Jyotirmoy Pal Chaudhuri

Kris Manjapra

This div will be replaced by the JW Player.

Interview Participants
This is a Calcutta oral history interview on December 28, 2009 with Professor Jotirmoy Pal Chaudhury. Professor Pal Chaudhury, thank you for this opportunity to speak, and I wanted to begin the way that I've begun all of the interview so far which is just an open ended question about your childhood and your entrance into college, beginning with the date of your birth. When were you born?
I was born in January - I'm sorry. Two dates of birth. Actually November 18th 1934, but when I went to school for admission purposes, my father was too busy, so he had an assistant take me to school, and school year began in those days in January.
So he was asked, "How old is the child?" He said, "Maybe ten," and based on that they back dated the year and said that it's 12th January, 1935. Actually it is18th November 1934. So I have two birthdays, the real one and the certificate one. I was born in a village called Silimpur which is part of the Dhaka district of Bikrampur, rather well known place in the sense that many intellectuals and brilliant people are born in that region. Amartya Sen's grandfather was from that area, many, many people like that, and I went to school there in grade four. Before that I was taught at home through a private tutor. That was the custom in the family. The tutor would come and teach all the kids. It was a joint family.
My grandfather had four sons. All four sons lived together with their wives and children, and we were in the village, but we had business in the nearest city Narayanganj, about 8 miles from Dhaka. Male folks used to live in the city, and the females and the children with may be one person at a time one female -- male person at a time take care of them will be in the village and vacation, we would go to the city and enjoy our vacation and come back again. The village didn't have a good school, so I had to walk I think about 1 or 2 kilometers or 3 kilometers every day, and we had 4 of us there in the same class: my cousin, a relation, two relations of ours get 4, 5,6 through a day. Then the partition was about to take place, partition of Bengal. The communal situation was tense, so we moved to the town where we had the business and my 7th and 8th grades were in that town.
The name of the town again was?
Narayangunj. It's not very far from Dhaka now. It was a center of the jute industry in that time, and even now it's a very important center of industry.
So I read my 7th and 8th grade in that particular school and then 10th partition took place, we became part of east Pakistan and the area was a dependent separate country. We were not comfortable living there, and it so happened that in '47 my father got stabbed, stabbed in a communal riot, and that made our family decide that we couldn't live here. He didn't die. Luckily he survived that attack, though he spent three months in bed. That was the first incident which had destroyed our morale and we thought of changing -- moving to India. At the same time the schools were usually filled by Hindu teachers and then most of them left. The replacements were often poor, and the education quality suffered.
So the family decided to move to India, but for business people it's not easy to move. So gradually we started moving. We all came. I did my eight grade exam there, then left [for] India. When I came to Calcutta, we had a flat in Calcutta and we were looking out for the whole family. So we rented a house in a place called Nabadwip about 64 miles from Calcutta. That was the birth place of Chaitanya, Lord Chaitanya. My eldest uncle, who was the head of the family, was old, and he was very upset that he had to leave his homeland, that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Nabadwip, the birthplace of Chaitanya, go to temple and spend the time.
So a house was rented there and he used to love me very much, more than his own son. He would go with me, so part of the family went to Nabadwip, and I joined a school there, and I did my 9th and 10th grade there, and in those days we had 10th grade school exam, matriculation we used to call then. I did my matriculation from that school. I did reasonably well so applied to Calcutta colleges and got admission to the best possible college of that time, Presidency College. That was Intermediate in Arts.
May I ask the school that you went to, what was the name of it?
Nabadwip Bakultala High English School.
And it was then English medium?
No, no, no. Medium was Bengali, but English was taught, and it so happened that in that school I had 3 teachers who taught English. All 3 were students of Presidency College in English honors, so that perhaps was a remarkable change that we did not feel that we were in a Bengali medium school, and the teacher who taught history did History honors and M.A. in Dhaka University when Sushobhan Sarkar was a professor at Dhaka University.
He was a student of Sushobhan Sarkar there, and that in a way changed my attitude toward life and education. I heard about Sushobhan Sarkar when I was a 9th grade student. I heard about Presidency College when I was at that school, and when I came here I could easily see the building was not unfamiliar to me, the teachers like Sushobhan Sarkar were not unknown to me, so I came here and joined the first year intermediate class and as I said my family had a flat in Calcutta.
Where, what was the address, do you remember, or the general area that your family lived in Kolkata?
North Calcutta
In North Calcutta.
North Calcutta, it was junction of Grey Street [Shri Aurobindo Sarani] and Central Avenue [Chittaranjan Avenue] called Shobha Bazar area, and my father thought it not proper in terms of academic work, so we should be better off by putting me in a hostel. So he sent me to a hostel which is Presidency College boys hostel called Eden Hindu Hostel. I spent 4 years there. That's a good decision that my father took.
