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  • Nur Laili from ELEVEN

Between Becoming and Being

Ian McEwan begins his book Enduring Love with the question of how to mark the beginning of a story. Out of the many books I’ve read, and many beginnings I’ve started, this one happens to linger in my mind a lot. It’s perhaps rather coincidental that this is also one of the first few books I’d read for my undergraduate journey in Survey of English Literature. Another book that also explores beginnings is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. In fact, his entire book consists mainly of the beginnings of various stories, of different genres, of different protagonists.

In many ways, perhaps university life is like that book. A collection of different stories, different beginnings for different students.

As I write this, my fingers reluctantly acknowledge that I am now a graduate of NTU’s Bachelor of Arts (English), inshaAllah, although our convocation has been postponed due to the pandemic.

Honestly, it all still feels a little too surreal. I remember toying with the idea of graduation in my mind a lot in my last few weeks of school, like a baby trying ice cream for the first time, licking their lips as they try to figure out how to feel about what they’ve just tasted. Even right now, I don’t think my entire being fully comprehends that in the coming August, I will not be preparing for a new semester, that I have no more battles for modules over STAR(S) Wars in June, and I will not be seeing the familiar faces of professors and friends as often - faces that I have grown so accustomed to. It all feels... surreal.

It’s also weird because while I was a student, it sometimes felt tempting to skip to this part. Amidst those days when I was crying over an impending deadline, cracking my already-going-through-an-existential-crisis brain for an essay idea, or simply contemplating what I wanted out of this degree. Amidst those days, imagining a fast-forwarded future felt like a godsend. But what exactly did I want to fast-forward to?

The most difficult part about graduation from a higher institution is the realisation that this is potentially the end of your education. That chunk that has for so long formed the majority of your life. Yes, some of us do choose to pursue postgraduate studies. And props to anyone who does; it is truly remarkable and I am excited for you guys! But a majority of us finally take that dreaded and most concrete step into adulthood: working.

For some of us, we may have marked the start of university as our beginning. But for others, this step of joining the workforce may be our beginning. In fact, many say that this may truly be where most of our lives begin: where we truly start to settle down, start a family, find a fulfilling career, and whatever else we may have planned ahead for our lives. That is definitely one way to look at it.

For me, on the other hand, I saw my university experience as a process of becoming. A process where I finally could embrace myself and all the little facets of my identity, some of which I had chosen to neglect for the longest time, like my Indian roots. And others, like my Muslim identity, that I was never sure how to completely embrace before.

As a Muslim, I know that my purpose, ultimately, is to serve Allah SWT and His creations. In fact, I vividly remember sitting in an NTUMS Seekers’ Garden talk by Ustaz Hafiz Kusairi as he spoke about this. Ustaz reminded us of two verses from the Quran that tell God’s creations their purpose in this world:

“And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.”

(Al-Quran, 51:56)

“And to Thamūd [We sent] their brother Ṣāliḥ. He said, ‘O my people, worship Allah; you have no deity other than Him. He has produced you from the earth and settled you in it, so ask forgiveness of Him and then repent to Him. Indeed, my Lord is near and responsive.’”

(Al-Quran, 11:61)

I don’t think our purpose was ever the question. I think the question stems from how we reconcile that overarching sense of purpose with what we do in our day-to-day lives.

I won’t paint out my story in a way that shows how everything seemed to fall in place. A story where, one day, I just woke up or one particular incident happened and suddenly I knew exactly what my calling was. No, that’s a gross oversimplification. And more than that, only He truly has control of all these plans, so perhaps it fell according to His plans, but I’ll be honest, I had no idea where anything was going. I’m still not sure if I entirely do, moving forward.

But maybe this is where my story really starts.

A Beginning

If you asked 20-year-old me in 2017 what I wanted to do, in all honesty, the only answer I could muster up was: “nothing to do with science or math, please”. That answer is still rather accurate but I have a more specific one now. And I’ll tell you soon. When I entered university, I only knew that I loved literature with great fervour and I was excited to learn it to great depths in the years to come.

