By P Dalai
This interview reveals the life and time of English Studies and career of an English Professor in India. At the backdrop of rising populism, deteriorating academic standards, and mere incorporation of western standards in evaluation and pedagogy in our times, Professor Mohan G Ramanan shares his personal and professional experiences in academics and universities to Dr. P Dalai.
Mohan Ramanan was born in Kolkata in 1949 and had his education in Kolkata, Bangalore, and Madras. He took his PhD with a thesis on the Movement Poets in 1978 from BITS, Pilani. Ramanan has taught in Madras, Pilani, and Hyderabad and he retired as Professor of English from Hyderabad University in 2014, having taught for nearly 40 years. Ramanan has held important positions as Head of the English Department, Dean, School of Humanities, Senior Academic Fellow and Deputy Director of ASRC, Hyderabad. He taught at Barcelona University on a Monteserrat Fellowship in 2005 and at Missouri Southern University, Joplin, Missouri, on a Fulbright in 2013. He has travelled extensively in the USA and UK, Europe, and Far East, given scores of lectures both at home and abroad. He was British Council Fellow in Merton College, Oxford and a Fulbright Fellow twice. He is the author of some 18 books and written nearly a hundred articles in forums both in India and abroad. His areas of interest include Modern Poetry, Twentieth Century British and American Literature, Indian Writing in English, Indo-British Literary and Cultural Encounter and the study of Culture. He is a Carnatic Musician and given several concerts and he is a passionate advocate of an Indian way of doing criticism.
P Dalai: What would you consider as the most gratifying experiences as a teacher at the end of your career?
Mohan G Ramanan: I retired after nearly 45 years in the profession. I believe I think of teaching more as a vocation and the most gratifying experience for me is to run into a student in some part of the country or abroad whose life I have touched. Even today students from Madras Christian College, and BITS, Pilani, and students from my early batches in the University of Hyderabad continue to drop in or write. Facebook has brought me in touch with innumerable students. My children also started a Mohan Ramanan Fan Club, which has about 200 members and while I was embarrassed at this in the beginning (I am no celebrity and the whole thing looked like an exhibition of ego), I find it an excellent way of keeping contact with students over the years. I wrote a suitable post disclaiming any celebrity status and asking people to use it as a convenient way of keeping in touch.
PD: You were born two years after Independence. So during the post-midnight despair, as Salman Rushdie and the subaltern studies group capture it, what inspired you to fall in love with a difficult and colonial subject like English to pursue your career in?
MGR: I am like my hero and mentor, John Carey, an accidental Professor. I never thought I was part of a post colonial context (such realization was a much later thing) and I never self-consciously went to English to shake up the colonial world. I did not even believe that I would be doing English and everything in me was prepared to pursue a career in Commerce and Accounts in which I had done reasonably well in the Indian School Certificate Examination. But Providence had other plans evidently. I tried to convince the Father Principal of Loyola College, Fr Francis, that I was good at Commerce and deserving of a seat in his great College which had a good reputation for the subject. I thought my nearly weekly pleadings with him would work. Work it did but not in the way I wanted. He gave me provisional admission to BA English Branch XII but the option to take an admission test in Commerce. For this last I was ill prepared because I had a six month gap between the ISC exam, which I took in December 1965 and the beginning of College in June 1966 and I had not read any Commerce during that time. I thought in my naiveté that the meetings with Fr Francis would secure me the seat and no one told me of the admission requirements. But Providence had given me a seat in English without the need to sit an admission test. I took it and graduated in English in 1969. At the time I had many weeks of despair with all kinds of negative thoughts overcoming me and I even mulled options like running away from home to sea, to even die because as was the fashion of the day I was an atheist and I had heard that suicide was the way to go. But God intervened in my life as He has on many other occasions and brought me to my senses and I decided to prepare for the Civil Services side by side pursuing what was the logical thing to do – an MA in English. I got admission in Madras Christian College, Tambaram, in 1969 after my graduation. It was around this time that I began reading seriously. I had read all of Austen and all of Scott and I knew my Lamb and Dickens and was quite familiar with the English canon. My special period was The Age of Wordsworth. A streak of competitiveness got me the first rank in the MA in MCC and I was awarded the Kellet Prize for proficiency in the subject. Bennet Albert, the legendary Professor, asked me at the end of the MA exams if I would join the Faculty as a Tutor in English. I could not say no to the Professor, who in reply to my statement that I did not have my MA results said, “I suppose you will pass.” Pass I did with a high Second Class, standing first in my class, and with a great passion for English. Gone were ideas of the Civil Services. Instead I was