That helped me grow up in a different way. My family background as I said is a business family. It was not really the best place for academic pursuit. The priority in the family was not education. It was doing something and make money. My father was an exception in the sense that he did not take part in the business firm, family business. He worked for a British company, British insurance company.That's why perhaps his outlook was different, and other cousins were not academically inclined. I think I was an exception to the family tradition. I always had my own world in the family. Take a book and sit in the corner and go on reading while the others would be doing something else. My cousins used to go play football. I would not join them.
I would rather have a book and read, you know. That was the type of, I think, attitude I had since childhood. I don't know how I got it, but I had it. I remember an occasion when on 23rd January, there was a village in Dhaka, they were celebrating Netaji's [Subhas Chandra Bose] birthday at a place about 4 kilometers away from my home, and I was determined to go, and nobody else went with me. So I walked all the way myself I was only I think 11, 10 maybe and the village was having fun. They were having a kite festival. My cousins all went there. And the meeting took place, and it was dark when I had to come back. I didn't return on time. My mother was very worried. She sent a bigger cousin of mine with 2 watchmen to look for me with a lantern.
There was no electricity there, looking for me then they met me half way through and then I was severely punished for being so silly and daring. That was my way of looking at life. I was very inclined to these kinds of movements, politicians, heroes like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, later on Mahatma Gandhi, and that kind of a thing I had in me all the time. When I came to Calcutta and joined Presidency College and became a part of the hostel I think my life changed completely. I knew what I was going to do in the future. I decided to study history because of my influence of my teacher at school who had talked about Sushobhan Sarkar in history, and my intermediate was 2 years, and the teachers who taught us at Presidency College were superb.
We had Bhabatosh Datta to teach us economics and Amartya Sen says he has never met a person of his clarity of economic concepts. Amartya was taught by Bhabatosh Datta so was Sukhamoy Chakravarty. We had that benefit just after we had left school, at the intermediate level, he taught us economic theory. We had Professor Mahmud, Dr. Chaudhuri [Sashi Bhusan Chaudhuri] to teach history, Amal Bhattacharya, Subodh Sengupta to teach English literature. Nirendra Chakraborty to teach Bengali literature. The benefit of being in contact with the best minds of the country was a remarkable thing to have, and Mohit said in his book -- have you read this book by Mohit Sen?
A Traveller and the Road
A Traveller and the Road
He mentions that it was Presidency College where the best minds were nurtured and trained by the best minds of Bengal.
It is very true and when we were 1st year students, 3rd year that Amartya Sen, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Benoy Chaudhuri, Barun De and these kind of students in the 3rd year class, so you could easily see the quality of the students and the teachers in the college. We came from Bengali medium schools. I think all of them did. English medium schools were not very popular those days, not too many, and education quality was better in Bengali medium schools. Those who stood the first 20 in university, nearly all of them came from Bengali medium schools but they had no difficulty in following English lectures. Presidency College had strict English lectures. Nobody spoke Bengali or taught in Bengali.
Teachers always said to never read any book by Bengali authors, mostly British, mostly British authors should be taught. For Greek history we read Bury [J.B. Bury], for British history [unclear], never taught a book in Greek history or British history by an Indian author. It was not allowed. So we had a very different kind of educational system in Presidency at that time. Presidency College apart from the class -- classroom teaching had other things. Friday afternoon was always for debate and discussions. We had a period called colloquium and 3'o clock it would start in the theater and the first debate I heard was Amartya Sen, the speaker, Partha Sarathi Gupta, another historian, very brilliant student, speaker and the ex students who came to debate were Amlan Dutta, almost regular, Hiren Mukherjee, almost regular, Sadhan Gupta, another member of Parliament and these kind of people were always there in the College who were taking part in the debates.
And, Amartyada went to Cambridge. We had Kamal Datta, a Physics student who was very excellent debater, many others. These kinds of exercises really had a great impact on our outlook and our future, all our futures. I studied history and we were taught history by Sushobhan Sarkar, Amalesh Tripathi, Dr. Sashi Bhusan Chaudhuri, Professor Mahmud, Bhabesh Mukherjee, all of them are superb teachers particularly Sushobhan Sarkar, Sashi Bhusan Chaudhuri and Amalesh Tripathi. It was a great thing to have to be taught by stalwarts like these people I mentioned. Also we were very good students.
