I wonder whether you can do commerce without knowing book-keeping? : HUG speaks to Amlan Dasgupta

On June 3, 2017 by admin


Humanities Underground speaks to Amlan Dasgupta about work and non-work.


Prasanta Chakravarty:  What has been your sense of institutional life in India?

Amlan Dasgupta: My teaching life began at RKM College, Narendrapur and then at Scottish Church College. And then I had a fairly long stint at Calcutta University. For nearly 15 years there was a kind of continuity in my day to day existence among students who came from diverse backgrounds.  Many of the students had little connection with academic life; others were extremely able and motivated. I expect that much of what we talked about was their problems in general—about passing an exam, or finding a book or perhaps about studying literature itself. I came to know many students who would arrive from the smaller places and from nondescript colleges. In Calcutta University I spent a lot of time in the departmental library which I helped to run. It was a meeting place of a different kind, outside of the very formal classroom setting. All these helped to have a more hands-on and diversified sense of West Bengal education, I’d say.

When I joined Jadavpur University in 1995, I was excited and apprehensive at the same time. It was obviously a very strong department at that time. I could see that I had the opportunity to practice a more focused set of interests in my new work place. There was an integrated sense of departmental life. Two things stood out. The quality of teaching was very high and we got very good students.

But I wonder whether I had any actual effect in the institutional space. I do not think I made much of difference in the destinies of the students’ lives and trajectories here.  I was directing students differently in Calcutta University. It was an intervention of a different kind, more humbling and more matter of fact. See, I consider myself to be a teacher foremost and not a researcher. I prepared the students in Calcutta University by making another kind of intervention which possibly may have made an actual difference in the lives of at least a few, or at least I would like to believe that.

I thoroughly enjoyed my 22 years in Jadavpur, make no mistake. In fact, I could change the way I taught. I had more space to maneuver and improvise in the classroom space. Earlier I used to meticulously prepare each lecture. Here teaching was more exploratory. But this was possible due to the structure of courses and the nature of students. The syllabus has always been fluid and permeable. When we started the semester system, I found that I could teach a course on the English Revolution here! Besides, there was more scope of discussing academics outside of the class. We used to have long informal sessions on whatever took our fancy. That was not all: I could always consult my colleagues, barge into their offices and ask for any bit of information or share a thought and exchange ideas. That was different in my earlier life. My senior colleagues in Calcutta University—like Jyoti Bhattacharya or Arun Kumar Dasgupta were always receptive and encouraging and I used to turn to them continually for advice. In Jadavpur, the mode of interaction was different.  At least till a few years ago. Things are changing.

Prasanta: A large number of people who have interacted with you or have just seen you operate day to day have noticed right from the beginning how you make your presence felt, an ameliorating one, across the institutional space. I mean outside of the department, in the nooks and crannies and then outside of the university where you work, to other places and spaces.

Amlan: There is a way that one espouses, not always in a programmatic manner. But there is way of just speaking with people and spending time with them.  Just talking to people, perhaps, and conducting a course jointly or running a seminar together even. To read a book or hear a piece of music together and argue and feel about such things is always rewarding. All kinds of things will happen in the institution; all kinds of people will be around and students of every kind will pass by you.  One cannot give up. This I have learnt right from my early days of teaching. It is important to do as much as you can and reach out to people who might have a need. It is a shared kind of responsibility. If you spend a long time in a place you need to be resilient and extract life out of the place. Actually you do all this for your own sanity! One also goes out and sees the world. In my case, places like Delhi and Pune have provided me with a different perspective on life. Just travelling to places for academic or other reasons is not bad at all. Just to travel, see and know people. Renew some bonds; get to know some new faces. If I am called for a lecture or two, I usually go, unless there is some problem. You get perspective. That is all.


Prasanta:  There is particular flavor that you bring to the teaching of literature; a distinct mood and method in the classes you teach, into the questions you highlight and the scholarly universe that you straddle.

Amlan:  I expect that has much to do with the training I had. My teachers have had had an important impact upon me, right from school. There were so many of them. I have been exceptionally fortunate in my teachers. My school teacher Aniruddha Lahiri, for instance, introduced me to an amazing range of books. This has been a relationship of a lifetime. I had a great deal of interest in history. It is largely owing to him that my taste in literature took shape.  Mr. Lahiri not only provided me with directions but also, most crucially, provided each of the readings with a context. Each text turned thicker.  All kinds of books, from popular fiction to philosophy, he’d encourage me to read and lend me the books. Since he also used to tell me stories behind all these authors and give me a history a wider historical context, I used to get a sense of the intellectual currents and cross-currents; a sense of the larger framework of ideas. Even now whenever I visit him I am invariably rewarded. From Arun babu (Dasgupta), like many others, I learnt most of what I know about the Renaissance, but perhaps not in the way that he taught us. One has to make sense of what one learns with the resources one possesses one self.  Professor Dasgupta was the most insightful reader of texts that I have known. Texts were situated in the cusp of the intellectual movements. And a great deal of philosophy was impacted into the discussions, which now seems very foundational. I think that the older that I get the better I am able to understand my teachers. Later, at Jadavpur, I was taught by Kitty Scoular Dutta and Ranajay Karlekar  Mr Karlekar’s was an influence of a much subtle kind, something we valued a lot. He would indulge our youthful demands and yet the depth and rigour of his scholarship was quite amazing. I remember that we demanded that he play cricket with us before we would sit down to study. After his untimely demise a sense of responsibility dawned upon us. There was this void: that there was none to latch on to who would indulge us, take our vaguest questions most seriously.

