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Lokvani Talks To Dilip K Datta

Nirmala Garimella

Dilip K. Datta,  author of Tales of Western Inspiration and Indian Karma is a Math Professor at the University of Rhode Island. He is a native of Assam in Northeastern India, and a man with varied interests. The book is a culmination of his long interest and passion of a period of history in his native land Assam. Dilip Datta received the BA degree with honors in math from Cotton College, Gauhati in 1958. He then obtained his Masters in math from Ramjas College (Delhi University) in 1960 and completed his Ph.D. work at Delhi University in 1963. The same year he received a Commonwealth Fellowship from the British Government to do post-doctoral work at Southampton University, England for two years. In 1965, he joined the math faculty of Calgary University, Alberta, Canada. After teaching at Calgary for two years, he came to the University of Rhode Island in 1967 and has been there ever since. Dilip Datta  talked to Lokvani about his new book:.

 The title is intriguing! ‘Tales of Western Inspiration and Indian Karma’. How did you arrive at this juxtaposition?

  It is my belief that the title of a book should always indicate what the book is about and should arouse an interest in the mind of a reader to think what the writer might be talking about. This book is really about a British scientist, some British educators, a few American missionaries, and some British tea-planters who came to Assam after the British took over the administration of Assam in 1826.  The interest of those noble souls in the land and people of northeastern India awakened the spirit of the ravaged natives of Assam and sparked them with a new zeal to acquire western-style education. The book also reveals how the karma of some Indians, who acquired western education against formidable odds and tried to help others easily acquire what was so difficult for them.  So, after toying with many other possibilities, I selected the present title as the one that best describes the content and also creates some interest in the minds of people who hear about or see the book for the first time.

 What was your own inspiration behind this book?

 In college I at first studied under the science curriculum. Soon, I found that my real passion was for history and literature and that the only science subject I enjoyed was mathematics All through my student career, I was a hungry reader and was always reading a history book or other time-tested books in Assamese, Bengali or English. Perhaps, that is why I cherished the hope of becoming a writer. After years of soul searching, I came to the conclusion that a book should be able to serve three purposes. First, the book should be enjoyable to the reader. Second, every book should have a valuable message. By valuable message I do not just mean some moral or ethical lessons — I mean, after reading the book the reader in a simple way should learn something about life, society or about choosing a path of action for himself or herself.  Third, the book should bring pleasure and happiness to its readers. This is different from being enjoyable. A violent movie or a detective story may be enjoyable to a person without giving him any pleasure or happiness.

I did pick up the pen soon after landing in England and started writing. I followed the usual course: letters to the editor, short articles here and there, some longer articles and then a book. I have published several books in the Assamese language and they have been very successful. Then my profession demanded that I write some math texts. I have published two math texts. However, it is the success of my book, ‘Math Education at Its Best: The Potsdam Model’ that encouraged me to write in the US. The result is the present book.

 The book reflects on of the faith and lifestyle of the natives in Assam and how Christianity was understood in the 19th century? Why did you decide to explore this?

The American Baptist missionaries Nathan Brown, Elizabeth Brown and Miles Bronson are historic figures for the people of Assam. The Assamese regard them as the saviors of the Assamese language. Miles Bronson compiled the first dictionary for the Assamese language, Nathan Brown wrote the first Assamese Grammar, and Elizabeth Brown wrote many tracts in the Assamese language including the first set of textbooks for use in schools. I had read about them in high school.  So, I was really curious to know more about them. One lazy morning of 1983, it suddenly dawned on me that since America is a resourceful country I might be able to find many things about those missionaries. It did not take me long to discover that the missionaries had attended Andover Newton Theological School, Newton, MA. Without thinking much, I tried to call the Andover Newton Library. By mistake I got the President's office and I started telling his Secretary that I was from Assam and I was trying to see what kind of materials they might have about Brown and Bronson. She replied that I got the right place and that I should talk to the President but he was out at that moment and would be back after about an hour. She assured me that he would be very happy to talk to me. Then she jokingly asked, 'Do you know who you would be talking to?' When I answered 'No', she said that his name was George Peck and that he had spent a major part of his career teaching at theological colleges in India and had taught at the theological college in Assam.  My meeting with President George Peck opened the door to a vast field of resources and I got more than enough material to keep me busy for a long time.

Meanwhile, I was also compiling a history of western education in Assam about which I had direct knowledge because of the major role played by my father Phanidhar Datta in establishing the first private college and the first university in Assam. The missionaries' efforts to educate the Assamese and later the natives' efforts to make western-style education available to everybody fitted together well.

 You researched a lot for these sections? How long did it take for you to complete the book?