In fact, the best students of Presidency College. History was a very popular subject, popular in the sense that it drew some brilliant students. I remember Tapan Raychaudhuri was a brilliant student at school then went to Scottish Church College for his Intermediate in Arts, stood first in the University in Intermediate Arts, continued in Scottish Church College for History honors. Then a friend of his said, "why don't you come and listen to Sushobhan Sarkar's lecture?" He came with the permission of Sushobhan Sarkar and sat in the class for a day, and changed his mind, left Scottish Church College and joined Presidency College. That kind of thing happened in Presidency College.
Once you listen to a professor's lecture one day you never leave the person. You would be continuing there and the benefit, we had that for several years. When I was in second year, Amartya Sen was in fourth year, when we heard about Students' Council elections that you that is a council where third year students are chosen from different classes and you could contest. My friends said, "why don't you contest?" I was already a popular person in the hostel and partly because of the poems I used to write and paste on the dining hall notice board, they were very popular. So they all forced me to contest. I did, and I got the highest number of votes and became a member of the Students' Council.
The Council had 38 members and then I realized that there are some groups, one called Students Federation and another called Non-Students Federation. It was the anti-SF group. I had no idea about this group. I just contested because my friends asked me to contest. One evening my roommate who was a 3rd year in economics student asked me if I would be in the classroom, in my room in the evening. I said I would be. Some people will come and see you. So, Amartya Sen, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Partha Sarathi Gupta, Benoy Chaudhuri the best students of University of Calcutta, Presidency College came to see me. Purpose: to induce me to support them. They were all Students Federation supporters.
What was their students association called?
Students Federation
Students Federation.
All India Students Federation, AISF, the student wing of the CPI [Communist Party of India] of that time. I had no idea about these groups. Amartya Sen was the leader.
Sukhamoy Chakravarty was the only student who knew me because he was a hostel boarder. He knew me, so we had a long chat and eventually I decided that I would support them. I don't know why, because maybe I was so impressed by the debates and their academic background. Sukhamoy does scholarship and I knew him personally. I chose to support them. Now I was not a member of the Students Federation at all, and 2 days later the election took place of office bearers and Students Federation candidates were all the nomination papers nomination names were submitted by Amartya Sen, we had lost in all the seats, vice president, general secretary bla bla bla. My name was raised as the magazine secretary.
It so happened that from 38 members I got 19 votes and the other person got 19 votes, a tie. Bhabatosh Datta had conducted the elections, Principal was at those sessions. Datta asked Principal if he would cast his vote. He said he wouldn't. So we voted again. The second vote I got 19 votes other person got 18 votes with 1 abstention. So I became the magazine secretary. That was another interesting development because that year's magazine editor was Ashin Dasgupta of fifth year History, a person who was known as a brilliant History student and got Eshan Scholarship for being the highest mark, for getting the highest marks in all subjects in Arts that year. That's the scholarship, College Arts scholarship, highly prestigious.
Ashin Dasgupta got that scholarship. I felt very privileged to have a chance of working with him. He was the Secretary of Magazine, as well the editor and the Professor in charge was Bhabatosh Datta the famous economist. The three of us produced the magazine at that time. That was a remarkable change in my attitude and my development. When I finished intermediate, joined History Honors department again my pressure felt a new contest and become the General Secretary of the Students Union. Amartya Sen had left for England so had Partha Sarathi Gupta, another AISF leader. They went amd leadership of the Students Federation had fallen on me, and I became a member of Students Federation. I contested.
This time we all got all the seats and we became the students' leader. That way my academic work suffered a bit but my other things developed. The ability to organize things, to lead people and interest in many others areas had developed. I got a chance to meet some people, big people, invite people discuss things I would not have got if I would not have joined the Students Union. Being in the hostel I had learned how to live together with the help of others I think that 4 years of Presidency from '51 to '55 were remarkable years for me because they shaped my personality in many ways and I was not any more a burden to my family.
I was a different person altogether and my family could realize that I was different. And as I mentioned we came from East Pakistan to India, and we were a business family. My father had lost his job because of the partition and head of the family, eldest brother of my father, died. The second one was in charge. My father was the 3rd one. The money which was brought from East Pakistan to here they started business in South Calcutta and one in Siliguri and my brothers -- my father's elder brother thought they were his property. They would not give share to anybody else. That did have a negative impact on our financial situation, so I was forced to work after graduation.
Your family still lived in North Calcutta in Shobha Bazar?
I was forced to work in after graduation and pursued my M.A. along with partial work here and there, which again had a negative impact on my academic performance, but as soon as I finished my M.A. I looked for a teaching job in a college. I got one. The first job was at Midnapur College which is about 80 miles from Calcutta thoroughly into my work and I think overnight I established myself as a good teacher. And the next job was at Naihati College. The third job was at a Government College at Hooghly Mohsin inHooghly, and that's the time I married someone I had met at Midnapur and his father was a District Judge at that time.
