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Mainstream, VOL LX No 4, New Delhi, January 15, 2022

Education as Life Itself: Thoughts on Prof. Avijit Pathak’s Retirement from JNU | Aishwarya Bhuta

Friday 14 January 2022


by Aishwarya Bhuta *

Prof. Avijit Pathak is a sociologist, educationist, and one of the most authentic thinkers in Indian academia. He is a former professor at the Centre for Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He joined the University in March 1990 and has recently retired after 31 years of teaching. The first time I saw Prof. Pathak was when I went to seek my admission at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for an MA in Development and Labour Studies in July 2019. I was sitting outside his office with my close friend from the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS). Soon he happened to pass by and my friend greeted him. He paused to ask for her well-being, and how she had been recovering from her long illness. To me, he needed no introduction, but I was a stranger to him. I passed on a smile but did not introduce myself then, hoping I would interact with him in class someday. He returned a warm smile and went ahead. Seldom have I seen a teacher so warm and encouraging.

A month later, I accompanied my friend to his classes. I was technically an outsider as I was not from CSSS. But Prof. Pathak’s class always felt like my own. Sir encouraged each and every one of us to put forth our views, and reflect not only upon sociological thinkers but also everything that went on in the world around us – right from the happenings in the University to those in world politics. This class was no typical Sociology class where we would learn about Durkheim, Weber, and Marx in a monotonous, often dull fashion. We walked with Gandhi, engaged with Ambedkar, read Gramsci’s prison notebooks, and experienced Baudrillard’s hyperreality. We were not to become ‘one-dimensional persons’, but be moulded into thinking, feeling, and enlightened beings engaging with a myriad of thinkers and philosophers. Tagore, Jiddu Krishnamurthy, Aurobindo, Paulo Freire, Michael Apple, Henry Giroux, and many others seemed to materialise in our classes. We learnt, unlearned, and relearned. In sir, I always find my favourite fictional characters such as Prof. Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series and Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society.

I wish it was untrue that Prof. Pathak has retired from his teaching service at CSSS. Can such an authentic and reflexive teacher ever retire? It pains me to imagine that whenever I will go back to JNU, I will no longer have his classes to look forward to. Our kindest and beloved teacher will no longer be teaching at the University. He often said that he would teach young school students after retiring. I hope he does, as it will continue to give him the priceless joy of teaching, and a young generation of students will be nurtured under a pure human being like him. Indeed, he reminds me of Robert Frost:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

As Prof. Pathak leaves the University, he bequeaths us with a great legacy. We must continue to strive for the values he stood for, and celebrate education as awakened intelligence, as he always said. We must strive to engage with a multiplicity of perspectives, and uphold the spirit of learning. We must build rhythmic bridges among disciplines and cultivate original thought. The freedom of thought, the quest for originality, and the pursuit of knowledge must be our aims. We must celebrate nature, the arts and music, literature and theatre – every aspect of our creativity and expression that make this world a colourful and vibrant place.

Prof. Pathak has left an imprint in the minds and hearts of perhaps every student he has taught in the past three decades. I consider myself fortunate to be one of them. It does not matter who we go on to become – teachers, researchers, sociologists, or anybody else – we must never forget the lessons he taught us. If we continue to work hard with utmost sincerity and diligence, we will be good at our work, and he will always be proud of us. With kindness, compassion, empathy and the ethics of care, we can help the world become a better place. These are the virtues that Prof. Pathak embodies and imbibes in all his students. In times when we all experience the decay of the university, education systems, and of studentship itself, Prof. Pathak teaches us to create alternative paths, and stand up for what we feel is right. We will always remember him as our beloved teacher who nurtured and mentored us to grow into better human beings. With his writings and teachings, Prof. Pathak will continue to enlighten and motivate us throughout our journeys towards truth, knowledge, and spiritual awakening.

As I wish the best for him for all the journeys that he shall undertake now, I dedicate him this gem from Maya Angelou:

“My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness. Continue to allow humour to lighten the burden of your tender heart.”

Thank you, Prof. Pathak, for being the teacher and healer that all of us need.

* (Author: Aishwarya Bhuta holds an MA in Development and Labour Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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