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Of the Qualia of Law School

This article has been written by Lakshmi Nambiar (Batch of 2023). The illustration at the end of this piece is by Gunjan Jadiya (Batch of 2023). The images in the piece have been collected from several Law Schoolites.

Late at night, I stay up wondering why I can’t sleep, held to consciousness on the thread of a thought that was too inchoate to be put into words. I want to say “I miss you”, as I lie curled up and alone in the corner of a large bed in a room that I used to call home but now feels a bit too big for me, lit up by nothing but the harsh light of a screen. But my hands waver, and I can’t quite get the words out – I hesitate, because those aren’t the right words, and strangely enough I can’t discern to whom I wanted to say these words.

The screen, though lit with a red light, didn’t convey the warmth of what I was trying to say. Neither would sending that message bring me the warmth or whatever it was that I craved, or anything more than two ticks (one if I was unlucky). The words were inadequate, and only a facet of what I was trying to say. And there was no one person who saying this to would feel enough – it would not even be enough to text the words to several people whom I missed.

Perhaps, in some sense, the feeling of wanting to send this message is perfectly captured by Marina Keegan when she wrote, in 2012, “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life (in this lockdown, in 2020, you get the idea)… It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together”. [1] That, is whom I want to write my message – my “I miss you” to – to this abundance of people living creatures – be it students, or staff, or doggos (miss you Leah uwu) who are in this together, who create this intertwined net of the opposite of loneliness at Law School. I want to send this message to you, but to you as a part of us, a part of this living breathing fabric of Law School – I miss you.

Except, as I mentioned, missing is not quite the right word, if one thinks of missing as feeling sad when this abundance of people is not present. Missing would apply to friend circles and significant others and roommates and other such inner circles – it is specific, intricate, and heavy – it weighs on you. But the feeling I have, it is different. It is more universal – it does not require me to know the specifics of the individual people in this abundance or have an intricate relationship with them. It is also a lighter and simpler feeling, in that doesn’t induce sadness in the same way or to the same level, nor does it have the layered, complicated ties of relationships.

It’s more that I yearn for the presence of this abundance of living creatures – the scattering at the field on a starry Friday night; the throbs of quad parties long bygone; the attendance calls of 8:50AM, the chatter of mess halls; the trickle from the library every night early early morning; the comforting woofs of a Chetta break; and the weekly jingles of a Happy Birthday; the music, laughter (and smoke :P) of hostel corridors and the gentle breath of roommates, just footsteps away.

Which brings me to the last part of what holds me back from sending my message – the message to this abundance of people, that I yearn for the presence that they create together – I cannot send it because I alone cannot fully capture the experience that Law School provides its abundance of people. The thing is though, the presence that I yearn for, it’s not something that I have wholly experienced – I am but one person in this abundance after all.

There is a concept in tumblr and pinterest feeds philosophy and psychology known as “qualia”. It refers to an instance of individual, subjective, conscious experience. An easy way to understand this is through a thought experiment – a neuroscientist, Mary, studies the science behind colour vision, and understands the biology and physics of it completely, but has lived in a black and white room all her life, and has therefore never experienced colour. Therefore, if she is now suddenly exposed to a world of colour, she will learn something new about colour, and this experience of it, which she cannot gain by otherwise studying about it, is qualia.

As Law School turns into Zoom University bit by bit, the experience of living Law School, which we can call the qualia of Law School is something that we realise we are losing out upon. Because even if we were to bring this abundance of people onto a massive video call, it would not be able to replace the sensation of physically being there, in that togetherness, it would not replace the original experience.

And I think the most beautiful thing about the qualia of the Law School experience is this – that it is a subjective, individual experience – it differs from person to person. Because each of us experiences this place differently, remember it differently, have different memories of it, and it means different things to us – and so, we yearn for it differently. And my yearning alone is inadequate because it stems from an infinitesimal fragment of the qualia of this abundance of people.

And that is what I yearn for – to really be there in Law School, in that abundance of people, in that togetherness, truly experiencing it, not just as an individual, but rather as a person interacting with this abundance, and their qualia. To be a smidge on the scattering in the field watching a Nags sunset, and throb along to the quad party music; to answer an attendance call, chatter away in the mess halls; trickle away from the library; to relax with the basketball court doggos (and maybe even Olivia), and sing a Happy Birthday at a Chetta barb; to laugh, play music, and fall asleep in a hostel room. I yearn for the warm envelope of these sensations, I yearn for the abundance of people that make that togetherness real, with their own qualia of Law School, and I yearn to be a part of this living breathing fabric of Law School.

And I know there’s not much I, well, we, can do about it. That’s another reason, after all, why this feeling isn’t the feeling of missing Law School. See, if this feeling were one of missing, we would do something about it – we do do something about it when we call or text or share a meme with the people that we miss. But this, this abundance of people, and this Law School experience it is not something that we can miss, and attempt to make up for, it is only something we can yearn after.

There is still hope however, I think, for my yearning. It’s true that there’s little we can do about yearning. I don’t think it would actually be a good idea to have a Zoom call with all of us – Zoom has a 40-minute limit and we’d never all be there on time, that at least is an aspect of Law School we have managed to retain. However, we can, as we yearn, think of it, the way Carl Sagan thinks of the pale blue dot.[2] We can observe the fact that we are one in this abundance. We can take a moment to savour the qualia of Law School that we have a memory of experiencing. We can let it pique our interest that we are but one of this abundance of people, and reach out to another, to get a glimpse into their qualia of this experience that overlap in so many ways, and yet do not completely share. We can listen to them talk – about their solitude on the field; the beat of a quad party; their mad rush to the attendance call; the quiet of a Homely lunch; and the AIR Café group study well past 3AM; the rant that only the puppy by Gate 0 heard; a Navalgund barb; the warmth of a small hostel bed and the hug of a roommate. And as we listen, as we really take in a minutiae of this living, breathing fabric of Law School that we are a part of, we can remind ourselves to be grateful of what it has left us with, to deal more kindly with one another, and to cherish it more, once we are in sight of the tall tower against its stunning sunsets, once again.


[1] Keegan was an author, playwright, and journalist working at the New York Times. A collection of her works, which is named after her graduation essay from which this quote is taken, The Opposite of Loneliness, was published posthumously. Keegman died in 2012, a week after she graduated magna cum laude from Yale University.

[2] The pale blue dot is a reference to an image of the Earth as seen from nearly six billion kilometres away. Carl Sagan, in his book of the same name, writes, “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

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