By Niketa Narayan
Sometimes I look up from reveling in the riches of the Victorian literature section in HKU’s Main Library, shocked to find myself there. Dreamily, I run my fingers along the spines of books which explore everything from fairy tale motifs in Dickens to medicine in Wilkie Collins, and I smile to myself. Five years ago, I was mired in Excel spreadsheets, poring over vast quantities of data: my days were spent analyzing numbers which represented how people felt about particular brands of consumer products, from soups to hotels. It was an interesting job, but it was a world away from the Victorians, who have lingered in my imagination since I first read Jane Eyre so many years ago. I was swept away not by the romance of Brontë’s tale, but by the detailed imagery which I now know enough to call a byproduct of the realist novel. In any case, I thought analyzing consumer preferences would be my whole life, and while I was content enough with that, the vestiges of a dream always simmered below the surface.
When I was 14 years old, my father told me that the following 8 years would be the most important years of my life, and not only did I need to take them seriously, but also I needed to consider with the utmost care what I would do with the life that followed. I needed to choose a path that would help me pay the bills with some ease and comfort. (As we all know, the life of the mind can be a road strewn with obstacles.) Even then, I told him I wanted to be a scholar, and his sensible answer was that even scholars need good presentation skills. So they do. And so I tried to learn, in presentation after presentation in business school, never dreaming that I would actually apply those (now rather rusty!) presentation skills to the academic field.
No knowledge is wasted knowledge, as they say, and I learned a great deal of useful information in business school. It never incited the curiosity and thirst to learn that I harbor now, but it is not forgotten – even in the depths of academic study, that world is never far away. The controversies of commerce and political economy are inextricably linked to Victorian consciousness, so past and present entwine in an intricate tapestry. What I learned then has perhaps helped me to understand what I am learning now in a more comprehensive light, but even so, there are times when I have to pinch myself as I wander the stacks.