Death of a Professor

By Sanjay Jha

The brutally slaughtered Professor Harbhajan Singh Sabharwal never gave me classroom lectures. Neither did he solicitously provide me career advice. In fact, outside the academic fraternity of Ujjain, he was perhaps just a simple middle – class family man , low profile and living a modest existence of a professor a few months shy of retirement. . But last Saturday, as a frenzied mob of irate students of Ujjain , visibly bursting with incendiary fury and seething with incalculable rage callously hammered him to death, he has overnight become a national symbol of our disintegrating culture, caught on candid camera as he collapsed into a tragic limp heap, motionless . I am compelled , by an imperceptible surge to remember another professor. Professor Diwakar Jha. A teacher. And my father.


Father’s Day for me , in our rain-washed metropolis , is a wet manifestation of the onset of the monsoon season in June ; lashing waves against the Marine Drive embankment, black umbrellas sprouting like innumerable dark canopies as desperate commuters hurriedly elbow into suburban trains. Die-hard romantics soar their faces skywards allowing the rain streams to fall in an incessant rush on their faces, the unending serpentine mass of four-wheelers dodge assiduously ahead amidst the slowly shrinking road space which is Bombay city, and overjoyed cricket fanatics bat away in unusually unfriendly weather conditions , the leather ball skidding on slippery and muddy turf. The Kanga league can have a prolonged wait.

The night before, four years ago , he had been his usual imperturbable self; totally calm against the impending crisis, just a fleeting tremor of uneasiness. Father was often christened by his contemporaries as not just a simple bloke , but a virtual simpleton. His contemporaries called him ” Professor”, he was the archetypal teacher of economics, which was in complete contrast to his spendthrift ways. Clearly, he favored the law of demand over supply-side economics. In the traumatic post-partition days of 1947, this bespectacled son from an agricultural family in the rural interiors of Bihar , set sailing to the London School of Economics , carrying with him a dozen pre-rolled ties , as he had almost strangled himself the last time he had endeavored in those adventurous territories.

Most children are thrilled beyond description when they win school prizes for outstanding achievement , as they march triumphantly in rehearsed steps up the school pedestal to receive framed certificates from School Principals grinning away at their little protégés. Not me. In my growing years , perhaps the most difficult time was the prize distribution ceremony , as I was thoroughly embarrassed to be show-casing my rotund parents ballooning from all directions, my father accentuating matters by also proudly displaying his irradiant bald head. Apparently, a hereditary affliction.

He remained the quintessential professor; invariably immersed in voluminous books , perched incongruously on his reading table like several sky scrapers inhabiting an urban nightmare, while he made copious notes on the impact of the capricious monsoons on our farm production. His absent mindedness was legendary ( he had once got into a train going in the wrong direction, and even incredulously enough made it across the sensitive borders of China in those frosty days of the 1980s without a valid visa). And despite being a certified diabetic , it did not take wizardly knowledge to know that he had surreptitiously disappeared to the nearest sweet-shops on lazy Sunday afternoons. After all, whenever he returned from those casual sojourns there were traces of his gluttonous consumption on his shirt, which he was usually oblivious about.

One day when I had rudely remonstrated against my abysmal pocket-money, he called me by the side and said, ” This is all I can afford. Your father is a professor, and salary is my only source of income. I have spent all my life’s savings on giving all my children the best education, at least on that I have not compromised , if I could help it. I know I cannot do everything you ask. Just keep one thing in mind—- you are rich not by the material possessions you own or your bank balance. You are enormously wealthy if you have knowledge and wisdom. A sound knowledge base will give you the ability to discriminate, to make choices, to see right from wrong, and to look beyond the perceptible optical vision. All your worldly possessions are meaningless if you do not possess the intangible strength of these basic characteristics. “. I mumbled incoherently, cussing under my breath, not entirely pleased with his long-winded explanation. It sounded like the usual mumbo-jumbo parents resort to when they cannot acquiesce with your requests.

