Saturday, June 21, 2008

What They Taught Me In College

The Profs in the Mathematics Department back at St. Stephen's were an interesting set of people... each leaving an indelible mark in my memory for her or his own specific reason. These are the people who led me to be fascinated with Mathematics. They were also the people who taught me some important values. And, of course, my friends and I did have quite a lot of fun at their expense behind their backs - as is quite usual in any teacher - student setup in urban India. But in spite of all that, I have a huge amount of respect for all of them. And I want to write about all of them here. And about the stuff they taught me.

Quite possibly, it is simplest to describe Dr Geeta Venkataraman. She was this really sweet, calm, confident person. I never once saw her lose her cool. I also do not remember anyone being annoying enough in her class to cause her to lose her cool. GV, as she was referred to, commanded that kind of respect. And at the same time, she made you comfortable enough to talk to her like you would to a friend. She was a great motivator. At least I found her to be so.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, as I see it, sits Dr Sanjeev Aggarwal. Aggy, as he was fondly referred to, was probably the most complicated character in our department. Extremely outspoken. Totally encouraging and extremely discouraging at the same time. Notorious for hardly ever awarding marks in double digits in the January Tests, which were marked out of fifty. One of my classmates once commented that, in our immediately senior batch, if you added up what the entire class got in Aggy's Jan Test, you would still not add up to fifty! Immodestly speaking, what I got on his Jan Test constitutes Douglas Adams's answer to the question of Life, The Universe and Everything.

During his tutes he would completely insult anybody and everybody, but in a way in which we never really took it to heart. When I was applying to Oxford, I went to him for a recommendation. He was known to be a little brutal in writing recos, but I was feeling adventurous enough to take the risk. Aggy and GV had both themselves graduated from St. Stephen's and post-graduated from the University of Oxford. When I went to Aggy for a reco, he told me: "One needs two things to pursue a career in Mathematics. One is talent. The other is passion. I have absolutely no doubt that you have the talent you need. About the passion I'm not so sure." He also said that the interest you feel for Mathematics is much like romance. You feel it quite passionately, but it dies out, much like real life romance. I never really agreed with his views on anything, but I always found them interesting. By the way, in spite of the lack of passion and the fact that I did ask him to write me a reco anyway, I did make it through to my first preference college at Oxford. The reason why I did not go there probably demands a separate post which I may or may not write at another time.

Aggy had this remarkable passion for his subject. He used to tell anecdotes of his college days when, you know, if he figured out the solution to a problem he'd been working on for a while, he'd start dancing around in his balcony with his neighbours staring at him. He encouraged all of us to be that passionate. He firmly believed that we all needed to be passionate about something in life, if not Mathematics.

Then there was Dr Mathur. Completely opposite to GV in a different respect. Remarkably quick at flying off the handle. He'd lose his temper about once during every lecture. Possibly because he was one of the most senior people in the department (he retired a little before we got our farewell). At that age, people tend to be quite set in their ways and not too open to change. Changing culture, changing attitudes. He had his own ideas on how ladies should behave and on just about everything else. He was really good at remembering people. After perhaps three or four days of college, he never once called out names while marking attendance. He'd just look at everyone during the lecture and mark it all on his own. So no scope for proxies there!

The thing about him that I remember most distinctly was that, no matter how angry he got with you in class, he'd be back to his sweet self the instant you were talking to him outside of class. If you apologised to him, he'd accept it most gracefully.

Okay, so my classmates from St. Stephen's who are reading must be eagerly awaiting this. Dr Amber Habib. I think he was the only one in the department who did not graduate or post graduate from St. Stephen's himself. He'd done an integrated MTech from IIT Kanpur and spent a few years teaching at the University of Berkley. He was this really sweet, simple and humble person. Most of my close friends did not like him or his teaching style too much. I never quite understood why. Because I did. I liked him a lot. And I found his teaching style interesting. Inevitably, when all my friends were engrossed in making fun of him, I'd stick up for him. So I came to be accused of having a crush on him.

He was a man of varied interests. Mathematics, Computers, painting, butterflies... there's a long list. My friends who did not like him did find him and his antics interesting in a strange kind of way. There was this white kurta that he used to wear sometimes which used to provoke them into poking any amount of fun at him. Aarti has immortalised that kurta in the yearbook write-up she wrote for me.

