Thursday, February 23, 2012

Gupta Sahib of St Stephen's

In 1968, stupefied by boredom after three years studying Physics, I switched to a Masters program in Philosophy. (Some of my co-bloggers will be amused to hear that my Physics degree was held up by six months because I had failed History of Science and had to retake the exam.) A couple of weeks ago, I recounted here and here how I went to the Head of the Philosophy Department at St. Stephen’s College to ask what I might read to prepare myself. He suggested F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality. The man who thus caused me much misery (but far far less than doing Physics and Chemistry labs) was Rajendra Kumar Gupta. He was a striking figure, a face made of planes, a mind never satisfied with uncertainty, a spirit that made of me, and every other Stephanian, a building and renovation project. For the next two years, I followed him everywhere. Last week, aged 81, he died.

My Bradley story was meant, of course, to serve a rhetorical purpose. It evinces my affection, but does not convey my enormous debt to Gupta Sahib (as we called him—only a few others were accorded that wry salute). Now I must thank him and mourn him. (What I write here is much informed by correspondence with K. P. Sankaran, Ravi Rajan, Akeel Bilgrami, Joseph Prabhu, Saam Trivedi, and Anjana Jacob.) 
Rajendra Gupta educated many generations of students at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. He himself took a degree in English there, but under the influence of Sudhir Kumar Bose, an enormously charismatic Cambridge educated philosopher, he switched to Philosophy, and went on to a Ph. D. at Bonn. He returned to St. Stephen’s College and taught there for the rest of his career.

Once I had actually enrolled in the Masters program, we would meet almost every day. Once a week, the meeting was formal, a tutorial for which my fellow Masters student, Lalit Sharma, and I would have to write something. That something was criticized word by word, to the point where it became our ambition just once to be able to write our two pages without error—an ambition never realized, alas. Once a week, we’d meet at the legendary Philosophical Society at which we would discuss a classic text, one painstaking page at a time. At other times, Dr. G. (another affectionate sobriquet), Lalit, and I would go to the Coffee House, occasionally accompanied by Mrs G., a philosopher at Miranda House. This was how we learned Philosophy—starting as wide-eyed students to whom every work of philosophy was wonderfully plausible, slowly emerging as more seasoned dialecticians who could engage a text.

Philosophy was taught in conversation in tiny groups. To think of forty such tiny groups—one replacing the previous as one year gave way to the next, to think of that maieutic process repeated again and again and again—this is to contemplate a career very different from the ones most of us have followed. But one that could produce the intellectual serenity, sense of achievement, and contentment of Dr. Gupta and his mentor, Mr Bose.

What exactly did we learn? Aside from Bradley, I remember inching through Plato’s Republic, Kant’s first Critique (another miserable summer) and Prolegomenon, Moore’s Principia Ethica—Dr G couldn’t decide who was the greater moral philosopher, Kant or Moore—W. E. Johnson’s Logic, Wittgenstein’s Investigations (politely disliked)—Dr G. thought that family resemblances were a metaphysical theory of universals, and a rather bad one at that—Ryle’s Concept of Mind (politely despised). (No Aristotle!) And there were lectures at the University, though St. Stephen’s and its University were more or less closed to one another.

In retrospect, it surprises me that aside from the Harvard educated Dr Ansari in the University department, we would have completely missed any technical philosophy. No modal logic. No metalogic. No Russell. I don’t think anybody understood quantification well enough to teach “On Denoting” or “Knowledge by Acquaintance” or “Three Grades of Modal Involvement”—or to understand the importance of these works. This cut us off from a large part of 20th century progress in philosophy—though once I got to Stanford, I was enthralled by this. (I sometimes wonder how well Wittgenstein understood quantification—replacing it with propositional connectives may be philosophically defensible, but misses the main point.)

Rajendra Gupta was a man of integrity. Even a tiny stain of imperfection was enough to turn him away from something . . . unless that something (or somebody) was from St. Stephen’s, which was family. It is a tremendous virtue never to compromise. But that virtue can isolate a man. St. Stephen’s was a sheltered world within which a man like Dr. G could escape the struggles of low income Indian life. A decent sized College bungalow, food in Hall whenever wanted, work and office mere steps away. It was in that little world that I learned philosophy.

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