Conversations with Dr Baker sometimes lasted an entire day – or at least, this was the case once every year, when he paid his annual visit to my home, wherever it was. He would arrive mid-morning, by bus (and later by train to Gurgaon), refusing offers of rides. Through a pre-lunch coffee, lunch, and evening tea, there was never a dearth of things to say, issues to discuss, the odd bit of gossip, disagreements to be thought through, information and concerns shared. Except for a brief post-lunch nap, he spoke animatedly, laughed out loud, poked fun at me (although he once had to assure me that he always laughed with me, never at me!) and included my family – parents and siblings, and later, husband and kids – in all of it. When out of town, he wrote letters – not terse folded blue ones, but several fountain-penned sheets, in the old, Victorian, style of chatty, informational, personal, communication. Occasionally, small notes appeared in my pigeon-hole in the staff room.
In second term, he would redecorate his rooms, with bright red and yellow rugs that held the glow of the slanted winter sun. For such an austere personality, this was such a delightful concession to warmth and surroundings. Then he would painstakingly prepare coffee for you, putting together ingredients from an array of little tins on the table near the wall. How much sugar, how much coffee, he would ask, and then smile if you asked him for more water and less milk, talking gently the whole time. If you asked me to characterize College in a few snapshots, this would be one of them; Dr Baker quietly poking fun at Dwivedi Sa’ab, chortling while Dwivedi, his eyes twinkling, would jab back, as only the oldest and most comfortable of friends do.
And both so genuinely interested in conversation; the details probed, the meanings of things teased out, the contexts, historical, social, philosophical, laid out and examined. How you felt about something, what you thought, what kind of experience this was – all this was brought out by questions and observations. What street was that again, that you mentioned – where the woman was singing arias while walking out of the subway? Do you think that the Manhattan of the twenties was … and how did that student appear when you said that … and isn’t it interesting that the title of Thakur originated in …. Conversations with these two historians, so vastly different in personality, were such a feast. Dr Baker would acknowledge my disagreements with him gravely, looking thoughtfully into a far corner of the staff room – usually at the entrance, since we most often sat in the corner right of the pigeonholes, where the heater was – and nod, consider the points made, and respond – or promise to respond when he had thought it over a bit. Dwivedi Sa’ab, on the other hand, lived for the disagreements, often making an outrageous statement only to get a good argument going, his impish smile betraying the good-humoured pinch of salt with which he took everything, the eyes crinkling with the joy of battle. So many, many times, a quick stroll to the café for tea with him in the middle of the day would spark the weary brain into new life and I would often stride into my next class with some little snippet of information or quirky quote fresh from our conversation.
Tea-time conversations with Dr Nagpaul used to be like that; usually with the cryptic crossword between us, Beethoven’s symphony scores and how many chips per-head would the afternoon tea need were dissected with equal precision. I can only assume that others more fortunate than me have those conversations with him now. Dr Harsh Kumar usually came in after lunch, and it seems like a lifetime ago, but it has only been twelve, long, years, since those lovely, meditative, informative, quietly humourous, conversations stopped. The elegance with which scripture and music, poetry and culture were thought through is a rare and wonderful thing. Sharma Sa’ab passed on all-too-soon after he brought me into the staff room but conversations with him had begun well before that – not just in Room S or in the corridors but in the staff room itself, on one memorable occasion. Thrown out of class and still angry, I fetched up at the staff room entrance in search of him. He listened sympathetically and then took me to the dhaba for a nimbu-pani of absolution. Mathur Sa’ab’s turn of phrase and perceptive understanding of character were delivered almost as footnotes, his self-deprecating laugh infectious, his sure grasp of the influence of Stephanians past on our collective ethos always a revelation. Humour, irreverence, wit, knowledge, personal concern – how swiftly these became a given; how attentively a point of view was listened to, how thoughtfully responded, what a wealth of insight and information was brought to any discussion, howsoever frivolous or weighty – I wonder at these now.
Now when ideas can so quickly become ‘issues’ and issues become so high definition that discussion is disagreement and disagreement is anger and anger is silence. My earliest understanding of the importance of being able to converse with anyone and everyone are of my parents obliging us kids – my earliest memory of this is at the age of 6 – to come and greet guests, sit with each, talk. Each guest was introduced to us by name and any one other thing that might help us relate to them – profession, interest, hobby, relationship, where they lived – and then we, in turn, were introduced to the guest. My dad – or mom – would tell them our names and something interesting about us. That is how the 6 year old girl and the adult guest entered into a conversation as equals, interested in each other and in communicating with each other. There are no uninteresting things, we were always told: only uninterested people. Maybe that is why I still believe in the inherent value of speaking with and meeting people.
It occurs to me that memories are our conversations with the past; and perhaps our conversations with the dead are the voices that we continue to hear for a lifetime. The many women, older and younger, whose voices have filled my years in College, are, thankfully, still alive and strong. A remembrance of conversations past with Dr. Baker makes me ever more grateful for those that I continue to have with these women and men, who help me refine and rethink my own ideas, challenge my preconceptions and add their wisdom to mine, shake me with laughter, and allow me to weep with them. May it be many years yet before they live only in my head.