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“I am bombarding you with ideas,” he would say almost as a matter of habit. It wasn’t just another mannerism. To a student for whom history was a record of the deeds of kings, great men — very few women — perhaps an insight into the exotica in museums, Biswamoy Pati, who passed away on June 24, was a teacher who opened new ways of understanding the past. I was his student at Delhi University’s Sri Venkateswara College in the early 1990s.
Those were interesting times — the V.P. Singh government had decided to implement the Mandal Commission Report, the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute was stoking animosities and the seeds of a decisive shift in the country’s political discourse were being sown. Mr Pati, as many of us would call him, was disturbed that some of his students — me included — were taking part in the anti-Mandal agitation. That wasn’t the usual teacher’s disapproval of students missing classes. Pati was bothered that his students had taken to the streets for the wrong cause.
I could not see his point then. His arguments against caste discrimination were well-taken. But why not address discrimination by providing employment to all? It was not that simple, my teacher reasoned. He usually had an animated manner of speaking that every now and then would be broken by an impish smile that could disarm even the most trenchant interlocutor. But his passion for what he believed was right became even more palpable during arguments such as the ones over the Mandal protests. In classrooms, outside it, over chai in the college canteen, many of us learnt that rights are not just about providing employment. Those were my first lessons in the axiom often used by historians: “The past lives in the present”.
“Historians should avoid the word, inevitable,” he once commented on a term paper I had written. A seemingly inscrutable remark such as this was amongst Pati’s ways of challenging his students out of their comfort zones. Besides great men, history was peopled with peasants, tribal people, ordinary men and women; it was about social processes, landscapes and institutions — the caste system for example. The classroom, the small history department room and the canteen often became seamless; and the boundaries of the syllabus were breached. At such times, he would caution: “Don’t write all that we discussed in your examination answer sheet.”
I never used the word “inevitable”, in an answer sheet again. Pati’s comment stayed with me even though it took me years to fathom that he was actually cautioning against lazy history writing. It’s the task of historians to unravel social processes in the past and the ways in which human beings shaped the times they lived in. The word “inevitable” militates against this labour of love. Pati’s remark was a teacher’s way of pushing an undergraduate student towards the “historian’s craft”.
All my undergraduate years, I knew Pati as the quintessential teacher. Much later, I became acquainted with his formidable oeuvre that traversed the history of peasants, tribal people, the 1857 rebellion, medical history. He was awarded fellowships by prestigious institutions in the country, and different parts of the world. But he hardly ever talked about his own research in class. As a teacher, Pati was a mediator between the discipline and the student. His “bombardment” of ideas made many of us fall in love with history.
Pati did not just share his love for history, he also drew many of us into his passion for a more humane society — in his case, the two were perhaps inextricable. His affability sometimes showed up in unexpected ways. He once stopped in the middle of a lecture on the Boxer Rebellion in China to scold me for wearing what he described as a “thin pullover on a biting cold winter day”. “Asthmatics like you should avoid such bravado,” he said.
Mr Pati, these are times when the plurality of ideas is besieged. We needed you to keep bombarding the world with ideas. This was not the time for you to have departed, Sir.