My years in university started with me contemplating being an event manager of sorts - I’d been rather active in the past in CCAs that involved planning lots of events and I even joined my first NTUMS Adhoc as a Proggie (member of the programme-planning department). It seemed to be the only thing I filled my time with in every CCA. And for the most part, I enjoyed it quite a lot. But after some not-so-pleasant experiences, I started to ask myself, did I love planning events because of the process, or because of the team I was planning it with? I also questioned if I really enjoyed the administrative parts of such a job and whether I would truly find it fulfilling.

By the end of my first year, I started realising that perhaps such event planning should only remain in the realm of CCAs, and that I would be better off exploring something else as a career.

A More Likely Beginning?

My second year saw me temporarily taking a break from thinking about the future and my purpose in this world. I realised I had a lot of self-development to do and began taking up CCAs, projects, and even internships that would help me with that.

I did momentarily consider academia at the start of my second year. It was a very natural course considering how much I love literature. My second year also found me falling even more in love with my degree and all the wonderful books I got to read. From Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I started inching towards a better grasp of literary theories and understanding the beautiful complexities of stories.

Unfortunately, by the end of my second year, I was hesitant about academia because I had finished an Undergraduate Research Paper (URECA) and realised I didn’t quite enjoy writing it. (Granted, I did scramble to complete writing the 8k paper over the course of a week but let’s not talk about that.) Also, I was reminded of my supervisor’s advice to me, about recognising the reality that I will be sacrificing a good portion of my youth to studying and may perhaps have to delay other goals I have for myself, such as financial independence and even settling down.

It was a painful realisation but I started second-guessing what seemed like a straightforward career path for me.

Where do I begin?

Perhaps all of it made sense. As I moved away from considering academia as a career, I also started noticing my unhealthy relationship with academics. After some painful experiences, I realised I had pinned too much of my self-worth on the grades I got.

Ironically, as I tell you about all these other facets of my university experience, none of it actually hints at what I’ve eventually come to settle on. And it’s probably because what I eventually settled on was something that even I would have never expected to have chosen.

Over the course of my years in university, I was fortunate to meet various people, writer friends, and tutors, who encouraged me to share my writing. I remember feeling rather shy about it. Previously, I used to be very private about my writing. I wasn't ready to put my work out there. In fact, I once believed that my writing was only meant for the eyes of my loved ones.

Yet, I eventually decided to try my hand in the 10th ELEVEN Magazine. (I know this may sound like a self-sponsored piece by ELEVEN but I promise you it’s not.) In fact, I myself didn’t realise how important ELEVEN would be to me when I first submitted my work. It was the first time I actually dared to put my work out to be published and it was quite intimidating. But alhamdulillah, it has been worth it.

As I continued to write for each edition of ELEVEN from then on, I began to gain a greater sense of my voice and confidence in writing. In fact, it was because of the 10th ELEVEN that I found the confidence to take up NTU’s Creative Writing modules, another milestone in my pursuit of writing. I used to think such modules were for the more seasoned writers, people who had shared their works in public and were reassured about what they wrote.

By my final year, I became more ambitious about my plans to pursue writing as I started working on a collection of poems for my Advanced Creative Writing module. I started to set more time aside for it and made serious commitments to actively finding creative spaces to write and meet like-minded writers. I hope that as I continue to pursue writing, I can write for His sake and about the things He’d love. At the very least, I hope that in my writing I learn to better understand His world and His creations.

Right now, I still hesitate to think of myself as a full-fledged writer. There’s a sense of being there, an ongoing existence that I don’t quite feel that I have reached. A state perhaps reserved for when I find my first writing job? Maybe. But what I can say is that the university experience has helped me to become who I want to be. As the years passed, and as I cycled through various career prospects and different possible beginnings, I have learnt more about myself. And in learning more about myself, I’ve started to become more authentically Me.

I think that’s the beauty of university to me: that it was a process of becoming. So I’m not sure if I am Laili, nor do I know if I can ever be Laili, in her full, authentic self. But what I do know is university has taught me to constantly try to become her and embrace whatever changes and developments come her way. That life is a constant process of finding and realigning your intentions and purpose in this world.

And if I had to describe graduation in any other way, I’d say it’s a phase between becoming and being.


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