It was a strange moment. In one of the very first classes I took as an undergraduate student of history, my professor of Ancient India walked into the class with a bag of prehistoric rocks. As the small stone tools (microliths) were circulated around the classroom, holding these tools led to the possibility of visualising a period of history no longer accessible to us – these tools that were utilised thousands of years ago, found themselves being confusingly gawked at by a class of Gen Z students.
This memory is of 2019 and if we only knew how life would alter in a year, perhaps we would have been more appreciative of holding these rocks. Since March, I haven’t returned to my Delhi University college, St Stephen’s. With barely three semesters left, the loss of being in a history class is being particularly felt now.
Contrary to popular belief that the experience of learning history is as ‘dead’ as the subject, being trained as a historian is a lively adventure. To imagine the past, an engagement with all of what it has left behind is a prerequisite. When we were students outside of Google Meet, we were constantly encouraged to interact with history – to visit museums to get an idea of the politics of museumisation, to visit historic sites to examine their present state, to hold antiques to understand how these mute remains further historic legacies and to read primary records to understand how perceptions of the past change over time.
This physical interaction of aspiring historians with history has been halted. Not only has that stopped, so have the stimulating conversations with professors. Sometimes, there would be ‘out-of-syllabus’ talks, and even listening to personal anecdotes of our professor’s academic lives was inspiring. This experience of being in the same space in which thinking pauses aren’t awkward and our minds vibrate with ideas simply cannot be reproduced online.
I remember how a professor would occasionally take tutorials at the college café – we would be treated to a cup of tea but also be grilled if we didn’t know the A to Z of biocultural evolution. Being scolded by professors leaves a heavy impact on students too but online, there are easy escapes. If one doesn’t know the answer but wishes to be over-smart, Google acts like an aid. At times, one can also pretend that their mic does not work and be saved from said grilling. However, there are students who yearn to engage but technical difficulties come in the way.
On the virtual platform, I see my professors trying their very best to conduct an interactive class with presentations, audio-lectures, movie recommendations and by making a plethora of readings available for us. They are adapting and learning the grammar of technology. However, I can sense similar anxieties in them too. Not being able to express their sheer love for the subject is frustrating.
One of my professors had to let go of an essay question that they traditionally assign as an option, in which the student has to make a visit to the National Museum (New Delhi) to get a proper understanding of how historical galleries are curated. Another teacher of mine felt sorrowful that we cannot go to the National Archives of India and access exclusive records. One professor expressed anxiety over the fact that it is a huge loss that we are learning about histories of art without actually ‘feeling’ the art.
With the death of historian Sunil Kumar on January 17, a number of obituaries – many written by his students on whom he had a profound impact – flowed in from all around the world. Some of my own professors who were taught by Professor Kumar recalled how he used to take them on field-trips to unknown Sufi shrines and heritage complexes. He taught his subject while giving his students a ‘Dilli Darshan’. They say that he would make the past come alive and knew of the importance of experiencing history.
As I hear stories such as these, I am constantly reminded of the huge loss that many students like me have faced during the pandemic – the loss of being ‘trained’ as an academician. I am reminded of how vital it is to have physical experiences such as these to master the craft of a historian.
However, staying true to my roots as a student of history – I use the past as a source of hope. Since time immemorial, chaotic phases have altered the fabric and disrupted the ‘normal’ of the times. Many who lived through these chaotic moments believed it was the end of times – only to be proven wrong as life always returned to normalcy or made people adapt to the ‘new normal’. For now, I can simply wait for normalcy to return or hope that the ‘new normal’ brings with it experiences which I can use, years later, as anecdotes to tell the tale of how it was to be a student of history during a pandemic.
Eric Chopra is an undergraduate student of history at St. Stephen’s College and the founder of ‘itihāsology’, a youth-driven Indian history platform concerned with raising historical consciousness & promoting the preservation of the past.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty