You might not know the following figures—but you should. In Campus Characters, The Blue & White introduces you to a handful of Columbians who are up to interesting and extraordinary things and whose stories beg to be shared. This issue, we bring you two people with diverse interests. If you’d like to suggest a Campus Character, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Angela Vettikkal, CC ’17, came to New York from the suburbs of Cincinnati with plans to pick up a major in a STEM field and make a career out of Indian classical dance, which she has studied for years. Now she studies philosophy and Sanskrit.
“I thought, ‘Oh yeah, Sanskrit’s going to be really useful for me to be a dancer,’ but I don’t know if that was the real reason … I was told by some people I had met in my first year that Sanskrit was super difficult. Like it’s harder than Latin, it’s harder than Greek, so I was like, ‘Oh OK, so now I have to do it,’” Vettikkal explains. Rumors that it was similarly difficult and an interest in classics sparked by the Core led her to philosophy. By her junior year, Vettikkal’s explorations of philosophy and Sanskrit had begun to intersect.
“We [started] reading philosophical texts, it’s hard to say whether or not they’re philosophy because there’s no real word ‘philosophy’ in the Sanskrit tradition. There are instances where we could say that [the texts] are concerned with the same questions, like ‘What are the valid means of knowledge?’, ‘What is real?’, ‘Are there universals?,’ so we look at that and we say, ‘Oh that’s philosophy,’ but there’s not technically a single word for it. But we’re not reading [Sanskrit texts] in a philosophic way, we’re just trying to read the [text], what it says.”
This point is where Vettikkal’s training in philosophy comes into play. She continues, “but immediately this has philosophical concerns, because if you can’t follow the argument, you’re not going to be able to read the text or figure out what’s going on in the language, because there’s no way to just read it without knowing what’s going on.”
Bringing out her philosopher’s toolkit to try to understand what’s going on in certain Sanskrit texts led Vettikkal to organize a non-Western reading group with the Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) chapter at Columbia. This semester, Vettikkal, a professor in the Philosophy Department, and a cohort of undergrads and grad students across several departments are working their way through a text by a Buddhist philosopher of language named Jñānaśrīmitra.
Vettikkal isn’t sure whether she’s a Sanskrit scholar or philosopher first—she’s applying to graduate programs in both—perhaps “historian” is a better way to put it. “I just really like history of philosophy a lot, because it makes all these questions that some people take for granted completely contingent.” In the seminar she and I take together, she likes how “we’re getting into the history of how modern epistemological questions came to be the way that they are…
How did we get to this point right now? Whether or not the entire world is real, whether or not I’m still dreaming—there’s a history to these questions.”
Vettikkal doesn’t want to “destroy philosophy as we know it,” but she is interested in evaluating the categories that make up the discipline and illustrating how the trajectory differs in the Sanskrit intellectual history. In Western philosophy, “we take for granted that there’s Metaphysics, there’s Epistemology and there’s Ethics, [that] these are separate fields, [that] the discipline must be separated into these categories—so when you have an entirely, nearly independent philosophical tradition that lasted for at least 1,500 years, you see different categories that were formed, different developments…What if you didn’t start with Aristotle? What would have happened?”
“The saddest moment during my time at Columbia,” says Vikramaditya Kapur, CC ‘18, “was when Cannons closed down. The second saddest was when Bernheim and Schwartz did.” Though he contends that “vibrant is pushing it” when it comes to the infamously stagnant social scene here of which he has been a mainstay, Kapur maintains that he would have his wedding at Mel’s, and traces the origins of many of his closest and most enduring friendships to bars around Columbia. He is emphatic in his assertion that “there is a good time to be had,” though it helps that his friends all enjoy going out as well. “Everyone has a type of person they get on with,” he says, “you just have to find it—my friends are all people who I gelled with really fast.”
An international student from India who has also lived in Peru, Kapur is a familiar face to many in Morningside Heights. Majoring in Economics and Psychology, his plan for the short term is to stay in New York after he graduates, though he expects to eventually succumb to a lifelong passion for travel. He hopes to work in sales and carry his “work hard play hard” mentality into professional life.
On living abroad, he says that “the majority [of Indian students] have a different experience” than his own, because his compatriots “stay more true to themselves,” whereas he has “embraced life in America.” When asked about his fondest memory at Columbia, Kapur says that “the best day of my life was the day I got an ID that said I was 21. So many more opportunities opened up.”
Indeed, Kapur is appreciative above all for the “opportunity to meet so many people” that he has been afforded by his time at Columbia. He urges younger students to explore, both on and off campus: “you don’t have to spend money—there’s just so much to do.” The rooftop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of his favorite places in the city and he is in the midst of planning a trip to Six Flags next weekend with his friends.
Though his forays downtown are frequent, he maintains his affection for nightlife in Morningside Heights, and attributes this to something more than the fact that he does “enjoy a drink from time to time.” Kapur is refreshingly clear in his acknowledgement and enjoyment of a community around Columbia, especially given the carefully practiced cynicism most upperclassmen adopt in their attitudes towards our student community.
Throughout our conversation, his charisma and predilection for a good time shine through, and it begins to feel like perhaps some others could benefit from the application of his trademark nihilistic epicureanism.
What has surprised him the most during his time here? “I thought Americans could drink a lot,” he says, “but they really can’t—the movies overplay it.”
— Saif Maqbool