The Joyful Mind of a Campus Anarchist
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:29
Photo courtesy of Meghna Sridhar '14
Sridhar's mind is organized like a flash mob, "utterly spontaneous and joyful," said Professor Adam Sitze.

When I first met Meghna Sridhar, she was the managing editor of the opinion section of The Amherst Student. That year was one of the most exciting and tumultuous years for The Student, and I was fortunate to be a small part of it working with her. Although she soon left to study abroad at Oxford, upon returning she stuck around as a columnist, and I was often privileged to be one of the first people to read her opinion pieces. With her graduation, The Student will undoubtedly lose one of its most critical and insightful writers.

But her contributions to the Amherst community extend far beyond the newspaper. As she leaves Amherst to travel the world as a Watson Fellow, Amherst bids farewell to a brilliant intellectual explorer, an unorthodox legal theorist and a courageous social critic.

Radical Restart

Although born in Hyderabad, India, Sridhar spent most of her early life growing up in New Delhi. She attended a high school that sent few students to America, and Amherst College — a tiny liberal arts school located across the world in western Massachusetts — seemed an unlikely place to end up.

Nonetheless because Sridhar wanted to double major, she needed to leave India for college and knew that a need-blind financial aid package for international students would be essential to make that happen. Amherst was one of the few schools that met such criteria, so there were practical reasons for going, but there were sentimental ones too.

“Whenever I went to airports and saw people — young people — traveling by themselves, I had always wanted to be that person,” Sridhar said. “I liked the idea of going off to a different place, being independent, breaking off everything and trying to find a clean start.”

Nonetheless, as Sridhar well knows, where we start is rarely where we end up.

“I started off wanting to major in economics … which is extremely hilarious to anyone who knows me now,” she joked.

Many of us may spend four years without questioning our initial academic goals, but some of us are fortunate enough to encounter a class that compels us to not just learn the subject material at hand, but to also become aware of and take control of our own learning. Sridhar may have arrived at Amherst in the fall, but it was not until the spring of her first year, when she took Introduction to Legal Theory with Professor Adam Sitze, that her education really took off in earnest.

“I first met Meghna way back in November 2010, when she visited me in my office to persuade me to let her take Introduction to Legal Theory as a first year student,” Sitze recollected. “I said yes, even though I had concerns that she wasn’t yet ready to take it — it’s a hard course, after all. But, as it turns out, in Meghna’s case it was the other way around: the course wasn’t ready for her. She did things you’re not supposed to do with canonical texts, and she succeeded wildly in her unorthodox approach.”

For Sridhar, the class represented a radical restart to her education.

“The things that I learned in that class allowed me to question a lot of the assumptions that economics was based on,” Sridhar said. “I started thinking more about politics, and the assumptions behind everything that drives our politics. The classes that I was taking — whether they appeared objective or not — actually all had their political bents, and I decided to start taking the ones — not necessarily the ones that I agreed with — but the ones that moved in the directions and under the assumptions that I cherished.”

Analyzing Anarchism

Sridhar wrote her thesis in law, jurisprudence and social thought on anarchism. She is well aware of the oxymoron of an anarchist law thesis and the contradictions that it entails.

“It’s an interesting case to be in, being a law major, because anarchism is the way to completely dispose of the law,” Sridhar said. “My thesis examines what is the relationship between law and anarchism … Does the law become as violent as the anarchy it says will occur in its absence? Isn’t the law the very height of arbitrary violence, despotism and chaos that it says anarchism will bring to us? And if law becomes its opposite, does anarchism become its opposite too?”

Writing a thesis about the end of law in a law department is audacious to say the least, but Sridhar confronted the intricate challenges of analyzing anarchism with a perspective that was both firmly grounded in intellectual rigor and uplifted by her effervescent passion.

“For me, working with Meghna exemplifies so much of what makes Amherst College superlative,” remarked LJST Professor David Delaney, who was Sridhar’s senior thesis advisor. “First of all, she is brilliant. Hers is a delightfully creative kind of intelligence. And it is one that is firmly grounded, theoretically sophisticated and at the same time broadly informed by worldly interests and passions.”

Yet, Delaney’s praise does not stop there.

“I truly felt — and felt privileged to feel — that I was working with someone who will come to excel at the highest levels of scholarship,” Delaney continued. “But these characteristics are not what set Meghna apart. She brings such joy and enthusiasm to, so far as I can tell, whatever she turns her attention toward. What I’ll remember most clearly about my work with her will be those dazzling moments when probing some difficult theoretical perplexity met release in laughter.”

Writing Wrongs

Sridhar was involved in The Amherst Student, in some shape or form, throughout her time at Amherst.

