Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


An Imagined Community

18 Jun 2013

Published in the Daily Princetonian on April 25, 2013 as ‘An imagined community called Princeton’.

This was my last piece for the Prince, a publication I loved writing for. Really this isn’t meant to be about Princeton alone. It is what I feel someone might think when leaving any place of common experience, especially an institution of learning. Alas, Princeton is the experience I have known and loved.

Princeton is a strange place. For decades, thousands of people — graduates and undergraduates, staff and faculty, American and foreign — have descended upon this patch of land to learn and teach about themselves and the world. Princeton is a community of immigrants. Even as we are here, we are constantly moving offices, dorms, classrooms; and sometimes we just move on.

But all of us immigrate in some form to Princeton knowing that our time here is limited. Despite this seemingly predefined end to our experience, we find common purpose with a mass of people we’ve never met and perhaps may never meet in the future. We are here to move the world forward and to try and catch up as it does so. Somehow we form bonds that make us part of this congregation.

Princeton is an imagined community, to use author Benedict Anderson’s term. It is not about the buildings, and it is not built around face-to-face contact. It is a community built around something we believe in. Something we believe in strongly enough to leave our homes, leave the families that have raised us in the hope of understanding or fulfilling some higher cause. It’s all in our heads.

But being part of this intellectual, imagined community requires that you experience it in person first. Only when you see and live it can you believe in the spirit of the Princeton imagination. To get the real thing requires that you have lived in the rooms that many before you have occupied, to work with others who choose to also establish abode on this ground. This is akin to understanding gravity through a falling stone — what is intangible becomes clear through a lived event. We have to animalistically, physically experience this community to really get what it entails. Even if you feel unhappy or disillusioned, you decided to take the plunge with the rest of us. There must be something to that collective leap of faith; something to explain our shared delusion. Maybe we’re all mad.

The great thing about an imagined community is that it can be what we want it to be. We see Princeton as we want to see it, and it becomes a part of us the way we want it to be. No one may truly understand what Princeton means to us, or what we mean to Princeton. But this also means Princeton will form part of us in a way that it forms part of no one else. Princeton, in some ways, is a reflection of ourselves.

This also means that we may graduate, we may move somewhere else, but we never really leave. Princeton will continue to accompany us as long as we continue to imagine — continue to imagine that we are out to work for a higher cause, that we had the honor to meet great people who taught us how to do this in the first place and that it is our job to try and do the same. Implied in the constitution of this belief in moving the world forward is that we must move forward to make it happen — make our personal worlds bigger and contribute to humanity in some meaningful way. For all we know, that may bring us back to Princeton, as it has brought back many others. For the moment, however, this premise requires that “we have to go away and dream it all up again.“

I don’t like saying goodbye. There seems to be a finality attached to the act of saying goodbye that scares me. This presumed termination of common experience has a way to spark both sadness and existential crises that I like to avoid. As a kid I didn’t have the words to describe this feeling, so I would cry at airports instead. At some point I decided that I would protest to visiting family members returning to their homes by not dropping them off at the airport at all. I’ve gotten better at dealing with seeing people leave but conveniently still don’t drop people off at the airport.

It used to be different flying away myself — airports were places of wonder. I used to collect model airplanes, and airports were marvels of engineering and depots of exploration. There was an adventure waiting somewhere, and I got to fly there. But for the past few years airports have taken on a more grim existence. The memories now are of turning your head that one last time with tears in the ducts, to say goodbye.

To avoid this, I have almost convinced myself that there is no such thing as a final end to common experience. I like to believe that somewhere, someday we shall meet when our roads again connect. The experience continues in our imagination, till we see each other again, perhaps in Princeton, or maybe perhaps, in my Pakistan.