The Newsletter 96 Autumn 2023

A Transformative Experience

Aditya Kiran Kakati

I began a fellowship at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, in 2021. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the IIAS provided a unique environment for fostering a sense of community and connections. From potlucks, picnics and barbeques to stimulating conversations with the ghosts in the basement, my time at the IIAS was a transformative experience that surpassed all expectations.

Many of us fellows lived in the same building at Hogewoerd, Leiden's historical textile fabrication district in its glory days. During these initial months and under the duress of the pandemic, we organized potluck dinners, picnics, and barbeques, taking advantage of Spring weather. These gatherings provided a platform for sharing delicious food from different culinary cultures, peppered with discussions and, sometimes, even debates about culinary “exceptionalism.” Breaking bread together, we exchanged stories, experiences, and ideas, finding solace and support in each other during the challenging times of the pandemic.

When the IIAS office became accessible again, fellows could find some regularity and routine for work. The IIAS building is by the canal on Rapenburg, providing a workspace with an old charm. I routinely encouraged other fellows to gather for lunch, especially in the cute back garden of the office, equipped with wooden benches and tables. I often found myself working late into the night. As most people left, I discovered an unexpected company in the form of ghosts in the basement. These spectral companions, remnants of the institute's long history, seemed imbued with a wealth of knowledge and stories. More recently, after my reassurances about the friendly spirits, the late-night working crew of fellows has grown in size. The serenity of late evening when the office bustle subsides and the yellow lighting in the old building creates a reflective atmosphere that I found beneficial for writing.

Fellows and others attend a puja in the Netherlands. (Photo courtesy of Aditya Kiran Kakati)


Being part of the IIAS community, I actively participated in the whole range of activities offered. One of the more significant engagements was at ICAS 2021, hosted online from  Kyoto that year and remotely managed from Leiden. During the quiet summer months, I bonded with the organizing staff and provided moral support for their late-evening shifts. Apart from my panels at this conference, I helped set up a last-minute “break-in” panel on Afghanistan overnight, and the outcomes of that discussion were very productive. Beyond the confines of the IIAS, some fellows started to attend the annual Durga Puja celebrations in Den Haag. This celebration was a way to interact with the South Asian community in South Holland and, more importantly, partake of some delicious festival feasts to feed both bellies and nostalgia for home. Between hectic late-evening work routines, we organized several barbeques, including on New Year’s eve, when another wave of the pandemic returned in the winter. Ever since, I have pushed to promote “winter barbeques”. Local events such as “Leiden Onzet,” or the city’s wonderful weekly markets provided other rallying points for us. Such experiences created strong bonds among fellows and made the experience of living in the quaint and scenic Leiden even more wholesome.

The IIAS provided a home base for interdisciplinary research and creative exploration, providing a stable platform for pursuing intellectual and creative endeavors. Leiden University’s vast library resources, various departments, and research centers where I presented in seminars have all provided a crucial milieu for me to develop intellectually, professionally, and personally.

My fellowship at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden during the pandemic was an unexpected journey. The IIAS created a vibrant and welcoming community that fostered connections, intellectual pursuits, and cultural immersion while providing a place for me to return to upon completion of my Swiss National Science Foundation postdoctoral mobility grant. Through shared meals and recipes, late-night conversations with spectral companions, active participation in various events, and the overall nurturing environment of the institute, my time at the IIAS became a transformative experience.