Wendy Doniger: a student remembers an exceptional teacher

An incredible teacher and a brilliant conversationalist, one of Wendy’s greatest gifts is her ability to befriend the young

shreerupa

Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | March 27, 2014


Wendy Doniger: YOU NOTICEE, as the legal notice against the author of `The Hindus` is certainly not Wendy!
Wendy Doniger: YOU NOTICEE, as the legal notice against the author of `The Hindus` is certainly not Wendy!

“Be what you would seem to be – or, if you’d like it put more simply – Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”

– Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland.

As I walked the stretch from International House to the Divinity School at the University of Chicago to meet Prof Wendy Doniger, I was suddenly amused by my own naiveté. Why would one of the most famous sanskritists/indologists agree to be the thesis guide of a student of cultural anthropology? And really, did I think I could convince her that I had a strong argument in my research on Hinduism worth her while? Plucking courage to approach her, I looked up her photograph on the university’s website; I wished she had smaller frames.

To begin from the beginning, I had what I thought was an original idea of writing my thesis on the asexualized iconography of village goddesses in east India. My ‘original’ idea, however, had reluctant takers in the anthropology department. My preceptor, Dr Alex Dent, suggested, “Why don’t you try Wendy at the Divinity School? She is the best person to guide you on this. There is no harm in trying.” I thought, to quote Homer Simpson, “trying is the first step towards failure”. My mother, who is also an anthropologist, had friends and acquaintances who knew Wendy professionally and personally. In asking for their opinion of Wendy, I opened a Pandora’s Box of conflicting, even contradictory narratives about the phenomenon called Wendy Doniger. An elderly woman, who was also her PhD student, narrated how she was mean and ruthless. Another scholar told me, “Be cautious. She hates women.” I was sucked further into a whirlpool of despondency, cursing myself for choosing such a topic.

Now here I was, inside Swift 207, her sprawling office. Her disarming smile put me into some ease. “Hello, Shreerupa, sit, sit, sit,” she said. Finally, someone in Chicago could pronounce my name with impeccable diction. Her calm and affable self obviously belied the woman-hating feminist; the unpredictable and snappy real self that would emerge anytime now. However, the ‘real self’ never emerged in all the 10 years that I have known her. “Oh, I love your dress. Where in India do you come from?” were her second and third sentences. “A Bengali from Orissa,” I replied. To which, she started crooning a piece of Rabindra Sangeet. I was utterly confused and very pleasantly surprised. I found the Spirit of Hope that lay at the bottom of Pandora’s Box. I argued my project on hinduisms in east Indian villages with my surging confidence. She listened to me attentively and finally said, “I love it. Let’s do it.” I was introduced to the person of Wendy Doniger.

An incredible teacher and a brilliant conversationalist, one of Wendy’s greatest gifts is her ability to befriend the young. She invited students home for dinner and drinks. Her invitation emails were witty and hilarious. Her drawing room has a large portrait of her as a ballet dancer that she loves showing her students. An engaging storyteller, she regaled us with tidbits from Greek mythologies as well as Nigerian folktales. A Marilyn Monroe fan, she made me watch ‘Some Like It Hot’. As a teacher, she was hugely encouraging but critical. One of my highs in scholarly work was when she quoted me in a writing of hers: a huge encouragement for a 24-year-old. We soon discovered that we shared our birthdays (20 November), our mothers’ first name (Rita) and our dogs’ name (Kalista). In the cold city of Chicago, Wendy was truly a source of great warmth and inspiration for me, as she has been to scores of other students.

However, my most dominant perception of Wendy would be established through a phase of my illness in Chicago. It was summer and Wendy was in her summer house at Cape Cod. I sent her an email expressing my inability to submit a paper because I had taken ill. Wendy found out my number and, worrying over my health, offered to come back from Cape Cod to be with me. She called me every day and gave me strength to tide over my loneliness in a foreign country; actions far beyond what is expected of a thesis guide. When I recovered, I sent her an email in gratitude saying, “Your scholarship is exceeded only by your humanity.”

When I returned to India, we kept in touch and she sent me gifts of books. Two years back, I got married. Consumed by my newly acquired marital status, I could not write to her till The Hindus-Penguin-pulping incident. I wrote to her expressing my sadness at the development. Her reply was effusive and inquiring, as is typical of her; not even a mention of the Penguin incident. I almost wondered if Wendy and ‘YOU NOTICEE’ (the term used in the legal notice of Dinanath Batra for Wendy) were the same people. Adorno talks of “[the] danger...of judging intellectual phenomena in a subsumptive, uninformed and administrative manner and assimilating them into the prevailing constellations of power which the intellect ought to expose.”

This is not a scholarly defence of Wendy’s work but a response to the personal attacks made on her. Excerpts from the legal notice read as follows: “…So the approach of YOU NOTICEE has been jaundiced, your approach is that of a woman hungry of sex.” In another portion, “…YOU NOTICEE emphasizes only those texts which portray linga as erect male sexual organ. This shows your shallow knowledge of the Great Hindu religion and also your perverse mindset.”
YOU NOTICEE is certainly not Wendy.

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