Socially my father in law was better of economically also better off, but he had no choice but to accept our decision, so I married. When I was at Hooghly College I applied for Fulbright Scholarship. I took a written test. I was asked for an interview, and I was given a letter saying that I had been selected number 2 in the region for Fulbright Scholarship in history to go to America. I had just married and I was overjoyed that I got a chance to go to America. After sometime I got a letter saying that it is not possible to give me the scholarship because of fund shortage or something like that. I was a bit suspicious about the whole thing. Why would the Government of India withdraw a scholarship for lack of funding? I went to USIS. At that time that was the US Information Service, called the USIS.
Where were they located?
It was in what is now called the Cottage Industries Charity. The new building had not come up. It was in the building which now houses the Cottage Industries; Metropolitan Insurance Company Building, huge building, ground floor was the USIS. So I had known one person called Supriyo Banerjee who used to work in that USIS, a friend of Ashin Dasgupta. I went to him with the 2 letters the letter I got - the previous letter and the second one. He said I will deal with this. I will find out. Come after 7 days. So I went there and he said that you'll never get the scholarship.
They didn't ask me anything else. The reason was simple. The reason was when I was at College in '55, I went to attend the youth festival [World Festival of Youth and Students] which was held in Poland, Warsaw, as a student delegation. I was not even 20 at that time. I had gone to Poland in the India delegation, at the time a communist country, spent 3 weeks in Poland, and I was invited to go to Moscow by the WFDY World Federation of Democratic Youth. We all went to Moscow, spent about a week. Then we were invited by the Chinese student organization. We traveled from Moscow to Beijing, at that time Peking, by train which took 9 days. We went to Peking, spent a week there, went to Hangzhou, spent about 3 days, went to Canton [Guangzhou] then came back to Calcutta via Hong Kong which was a British colony at that time.
And that naturally had prevented my getting this American scholarship because in those days it was a taboo to go to China and equally bad for a person to travel to a communist country, though I never became a communist party member. I never was, I never wanted and I didn't intend to be one. So that was a setback, and I was a bit upset and had doubts about my future. I had my pursuit. That's the time when I saw in the newspaper then an ad about hiring an education officer with Ethiopian Government, so I applied for that position. Interview was held at Gulshan Hotel. I went there, and after 3 months I got a letter that I was chosen to be there. So I left with myself, with my wife, and our 9 month old son we went to Ethiopia.
There I worked for the Ministry for sometime, taught at high schools for sometime but what is the greatest thing aboutthe whole thing was my acquaintance with an African country and African history. I developed a deep interest in African history and I read a lot about African history and that led me led to a desire of obtaining PhD in African history.
When did you arrive in Ethiopia again?
I went there in December 1964.
And where did you stay during your time there?
I stayed initially at a place called Chencha, second place Arba Minch and 3rd year in Addis Ababa, and when I was at Addis Ababa I started exploring possibilities of my PhD in England. I had known of their work 2 great scholars in African history in England, Oliver [Roland Oliver] and Fage [John Fage] who had this African history text, Penguin book. I wrote both of them, and they said they would be willing to accept me as a PhD student, but you have to be here to do the work. Then I applied for a job voucher, a thing that used to be a system whereby a Commonwealth citizen could apply to England Ministry of Labour to permission to look for jobs in England. I applied. My wife also applied.
We both got permission to look for job in England. I had to look for job because otherwise I could not sustain my academic work. I did not have enough money to spend 3 years of a PhD in England. Then we applied to the Ministry of Education in England to be considered for being declared as qualified teachers. We both got accepted as qualified teachers through the job voucher, had the certificate of a qualified teacher, and a certificate of PhD enrollment. We left Addis Ababa. I was scared if I don't get a job we have to come back, so I renewed my contract for 3 more years with the Government of Ethiopia and they normally give you passage to go back home and come back after you work for 3 years.
So we got the railway for the passage and we converted the tickets it was given Addis Ababa to Calcutta and back to Addis to Rome and back, same distance. We flew to Rome, spent some days in Rome, saw the city and the historical places, travelled to Paris by train, spent couple of days in Paris, then went to London.
It was all from the money you had saved while in Ethiopia?
That's right, that's right.
Plane ticket was covered train money I got for myself, and there was a friend of mine Biplab Dasgupta who later on became a Communist Party leader, was very close to me, and he received me at the station the Metro rail station and he had already rented a flat for me and we started our life in England. After some time I got a job in Birmingham to teach at a school and as student of PhD I was employed at the university by Fage. We left for Birmingham, and I sent my ticket back to Government of Ethiopia saying that I am not coming. I'm sorry about this, but they were very nice and were very happy to hear that I was doing this, they wrote a letter to my wife later on saying please come back.
But I never went back to Ethiopia. Now my life began in England as a student of University of Birmingham for PhD and as a teacher at a school from 9 to 4 and at the university from 5 to maybe 10 at night or so. The British system they don't teach, they don't need to have any course for PhD. You write your dissertation. The only thing I did was to attend all the seminars that were given by the department. Seminars are normally held at 3 o'clock. I told ProfessorFage, who was the head of the institute, that I cannot come. Can you change the time only for me to suit my needs to 5'o clock? A wonderful man he was.
This is what institute?
Centre of West African Studies at the University of Birmingham, headed by Professor Fage. He was very well known as an African scholar and advisor to the British Government for foreign affairs. A Cambridge person himself. So he changed the timetable for seminars which was held twice a week, one on techniques of research on African topics just to suit my convenience, and he thought I was a very serious person, and I chose the topic I think in 3 weeks' time, and he was impressed by that too.
I did my work - I didn't have much time to work because I had to do work, I had to teach at a school and documents were in London, because of Commonwealth Office, the documents were in London. So I used the summer vacation to move to London with my family and consult the documents at the Commonwealth Office and go back at mid term again to teach. This led to a job in Liberia.
What was the theme of your research?
My thesis topic was British Policy towards Liberia from 1912 until 1939, and there is a department in England called Overseas Development Department and they had an organ called the Inter University Council for Higher Studies Abroad, IUC, and they helped English-speaking countries of the developed [developing] world recruit teachers and provide assistance for higher education. Liberia, though not a member of the Commonwealth was an English-speaking country, so they had applied to this IUC for a lecturer in history to be assigned to a missionary university in Liberia. It was an Episcopal Church, American Episcopal Church-run university called Cuttington University.
So the Inter University Council asked Professor Fage if he could recommend anybody for this position. Professor Fage said, "Looks like this position is for you. Apply." So I applied. He was my referee - not my referee. Four people were called for interview: 2 British scholars, 1 Nigerian and myself. They had all finished their PhD. I was about to finish, but hadn't finished yet, but I was the only one who had done work on Liberia. They had not, so I got the job. So I left for Liberia at that to teach at that College which was a missionary university run by the American Episcopal Church and faculty was 95% American.
American. Which year did you travel to Liberia? What year did you go?
'72, March '72. They sent the tickets for me to go. There were three - two Indians, both were Malayalis. One taught Physics, the other taught Chemistry, and both were Christians, so I was the only non-Christian member in the faculty, the entire. The 3 of us, my son was by that time 8, myself, my wife and our son were the only 3 non-Christian members of the entire community. I was the only non-Christian member of the faculty. It was an interesting experience, and as an Indian trained partly in India, partly in England, teaching history of Liberia, the local history.
People thought it was a joke, but I think after a month things were different. I think I was accepted by their community of students, perhaps considered not to be a bad person either. Things were not easy because there was a group who thought I was a misfit because I was not a Christian and sometimes we had problems but at one stage the faculty meeting, the Vice Chancellor, called the President, in Liberian situation like the American system, said that all the faculty should be in the service, the evening [prayer] service on Wednesdays for faculty. I listened quietly, and then I wrote him a letter saying that when I applied for the job, I mentioned that I was not a Christian, that I was born as a Hindu andthat I don't practice religion.
You have seen me and my members of the family for about 3 or 4 months. I have some values which I follow. You will think that they are inconsistent with Christian values, so the values that you want to preach here, you are most welcome, so if it will please you I will resign and go back but you have no right to impose your values on me. He was very upset. The entire faculty, all the Americans, supported me and wrote a letter to the Vice Chancellor saying that you should never do that, and we will not allow that to happen. Only two didn't file that application, the two Indian professors. They were scared that they would lose their job.
Eventually the Vice Chancellor withdrew his decision, apologized to me, and came to me to find out what I believed in. I said I believed in doing my job and doing it well. He said, is that all? Well there are very much plenty of things to do. Like what? I said, well, I am a teacher here I should teach well. I belong to a community, as a member of the community, I should do my job well as a member of the community. As a father, I should be good father. As a husband I should be good husband to my wife, a good neighbor to my neighbors. If a person can do all these things then I don't think there will be any problem in the community. I believe in that, not in anything I can't see and I can't understand.
He was a bit puzzled, but I think also impressed. The next day -- I did not go to the chapel, but I think his sermon was on this, doing your job well.
You gave them some material.
Do your job well, and since then I had no problem with the administration. Students declared me professor of the year.