When I started teaching at Calcutta University, I started taking lessons in Latin and Greek. I used to go to St Xavier’s School after classes to meet Father Raymond Pilette. After Father Pilette went back to Belgium, I joined a Greek class at Bishop’s College, with Rev. Mary Macgregor. I think that these engagements were both formative and rewarding. As you know, I’ve tried to keep up the Latin class for the last 25 years.

In Oxford, with John Carey as my M.Phil supervisor, I actually got into the kind of study that has been my bread and butter since.  Again Carey was a superb textual scholar. And I used to spend lot of time just reading. This was 1980-81. I recall that during my first Christmas break, I asked him whether I could go for a holiday. Carey agreed, but just asked me to also read all the 8 volumes of John Milton’s prose works. So, I came back in five days and would plough through those volumes in the library. And notice the likes of Carey and David Norbrook reading alongside.  I had put in a lot of effort at that time on reading.  So, at the end of it all, I suggested to Carey whether I could do a comparative study of Augustine’s City of God and Milton’s Paradise Regained. And he agreed. At that time I also got an offer from OUP. So, I told them that if I fail my M.Phil, I surely shall consider joining!


Prasanta: And then back home?

Amlan: Yes, I always wanted to come back; hoped to do further work and dreamt about teaching here. Arun Babu encouraged me to read Aristophanes for teaching purposes at one point. So I read what I could of Aristophanes. And whatever scholarly work on Aristophanes was available at that point of time. National Library was the place where I used to spend my time. And I began teaching Aristophanes and then Milton of course. And Yeats.. This urge to contextualize was a deep seated one, something that my teachers had instilled in me. So the classical world too got gradually contextualized and I invented my own ways to do that. At one point I got interested in Bakhtin.  And Benjamin and Agamben. But these were all unsystematic. I guess it all got assimilated in some mysterious way. I always say that for me, after 1660, everything is very patchy.

I embarked on my doctoral studies with Rabindra Kumar Dasgupta and Jasodhara Bagchi. And then my interest in Christian thought took more definitive shape and structure.  This of course had an earlier trajectory too, and I had considered doing something on the civil war tracts at Oxford. Everything now sort of came together.

Prasanta:  So, about this magpie like soaking in our diverse reading habits: it always seemed to many of us that your interests have a deeper thread somewhere. As if the choices you are making about reading and taking your students were a testament to a stoic yet deeply approachable way of confronting life’s many travails. Frankly speaking, it was a marvel to find someone who we could approach with our precocities and inanities. Some kind of ethical way of approaching life perhaps?

Amlan: I do what I can – in the only way I can. Sometimes I feel that things come together when I teach something, at others I can’t get a hold on them. So you try again the next time.  I have been immensely fortunate with friends. You know some of them – CS Lim, Aniket Jaaware, Uday Kumar, for instance. I’ve learnt a lot from my friends. All these somehow may connect to my own interests, as you suggest.  I guess I do not have any ideological mooring. I am just trying to make sense of things. That is good enough. One has little ambitions.  I have a plan of doing a trilingual interlinear, electronic version of Aristotle’s Poetics. Someday. Let us see.

Prasanta:  Do you see any change in the institutional life in your work-place and in academia in general, especially in the last two decades?

Amlan: Yes and no. As a teacher, you have to see how you are carrying last 30/40 years of your life along with you. There is a formative self and an additive self. One is historical, moving and evolving. The other, as it were, formed and grounded, always already.  Times will change, naturally. Good work will also be produced. On one hand I feel my work is done. Students still opt for the courses I teach. But I doubt whether some of them at least join because of what I teach – it  is more likely that my courses are thought of as being “soft”, in terms of attendance and grading.  Attendance particularly is very poor. I don’t mind. But there is a time to say adieu. New people and newer times demand new ways of doing English literature. So be it. Why not? But then I wonder whether you can do commerce without knowing book-keeping? Or physics without Newton’s laws? I value intellectual curiosity a lot. And also the context for the study of texts. As long as these things will remain, we shall thrive, I am certain. That is all.














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