this talk, the hegemony of the BBC and CNN was analysed in the context of its rising challengers; the likes of Al Jazeera English and RT (formerly Russia Today). Indeed, says Dr Schlosberg, this raises all sorts of complex and critical questions about the nature of journalism as a fundamentally truth-telling practice, and the potential impact of disinformation and counter-disinformation on global news agendas.

Seeking to evaluate these questions, Dr Schlosberg carefully examined and discussed the ways in which international news stories have been covered by competing English-language news channels.

It is often very easy to get carried away by buzzwords of ‘Fake News’ or ‘bias’ when discussing the media in this day and age. Nevertheless, what constitutes stories of importance within the contact of ‘Global News’ remains open to to debate and interpretation.

A recording of this event is available to watch on YouTube.

A big thank you to the School of Arts and Dr Justin Schlosberg for his presentation. We look forward to hosting similar, thought-provoking talks in the future.

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“I dedicate my MA to my late mother, who was my rock”

Carolyne Megan graduated last month with an MA in Digital Media Design after caring for her late mother throughout her degree. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Carolyne Megan – © Photo by Joel, Peter Dyers Photographic Studio

I had a thriving career at University College London (UCL), working as a Web/Graphics and E-learning Technologist in Psychology and Language Sciences. I loved my professional career very much. Then in 2013, my father had cancer, so I left UCL to help my disabled mother care for him in his last months.

After my father died in August 2013, I applied to work at Imperial College London in the same role as UCL, but in their ICT department. I was extremely lucky as I was offered a job, and started in October 2013, as I was grief-stricken. After I started at Imperial, I was responsible for keeping my frail elderly mother supported in her home with carers. My main concern was to keep my grieving mother safe in her home and looked after by external social care.

In 2014, I paid for myself to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Web Design and Development at Birkbeck. I had a fantastic time, embracing new skills for my web portfolio. I built a great rapport with fellow students and then later attended the graduation ceremony at Senate House in 2016.

During 2013-2015, my mother’s situation deteriorated, and she was not coping well after my father died so I made a decision to leave Imperial in December 2015. In 2016, I sought low paid temporary Learning Technology jobs and by July 2016, I had reached a crisis with my mother. She was unable to look after herself, so her social worker and I facilitated a move to a good care home that was local to her.

It was an extremely painful process to endure in the summer of 2016, as I had to move my mother’s belongings and clothes into cases and take them from a five-bed detached house to one room in a care home. I was heartbroken for her. I promised her that I would spend three days every month in Sussex visiting her. So that became my routine. I sold her house, auctioned her possessions, gave her clothes to charities, her beloved book collection to refuse collectors as book sellers weren’t interested. It was painful process to go through.

My mother took a few months to settle in the home. She had an IQ of 140, despite being disabled by botched surgery and very frail. After she had settled, I applied for a job at UCL, in the libraries team, which was perfect as I have a love of books! My job involved processing new stock before sending the books to Main Library.

In 2017, I was approached by the Birkbeck School of Arts administrator, to notify me that there was a new MA in Digital Media Design. I was told that my credits from my previous course would enable me to do less modules to get the full MA. I really couldn’t afford it as I was on low pay. But my mother gave me a wonderful gift. She told me that she felt that I had given up my career to care for both her and my late father, and she wanted to pay the fees, so I could continue to ‘stretch my brain’ as she called it.

I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to do an MA, but I jumped at the chance to try. I asked my supervisor if I could do my dissertation in 2018, instead of 2019, and he allowed me to do this. With hindsight this was the best decision I made. I received a Merit for my dissertation and I dedicated it to my mother and gave her a copy of the book. She passed it round to all her visitors and it was full of coffee stains and blotches. She told me she was very proud and we were both emotional.

In February 2019, she was admitted to hospital with a blocked bowel and we were told that she was probably going to pass away. She was such a fighter and was sent back to the care home to be in a palliative care room. She was now unable to get out of bed and had to be turned every two hours. Her life was not really a life. She picked up and managed to carry on until July 2019. She overheard someone say that she was never getting out of the bed, so she stopped her fluids, food and medication and died after two weeks at the age of 95.

I miss her every single day, but I am glad she did not have to live in the year of the pandemic, as we would not have been able to have seen one another.

I dedicate my MA to my late mother, who was my rock.

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