As I mentioned earlier, it is more than two decades since I started my research. Of course, I could not work on this project alone because of the demands of my job. However, I have been taking one semester off each year for the last four years and have been working on this book wholeheartedly. In short, it took me more than twenty years to get this book ready for the publisher.

  How does Assam seem to you when you are so far away? Could you give us a picture of the present day?

 Distant but dear. Assam, like the rest of India, is in turmoil, a large majority of the government officials, beginning from peon to ministers, juwans to Generals are corrupt to the bones. The soil, the waters, the air are all polluted. Violence is rampant everywhere in the cradle of non-violence. Corruption, pollution and population explosion are denying to India the benefits of all the progress it is making. But those things do not matter to me. I feel proud of my Indian heritage and always am trying to acquire more of India's wisdom. I go there every year to energize my body, mind and soul.   The political turmoil, the social upheavals and the natural calamities do not deter me from maintaining my ties with the wisdom of India.

This perhaps does not quite answer your question, so I refer you to Sanjib Baruah's, India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1991 to get a picture of the present day Assam.

This story is of a family’s value for education. What was the most important contributing factor to this value during this time?

 It is really difficult to point to one as the most important factor to my family's value for education. The karma of three generations has shaped its definition and meaning. My great grandfather realized the value of education and perhaps felt that western-style education introduced by the missionaries was not only of benefit to the individuals but also to the society.  One can perform good karma by educating oneself and then by helping others get an education. Then my grandfather decided to give up a lucrative job in the tea plantations and took up the hard life of a plowman just to ensure that my father could get an education. Those two facts inspired my father to resolve that he would have college education at all costs. Since the day, I can remember, I had seen my father work day and night and very unselfishly to put the University of Gauhati on a firm footing. His dedicated and unselfish services for the cause of education in Assam have been an inspiration not only to our family but also to many others. Then my father's last request that we do not get our sisters married off without helping them get the education they sought, and to do something to make education easily available to everybody in his village have always been on my mind.  These are some of the important facts that I have elaborated in the book.

 What has been the reaction to this book?

The book has been out only a couple of months. So far, the book has been received very well. The American readers as well as Indian readers have all made very positive comments about the book. All the readers have said that they really enjoyed reading the book. An American who is planning a trip to India said that he learnt more about India, Hinduism and Indian people by reading this book than other books that he had read. One Indian gentleman whose son-in-law is American told me that he has found a very meaningful gift for his son-in-law this Christmas.

 My friend Kul Bhusan Chaudhary, who hails from Punjab and who is the President of the India Museum and Heritage Society of Rhode Island, said that once he started reading the book he could not put it away without finishing it. He said, 'This is a great book to let our children read.' Mr. Chaudhary presented a copy to Swami Yogatamananda, the Minister at Vedanta Society of Providence. After reading the book, the Swamiji asked me to come and meet him. When I met him, Swamiji told me that he really liked my style of writing and was enjoying the book. Then the Swamiji pulled a copy of the Life and Works of Swami Vivekananda from his shelf and read me a page, which described Swami Vivekananda's encounter with Sir Henry Cotton, a major character of my book.

According to Swami Vivekananda, Henry Cotton was a man who understood India's needs and aspirations. Swami Vivekannada also emphasized that Henry Cotton deserved the love of the Indian people. After pointing out the connection between Swami Vivekannada and Henry Cotton, Swami Yogatamanada suggested that next I should write a book about Indian inspiration and Western Karma — a great idea to sing the glories of people like Swmai Vivekananda, Gandhi, Nobel prize winning scientist Chandrasekhar, Prabhupad,  Ravi Shankar and host of other Indians who have had lasting influence on western civilization.

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1.Contact Information of Dilip K. Datta October 21, 2012Dilip K. Datta 
2.mbt August 11, 2010mbt 
3.e-mail of dutta sir March 23, 2009gautam 
4.Really inspiring January 30, 2009Smritimala Sarmah 
5.extreamly encouraging January 30, 2009Partha Pratim Das Cincinnati, Ohio 45220 USA 
6.Contact no and email id of Prof Dilip Kr Dutta November 24, 2008Aradhana S Bora 

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Dilip K.Datta

Phanidhar Datta with Prime Minister Nehru on the Inauguration day (29 August, 1955) of the Science Buildingof Gauhati University

Dr. Radhakrishnan (with turban) on way to deliver the first convocation address of Gauhati University. Mr. K.K. Handique is on his left. Phanidhar Datta can be seen between the two scholars.

William Griffith(1810 – 1844) Drawn on stone by Edward Morton from a Daguerreotype Courtesy: Journals of Travels in Assam

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