Unmastery — 1st December 2023

Narayan Subramoniam
6 min readDec 1, 2023

I’m writing this issue in the Kitchener Central public library. A beautiful space with two storey windows, warm lighting, and a seating area facing a pleasantly busy street. I usually write out these issues incrementally over the course of two weeks but the past two weeks have been crappy for no particular reason. It could be the sudden wintry days or the end of many deadlines, I’m not sure. But I was this close to not publishing this Friday because I had not done ‘the work’ for this issue. I had planned to spend time and space on the concepts of decolonization and Indigenous geographies. But I don’t think I can do it the justice I had planned on.

So I’m changing my plans because there’s no real accountability here. The next few issues of Unmastery will be almost exclusively non-academic. We’re going back to the roots of this blog: a word vomit of travel and thoughts to my friends and family. Tune back in 2024 for a more thought out blog on topics in human geography. Read on for memories of Diwali and pictures of / blurbs on events I visited.

Diwali aka Deepavali aka ThE fESTival Of liGHTs

I don’t remember my first Diwali. Our family and friends met and partied so often in the early 00’s that Diwali was just another party we were a part of. The religious significance never came to the forefront, even when I was at the height of my Hinduism phase, possibly because we didn’t sing any prayers at Diwali — the lights did that job. I do remember almost burning the house down. We light some candles in the house and then went down the street to a diwali party. The lights, we reasoned, were safe because we lit them on these cute candle-sized plastic rafts that were floating on top of water in a glass bowl. And oh! if you put more plastic beads at the bottom of the bowl, then there’s a beautiful rippling effect on the wall. We all admired that for a few seconds and then turned the key in to our front door. The party down the road was fantastic. I still remember the food 18 years later: some paneer bhurji, malai kofta, and black daal. I also think people drank but they did it covertly enough that young-me didn’t catch them. Some kids smelled a bit of smoke around midnight, but we just thought that was our dads smoking. We walked back around 3am (an early night because something didn’t feel right) to our house. The door opened to black. Black soot on the walls and ceiling. I still recall that smell of charred plastic — the kind you get when you pass by trash burns. No one had a great stress response: people started wailing, a little bit of shouting, some crying. We’re not very sure what happened that night but here’s a theory:

The tealit candles heated up the plastic rafts / the water, which heated up the plastic beads, and then exploded.

I am not sure if we even called the fire department. Some people came in the next day to help in cleaning and mentioned we were lucky. What’s funny about all this now is that the usual danger with Diwali is the metric ton of firecrackers that we (“safely”) discharge in our backyards. To date, nothing of the sort has resulted in an accident. But damn if I don’t light candles anymore. So sure there’s a mild negative association with Diwali but I did miss the holiday and its timeliness of coming in just as the Canadian sun slept earlier in the day.

That feeling of community, of coming together, of having fun for hours on end came alive again thanks to one family. They invited friends across Kitchener and the GTA to have a scrumptious lunch on a banana leaf, chai in the evening to help with the food coma, a light dinner, and fireworks that almost certainly made them featured in the neighbourhood association’s “wanted list”.

Those are mango leaves, if you’re wondering

It’s very hard to create community meaningfully. You need that awkward moment when you’re the only person under 35 and have to talk politics with people for whom India isn’t merely a winter destination you’ve been to. You need to stay up late watching a movie that some people swear by and you swear at (in your head). And yes, there are some rituals that help: not leaving your plate (in this case, a banana leaf) until everyone’s eaten¹, coaxing people to expand their stomach horizons and eat sum more, and telling the kids how tall they are now. It was fun, it was great, it helped show that the light’s winning.

Oh the places I went

  • Presented at my first ever conference: the Laurier Cold Region Research Centre’s Student Conference. Also known (quite whimsically) as “CRRC Days”. I ended up being the only human geographer (social scientist) presenting in a room of physical geographers (physical scientists), so it was fun to explain words again.
  • Voted for my Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) at an advance poll. My grandpa would be proud that I did that. The entire process was the polar opposite of Kafkaeque: filled out an online form the previous week to register my address, got my voter card in the mail, walked into a well-signed building 10 mins away from my house, and voted. The total process took me less than an hour of active time.
  • Turns out you can go axe-throwing with a bad wrist. Turns out you can also be pretty good at it if you transfer some archery knowledge to it. I’m all for a growth mindset but there does seem to be something ‘un-gettable’ for certain physical sports. Keeps me up at night.
You should check out my bedroom door now. My kitchen may be missing a knife.

The Road Ahead

Finally finished a personally big scholarship application, so I’m running off that high until December end. The paper I submitted to the journal gods has not been rejected yet and that’s doing wonders for my imposter syndrome. I have recently joined a ‘working group’ for Northern Canadian food policy and it’s scary to see how efficient seasoned academics are. More updates on this as we meet again in January. Podcasting across an international team continues to be a challenge but (of course) there’s a newsletter to help with that.

Oh and I’m going to Colombia with a dear old friend of mine. Unless Canada-Colombia relations sour in the next two weeks, hasta la huego en Colombia amigos. The route (we imagine) is Cartagena -> Santa Marta -> Medellin -> Bogota in about a fortnight.

Lonely Planet on Cartagena, Colombia: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/discover-cartagena

Going to a lab social tonight: a celebration for the newbies (e.g. me) to have made it their first semester, and for the … oldbies to celebrate their wins. Life’s ticking to a new rhythm now. I like it.

This biweek’s article is by the Colombian literary giant Gabriel García Márquez about the Mexican author Juan Rulfo. He added in beauty to the article, and it was fuzzy-cute to see a history of him fangirling over another author: https://lithub.com/gabriel-garcia-marquez-on-the-magic-of-juan-rulfo/

This biweek’s quote is from The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. A book I try to savour slowly but fail.

What was a prayer, if not creation? Making something where nothing existed. Creating a wish out of despair, a plea out of anguish … forming humility from the empty pride of a human life.
Something from nothing. True creation.


1: Even the people that are really, really, r e a l l y slow. You know who you are, and I ❤ you for it.