“The notion of a stranger haunts us like an obsession. This includes not only encountering strangers, but being one oneself. We bang our heads against the prickly hedges of the maze as we try to find a way out.” — Margaret Chatterjee: ‘Modalities of Otherness’
Margaret Chatterjee wrestled with problems of diasporic migration, otherness and being a stranger in an alien culture in many of her later works. She blossomed into a multicultural philosopher at home in many different cultures and wearing different hats.
It is truly amazing how she transcended being a ‘stranger’ in Indian culture. She spoke Bengali and Hindi with consummate fluency — one had to strain one’s ears to catch a slight hint of a British accent underlying her Bengali vowels. Few would have guessed that she was not a born Indian.
One of the outstanding Indian philosophers of the 20th century has passed away. Margaret managed to thrive and flourish in a domain dominated by a fossilised Indian patriarchy. She was also a gifted classical pianist and one with many diverse aesthetic interests.
I was privileged to know her well as a postgraduate student many moons ago. I recall the impish twinkle behind her glasses, the slightly raised eyebrow when I asked her needling questions about the philosopher Leibniz. I also remember her great warmth and hospitality when I used to show up scruffy and hungry at her faculty apartment on Probyn Road (now Chhatra Marg, DU – North Campus).
I became a part of her family, and came to know her daughter Amala, who died in her young adulthood. Those were the halcyon days when it was possible for faculty and students to just hang out together, without any suspicions about sexual or other agendas — a closeness lacking in today’s academic climate of fractured trust and many walls.
Margaret totally lacked the bureaucratic pseudo professionalism that characterises so many neo-liberal universities today. Among many other pitfalls, this pseudo professionalism creates great cognitive and emotional distance between teacher and student. I learned much from her including the ability to bridge the teacher/student divide.
She was a philosopher of diverse interests, beginning with her early works on epistemology progressing to a deep concern for the problem of dealing with the Other, with respect and compassion. In many of her later works, Margaret applied a Gandhian paradigm to the issue of understanding and communicating with the Other of a different faith or culture. I especially enjoyed reading her work, Interreligious Communication: A Gandhian Perspective.
She was a British expat who became an Indian citizen and embraced her country of adoption whole-heartedly. Margaret was a multicultural, multi-disciplinary philosopher, who incorporated insights from the social sciences, literary and musical themes, into the evaluation of philosophic issues.
Her books are easily accessible to the general public and written in an informal style that engages the reader in her topic of concern. Margaret Chatterjee taught philosophy at Delhi University from 1956 to 1990, and was chairperson of the philosophy department for part of that time.
She took time off for a year to teach at Tagore’s dream child Shantiniketan (Vishwa-Bharati).
She was also a director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla, delivered the Teape Lectures at the University of Cambridge and lectured at different colleges in Oxford in the 1990s. She taught at Bryn Mawr and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Yet, she always returned to Delhi like a homing pigeon — she lived and thought as a Delhi-ite, and seemingly wouldn’t think of living elsewhere on a long-term basis.
She was very active, publishing books well into her 80s. She died aged 93, after a full, rich life and career.
This article first appeared in the January 12, 2019, print edition under the title ‘A philosopher, a teacher’