National

Teachers' Day: Remembering Sanjay Nigham, A Teacher Par Excellence

Sanjay Nigham, the then Head of the Department of History at Ramjas College, had organised a series of orientation classes. The class of 35 meant that it would always be one-to-one between teachers and students. And on the first day, Nigham asked us to write an essay on TOY.

Advertisement

Ramjas College, Delhi University
info_icon

I was part of the exodus of Bihari students to Delhi University which had begun as a trickle in the late 1970s and turned into a torrent by the late 80s before becoming a deluge in the 1990s. I had been pursuing my Intermediate of Arts from Patna College which had clearly seen better days. Established in 1869 and fondly though exaggeratedly called 'Oxford of the East', its decline by the mid-80s was perceptible. My decision to leave the shore of the Ganges for that of the Yamuna was hastened by a fight that had begun with random swear words before assuming ominous proportions. Apparently, some muscular-looking boys were peeved with a boy who was going around with a girl. Fisticuffs and kicks were inexplicably followed by sharp razor work. Blood oozing out of sharp cuts, splattering shirt and perpetrators threatening to kill him – my decision to migrate to DU had been hastened. History at Ramjas College in North Campus of Delhi University is where I landed with a motley group of students – most of them from Bihar but a few from Delhi as well and all of us aspiring to be civil servants. Even the aspiration to be a civil servant in the first year of college equips one with some misplaced attitude. 

Advertisement

Sanjay Nigham – our Head of the Department – had organised a series of orientation classes. The class of 35 meant that it would always be one-to-one between teachers and students. And on the first day, Nigham asked us to write an essay on TOY. We were left stumped. After all, one could write an essay on cows or even Bapu but how come in the world, one could attempt an essay on TOY? Our imagination failed us. Expression failed us even more. Our attitude and confidence had been exposed and that too mercilessly. Hiding tears in your callow, salad years could be extremely painful.  Our ego had been steamrolled by our inability to write an essay on TOY. We knew our place in the scheme of things. Without saying much, he almost told us we needed to work on our English and expression. He was teaching us the history of China and Japan and at the beginning of each topic, he would give us a list of books and from those books, we were supposed to take long verbatim notes first. For each topic, we would take notes of 100 pages or so and we would write down the meaning of words we did not know along with framing sentences of our own in a different register. Nigham would check pilgrims’ progress with a word of encouragement here, a sign of frown there, some required correction somewhere else. We must have done it for six months and gradually English began looking not as intimidating as before. Newly learnt English words do force users to use them out of context but even then, it was empowering. After six months, he asked us to take shorter notes from reading lists – focusing on essence and substance. By now, half or even more of the students had given up but a few of us soldiered on. We were expected to compress 100 pages into 10 pages which we found extremely difficult in the beginning. Six months of slog and sweat and toil had made us too fond of words and sentences to let them go. We were clearly in a bind.

Advertisement

Our dilemma was resolved when Nigham told the diminished tribe of triers that everything in a paragraph was not important and one paragraph stood for only one idea and many times, many paragraphs reiterated the same idea. Again that data, examples and illustrations could be dispensed with or just briefly referred to. But most importantly, one should never lose sight of the relationship between different ideas and how they fit into the theme or topic. By and by, we managed to achieve what looked impossible. Sifting chaff from grain is one of the idioms we learned in those days. Our transition from Hindi to English had become less fractious. 

A few months after our session had started, he encouraged us to visit the Indian Council of Historical Research. Later, we would learn that ICHR was a contested territory between different schools of history writing. Unmindful of that, we were browsing books at the ICHR library. We would carry our lunchpack from the hostel mess which would go cold but still, sitting at ICHR and rubbing shoulders with scholars whom we had little or no idea about – made us feel special. One day, I ran into a gentleman who was surprised at my presence there. He asked me about my credentials and I asked him who he was. He turned out to be Irfan Habib. Going to ICHR in the first year gave us a high. More concretely, it gave us exposure to new viewpoints and new ways in which ideas were being contested. Nigham had asked us to consult Encyclopedia Britannica for each topic. It made our notes and tutorials crisp, inclusive and different from other tutorials that had been in circulation in DU since time immemorial. 

Advertisement

Nigham was not yet finished. He probably knew we had done some hard work so he suggested we explore Delhi starting from Delhi-6. By then, we in those rundown DTC buses had passed by the Red Fort multiple times but we had not given ourselves to exploring Shahjahanabad. Upon his prodding, we ventured into lanes and bylanes of Old Delhi and chanced upon myths, legends, anecdotes, stories, art, cuisine, flavours and history in juxtaposition. From Old Delhi to New Delhi, where he would ask us to visit different embassies, was where we learnt about other cultures. He was partial to Italian and French embassies where we got to watch a number of movies. He encouraged us to write reviews of movies we watched. 

Advertisement

Between Old and New Delhi lies Daryaganj and courtesy of Nigham, we began visiting the second-hand book market on every Sunday. Every book that ingenuity of mankind had made it write was available there. It is where I picked 'The Plague' by Albert Camus. Till then, I had not heard of Albert Camus or Fascism but there was something in the blurb that took me in its crosshairs. It remains an all-time favourite book: "It might sound absurd but the only way one could fight plague is with decency."

Summer gave way to autumn and post-autumn, Delhi became worth pining for. Autumn gave way to winter and before the winter- break, Nigham as head of the department had proposed some sort of semester examination for us even though DU had no semester system at that point in time. His idea was vehemently opposed by our seniors of second and third years but his sway over us was so complete that we took the semester examination in all seriousness. 

Advertisement

Sure that our counterparts from other colleges had not burnt as much midnight oil as we had done, he would ask us jokingly to visit nearby campus colleges like Stephen's and Hindu and ask our friends there how much opium they had been taking. In fact, the Opium War between a demoralised China and a triumphant West was the first chapter of the syllabus meant for the first year. He knew that we had taken a headstart. However, the marks we were awarded for semester exams left much to desire. We were dismayed first but dismay didn't last long. We rededicated ourselves.

Advertisement

After January at Delhi University, time passed in a jiffy. February is anyway short and with March arrives examination blues. Our syllabus complete, copious notes having been taken, Nigham now began working on how to answer questions. He would give us twisted questions and we were expected to chip in with a sequence of ideas that could legitimately address concerns of the questions. He also focused on the need to address the generally neglected tail part of a question and how to link the main and tail parts of a question. 

Examination took place in April. He asked what we planned to do during the long summer vacation. We had no idea except to go to our villages in Bihar and devour mangoes in quintals. He suggested we join the Film Appreciation Course at FTII, Pune. It is one suggestion we couldn't execute – mostly for want of resources. When the university declared results after summer vacation, we had done exceedingly well. We had trumped more reputed colleges. Yours indeed had topped the university that year.

Advertisement

Sanjay Nigham had done what Shah Rukh Khan would do some two decades later and only cinematically in 'Chak De India!'

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement