My professor is an Indian-born, yet grew up under British education (just like most highly-educated Indians in the time of British colonial are), lives most of his life in Canada and married to a French lady. He is as intense as a great fire, as deep as a big ocean. He is my supervisor for a reading course on the sociology of Asian religions this year, but we have worked way beyond the scope of sociology. We read anthropological, theological, personal memoir, of course sociological writings and discuss comparative religions in light of sociology, psychology, cosmology, philosophy and a combination of all.
He is the type of teacher any student would wish for. In his own way, he lets me know that: “Ok, I’m satisfied with what you’ve done so far, but I expect and believe you can do better.” He always expands the scope of what you can explore. He pushes you further than your limit, but when you're nervous and overwhelmed, he assures you. He encourages you to work hard on what you like, but pulls you back when you go astray from the focus. Many students hate him, first, because he doesn’t has an email address. They are instructed to either meet him in his office hour or leave him a message on the phone. Second, because he expects them to read books, not articles. Third, he is a tough grader. Fourth, he doesn’t hold seminar since he hates listening to students rambling on big terms and phrases they themselves don’t understand. Fifth, he only needs them to demonstrate they have read and understood the materials, i.e. the grade falls entirely on two exams in the first term and a big paper in the second term. The list goes on. I took his class last year, and one of the few who like him. I asked him to supervise a reading course on Asian religions, and he agreed, even though technically he has retired after last year. Glad to quit teaching because he is too tired and fed up with the erosion of university education as well as students and professors’ corruptness. I guess Im probably his very last student.
He doesn’t teach me in the sense of “preaching”, telling me what I should think, what is correct. He is a wonderful teacher who helps you to recognize your interest and strive to reach your potential. He doesn’t shape, he guides. He is so flexible in letting me read the book I like (of course it is relevant), dropping the one I couldn’t digest and further suggest what else I can make of my interest. He is the figure I’ve always dreamt of, someone who I can just sit and ask questions one after another for hours and hours. Everything I ask he can provide an answer, or at least what he thinks about the matter. He seems to know everything I can ever think of. For all the most random questions bumped up in my mind, he can draw from his memory a few titles of books for me to check out.
He is decisive, fierce, determined and strongly convinced with his own beliefs. He holds unshakable values and lives according to them. He is against the way theories are handled in pieces in classes, given to students as mere facts and information to memorize. He proposes to change the International Development Studies Department into Comparative Civilization Department. He was trained in Anthropology, has spent most of his lifetime in Marxist analysis and economics, pursues philosophy as a life-time interest and teaches sociology because it is loose enough to allow him some freedom to teach according to his values. His principles are often at odds with the larger society, as it is the case with most people who are firm enough to not bend with the current flow of the mass. He has everything I admire in a man.
After each of our meeting, he often leaves me exhausted but inspired. He talks for at least 3, sometimes 4 hours straight (with cigarette break, he smells of cigarette smoke and earl grey tea). My head often starts spinning after 2.5 hour concentrating. And after each meeting, just writing down what I can remember takes me a few more hours. But then, I again feel the urge to read more, to drown myself in knowledge, to find out what people have to say about this and that. He is my motivation for the quest of understanding. Knowledge, through his hands, becomes like salted water, the more you drink, the thirstier you become. To me, sometimes he is like a dear grandfather. Watching him talk is fascinating because he is extremely expressive. Dry and complex ideas are explained in a story-telling manner. Concrete and simple examples are drawn to illustrate for abstract theories. Clear, easy to follow, intense yet fun, again, he is everything a student can wish for in a teacher.
He outlines to me structural schema he has worked out in more than 50 years of serious studying. He presents them as if I would understand them all. He challenges what I’ve taught for the last 4 years in university (e.g. determinism and relativism can be placed side by side, biology is the starting point to work towards a sociological understanding, etc). He shows me how to learn from the great thinkers, like Marx and Durkheim, but still able to step back and recognize their bias. He criticizes the whole Western civilization, linking ideas of free will, democracy, individuality to a secularized version of Protestantism. His critique is so deep and fundamental that it renders all the critiques Western intellectual directing to themselves I’ve read superficial. Religion is the most overarching scheme, the most universal, and the most fundamental beliefs we hold dear to our hearts and let them go unchallenged. That’s why he calls those big terms Westerns take pride in “mantras”. They are repeating the words which they “just know” to be true because if the latter were not true, the former would be so disoriented that they can’t be a society.
I don’t know if I like to be like him, an exile in both a physical and social and psychological way. A man who grows up in the most accomplished Western system of thoughts (Brittan and American), understands it so well to the point he rejects it, but still lives and breathes in it. Someone who is too critical can’t be happy. Happiness always requires a little blind faith and much naïve. To uproot social entanglement, be conscious of its force, yet still accept to be held captive, to fight and many times lose the battle with the majority, Im sure never easy.
Every time I look at his back disappearing in a crowded street in downtown Toronto, his faded yellow sweater and overworn woolen hat, I can’t help but wondering how many times have I and will I miss the chance to listen to such great minds, under cover of an old man, looking a bit under-average (even though I know his income used to be over 100k a year), who seems to have nothing interesting to say, but actually if you listen, and if they are willing to talk, you can only sit there in amazement as they themselves are a wonder of life.
Im so grateful to come across him, to study under his supervision, to know him and listen to him, as an intellectual, a teacher and an elder about sociology as a discipline and life as it’s lived. I’ve always wanted to know if he was born in August, and been very hopeful that he was. Yesterday I met him and one particular moment was very touching. I mentioned my plan of leaving Canada in May, and he said: "We should really strive for Cornell. There are some great people there." The "we", instead of "you", was enough to leave me speechless.
He is the man I adore. The man who can burn you with their fire of passion when coming into contact. And Im just happy to be burnt.