I had that 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th years of my stay in Liberia, but I had to tell them that please don't do it again as you are making me, making too many enemies for me. Don't do that. They listened to my advice, and 2nd year the division -- they had 5 divisions in the University. Social Science Division, Humanities Division, Science Division, Theology Division, Nursing Division, like that. The head of the Social Science Division was Professor John Gay, an American gentleman who went to Cornell, Princeton, and Columbia. Brilliant man, excellent man. He said, Jyoti, I am a bad administrator. You take over the department. Well, why? You know, I felt that way. So he stepped down and made me the Social Science Division Chairman.
Same year the Dean, who was the number 2 in the University structure, President, then the Dean, he went for vacation to America. He wanted to come to the airport with me, I said sure. He was a Father from California. When we reached the airport, he gave me a letter and a key saying that the Bishop has asked me to give you the charge of the Dean's position till I am back. This is the key to the officer etc etc. I was very surprised because I was not told about it. Highly unusual for a Christian university to have a non-Christian dean, who normally conducts the services, and the Vice Chancellor went to America for fund raising purposes, and Bishop says that I couldn't think of anybody else, so looked like I was not that badly seen by the community there and the country there.
And the Church accepted me as not a very bad person. I think I did show some skill as an administrator, so when the Vice Chancellor came back, the students went on a strike and said that they didn't want him back. We want Chaudhuri to continue. They didn't say my name specifically, but they hinted that you know who we want to run the university. Very embarrassing situation for me and I myself came to him and he said I know you didn't know any thing about it. You did a good job and they appreciated it. I know you're not behind it, which I appreciated, but very embarrassing, so I had to plead with the students secretly to stop the strike, go back to teach if they love me, they did go back to school and class continued, but I resigned to prove that I was not a part of it.
I had no intention of being the Vice Chancellor. When I resigned the VC came to me and said, why you doing this? I said, I am sorry I can't stay here anymore because it's getting difficult for me. He tried to persuade me, but I didn't listen to him. When I leave that the, you know, small stage and people who are in education believe smaller, the word reached the University of Liberia, which was a state-run university in Monrovia, the capital city. Cuttington was about 180 kilometers away from the capital city, the campus at Monrovia. The Pro-VC (academic) of University of Liberia came to my house one day.
Now that you're leaving Cuttington could we request you to join our history department and build the department? It's in bad shape. I said I would not do it when I am in Liberia. I am going on vacation, you know that. So I will be in London for about two weeks. This is my place in London. Write to me, offer me a job, and I will respond to you, but I want to try not to accept any offer from when I was in Liberia because there is rivalry between the two universities. When I came to London, I found a letter waiting for me I responded by saying I will come. So I came to India for vacation, and went back to Liberia, this time
This was in what year?
In '78, this time the as a professor, head of the department of history at University of Liberia, state-run, much larger, but quality-wise Cuttington was better. So my son joined the American School in Monrovia, mainly the students were from the US Embassy and US Agencies children and children of people who work for UNO. I think it was an exception, a teacher's son studying at the American School. It was expensive but my priorities in life had always been different. I very much wanted him to get a good school education.
That was when he was in grade 8 he had not finished grade 8, and grade 9 of the Cuttington -- The American School was about to go over. They had given him a test, and he did so well they said that you can be in grade 9. In 3 months' time he finished the course which was taught in the class for 1 year, and he got A in all subjects, so they were very impressed, and they gave him a scholarship for that. Later on he took the SAT and from there he went to Cornell for education. I was in Monrovia with the university for about 7 and half years. In 1980, Liberia had a military coup which toppled the elected government of Tolbert [William Tolbert] and some army, 17 army people captured power, and the military government consisted of people who hardly had any education.
The person who was the highest in rank was a Master Sergeant, and it was an unusual thing to happen. They killed the President, the Vice President, and about 8 or 9 Cabinet Ministers. It was a remarkable change, and it was in a way welcome in the sense that Liberia was controlled by a group of Americo-Liberians who had come from America, freed slaves who had come from America and turned themselves into the elite of the country and behaved the same way as the white colonial masters had done in other African countries vis-à-vis their relationship with the local people. These soldiers were the local people and they have killed the people who are Americo-Liberians.
That's why in a way many people were happy that people from the majority of the country had come to power, and the minority people who had ruled in a way illegally had been removed. But they proved to be very corrupt, ruthless and inefficient, so a movement started against them and America usually supports anybody who is in power supported the military government also. But he was advised by the American Government to have an election and drop his uniform and come back as a civilian leader through an election. So he declared that there will be an election in the country. Our -- a political science professor of our university, he was fired. He was very popular. He said I will contest. The next day he was arrested by the military ruler. He was put in prison.
