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Sunday, September 19, 2021

David Baker, historian and St Stephen’s teacher, dies at 89

"He was meticulous in his preparation of lectures, was very systematic in his presentation, and wrote with small but clearly formed letters, joined to each other elegantly."

Written by Sukrita Baruah | New Delhi |
Updated: August 24, 2021 1:48:42 pm
Dr. David Baker (Twitter/Ningombam Bupenda Meitei)

When news of Dr David Baker’s death reached teachers of the college’s history department; they were in two minds about whether they — many of whom had been his students in the same department — should go ahead with the classes of the day. But they decided to use the classes to speak to students about him, particularly the newest batch who have only experienced online classes and have not witnessed his overwhelming presence on campus.

Dr Baker had joined the college as a young lecturer from Australia in 1969, moved into campus accommodation that year and was absorbed into its permanent faculty two years later. He retired in 1997 at the age of 65 and left the campus for a couple of years, but found that life outside did not suit him. The then principal Dr Anil Wilson allowed him to return and live on campus in the capacity of ‘block tutor’ of the Allnutt North residence block, which is where he lived for the rest of his life and passed away in the early hours of Monday.

He never married, did not have family in India, and is survived by a brother and sister in Australia, but according to the college’s principal John Varghese, “College was his family”. “He had a relationship with all his students, especially the students in his block, and that relationship transcended time and space. When I went to his rooms this morning, his study table, bedroom, cupboard, the corridors were all covered with photographs of and correspondences with his students,” he said.

His research had been based in Central India. He had published three books — Changing Political Leadership in an Indian Province: CP and Berar, 1919-39 (1979); Colonialism in an Indian Hinterland: Central Provinces, 1820-1920 (1993) and Baghelkhand, or the Tigers’ Lair: Region and Nation in Indian History (2007). Later, he worked on the history of St Stephen’s College, locating its making in the city’s own modern history.

“His interest in the history of St Stephen’s College was the result not just of his devotion to the college where he taught and love for the city which he made his home, but also from his abiding fascination, like in case of his research in the history of central India, with the dynamics of human life and the motivations that animate societies,” said Dr Aditya Pratap Deo, history teacher at the college who was also his student. “He had an incredible work ethic. In the last few years, he had aged considerably. But even then, even with the harness he had to wear around his chest, he would sit at his desk every day and work. Every day, he made it a point to read,” said principal Varghese.

But his most lasting legacy is the relationships he forged with students, including those he did not teach, even long after his retirement. Dr. Deo said, “He was meticulous in his preparation of lectures, was very systematic in his presentation, and wrote with small but clearly formed letters, joined to each other elegantly. He also drew maps of regions he was talking about, again with that thin, fine line, because of his belief in the importance of geography for history. Most of all, he emphasised discipline in work, daily, regular toil, persistence and perseverance, and total commitment and focus.”

“The first time I met him was in the principal’s garden for the welcome party for new students. I had been allotted the Allnutt North residence block and I was pronouncing it incorrectly. The first thing he did was correct me… As our block tutor, the first thing he did to get to know all of us was invite all of us in batches to his room for tea in the evening and take down our particulars to maintain an accountant like register of us… Later, he would invite a select group of us for dining out to Old Delhi restaurants… We connected because of our shared interest in history, particularly of the college and the area around the college. He was kind enough to take me for walks around Delhi ridge and the heritage sites there… He had also been in charge of the college archives for a long time, and had taken me there. As someone who has gone on to do history professionally, that was the first archive I had ever seen,” said Tathagata Dutta, Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University, who was a student in the college’s batch of 2016.

Dr Baker’s body will be placed in the college chapel on Tuesday morning for everyone to pay their respects.

“He was a no-nonsense person and a scholar par excellence… It was very unique for someone to return to campus after retirement but he was a single person, fully devoted to academics… He continued his research till the end,” said Professor Kalyanjit Roy Choudhury, former head of the Economics department.

 

 

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