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Burlington Meets Calcutta

I fell in love with calcutta as soon as I saw its coconut palms. (Thirty years of Vermont winters, it seems, will create a remarkable affection for tropical climates.) No less entranced by the vitality of my students and the intellectual energy of my colleagues, I was ripe for the fresh perspective of the Fulbright Fellowship that had brought me to teach in India for four months.

Professor at Calcutta University, but first a visitor in Calcutta, I would have my Western sense and sensibilities challenged around every corner. I found my new home to be one of the world’s magnificent cities. Calcutta — renamed Kolkata during my stay there — has the energy of New York, the exploratory possibilities of Paris. The city is overfull with people, some fourteen million; on almost any street one encounters a multitude of human beings. The half of them who are women dress in an array of colored fabrics — no two the same — which make every urban vista a carnival of color. Saris and the flowing suits known as salwar kameez ripple and billow, an opulence of hues and visual sensations that is impossible to describe. There is no comparable experience in the Western world.

There are markets overflowing with vegetables, fruit, fish, huge bags of rice and beans. On most corners are small stands selling tea or snacks or cigarettes. Bakeries filled with Bengali sweets abound. Often I would walk for hours, just drinking in the life that went on around me. The traffic was terrible, and the air pollution worse. And, yes, at night there were people sleeping on the sidewalks, sometimes whole families. On the other hand, two-and-a-half million people wander through the twelve-day Calcutta Book Fair, the world’s largest.

In short, Calcutta was overwhelming, and I was overwhelmed. I loved it.

The moment I began my Indian teaching experience, I suspected that the cultural differences between the University of Vermont and Calcutta University would rival the gulf between Church Street and Chowringhee Road, Calcutta’s main drag.

Near Calcutta University is a very famous and very comfortable coffee house where I arranged to meet my students an hour at a time. So entranced were they by the chance to sit and talk with a professor — and an American one, at that — that no one left after his or her hour was done. By late afternoon all my students were sitting around the small table, Mousumi telling me about Indian music, Sanchayita about Indian families, Sriparna about the tormented history of Bengal.

That experience, the hunger for knowledge and the deep interest in a visitor from abroad, turned out to be typical. So great was student interest that sometimes classes lasted an hour longer than scheduled. At Gauhati University in neighboring Assam, the students sat through three one-and-a-half hour lectures one after another, and then asked questions for an additional hour. When all was concluded, they applauded and lined up for my autograph. I love my students at UVM, but five minutes before the end of class most of them are already packing their backpacks.

I would also encounter a level of respectfulness for professors that was so enormous that it embarrassed me. When I entered a classroom or lecture hall every student would rise and stand until I was seated. The students would again rise when the class was over, until I left the room. If a student came to class late he or she would stand by the door, apologize, and ask my permission to enter. When I gave a lecture at another university, the students would begin by serenading me with folk songs and Indian classical songs, garlanding me with flowers, investing me with honorary scarves; several times students bent down and touched my feet in a gesture of respect.

Although at times I felt awkward in the presence of such elaborate courtesy, it made me realize how many of the forms of civility have leached away from American life. My students at UVM could learn much from the customs of India, although I have no desire for them to stand when I enter or for the young men to remove their backward-turned baseball caps.

On the other hand, those Indian students reveled in the lack of ceremony typical of American student-faculty interaction. When I teach Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” for instance, I lie down on the desk to illustrate the radical posture Whitman takes at the start of the poem. I borrow a scarf from a student to illustrate what Emily Dickinson is doing when she writes “I tie my hat/I crease my shawl/Life’s little duties do.” The generosity and informality of American teaching was a revelation for Indian students.

Well-educated though they were, with a grounding in English literature that American students don’t approach, the students in my classes hungered for a more flexible curriculum. The set Indian course of study never allowed them to study film or the American beat poets, or even read such contemporary masterpieces of their own culture as the fiction of Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh.

Indian students live, painfully, in a world of tests. Beginning at the age of three and continuing through every transition in their studies, tests abound — and are required. We have our tests in the United States, too: high school exams, SATs, GREs, Law Boards. But in India, if one does only passably on a test, she cannot take it again. That’s it. Choices narrow, life closes in. There are no second chances. Many students confided in me about the unbearable pressure they faced, over and over again.

The best thing about American education, I came to feel through my experience in India, is that American students are free to start over, to shape their lives and then reshape them, both at UVM and in the development of their careers. The perspective of distance also gave me cause to celebrate our teaching. One of the glories of the University of Vermont is that almost every professor is dedicated to teaching, and to teaching well. Although I met many brilliant and dedicated teachers in Calcutta, the quality of teaching there varies greatly from class to class.

Yet, despite all the cultural differences, I eventually came to realize (and it took me almost four months to get to this point) that Indian and American students resemble each other more than I had expected they would. Indian students too value the friendships they form in school, and they too love ‘adda,’ the Bengali custom usually translated as ‘chat,’ but which American students would call bull sessions. In both cultures students feel a sense of exhilaration when new fields of knowledge open before them. Students in both countries respond to good teaching with passion, while they chafe against assignments that do not make sense to them.

In Calcutta, as in Burlington, young people are excited by their entrance into the community of scholars and eager to make the most of what that community offers. VQ

Huck Gutman is a professor of English and former department chair. As a result of his time in Calcutta, he writes a regular column for The Statesman, one of India’s major newspapers. You can read his columns via Gutman’s Website www.uvm.edu/~sgutman/.

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