Teacher, friend, icon: Remembering historian David Baker

Rohit Wanchoo writes: He befriended and mentored generations of students at St Stephen's College, and was an integral part of the institution for five decades.

The passing away of David Baker marks the end of an era. He will be remembered with much affection by all those he came in contact with — students, staff, karamcharis and alumni. He joined St Stephen’s College in 1969 and for five decades was an integral part of its life. He was an excellent teacher, mentor, author and historian and his life is an example of simple living and high thinking.

A demanding teacher, Baker insisted on getting his tutorial assignments on time. They were graded meticulously and returned with extensive comments. Erring students were summoned, and they complied quickly. Even though he could have moved into a college house soon after he began teaching, he lived in the two-room set for tutors. His block was the quietest and much sought after by the students who wanted to study, sleep before midnight or escape ragging.

Although he was strict about tutorials, the dress code in the dining hall, decorum in the main building or noise in the residence blocks, Baker was popular with students. Always ready to speak up for them, he befriended and mentored generations of students. He organised tea and sandwiches for his block students, listened to their problems and went out for dinners with them. Many of the students he befriended and mentored over the years are in touch with him today.

In many ways, Baker lived according to the norms of Oxbridge dons — combining a commitment to undergraduate teaching with academic research. In 1979, 1993 and 2007, Oxford University Press in Delhi published three of his books on central India — the focus area of his research. The first dealt with political history, the second with features of colonialism and the third explored the relation between region and nation in Central India. His commitment to research was lifelong and he visited the archives at least once every week, for many years, long after his retirement. While many academics — retired or serving — would prefer more fashionable places like the India International Centre or the Habitat Centre, Baker was a regular at the National Archives of India.

After years of diligent research, he accumulated a large number of index cards, recording notes about the history of St Stephen’s College and its relationship with the city in which it is located. He painstakingly collected details about the city of Delhi, the students who came to the college and the men who taught and worked in it. All Stephanians love their alma mater but David Baker’s whole life was devoted to the college. He completed the book before his death and it is his final tribute to the institution he loved so much.

Baker came to St Stephen’s College in 1969 as a young Australian academic and eventually settled in India. He was in touch with his family members in Australia till the very end but made India his home. Annual excursions to several historical sites with students and regular visits to friends during the summer vacation brought him closer to Indian culture. On college trips, he would not allow students to carry his luggage because he did not approve of this aspect of Indian culture. Once when I offered to help him with his bag when he was in his late seventies, he firmly refused. It was his will power and a fierce spirit of self-reliance that kept him going in later life. If Baker remained active and fit, despite eating mess food regularly for most of his adult life, it was because of his habits and self-discipline. Stephanians who almost invariably grumble about the mess food should take note.

A devout Christian, Baker said his prayers every day without fail. In fair weather or foul, he walked across the Ridge to church every Sunday. When that became difficult, he travelled by taxi. He had a humane and catholic outlook, participated wholeheartedly in the social and cultural life of the college and generously helped several students and karamcharis. Every year, he visited faculty members on the campus during Holi and Diwali and enjoyed Eid and Onam lunch as much as anyone else. He belonged to a generation for whom the college played a central role in the life of both staff and students and there was greater informal interaction between them. It is from icons like Baker that Stephanians have learned a lot both within and outside the classroom.

I will miss the note in my pigeon-hole in the staff room or a call from him asking me if he could come over for a brief visit. My wife and I will miss the pleasant conversation over a cup of tea with Baker and his genteel personality.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 27, 2021 under the title ‘The mentor and his institution’. The writer teaches history at St Stephen’s College.

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