From Where I Sit - Big Bong theory

June 28, 2012

Two memoirs by Indian scholars who spent many years at Oxbridge offer salutary insights into life at the ancient universities. Tapan Raychaudhuri, author of The World in Our Time and a professor of Indian history at the University of Oxford, retired from the institution in 1993, while Fifty Years of Indian Archaeology (1960-2010): Journey of a Foot Soldier chronicles the professional life of Dilip K. Chakrabarti, a professor of South Asian archaeology at the University of Cambridge who stepped down in 2008.

Oxbridge professorships are among several threads common to their lives. Both these "Big Bongs" (an Indian acronym for upper-class Bengalis) studied at Kolkata's Presidency College, which in its heyday attracted the best minds in Bengal. They later taught at Calcutta University and the University of Delhi. Their writings provide a window into the deterioration in Indian university life over the past half century, which contrasts with their descriptions of outstanding teachers in Kolkata from the 1940s to the 1960s, Bengal's tradition of historical research and the range of English books educated Bengalis once read.

To Professor Chakrabarti's library, the footpaths of Kolkata's College Street seem to have yielded second-hand copies of Rudyard Kipling and the archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, while the landed intelligentsia to whom Professor Raychaudhuri belonged were huge admirers of philosophers such as David Hume.

Upper-class Bengalis who migrate to Oxbridge are sometimes derided for being more royalist than the Queen, so there is some anticipation that the real juice of these memoirs will flow when the Big Bongs reach the Promised Land. And flow it does. Professor Raychaudhuri finds Oxford "a major centre of empire worship" and is dismayed by the ignorance, even among radical colleagues, of the blood shed by the British Empire: one of them "had never heard of Britain's exploitative role" until he visited India, although he had studied British history at Oxford.

Professor Chakrabarti is justifiably aggrieved for a different reason: despite international recognition as South Asia's leading archaeologist, he was never made a college fellow nor even director of study. Two decades in Cambridge left him on the outside looking in at a glass case forged by a peculiarly English variety of academic insularity, whereby all scholars are proclaimed equal but some are more equal than others.

So, does Oxbridge treat non-English colleagues worse than North American universities? Professors Raychaudhuri and Chakrabarti believe so. The former recounts the experience of the Bengali philosopher B.K. Matilal, Spalding professor at Oxford in the mid-1970s, whose Indian-English accent, irrelevant when working in Canada (where he achieved international fame), got in his way at All Souls College. There, Professor Matilal was made to feel alien, Professor Raychaudhuri writes, which "throws light on a deplorable side of life in this university, the fact that some members of this august institution lack elementary civility".

A third Indian academic's memoir chimes implicitly with these insights. Padma Desai, professor of economics at Columbia University, praises the liberal atmosphere of US higher education in Breaking Out: An Indian Woman's American Journey. Hers is a path of liberation made possible by academic acceptance in the US.

Personal circumstances form a vital fault line in how academics remember their lives and careers. But it would seem there is a PhD waiting to be done on Oxbridge's upper-crust strategies to save itself from Third Worldlings with the wrong accent - a variety of snootiness from which the Ivy League seems relatively free.

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