determined to be a teacher, a profession my grandfather pursued as a veteran school master in Calicut, Coimbatore, Bangalore, and Rangoon. My father, who was in a corporate office, began life as a tutor in French at the St Joseph’s College, Bangalore. Familial loyalties and a sense of how my grandfather had been humiliated because of his poverty and urgings from my father combined with my love of the Great English writers in a sense confirmed me in my decision to teach. I began in 1971 (19th May in the MCC Library hall, I still remember) teaching Bridge Course English and soon taught literature to the BA students. By now I knew that without a PhD I could go nowhere in the profession. Rules did not permit a fresh teacher like me to do part time PhD in Madras University and I realized that I would have to wait a mandatory 8 years to join the Course. I was a man in a hurry. I have always been. I had moved to DB Jain College as a Lecturer after one year in MCC and I did not like the new set up with unruly boys and indiscipline and the teacher having to shout at the top of his voice to be heard. So when I read an advertisement which offered a Junior Research fellowship (Yes, the JRF of the UGC) at BITS, Pilani, I went and took the admission exam and joined the PhD working on the Movement Poets under the supervision of PD Chaturvedi, the Yeats scholar. I grew into the subject and I was still very much in love with English canonical texts and I think the opportunity to at last teach them in the University of Hyderabad ,which I joined in 1979 after my PhD, changed things for me. So what if the Subalterns have taken over. By the way that has happened only recently but I have been singularly free to relish the love of Francis Osbaldistone for Diana Vernon, of Darcy for Elizabeth and of Heathcliff for Catherine and I love the Elia essays and the Dickens world and the incomparable Shakespeare. Even in these days of identity politics, I have stuck to the strait and narrow path of literary study and viewed this as primarily an aesthetic activity. I have, of course, always been conscious that I am teaching English in India. So the genealogy of English in India, the necessary move from English Literature to Literature in English has also touched me and I am a proponent of teaching English ‘Indianly’. That has been the measure of my post colonial consciousness.
PD: You have taught for generations together. What makes you think that ‘teaching is a noble profession’?
MGR: As I said earlier the fact that so many students continue to keep in touch and so many have done research with me makes me see this not so much as a profession as a vocation. I still want to go to a class, something my colleagues at UH still let me do, and teach. I love the classroom, the excitement of the enquiring mind, the silly questions and the sillier answers and the entire drama of minds meeting. I would not exchange it for anything. Finally, one does have the sense of touching lives and shaping minds. Teaching is for me my life-breath and in this I have tried to emulate my teachers like Emmanuel Raja, who is still alive and energetic at ninety plus. Professor Raja loves his students and even now with the passage of years that has not changed. I want to be like him.
PD: Do you think the University profession was less imaginable for many during your times? What does it take to be in a University?
MGR: University teachers are there by circumstances and there are many teachers in colleges like the ones I went to – Loyola, MCC in Chennai or to which my friends went to like Delhi’s St Stephens and Kolkata’s St Xaviers and Cuttack’s Ravenshaw College to name only a very few – who were not only wonderful classroom performers but also scholars in their own way. But they were not the publishing kind and the classroom notes some of us kept are all that remain as proof of their talents and brilliance. Professors Raja, Ramamurthy, Bennett Albert, Fr Pinto, Fr Sequeira, Fr Murphy and Fr Jerome D’Souza, Venkataramanan,Vishnu Bhatt, Rajani and GK Mathew to name some come to mind and they were better teachers than many of us in Universities could possibly be. I do not believe that University teachers are necessarily good teachers. Their teaching abilities are not really tested and they owe their positions to their publications and their networking. I do not mean to paint all University folk with the same brush and indeed there are quite a good number of good teachers there. You will find that they publish much less. I have in mind persons like Professors Nagarajan or Kantak or Narasimhaiah (who did not even have a PhD). Isaac Sequeira published a little but he was primarily a great classroom performer. These were dedicated teachers and while they also wrote their primary influence is seen in the classroom. But there are the odd ones, who combine teaching excellence with good publishing record but they can be counted on your fingers. I would name Chirantan Kulshreshta and Meenakshi Mukherjee in this category. Someone like S.Viswanathan made a name for himself in Shakespeare studies and published more than anyone else but his classes were heavy and substantial but not necessarily easily understood. Really good teachers are to be found in Colleges, not necessarily in the Universities. As someone quipped, when no doubt in high spirits, in a University the Lecturer only lectures (does not read), the Reader reads (does not lecture), and the Professor neither reads nor lectures! Of course, this is a joke but it is theoretically possible to be in a University and draw not a salary but a pension!
