In this period of lockdown and inner turmoil, when the fear of death looms large and all of us are in confinement, and when all familiar assumptions are called into question, she — my beloved teacher, Professor Rekha Jhanji — left quietly on May 8. As she lived under the ruthless wrath of Alzheimer’s for over a decade, and as the world around her nearly forgot her, she lived in a world of her own. A world, I would like to think, of repose and equanimity.
And now that she is gone, just as is its wont, the world is waking up to the loss. They remember her as an outstanding scholar and teacher of Indian aesthetics, existentialist thought, hermeneutics and phenomenology, who taught several generations of students at Panjab University, Chandigarh. Her accomplishments were, indeed, many. Her books are widely read and are on the reading lists of universities and institutes in India and abroad. Her work was published in prominent journals. She was president of the Indian Philosophical Congress in 2009, consulting editor for the Indian Philosophical Quarterly, fellow and executive editor at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and coordinator of the Centre for Swami Vivekananda Studies, 2002-2005.
She was an unforgettable teacher. Her lectures, whether on western thinkers such as Kant, Plotinus, Leo Strauss, Shaftesbury, Addison, Burke, Toynbee, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, or on the Indian classics like Bharata’s Natya Shastra, Sudraka’s Mrichchhakatika, were deep and engrossing. I have not come across many who would straddle the two parallel streams with such ease. In her younger days, she had earned a second PhD from the University of Paris. She had gone there wanting to study Sartre. This was the period when the radicalism of the Paris Spring was very much in the air, post ‘Mai 1968’. She would tell us how she sat in Café Les Deux Magots, the coffee house which Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir frequented — but she never walked up to Sartre’s table to tell him she was writing her dissertation on him. She had the apprehension that she would lose the magic of a thinker. It was in Paris, too, that the inner calling to study her own cultural-philosophical traditions stirred, much before such a thing would become trendy among professional academicians in India. She was already a full-blown professor when she decided to systematically learn Sanskrit, and pedalled many miles on her bicycle to her teacher’s home.
But while she was all that in her academic persona, she was something else in her essence. She was a free spirit yet a very shy and reclusive person, a romantic, an enigma. Many of us would see her walking down the corridor of the department, absorbed in thought, her eyes deeply illuminated and friendly, something serene surrounding her.
She nurtured diverse interests — painting, music, gardening, travel, trekking. She walked up to the Mansarovar in her late 50s and painted exquisite watercolours, an interplay of myriad azures, captivating and meditative. She liked doing all this undetected, behind the stage. Yet she kept an open house. My thoughts turn back to the home she and her life partner, Professor Bhupinder Brar, shared. Murli, their help, cooked the meals and Rekha would fuss over her grapefruit salad. We would let our hair down over dinner, but the very next day it was back to business and Professor Jhanji would start her lecture as though we had never left the classroom.
It was in the refulgence of her life and work that we, her students, were crafting our lives. Eventually, some of us disappointed her. For long, I felt I stood tall in that list.
Panjab University has lost a doyenne and one of its most brilliant scholars. Goodbye beloved teacher, friend and a wonderful human being.
This article first appeared in the Print edition on May 29 under the title “My Teacher, My Friend”. The writer is an associate professor at IIT, Delhi.
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