The students went on strike, and said either give him a fair trial or release him. Soldiers came to the campus, started shooting, and 2 students got killed, disaster in the university, students went on strike. Members of faculty met, and I was the only foreigner member of the faculty, faculty senate, a resolution was passed and we wanted immediate release or fair trial. The Vice Chancellor was a female, only female administrator in the university, Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman, student of Cornell and Harvard College, very brilliant person. She said to me you don't have to sign, you're a foreigner. I said, no I'll sign. My nationality is foreign, my passport is Indian, but I am a human being, and I have to sign it because my conscience demands that I sign it.
I signed that letter addressed to the President, military ruler, and all the people who had signed were sacked over a television announcement next day, so I lost my job. My wife was teaching at a catholic school, convent. She was the only one who had a job. My son was at Cornel. I had to pay him some money every year. Though he had a scholarship, one-third was paid by me. I was not a person who always saved money, so I had serious difficulty. The house we lived in was a university house. Each and every furniture it had was university furniture. He asked me to quit, I had no place to go to. My wife's salary was local salary, not enough even to hire a house. We didn't know what to do. First I lost my job and no salary for me.
In 7 days a new Vice Chancellor was appointed and about 3 or 4 people were approached for reinstatement. The new Vice Chancellor knew me and I knew him. He asked me to come and see him. I went and he said he had nothing against me. I could start working the next day and be head in the department as I was before. I said, that's fine, Dr. Wallace but what about the others? That's none of your business. I said, I am sorry if all of us were sacked for the same reason, either all of us come back and the reason does not exist, or nobody comes back. You are creating problem for yourself. I said, well if that's the way you look at it, I am sorry, but I cannot come back unless my friends also are allowed to come back.
It went on the tug of war for about 2 months. It was in August that I got the sack and still there was no salary and my son was in Cornell. I borrowed some money from my friend and gave to him. My wife got enough to feed us. The house was not taken away from me. My students were - some of them werevery well-placed at that time. One of them was a Deputy Minister already. They were very fond of me and they always kept information about me. Sir, don't worry nothing will happen, they can't do anything to you, but I was very scared because the military was not predictable in terms of their behavior. But I knew that my movement was being traced, and I had some difficulty, but at the same time there were people in the Government who knew me well offered me a Dean's post, the pro-VC (academic) post, asked me to come back.
I said these things wouldn't do. I don't think one call is enough to buy me. In fact, TV interviewed me and I mentioned these things publicly on the TV. As a result there was a deadlock but my students managed to get some tickets for me, they had tickets for me, for my son, and my wife for the 3 of us, which they were not supposed to give. At that time University of Birmingham knew about the problems because BBC African news mentioned the university problem, mentioned me by name. They offered me fellowship at University of Birmingham called John Cadbury Fellowship, Cadbury the chocolate company. They buy their cocoa from West Africa that's why they are dependent on Africa, West Africa for supply of material.
They have their company at Birmingham. Cadbury Company is very famous in Birmingham. They give the University of Birmingham lump sum money interest from which is given to a fellowship, senior fellowship. It's called Cadbury Fellowship. That year I was given that fellowship. I felt relieved and the ticket given by the university
This was what year?
'85 - '84, '84, in December. It was I think December 23rd It was Christmas Day we reached London, Birmingham, went there.
It's interesting that when I was in trouble the Indian Embassy which is in -- the nearest embassy was in Ghana, Accra -- they never inquired about my situation, though they all knew about it. Two ambassadors were very nice to me: British ambassador and the American ambassador. And the British ambassador arranged a farewell party for me from the embassy. The American ambassador also attended the party which was only my farewell and spoke highly of me and said to me that they can't do anything to you and if they do, they'll be in trouble. So I really appreciated the American and the British Embassy. It's important to understand that I was not the only foreigner who had a problem. Others were local people and they had problems.
Anyway we went to Birmingham and spent a year doing some work, presented papers here and there, writing articles. In '85 my scholarship expired, my son finished his education, came back to London. My wife said she is tired of living abroad. Let's go back home. In '85, end of '85 we came back to India, and as I did my work on African history, the universities in West Bengal don't teach African history, so I had no teaching job. My first job was as Registrar at Vidyasagar University which was built in Midnapur, just started. So I had the privilege of building a university after I had just gone back to the area.
I was made the Vice Chancellor temporarily after the VC died, but it did not last long because I did not agree with the people in power about appointments, so they chose to have somebody else. So I resigned and joined a Government of India Science Research Institute as a registrar then I retired. Due to age, had a house built at Salt Lake, my son started work as a journalist.
You retired in 80...