He understood that I did not understand or chose to be stubbornly defiant. Either way, he continued , ignoring the audible snigger of his adolescent son ” Expand your horizons, and pursue knowledge with an insatiable passion. It will lead you to riches beyond the boundaries of your dreams, and above the specks of white clouds in the sky. I promise you, you will experience wealth far more than the metallic grandeur of gold or the unending stacks of currency bundles”. And saying that, he put his pudgy hand in his creased trouser-pockets and pulled out some crumpled notes and coins and gave them to .me. ” Here, take what is left with me for the day, but spend it wisely”.

Twenty-five years later, on an overcast afternoon when it rained intermittently and where the world looked a perfect place to me as I sipped on some hot aromatic tea, savoring the Sunday papers , a few days before Father’s Day , he passed away. As quietly , as he had usually retire for the nights. As I went through his badly documented file of papers and books , there were an assortment of colored passbooks of his numerous savings accounts, all aggregating to a few thousand rupees, which could be easily exhausted over a week-end family brunch at the popular deli.. There were several notes hand-scribbled and written to bank managers for mundane enquiries, to which he had apparently received no response. And amidst the chaotic mess of his study-table was one singular investment he seemed to have been particularly proud of , as it was properly covered and stored; a Post Office fixed deposit receipt of a thirty thousand rupees, which would not even get me an economy class ticket to New York. That was all I could find, besides some other frivolous investments where the promoter firms had perhaps ceased to exist. I don’t think he was even aware of that.

He was no globetrotting industrialist or a savvy businessman. He was not an inheritor of ancestral wealth or a beneficiary of windfall profits. He was leaving behind no legacy of material acquisitions or a will which would require a microscopic scrutiny by a legal eye. But I knew something no one else did. The professor who died was a rich man.

Last Saturday, as TV cameras captured the maddening assault on Prof Sabharwal and his colleagues, I remembered my father’s words all over again. Former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee is perhaps still ruminating on hitting the right chords, re-drafting a politically appropriate response to the inane massacre , which he will one day utter with his archetypal masterful oratory , each pause an excruciating wait. One by which he will seduce us perpetual suckers with his ostensible pain, while he will with expert craftsmanship try and convince us all that the hapless , ” misled” students ( murderers?) only had a momentary lapse of reason. And in a few weeks , Sabharwal will join the slain Shanmugam of IOC as another sad victim of India’s increasingly violent social system. Forgotten. Laid to rest.

I am glad that my father was not in Ujjain, hit and hammered by the same students he wanted to become India’s future, the pillars of our destiny blah-blah! And I am also glad that he is not alive today to witness such a humiliating end to a dignified existence of someone of his ilk.. I still reminisce a senior politician who went onto become a Chief Minister of Bihar who used to respectfully get up from his seat and frequently touch his feet whenever my father went calling on him; all because he had taught him public finance and developmental economics once, and drafted his budgetary speeches sometimes.    Times sure have changed.

As someone who has studied in India throughout his learning years , we have grown up treating our school teachers and college professors like a consecrated learned community, a powerhouse of intellectual prowess and worldly knowledge, to be respected and looked upto. Always. We have had the same deep deference for our teachers as we have perhaps for our parents. Even today, if we providentially encounter any of our old teachers, we are spontaneously overwhelmed by nostalgic memories, and one feels humbled. Yes, some of us have been fortunate enough to have gold credit cards with unlimited spending limits and find international business class travel a monotonous experience, but the old retired man awaits his superannuation benefits which matter so much to him. The irony is palpable, and if you ask me is one of life’s strange paradoxes.

Old-fashioned maybe for today’s BPO generation , but we believed our teachers finally gave us that valued knowledge, taught us those basic values that today defines our real net worth. Not necessarily measurable on an XL sheet.

At Ujjain on Saturday, it was not just Prof Sabharwal who died. But a country’s character.

(Sanjay Jha is the Managing Editor of Views expressed here are his own.)


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