'Honours? What's that? I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ll have a go at it!'
The butterfly in Beijing sent me on an entirely unintended path in my life from that point on. And at last, we come back to where this particular story starts – with Damodar and Devahuti.
Deciding to do Honours was going to add an extra year’s work to my BA, but I would have a higher qualification. The Education Department to its great credit was happy to finance this for me on my $19 per week, which as you can see didn’t increase over the whole three years. I was poverty-stricken but happy, though it took me seven months to make new friends.
In those times Honours courses were genuinely tough. There was a Second Year Hons component that was the equivalent of an extra subject on top of your regular units of study. That was followed the next year by Third Year Hons, which was not only an additional unit, but had a 20,000 word thesis as well. Final Hons year had two special Hons units plus a 40,000 word thesis.
By Third Year I was once again looking at the choices for Hons components of my degree. I was forced to do European History in Second Year Hons and had had enough of it. The choice was to continue with European (forget that!), or do American History (in which I had no experience and little enthusiasm) or the third and last choice – India 1935-1947 – under D P Singhal, by then rapidly promoted to Professor so no other university would steal him and Devahuti away.
I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about it either, to be frank, but it was the best of the three on offer. I wondered what you could find in just 12 years of Indian history to fill a whole year to study. How wrong was I about that! I also discovered that if I wanted to do this course, the steely Indian professor demanded that I also do an extra year-long unit on top of everything else – India to 1947 under Dr Raj, recently added through Damodar’s insistence to the stable of lecturers in Indian history. Damodar felt, correctly, that I didn’t know enough about India to do his Hons unit without filling in the blanks, even though I had done his own unit by evening classes before starting to teach full time.
And all this on top of units in English Literature, Political Science and English history, AND a 20,000 word thesis on the Origins of Pakistan! And this was only Third Year Hons, not Final Year.
But studying this Hons unit with Damodar changed everything for me. Teaching an Hons unit with a small group of committed students was his forte. He sized up the potential of each student in about ten minutes, I suspect, and worked on that. He was utterly brilliant as a teacher, but only if you were up to the mark.
I have to add at this point that when I went to university full time, I had one advantage that was a total novelty for me. All my life as a student, I had been competing intellectually with students 1-3 years older than I was. At university full-time, after being a teacher, I was slightly older than most students in my classes, and this was wonderful. It was certainly an enormous help in grappling with the complexities of a very complex society - that of India.
Damodar saw potential in me, as with a select group of other students, and he opened our eyes to the way things really worked rather than superficial appearances. He was incredibly generous with his time and saw no difference between time on campus and when he and Devahuti entertained either at home or at a restaurant. He refused to let students pay for anything even if there were a dozen of us having a meal. And that happened very regularly.
By the end of Final Hons, there wasn’t much he and Dev didn’t know about us; our strengths and weaknesses. By then I had done the Final Hons units competitively against the entire year’s batch in all areas of History, while writing my Fourth Year Hons thesis on the Kashmir Dispute between India and Pakistan. What a salutary experience that was! The year was 1970.
To cut a dangerously lengthening story a bit shorter, there were two students in particular that he and Dev had their eyes on. One was Helen Illingworth, and I was the other. You can google Helen under her married name of Helen Nugent and see what an illustrious career she has had. Dev and he were going to start a first year unit in history in 1971 called History of Traditional Asia. They wanted Helen and me to be full time members of the History Department teaching staff at QU to teach this course. They knew that we were very good friends and had done a great deal of our Hons unit working together. In addition, I had teaching experience and that freaky High Distinction years before in The Modern Far East. Once again it had turned up trumps for me.
This was quite a departure from my plan to finish a BA and resume primary school teaching. Helen and I would be tutors on yearly renewable contracts and I would have to abandon teaching in the State Education system altogether. It was a gamble but we both had absolute faith in Damodar and Dev, and they were very fond of us both, treating us, as I’ve said elsewhere, as indulgent parents would. Devahuti was a haemophiliac, which meant that she could never have children, so I think we were substitute family.
I can remember with great clarity Helen phoning me in high excitement from Brisbane at my home in Gladstone to tell me we had both been awarded First Class Honours. Damodar had let her know. Within weeks I would be going back to Brisbane, as a member of staff of the University of Queensland.
Little did I know that my education was really only just beginning, and that Damodar and Dev would be like guiding stars for me for another decade. Damodar had the sort of mind that could grasp immensities and draw it all together, as his two-volume work India and World Civilisation so ably demonstrated. Dev had an ability to take enormous detail and weave it into a larger pattern of history. In a sense, they started at either end of an historical problem and sorted it out between them. They were a perfect team.
Tragically, both of them died late in the 1980s in their early 60s, from pre-existing medical conditions. I mourned their loss as I would my dearly loved parents and to think of them even now, as I reach the age they died, brings tears to my eyes.
|Devahuti, late 1975. The baby? Alice, my first-born!
That means it’s the right place to stop, though I haven’t really told you how they influenced me apart from starting me on the best career anyone like me could have. Maybe that will come out in other stories, but this one has got too long. However, I will never forget that first night of my evening studies when I was 16, when it was Dev who pointed out how absurdly young I was. Had anyone said to me that first evening that a few years later that I would be teaching her course, with her, to new university students, in the same place, I would have declared them barking mad. And you would have too. Oh yes you would! This is why: