Basudev Chatterji

Nayanjot Lahiri

I first met Basudev (lovingly called ‘Robi’) Chatterji in 1978 when I was an undergraduate student and he a lecturer at St. Stephen’s college. Over the years, he appeared in various avataras in my life –  as a mentor, as a friend, later as a colleague. Apart from university corridors,  I met him in DTC buses where he shared Bengali recipes including how the peels of potatoes were cooked. My first visit to India International Centre (IIC) was because of him. He came home many times when we lived in South Extension – where he always described what he drank as my ‘guru dakshina’ to him.

But it is Robi Chatterji as a teacher that I most want to remember today – especially since it was because of him that I decided to become a teacher  and researcher myself. He had just returned from Cambridge (U.K.) and we were the first batch of undergraduates that he taught after becoming ‘Dr.’ Chatterji.  He was a brilliant, if occasionally distracted teacher. He made his students feel that learning for the sake of learning was the most exciting and meaningful thing that they could do. He was the first true intellectual that I encountered, and whatever history he taught, it was the big picture that he highlighted. At a time when no one talked of connected histories, his expositions of modern India were as much about India as they were about Europe. That is usually done today but was then unusual and uncommon. Thanks to his shepherding, I read all kinds of books which had nothing to do with the antique world that I researched in –  from D.A. Low (Congress and the Raj), and Ravinder Kumar (Essays on Gandhian Politics), to  Fernand Braudel (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II) and Marc Bloch (The Historian’s Craft). Whenever I use these texts for my own teaching, I always recall that it was Robi who first spoke with such passion about them.

I have mentioned some of the ‘gyan’ that Robi gave me. I also recalled what came up in email conversations that I had with others. Keeping in mind the scoundrels who run our country, there was talk that governance should be outsourced. According to his friend and editor, Rukun Advani, while cursing current politicians looting the country dry,  Robi used to say:  “ Do send a telegram to the East India Company saying ‘Dear EIC, All Forgiven, Please Come Back.” Rukun also remembered Robi has a mimic, most unforgettably when he imitated Mr. Dwivedi, another legendary teacher and jokingly stated that “India’s biggest problem of communalism can be demolished very simply by finishing the Hindu Ego and the Muslim Eid”.

The other gem is from Ramachandra Guha about a lunch conversation with Robi in 2011  – when he was the ICHR chairman and used to visit Bengaluru. This is how he described it: ‘Robi is a thoroughly good egg in the Wodehousian sense. He began with some sensible remarks on how history should be studied and taught, then veered off into Whitehead, Spinoza, Wittgenstein and Ramu Gandhi. Somewhere he mentioned the word ‘music’; which I seized on, bringing in the names of Ali Abkar Khan (the musician he venerates most of all) and Debashish Chakravarty (Rukun’s Lucknow friend who helped me with my musical education). For the next half hour he told wonderful stories of Ali Akbar, Ravi Shankar, Alauddin Khan, Nikhil Bannerjee, et al. all new to me (and hence quite thrilling)…In about an hour and a half I got in nine words.’

I am sure that wherever Basudev Chatterji is, he would be telling his friends that death for him did not arrive too early because he was already immortal for many like me here. Death can neither give nor take that.