Professor Rajeshwar Dayal Saxena had a paralytic attack two years ago. Considering that it would now be difficult for the octogenarian to manage all alone in Bilaspur, his Bengaluru-based son Pranav asked him to come and stay with him. Saxena, however, already had some 15 young people coming in shifts to look after their ailing teacher for years. None of them studied under him, as he had retired from a government college in 1997. But such is his aura that his home continues to be frequented by many youth, who treat it like a place of pilgrimage.
“When I first met him a decade ago during my college days, like many others, I was fascinated by his knowledge,” says Aaditya Soni, 28, a photographer. “When he became lonely after his wife Geeta died five years ago, we persuaded him to let us stay with him and take care of him. I once stayed for eight months at a stretch,” says Soni. Other hands-on members include Mudit Mishra, Upasna Banjare, Monika Sahu and Satyam Rawat.
Born in Budaun district of UP in 1937, Saxena obtained a Master’s and PhD from Sagar University, before he came to Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh and began teaching Hindi literature in a college. Simultaneously, he took informal classes at home on philosophy, sociology and contemporary politics. Like an old guru, he would speak on a range of issues with his pupils taking down notes. While many teachers remain confined to their subject, Saxena traverses a staggering number of disciplines. “I’ve seen his three broad phases—staunch leftist, socialist and post-modernist,” says Braj Kishore Singh, principal of a college in Gariyaband district. However, Saxena examines post-modernism through the Marxist prism. “He is the biggest authority on the West and on postmodernist thought in Chhattisgarh. His home has always been a centre of intellectual discourse,” Singh says. Ambikapur-based poet Mahesh Verma says that he learnt philosophy and politics from him. “He is able to detect the essence of any subject and instantly reach the core of Zizek or Derrida. He taught us how the propositions of Ferdinand de Saussure can be traced in Sanskrit linguistics,” says Verma.
When few in India were talking about postmodernism, Saxena was able to decode and dissect the philosophy and teach to his pupils in an accessible language. But he remains modest. “My time is over. Very few come to me now,” he tells Outlook. He couldn’t be more wrong. There are so many instances over the years of his young pupils who have carefully recorded his life and teachings in their notebooks and on camera.
“Whenever I call him with any question on philosophy, he begins speaking as if he is reading a text. I would not have been able to learn about politics and life had I not met him,” says Verma. Philosophy of science has been a core interest. “His bhaav (sensitivity) and gyaan paksh (wisdom) are both formidable,” says Soni.
One of the first questions he asks any visitor is—what are you reading these days? And what is he reading these days? Steven Pinker’s recent book Rationality “that explains how in the age of post-truth our lives are trapped in conspiracy theory and fake news”.
The old man is alert as ever.
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Guru")
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