I retired in 1990
In 1990
no, in 1993
and after that I started -- got involved in coaching teaching of people who take the civil examination, ISI, PSI etc.
That was an accident. After I retired I got a telephone call from the Director of IISWBM, Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management. There was a retired IAS [Indian Administrative Service] officer who heard about me. I did not know him, he did not know me, and he was planning to have a IAS coaching centre at his Institute. He heard about me, could I run that department? Told me to meet him and the next day I started working there. The job I did for about 10 years, then now I have set up my own institute to provide academic guidance to the civil service aspirants.
What is it called?
Institute for Civil Services Aspirants in Salt Lake. It is doing very well. In the first year it had 2 IFS (Indian Foreign Service) 1 Level service persons, 2nd year 3 IAS, 1 customs official chosen though the number was very small, it's getting bigger now, so I am busy working on that now. I also spent some time working for the Presidency College Alumni Association. I am the President of that association. I have got a lot of time for that too and whenever I have extra time I do some work on Africa and the latest I did was to write an article on Jacob Zuma, the present South African President.
It's going to be published. I have been asked to teach at Calcutta University, should I say give some lectures, 6 lectures on African personalities which I will do in February. I am not totally out of touch with education yet. I don't think I will ever be. Whenever there is a chance for me to work on Africa, write on Africa, give a seminar on Africa, I keep doing it. Jadavpur University has a department called Commonwealth Literature where they teach African literature. There I go every year to give the introductory lectures on African history and culture before they start African literature. Whenever there is a need for seminar I go there and enjoy talking to them,meeting them African scholars community in India, in Calcutta, that will always be there with me as long as I live.
Thank you. I have just a couple of follow up questions, just 1 or 2. First was you mentioned before we started recording some of the international context of Presidency College and a connection with Africa I think already there. Could you mention that for the recording as well your felicitation that you organized?
The Presidency College in those days in the 50's was a very different place, different from what we see today. I think 2 years ago the students of the Hindu hostel, the hostel of college, boys hostel of the college came to me saying that to come to the reunion.
I refused to go, refused to go because I have seen in the newspaper that the students of the hostel fought with each other. It's a bad fight. Someone had to be taken to the hospital, the police had to intervene. The reason was that 2 groups belonged to 2 different political parties and they could not agree on certain things. They fought, literally fought with each other to settle the issue. I was appalled. I was appalled because in our time also we had we had groups we had people who belonged to ASFI belonged to Congress, RSP [Revolutionary Socialist Party] Congress, CPI, we never fought. If we disagreed, we fought elections. I remember a friend who lost to me for the post of secretary, Sukumar.
After he lost he said, why you defeated me? I said well Sukumar I kept my hands on his shoulder and said what can I do? There were no votes for you. Let's go and have some coffee. We went to Coffee House [College Street Coffee House], I used to smoke a lot. He used to smoke over a packet of cigarette had coffee. He said you should pay, he told me. So I said of course I would pay. I paid. That was the relationship we had even with people who disagreed with us on many occasions, many issues. That degeneration into physical fight because we disagree, that appalled me. I refused to go to their invitation. We talked about when American policy, we disagreed with that, we had demonstration somewhere perhaps go to US Embassy. We have consulate here, shout slogans, then come back.
But our fight was not on local issues and small petty matters like that and did not degenerate into fighting. I think when I was the General Secretary, first thing I did was to arrange for a felicitation for Dr. Cheddi Jagan, at that time Prime Minister of British Guyana, who was removed from power because the British Government thought he was a communist. He came to India along with his Finance Minister Burnham [Forbes Burnham] and visited many cities including Calcutta. We felt so much -- how would I put it? -- distressed because of the British behavior of the removal of a person elected by the people of British Guyana that we made a point to make sure that we have sympathy for him, he knows about it.
He stayed in Kingston Hotel, myself and Amiya Bagchi, a friend of mine, class friend of mine, the two of us went from the hostel to meet him and arrange for his trip to Presidency College and arrange for a lecture in the College and 8 colleges of Calcutta took part in that through my initiative. It was a huge big gathering this is what inspired us in those days. Our awareness about international events and sympathy for the people or the countries which had problems, suffered, especially in the colonial days, and that now has degenerated into fighting between neighbors, between roommates. This is something you cannot tolerate, you can never accept.
I remember about 5 years ago I went to the same hostel, they invited me, and my talk was intended on this -- I think I quoted Voltaire saying that Voltaire used to say that I disagree with you, but I am the first person to fight for your right to disagree with me, and that is what we believed in, I believed in, and I still believe in. If you can't tolerate the beings of people who don't agree with you, you are not a decent human being. I have a problem with you.
Thank you very much.
Well thank you.
Thank you very much, it was wonderful.