“The Amherst Student gave me a way to be completely engaged with the Amherst community, but also from a really critical standpoint,” Sridhar said. “I was actively participating but also taking an external perspective, and I was able to understand it as a narrative, rather than being so immersed in it that you only see the protection of Amherst above all else.”
In the fall of 2012, The Student published Angie Epifano’s “An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College.” Sridhar was managing editor of the opinion section at the time.

“Reading that article at 6 a.m. before anyone else had and being completely horrified by it … the opportunity to be at the center of that when everything was happening really fired up my political engagement with sexual assault issues on campus,” Sridhar recalled.

Although Sridhar also served as chair of the AAS Judiciary Council, her involvement in campus activism increasingly distanced her from campus institutions.

“The semester that I was JC chair was the same semester that all the sexual assault protests broke out. Everything I did that was involved in those protests — which I still think is some of the most important stuff I’ve done at Amherst, even though you can’t write it on a CV — came completely outside, and probably against, my capacity as JC chair,” Sridhar said. “I become more focused on what I could do outside the institution.”

During her senior year, Sridhar used writing to right wrongs that she witnessed around her. Her biweekly column “Writing from the Left” critically addressed campus issues and had a transformative impact on campus culture and discourse.

“She has taken on an important role as a public intellectual on campus,” commented LJST Professor Martha Umphrey. “She has written thoughtful, clear-eyed critiques of student life and politics in The Student. I sit on a strategic planning committee engaged with questions of co-curricular life here, and her columns have been cited and discussed by the faculty, staff and students on the committee as we explore ways to enhance student civic culture. In other words, her thinking makes a difference.”

Inimitable Intersection

Sridhar was awarded a Watson Fellowship and will spend her year after graduation traveling the world researching the Sanskrit epic poem “Ramayana” and its various manifestations, with the ultimate goal of crafting her own retelling of “Ramayana” in a modern setting. After completing her Watson project, the future is less clear, but Sridhar aims to go to graduate school, further her studies in anarchism and eventually become a professor — continuing her trend of going into law departments and talking about why the law should not exist.

Whatever she may do, she will undoubtedly excel, but moreover, she will excel her way.

“Meghna has a rambunctious, jubilant and courageous personality, and her mind is no different,” Sitze said. “It would be easy enough for a student of law and politics to organize her mind on the model of a hierarchically arranged courthouse, with higher and lower faculties, judges of different ranks giving orders to each other and so forth. Meghna’s mind is organized on the model of a flash mob: utterly spontaneous and joyful, but no less coordinated, structured and purposeful for that spontaneity and joy.”

And wherever she may go, she will light up those around her.

“Meghna’s energy, intelligence and tenacity have always been her standout qualities to me. She is a beautiful person with love for everyone who crosses her path,” said friend and housemate Maia Mares ’14. “She continuously pours energy into friendships with people around the world, loyally keeping those she loves close to her no matter the distance.”

Even professors can feel her fierce commitment to standing up for what she believes and cares in.

“Meghna’s real signature is her passionate, fearless and caring voice. Meghna is someone who listens to her conscience, someone who just can’t sleep at night if things aren’t right,” Sitze added. “She’s not afraid to speak up for what she thinks is right, even if her dissent places her in a numerical minority and earns her criticism from a numerical majority. I really admire this in her.”

Sridhar embodies an inimitable intersection of so many unique and remarkable qualities: brilliant, unorthodox, courageous, compassionate are all words that come to mind. She, of course, has her less remarkable qualities too, but even those merit mentioning.

“What most people don’t realize about Meghna is that she has what is surely the world’s largest collection of kitschy GIF files,” Sitze joked. “Sometimes I’ll send her some quasi-formal email for which, foolishly, I expect a quasi-formal reply, only to receive (for example) a repeating image of an anime unicorn leaping for joy while throwing around rainbow sparkles that coalesce to form the word ‘awesome.’ In the Venn diagram formed by the sets ‘radical anarchist activists’ and ‘collectors of kitschy GIFs,’ Meghna Sridhar is surely the only point of overlap. Which is to say: she’s one of a kind.”

Andrew Lindsay '16 (not verified) says:
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 18:43

Amherst College will surely be a hell of a lot duller without Meghna. She is probably one of the smartest and most sincere people I have ever interacted with. Talking to her is literally an intellectual dream and reading her column really inspired me a lot during my time here. I only wish that I had half the brains and courage that she does.

Although I'm sad that she's going, I think the world needs her more. Neoliberalism won't be destroyed on its own. Amherst College was just a smaller phytoplankton in a bigger pond of Chicago school bullshit.