Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Death of a Chota Sahib

Yesterday I learned of the death of my dear friend and mentor, an Anglo Indian for whom I'd worked as a research assistant for a dozen years after he retired as professor emeritus of history and comparative religion at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I began to assemble photographs and memories for a eulogy here. But last night I received a "cease and desist" request from his widow, a famous writer of mysteries, who asked me to remove all reference to him from my site. She wrote me that "it's kind of peculiar for my readers to follow a google alert that leads them to a blog with Barbie and Ken having sex..." I was stunned.

The Professor (who shall remain nameless along with his widow to avoid the google sensors) would have found this very funny. He spent a lifetime cultivating and demolishing his reputation. He took great pleasure in calling himself "chota sahib" (little man) while his students often looked up to him as a guru and many of his fellow academics sometimes referred to him as a fool and charlatan. He had a love for bawdy humor, puns and limericks, and enjoyed confessing his most scandalous faults. While he never tuned in totally to American culture after 40 years of living in California, I'm sure he would have laughed at my story of Barbie Doll's history. My blog posts were read to him by Michael, the caregiver who looked after him during the past two years (and who visited me here two weeks ago). In the last email I received from them, The Professor wrote: "We have just brought ourselves up to date on your blog and found it full of fun and entertainment as well as deep thinking."

I found The Professor, who died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 86 after a long struggle with aging, to be both the oddest and the most human individual I had ever met. Born of Anglo Indian parents in what would later become Pakistan, he never really fit in elsewhere. His father, who strung telegraph wire to Tibet for the British, sent him to England after the war to be educated because he had the bluest eyes of all his children. There he worked his way through a redbrick university and ultimately earned a Ph.d. with a dissertation on the 4th century Emperor Theodosius who established Christianity as a state religion. He married Evelyn, the woman who typed his papers, was ordained an Anglican cleric and settled down in a small parish. But adventure beckoned, and they left with the first of their four children for Africa where The Professor taught Christianity and studied native religions in Uganda and Ghana.

In the mid 1960s, The Professor was recruited for the new experimental campus at Santa Cruz which was modeled on the college system of Oxford and Cambridge. UC Santa Cruz was a hot bed of hippie experimentation. His office was at Merrill College where the buldings had been painted with the colors of the North Vietnam flag. Wisely, he took a position in the history department rather than religious studies which soon came under fire for letting students study a variety of spiritual faiths from the inside rather than objectively from the outside. The Professor taught courses on Christian history and Asian religions which drew hundreds of students, as well as derision from other teachers who thought his methods lacked academic rigor. His white beard and bushy head of hair marked him as a guru for students in need of inspiration and affirmation -- sometimes he wore an African robe to class -- and several generations of students credited him with changing their lives.

I encountered The Professor in the mid-1980s just after I'd enrolled as a part-time undergraduate student in philosophy with a concentration in religious thought. The religious studies department had been disestablished by then, and at a reception for one of the former teachers he got up in front of the assembled guests and wept openly for what might have been. I was moved, and later I offered to help maintain the presence of religious studies on campus. He suggested I form a study group which I did, and for several years it provided a forum for faculty and students who continued to believe that religion was a valid subject of academic study, and that objectivity was only one tool among many. The Professor's classes in religious history were so large that he recruited senior students to lead discussion sections and I was one of many that benefited from this early training. When he decided to retire in 1992 I joined other former students to help organize a memorial lecture series in his honor.

The Professor's office at Merrill was a study in chaos. Books were strewn higgledy-piggeldy everywhere. A steady stream of students attended his office hours, somehow finding a place to sit, often on the floor. He loved to invite people to lunch which usually consisted of the leftovers of some mysterious Anglo Indian dish he'd cooked at home the night before, pungent and spicey. His interaction with students was intimate and went beyond a concern that they understand the subject at hand. This odd academic anomaly, so vastly different from the ken of the California kids he taught, was devoted to helping them grow as human beings. This goal has someone dropped out of the current curriculum (if it was every there). And his peers resented his popularity, as if it trivialized his pedagogy.

I got to know The Professor much better when I began work as his research assistant at the large hilltop home his wife's successful writing had enabled them to buy. His messy office was the duplicate of the one at Merrill. Nothing was ever wasted, or thrown away. Books and papers were sorted by a schema only he knew. His book collection had been stored in the former barn where mice had the run of the shelves. When he attempted to donate them to the UCSC library, few could be salvaged. Since The Professor had never learned to type, I took dictation on the computer for email and scholarly articles. We sometimes had to compete with the cats for space. I was awed by his ability to compose emails off the top of his head with little revision ever needed. They invariably began, "My dear ...." His language was flowery and archaic, the product of a British colonial upbringing. It was also full of humor and irony. The Professor was never direct, which would be impolite, but rather always got to the point in a circular fashion.

In his retirement, besides keeping in touch with his farflung family and writing many forwords and prefaces for the work of colleagues, he concentrated on revising and reissuing early work on religion in Africa and new translations of the travels of Ibn Battuta in 14th century Asia. He also tried to write an autobiography, but as his powers of concentration and memory failed the writing (or dictating) became less coherent. Much was written by and for the Sikhs who, I believed, exploited him shamelessly. He supervised Ph.d. theses for suspect Canadian schools and was the token European professor at conferences where he was called upon to defend one faction or another of that contentious religion. He somehow found allegiances to all known religions, but, when questioned by me, his certainties seemed to vanish. I came to see that, aside from occasional outbursts of irration at the perfidities of life or the indignities of aging, The Professor was essentially a man for others. He gave of himself and said yes to everyone, until there was little left, his ego a mere lovely shell.

I was never quite sure, however, whether I was an employee or a friend. He called me his "amanuensis," his scribe, and said I made it possible for him to continue his work, but I'm sure I was part of a long line of secretaries, going back to his first wife, who enabled his scholarly productivity (which, sad to say, was neither prodigious nor acclaimed). He was constantly trying to pay me more than I asked for the job, even to the point of giving me unexpected bonuses, and the Tuesday morning work period always ended with lunch on his time, the familar heating up of exotic leftovers. After his retirement, he had little contact with his former UCSC colleagues who mostly found him a little strange. There were scholars in distant lands who kept in touch and some even came to visit. But I do not think he had anything like a close friend, another man with whom he was close to out of love rather than expediency. I liked to think that I came close to being his friend.

I shall miss you, my professor.


Randall said...

Will, thank you for this thoughtful post about "The Professor." I had affection for him, but never felt like I really knew him. Your post helped me get to know him a bit better. I especially liked the line: "... The Professor was essentially a man for others."

Anonymous said...

I wonder at the attempt of man to understand religion, much less to find Divinity. I have a hunch after many years of sharing in such delusion that if we are found it is by Divinity itself. I have a hunch the nimbus behind every crisis or joy is already quite aware of us.
I have a hunch that he is aware of each of us and of our suffering earth as we ponder and plunder "better ways" of living. If only love of the other guided us vs our own wish to find, know, to glow with certitude, perhaps our quests would quietly come to an end.

I read the mystery books of that some one you mentioned. I have a better sense of who she may be. I am grateful for you post about your Professor. I have a sense that he was Found by that which others seek.

I am amazed reading your posts about people who find such diverse and interesting ways to live life or at least to puzzle over it. I have lead a quiet life tending to the challenges in my own life. One style seems large and my style of living seems small. That is the wonder of Truth, however. It is found in quiet, tiny moments or places as well as in wide expanses of human variety and activity.