Thursday, September 10, 2009


S. C. Bhargava: Professor of physics and integrity.
The best teacher furthers the life chances of his students without necessarily doing anything beneficial to his own.

I come from a family of teachers. My mother taught in a school through much of her adult life. My sister, a highly qualified doctor, chose to teach in a medical college rather than go into private practice. My father was a research scientist through whose hands passed numerous doctoral candidates. And the tradition goes back further. Three of my granduncles were teachers, as were two of my great grandfathers.

In this respect I am the black sheep of the family. Although I had the necessary qualifications, and opportunities, I chose a career that is in many respects diametrically opposed to that of teaching. To be a writer is to privilege your individual self, and (especially) signature. Your name is carried alongside all you say; the credit (and, it must be added, discredit) that the work brings is yours alone. Writing is a profoundly egoistical enterprise; and writers are indeed the most self-centred and self-absorbed of men (and, of course, women). On the other hand, to be a teacher is to subordinate your self and your ego, your needs and your ambitions, to the self and ego of others. The best teacher furthers the life chances of his students without necessarily doing anything beneficial to his own.
Vital difference

Writing is all about “me, mine, myself”; teaching about “his, hers, theirs”. It may be because of this conceptual (and moral) distance between my profession and theirs that I have always had a profound respect for caring and conscientious teachers. The teacher I most admired died in the last weeks of the year that has just ended. His name was Subhas Chandra Bhargava, and for more than three decades he taught physics and integrity at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.

I first got to know Bhargava Saab in the mid 1970s, while I was a student at Delhi University. I was registered for a degree in economics, so I was never in fact formally taught by him. But we had a common interest in the game of bridge (which he played brilliantly, and I no more than adequately); and a common physical affliction, bronchial asthma. Through exchanging bidding conventions and bronchodilators we forged a friendship that endured for 30 years.

Bhargava Saab was a tall, thin man with a shock of thick, dark hair. He was upright in his bearing, and even more so in his character. The physics students, naturally, adored him because he was an exemplary lecturer and because, unlike most other teachers, he did serious scientific research himself. But beyond his discipline and his college, he was known throughout Delhi University for his generosity and his integrity. Students who could not find a hostel room stayed with him for months on end; students in trouble with the (instinctively authoritarian) authorities found him an able interlocutor on their behalf. Ex-students visiting Delhi could always count on free board and lodging. I was one of those who extravagantly abused this privilege; over the years, I must have spent at least 300 days at his home, working in the archives in the day and discussing bridge and other matters with him at night. (His democratic instincts extended to his politics; he was an early critic of the Emergency, and also active in the civil liberties movement.)

I have spoken of the veneration we students had for Bhargava Saab; if anything, his fellow teachers admired him even more. As the physicist lay dying, one old colleague wrote to me of how “For 30 years he has been a kind of fixture in my moral universe. On all the ‘small’ things which constitute personal integrity and friendship, he was always a guide, and at important moments it has often been ‘What would Bhargava Sahib say?’”.
Just another Rahul

One day, in the mid 1980s, Bhargava Saab received a call from a high school student named Rahul, who wished to consult him as to which subject to study in college. An appointment was fixed for 9. 30 a.m. the next day. At 8. 30 Bhargava Saab went to the lab to set up some experiments. When he next looked at his watch it was 9. 20. He put down his instruments and rushed back to his apartment. The route from lab to home was normally leafy and quiet. But on this day it was swarming with policemen. About 50 yards from his house he was stopped and not allowed to proceed further. “Mujhe jaane do, ghar mein ek ladka mera intezar kar raha hai,” pleaded Bhargava Saab (“Let me go, there is a student waiting to meet me at home”). The cops would not relent; policemen and Professor argued, back and forth, until it finally dawned on the former that this was the man their boss’s son had come to meet.

Some credit in this story accrues to Rahul Gandhi’s advisers. They had done their homework, thus to find that the Delhi University teacher most likely to give the best, or most fair-minded, career advice was a man who did not carry an elevated title such as Dean or Vice Chancellor. But most of the credit must remain with Bhargava Saab. All Rahuls were akin to him, be one the son of the college chaprassi or another the son of the serving Prime Minister of India. (It is characteristic that he did not bother to ask the caller his surname.) We can be sure that for any other Rahul he would still have arrived on the dot.