PD: Students have seen you as an erudite scholar, a critic, and a zealous teacher. How have you been able to combine all these in a time when internet, communication, and financial aids were a remote possibility?
MGR: My students are generous in praising me and I am sure their partiality makes them say more than what is true. My ignorance is abysmal and what I know is little. However, I am gratified that it has left an impression on people and I feel blessed that they look up to me. Yes, it was hardly easy in the years I made my career. We had little funding in relation to the present and we did not have the knowledge revolution bursting upon us until much later in my career. I have yet to become technologically savvy and I know that I have missed out much as a result but I have also used whatever technology I knew to make work more efficient. The combination of teaching and writing is natural. My father was my mentor in this respect. He encouraged me to be a teacher like his revered father, my grandfather, who was an English teacher in addition to being a mathematics and geography teacher. Good teaching can be done only when you read widely and our profession gives you leisure to read and write. I have followed this dictum and managed a fairly considerable amount of writing. But the temptation to read and not make notes is my undoing and my memory is not always dependable and many insights I formed as I read, but never cared to note down, are lost irretrievably. What is needed is leisure, a calm mind and a passion for one’s activities. I have been discouraged by my seniors, who were not generous in their attitude to their juniors and to young people. I had to contend with scholars who were well published and when I was making my career many condescended and many made fun. I deeply resented them but I also got strengthened. I have tried to be different by going up to the young and encouraging them and making them believe that they can do it. English teachers are notorious for their acerbic tongues and calling someone a fool is easy for them. I have steadily resisted this tendency to be judgmental. Everyone has something to offer and encouraging them with a kind look or a good word can go a long way in enabling them to blossom. Professor Sethuraman used to tell me from personal experience that the English teacher does not have the quality of mercy. How true!!!
PD: You started your career in a time when English Studies was in its inception in India. Now it is being practiced more or less as Cultural Studies. How do you respond to such change or transformation?
MGR: I am alert to these changes but that does not mean that I need to necessarily practice Cultural Studies in its present form. In a way, Literary study has always been about culture and great studies like EMW Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, CS Lewis’ Allegory of Love or MH Abrams’ Natural Supernaturalism were as much about English literature as they were about phases in English culture. But Cultural Studies has a lot to do with the Marxist work of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and the New Historicists. This, combined with theoretical insights coming from Europe, has had the effect of putting literary study in its place, so to speak, and to relate it to larger concerns with society and culture, history and politics. In fact, it is difficult to practice CS (Cultural Studies) without PC (political correctnesss) and long years ago I made the plea that CS does not necessarily need to have a Left orientation and move towards a Marxist Utopia. I believe one can usefully employ the methods of CS – particularly its good work in semiotics – to interpret literature with a pronounced cultural bias. Note that my emphasis is on literary study. Film studies, architecture, sociology, anthropology, and what not, are all legitimate fields of enquiry but the literary scholar has a particular expertise and needs to cultivate that expertise. She is concerned with words and how words work and with authors like Dickens, Shakespeare, Melville, RK Narayan, and so on. I think there should be a division of labour and English Departments should be restoring literature its primacy of place. It is true that literature is being broadly defined to include any sign system but I still think our concern should be with words and their uses, with literary works and their aesthetic quality, without ignoring the message or the social dimension. A literary work is both artifact and communiqué, both a thing said and a thing made.
PD: Is academics in danger in our times?
MGR: There is a general deterioration of standards and from that point of view I believe English literary study (academics) is in danger. People don’t read and teachers don’t demand that their students should read and also write well. The compositional skills in Departments of English are pretty bad and there is a belief that if the student has been able to communicate that should do and no demand need be made that the communication should be elegant and accurate. This is where the apple starts getting rotten and we all know what happens when there is a rotten apple in a basket. Inevitably it affects the other apples.
