I have decided to start learning Russian. Well, I have decided to at least attempt learning Russian. Don’t ask me why. I even watched a Russian movie last night called The Island (остров), about a hermit priest, Father Anatoly, who lives in a monastery in the cold tundra of northern Russia. In moments of ennui when my mind simply cannot solve the trigonometric equation in front of me, or I am overcome by having subjected myself to the study of electrolytic and galvanic cells for far too long, my tendency to procrastinate channels itself in a sudden desire to learn something new. So I now have a growing repertoire of self-taught things that I am in the process of ‘learning’ – Forex, German, Spanish, philosophy, sewing and how to thread my own eyebrows (why pay someone to do it for you if you can do it yourself?)
These new branches of knowledge are an absorbing way to stay sane without suffering the residue of guilt which many of us feel after a twenty-minute binge-scroll on Facebook. One can console and even compliment oneself for having gained some intellect in a whole new field, albeit at the expense of understanding why hydroxide ions do not migrate through the asbestos membrane to the anode compartment of a diaphragm cell. (This doesn’t happen because the electrolyte in the anode is maintained at a higher level than the cathode and so reduces the flow of the ions in that direction.)
The thing is, I find that knowledge is beautiful. When you realize that there is an infinite source of new ideas, understanding and wisdom just waiting to be discovered, it opens up a world to you, throwing into perspective the trivialities and pressures of what is already known. When I do succumb to that twenty-minute binge-scroll, I am often overwhelmed by the ceaseless, self-validating, harassing lure of consumerism and self-obsession, from which it seems impossible to escape. Social media allows us to create personas for ourselves where everything is controlled, and where we present only the image that we want to portray. We pedantically plan every minutiae – be it from the lighting in a selfie, to the caption ‘wild, yet finally free’ under a picture of a casual silhouette against the sunset.
Scroll through the Facebook or Instagram page of anyone who pays special attention to their image, and you will notice how quickly you are able to construct an idea of who that person is. But it is an implanted idea – one that the person behind the persona intended for you to receive. I have many friends who suddenly become emo soothsayers, social justice warriors or hippie roadtrip sunset chasers when online. It is wonderful that we have spaces where we can express ourselves, but too often I am left with a sense of emptiness and pretense – like an unpleasant taste that I just can’t name at the tip of my tongue. It isn’t real.
The pursuit of knowledge allows me to sidestep this ruse because intellect has no face. It has no frivolous fantasies of fame and fortune, but is a personal interaction with something real. And as such, it brings you joy. It exists inside of you and depends on no one’s affirmation for its reality. One’s mind might be bursting at the seams with thought and wonder, and no one would know that you are any different today from how you were yesterday.
I have a good friend who chooses to wear a hijab. She refuses to allow the world to esteem her by her looks and finds dignity in the fact that her abounding personality and beautiful mind are the first things you meet. I have not grown up in a culture that encourages me to cover myself. But sometimes, it all gets a bit much and I want to turn into a hermit like Father Anatoly in the desolate lands of northern Russia. I want to shield myself from the vulgar excess of this predatory world.
Alas, it is too late for me to commit to a headscarf, and I could not live in a convent. I will have to make do with what I have and who I am. And so far, with a bit of help from Google translate, I can now articulate these three Russian words:
Знание мой хиджаб.
Knowledge is my hijab.