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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Devahuti and Damodar

‘Looking around, I can see some very young faces here.’
   She looked straight at me and smiled.
   February 1964. First year at Teacher’s College, just a couple of weeks into my training. But here was I, at Queensland University, Main Building – the straight line of the D that made up the beautiful cloistered sandstone complex that was just about all there was of QU at the time.

Main Building, University of Queensland

   History Department, First Floor Lecture Room. 6 pm, Monday evening. Wooden chairs, each with its right arm the width of a lecture pad. It looked like this in shape, only not made out of plastic – just plain wood with your bottom shape shallowly gouged out of the timber, which surely tests your backside padding by the time you’ve finished a non-stop two-hour lecture. 

Lecture chair - not great for left-handers!
Not useful for left-handers like me though. Left-handers had to stop anyone sitting on their left side, and commandeer the right arm of that empty chair so they could take notes in relative comfort.
   I had decided that I was going to begin a university degree by night studies while starting my two-year course at Teacher’s College. I’m not sure why, but I think Mum put the idea into my head. Maybe it was partially in atonement for that sinful night journey on the Rocky Mail that I signed up for the year-long university subject by evening study.
   Rubbish! It was that I did want to do better in the State Education system than be a mere class teacher, and university studies were the quickest route to that goal.
   I looked at the night offerings for a BA Degree. They were slight. By rights I should have been doing English Language or Literature, as those came very easily to me, but the narrow choices offered by evening lectures meant that nothing appealed in that line.
   So, I cast my eye down the evening course offerings in History, my next strongest suite. European history…. I was bored to the teeth with the French Revolution, the 1848 Revolution, what the Prussians did to the French in the 1870s and the folly of the so-called Great War, which kicked off with such sadly misplaced enthusiasm in 1914.
   Then I saw this subject for first year students – Cultural History of India. India had a culture? If it did, I knew nothing about it except for those terrible things the Indians did to their British masters at the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1757, and again in another stoush in 1857 with the Mutiny. At least they were considerate enough to do these things exactly a hundred years apart, making the dates easy to remember.
   Anyway, without much enthusiasm, I ran my eye over the course content. This subject didn’t even come up to the British period at all! What was there to talk about then?
   Turns out there were heaps of things to talk about, especially the religions and philosophies and their moulding of Indian history – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism…. Jainism??? What the hell was that? I’d never heard about it. Islam…. Aryans coming to India 3.5 millennia ago at least. The Harappan civilisation 5000 years ago. They had double brick houses and a sewerage system in large orderly cities at that time? Great ancient empires two thousand years later??
   Wow. This stuff could be interesting. It certainly was different. Who was the lecturer in charge of this?
   The name was Dr Devahuti.  An Indian bloke obviously. I could work that much out.
   As it turned out, even that I got half wrong. Not having the faintest clue that an Indian name ending in an ‘i’ would probably be a woman, it was something of a surprise to me that the lecturer with the beautiful smile would turn out to be a softly spoken sari-clad Indian lady of about 40 or so – five-foot-nothing tall and unable to use the lectern on the desk because she could barely see over the top of it. Nothing of it quite fitted in with my early 60s male chauvinist world view, but I liked what I saw on that first evening.
   As I said, she was looking straight at me when she accused some of us of an unreasonable tendency towards youth. She was right. I was 16 and probably looked even younger, though I would turn 17 in May.
   I fell in love with her immediately. I found this old piece of negative I’ve had for forty or more years, inverted the image in Photoshop and here she is, as I remember seeing her first. It’s very grainy, but you get the idea.
   If you look closely, you’ll see she has one characteristic that sets her apart from most Indian women of the era. Yes, the short hair. By Indian standards, that was pretty revolutionary. She was one of the original, truly genuine feminists before the term was ever applied to the 1960s, and in her quiet way over the years to follow, made me understand what that was all about. Maybe I’ll come back to that later as it doesn’t fit with the story here.
   But I will say that her name was just Devahuti. Not Something Devahuti, or Devahuti Something; she had just one name and it was solely hers. Imagine the fun she had getting a passport with just one name…. but she had her way. She always did. She would have a reasoned argument and put the case firmly and clearly, and there was no gainsaying it.
   Her Ph D was from the University of London. She was there at the same time as her friend, the Grand Dame of Indian history, Romila Thapar. Friends, yes; academic rivals, definitely. Once again, that’s another story.
    So, I plunged head first into Indian cultural history, without a life jacket of any description, except for Devahuti’s mercy upon a youth with not the faintest knowledge of how to write a university essay for history. Her compassion for me made me create one unbreakable rule when I started teaching at any level. Forgive a mistake made once and be kindly, that time at least. Without Devahuti’s application of that rule, I don’t think I would have got far in my university career.
   As it was, my very first essay on the Indus Civilisation, handwritten as they were in those days in my schoolboy scrawl, based on three books from our long textbook list, can barely have passed muster. I still remember the grade: ‘Credit Minus’. And in brackets, ‘liberal mark’, followed by: ‘I can see some spark of analytical astuteness in your essay. I will discuss technique with you following the tutorial.’
   Tutorials, incidentally, where we were supposed to actually debate themes we had studied with the group and the lecturer, followed straight on from the two-hour lecture – three hours in total. You had to have stamina for university work in those days. And you needed to remember to eat something solid from the Student Union Refectory before you went into the lecture!
   I could tell you how the lectures on Hindu philosophy went over my head most of the time (I mean, monotheism and polytheism I could grasp, but to add monism, anthropomorphism and henotheism to the mix and be told that Hinduism could be atheistic – and be all of those at once! … that left me fumbling in the dark). But I really must press on. Let’s just say I scraped through Cultural History of India after the six hour examination with a bare Pass, and was grateful for that.
   Two out of 18 points towards the degree granted. What to do the next year? I studied the guide to Evening Units once again, with similar lack of enthusiasm for the offerings.
   That was how I came to meet Dr Damodar Prasad Singhal.
[continued part 2]