Then there was Dr Ranjit Bhatia. He is a former Olympic athlete. By the time we were in our first year, which was his last year of service to the College where he'd studied too, he'd developed a pretty serious case of Parkinsosn's. But he was still very independent, financially and otherwise.

And of course, I cannot possibly miss out Nandita Naraian. Ms Naraian is actually enough to require a separate post, but this one would be grossly incomplete without her mention. She was a lot more than a teacher. Ordinarily, the Profs at St. Stephen's stay away from the Delhi University Teacher's Association (DUTA) (as do the students from DUSU), but Nandy, as we called her, was one active member. She always took the lead in any protest that DUTA or the public at large was making against anything that she considered worth protesting against. Be it a candlelight vigil or a hunger strike or just a procession, she'd be there. But she had her own ideas about the methods of protesting. She did not believe in conventional strikes. Because they'd put the students at a loss for no fault of theirs. There was this strike that happened in 1983 that she loved to talk about over and over again. I do not remember what they were protesting against then. But I do remember the way they did it. Nandy used to take portable blackboards and all her students to the India Gate grounds and teach them there, where she could get all the media attention she wanted and needed. She described how she and the entire class of students used to hop around from one bus to another from College to India Gate. She made it sound like we'd missed an adventure of a lifetime by not being part of it. She once asked us how old we were in 1983. She was noticeably disappointed to find out that the vast majority of the people in our batch were only a year old back then.

Anyway, we were actually lucky enough to experience a slightly toned-down version of that adventure. When we were final year students, there was some talk of increasing the working hours of lecturers in the University without increasing their compensation. DUTA was obviously protesting against that. Nandy and GV participated in that protest by teaching us in the grounds right outside the Vice-Chancellor's Office. These grounds were actually almost adjacent to one of the College gates, so we did not get to hop around between buses. But it was still an experience of a lifetime.

When I asked Nandy for a reco for applying to Oxford and Cambridge, she was totally thrilled. To know that I wanted to pursue higher Mathematics. Immodestly speaking, I was one of her favourite students. I do sometimes feel I let her down by giving up all that.

Nandy had a huge amount of passionate concern for the environment, the country, society, her students, world peace... there's a long list here. She was a fiercely independent woman. And she was a brilliant teacher. She used to say that teaching was like oxygen for her. She could not live without it.

So, you know, I learnt a lot from all these people other than Analysis and Algebra and all that stuff. I learnt that you need to be passionate about whatever you do in life. I learnt that as long as you think you can, you can be completely independent. I learnt that we all need to learn to care about others and about society, and we all need to make our own contribution, small or large, towards making it a better place to live in.


tanu said...

bhavya how could u miss 2 people.....ruchi might be offended about one;)and Dr. RAdha Mohan,I know most of d ppl don't like her but she was very good to me......At d farewell she also told me tat she loved my asignments.......very few compliments come my way thru teachers so tat is spl.........and abt. d other teacher I think ruchi would b d better person to comment:)

Bhavya said...

I also missed out Archie and Sonia Dawar. I wrote only about those people who were memorable for me :)

tanu said...

I am really thankful to mathur sir as hadn't been that terrific diwali tute I would not be serious abt studies as much as I am today..

tanu said...

How could u say 'Mr.Excited' is not memorable..........

Vimal Joshi said...

Bhavya, it was lovely reading your post. I stay within a distance of two kilometers from Stephens, but could never imagine the life of students out there. It had always been a dream for me to study in Stephens or Oxford, but for a girl like you, these are normal things.
You chronicled your college life quite patiently and with meticulous grace. I will keep reading your post. Good luck! Bye!

Gaurav Bhatnagar said...

Nice post Bhavya. I know some of these people too, it was interesting to read about them from you. Why don't you pick up a math course or two nearby? Maybe you will find its more interesting than you remember.

Bhavya said...

Actually my husband has also suggested the same thing a couple of times and I have been thinking about it. Meanwhile, I am reading up on my own about the Riemann hypothesis and other stuff that interests me.