PD: Do you think that the charm of English and the Englishness of the English teachers and English departments was/is a Myth in India?
MGR: Old world scholars are not in much supply these days. You can count them on your finger tips. Nagarajan, Vishwanathan, Narasimhaiah, Kaul, Bhabatosh Chatterjee, Sisir Ghosh, Kantak, Sena to name a few – these are fading names. But even in this bleak scenario the English teacher in a college or in the University is usually called upon to write the VC’s speech or the Principal’s report. Any cultural event will find the English fraternity at the centre of things and in these modest days of soft skill development the English teacher continues to have an aura and a vogue. But if soft skills are our fate, then the charm will soon go out of our lives
PD: Is inter-disciplinarity an excuse to promote shallow academic praxis? Can we be anything like Plato, Aristotle, Valmiki, Kalidas or like those writers of classical times?
MGR: My answer to this is already implicit in what I said earlier. Unless one has a discipline, how can one become interdisciplinary? The English teacher has an identity crisis and is moving to all kinds of things. We have no expertise in Film Studies, Anthropology, Economics but we feel obliged to do these things in the name of inter-disciplinarity. But, yes, we are lovers of words and watch keenly how words work. We should use our expertise well and use this basis to build our work and then we can move between disciplines on the sure standards set by our commitment to words, to Literature.
PD: Recently, you have emerged as a poet and a singer of Carnatic music. Should we consider this development as life’s natural inclination or simply the source of solace?
MGR: For me Carnatic music is my life-breath and as one who believes in music as a vehicle to God-realization it is not merely a solace it is my very being. Literature is my profession and I have had moments when I regretted not being a trained classical musician, performing, singing, and teaching and felt sad about my missed opportunities. May be in my next birth! In the meanwhile, literature has given me so much and I cannot complain. Music sustains me when I am not involved with literary study. Occasionally, they come together when I write about musical experience and I can straightaway say that this is possible only because of my training as a literary critic describing the aesthetic effect of a poem or novel on me. I am able to do likewise for a piece of music. Writing poetry is a natural outgrowth of my training as a scholar of modern poetry.
PD: What would be your suggestions to the aspiring university teachers across disciplines in our country?
MGR: I would say start modestly. Take time over your writing and don’t get into the mad rush for API scores and the ‘publish or perish’ syndrome. Of course, hasten slowly but cultivate one or two areas and specialize but always remember to relate your special area to the larger context of Literature and life. Prepare well for your classes and treat your students as your own children. Don’t condescend to them.
PD: How do you perceive the recent developments occurring in the Indian universities?
MGR: There is too much politics and in the wrong sense of the term. Identity questions are raging and while one must respect these needs, they must not overcome academic work and meritorious work. Your caste or gender should not overwhelm your academic excellence or become a substitute for it. Of course, this can be done only if a level playing field is created and we must all strive for it. Till then I suppose these extra academic concerns will operate but we must try to minimize the deleterious effects of these concerns on academic excellence
PD: What are your current engagements and of course the plan for the future?
MGR: I am now more than ever before conscious of the need to see Literature in an Indian way. The theories floating around are much too often influenced by culture specific concerns of the Anglo-American Academy. We have our own philosophical positions, our Indian way of doing Purva Paksha and Uttara Paksha and the concept of Dharma, understood in the widest possible way, offers a comprehensive and satisfying framework within which to place literature, both from our country and abroad, and to criticize it. I attempted some such exploration in a recent paper on the Ramayana, where I took issue with Sheldon Pollock for his reductive political reading of the Epic. CD Narasimhaiah used to plead for an Indian relevance in English studies. I now think that we should move self-consciously in that direction. We need to have original insights and we need not be carbon copies of the West even when we are speaking post colonially. Pocomo (Post colonial-post modern) is deeply implicated in Western ways of perceiving and thinking and when the Subaltern is being promoted it is being done with a conceptual framework derived from Western forms of thought. In some deep way even our attempts to speak for ourselves is tainted by our unconscious repetition of ideas, which are specific to the West and not necessarily relevant to our history.
Dr. P Dalai is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi. His academic interests include Diaspora, New Literatures, Sexuality and Gender Studies, and Indian Literatures.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Humanimal and the Planet Earth’ , edited by Dr. Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha, Kazi Nazrul University, Asansol, West Bengal, India.