  1. Your instinct led you to your dharmic path :) in my grateful opinion. Devahuti looks enchanting and I'm envious of what you can do with photoshop as well as, a bit, of those connections you were making then! "India has a culture?" is a question most Australians still would not even think to ask.India -where's that? I'm still astonished at how determinedly educationalists here now overlook that incredible country which is increasingly so powerful both strategically and economically. And its wonderful culture!! We have a big push for Asian languages renewed at UNE. No Hindi, of course. I love this story of your learning. *Smile*

  2. Devahuti: mother of wisdom -mother of the sage Kapila

    Damodar: a name of god Vishnu (to do with discipline - the clarity that comes with discipline)

    Good teachers!

  3. Lovely translation for Devahuti, Julie. I suspect it has others too, but my Sanskrit is pidgin-Sanskrit. Joan might be able to add to that. Yes, they were the best teachers..
    As to India, I am still deeply saddened by this strange rift between India and Australia. It was never there before, and must be to do with the exploitation of Indian students, but definitely NOT by Australian educational institutions alone. The middlemen on BOTH sides have taken part in it.
    Too big a topic for here but I can't believe how quickly it has happened, and how wrongly.

  4. Devahuti means invocation, or call, to god (deva). I love reading these meanings and have just done so at great length on a Sai Baba website, to do with the lingam..the meaning I mentioned above is from mythology. Maybe if Joan has a Sanskrit dictionary she can look it up.

  5. Thanks for that, Julie. What? You have been looking at the lingam at great length? What's goin' on here??? :)
    That's the meaning of Devahuti I was looking for, incidentally. Well done. I just wasn't sure of the 'hut' component.

  6. .. so Devahuti was at the forefront of the one name trend imitated much later by Madonna, Prince, Sting et al.

  7. Sort of. Dev was following an Indian tradition around at least 4000 years ago! Where some western forms absolutely insisted that a name be put in the Given Name and Family Name boxes she just put 'Devahuti Devahuti'.


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