‘I often ask my students, how many of them are studying Hindi literature as their first choice,” says Professor Apoorvanand in response to my question about his experience as a teacher for more than two decades. “I know that many students are trapped in a forced marriage or a co-living arrangement with Hindi. They may have aspired to other subjects, but the competitive admission process often forces them to opt for Hindi to stay in the university.
“At the end of the course, I ask them if the time they have spent with Hindi literature has changed their relationship with it. At least half of my post-graduate class admits that what started as an arranged marriage has now transcended into a love affair.”
“What is the role of the teacher in this upgradation?” I ask him.
Apoorvanand, who teaches Hindi literature to post-graduate students at Delhi University’s Faculty of Arts, is reticent about assuming too much credit for himself. The bigger role is played by teachers at the undergraduate level, he says. The most precious time with a student is when they have just arrived in a university, fresh out of school and free from the restrictions of their homes. This is a time when they are curious and energetic and open to new friendships. They are confident of their power to influence the world they are stepping into.
“Many of the bonds with our students are formed unknowingly,” shares Apoorvanand.
“They are silent relationships. Often a student will startle me with a memory or a letter acknowledging how they are shaped by my presence in his or her life. I cannot always place a finger on what may have touched the other so deeply. Often, they speak of a book or a short story that they discovered in my class. Sometimes a student mentions a particular discussion. I met a student at a Metro station who reminded me of a world literature class where we were studying Albert Camus. We had debated and arrived at the conclusion that violence can never be deemed necessary. After three years with me, this was the one lesson he had internalised. Someone else will quote Muktibodh that she remembers from my class. Small gifts like these make me feel that one’s life’s work has been worth it.”
At a time when many teachers like Hany Babu, Shoma Sen, Sudha Bhardwaj and other writers and activists find themselves accused in the Bhima Koregaon case and incarcerated in prisons without bail and basic rights, it is important to examine why so many public intellectuals and academics find themselves being targeted by the state with serious allegations of anti-national conspiracies.
In a series of recent reports carried by some media houses, Apoorvanand has been described as one of the main instigators of the violence that took place in north-east Delhi in February this year. Within a few days, more than 50 people were killed, thousands injured, and properties were destroyed by arsonists. These news reports that indict Apoorvanand are based on selective leaks by the Delhi Police of confessions that they claim have been made by young anti-CAA activists in their custody.
After he returned from being interrogated by the Special Branch of the Delhi Police, Apoorvanand shared a statement that was widely circulated in solidarity and quoted in mainstream newspapers. “It is disturbing to see a theory emerging which treats the supporters of the protesters as the source of violence. I would urge the police and expect their probe to be thorough, just and fair so that truth prevails,” he wrote.
I reached out to Apoorvanand to talk about the times we find ourselves in. How do we contest the false narrative that is being thrust upon us? What are the tools that literature and history teach us to call out lies that come out dressed as the truth?
“More than anything else, literature offers us an insight into differences as well as the universality of the human condition. Stories inspire an interest in the wider world. In a nutshell, literature teaches us to slow down our judgments,” says Apoorvanand. “To offer each other a leeway. A freedom to be diverse.”
As we do every year, we will be celebrating Teachers’ Day on September 5 in India. Now is as good a time as any to remind ourselves of what our best teachers have contributed to our lives. There is no need to thrust greatness upon each other. If anything, we have learnt together that our lives are interlinked with those who we may feel we have nothing in common with. Each one of us is shaped by our circumstances and we need to acknowledge those whose work inspires greater good.
This is the time when our teachers need the protection of our solidarity as the long overdue guru-dakshina they never asked from us.
— The writer is an author and filmmaker firstname.lastname@example.org