The Center for Exact Humanities (CEH) was the department at IIIT-H, an information technology school where I was scheduled to teach a semester of Creative Writing, Poetry as a Fulbright Scholar in 2012. My second night in Hyderabad, Prakani, the young guide assigned me, announced that I was invited to meet “Sir,” Navjoti Singh, the head of the CEH. I didn’t know, then, that most male teachers would be addressed so. And was struck by the admiration expressed by the single title needing no name attached, as though Sir were the master of everything.
Navjyoti was a striking being. He was sprawled on a mattress on the floor, standard furniture for most living rooms, I later discovered. On his head sprang large loping gray curls. His skin was a smooth dusky palette, but most startling were his round protruding eyes. They were the eyes of an actor, overstated, able to direct attention powerfully with their self-awareness, able to fix you where they wanted you.
Navjyoti commanded the conversation with his eclectic interests and penetrating questions. He asked me what my aesthetics of poetry were, challenged me to defend Aristotle’s poetics that first evening – a combination on-site examination, and merriment. Here was my boss for the next six months, was lying sideways on the floor among the students in various seated positions on the floor eating fresh cooked rotis and a warm carrot concoction. It was discombobulating!
Here was the startling claim of the CEH:
Objective: The Center aims to conduct de-novo and conceptually rigorous research in Humanities.
I sensed the grand and possibly grandiose agenda of the Center. The research would proceed from the very base of what makes the Humanities, “de-novo,” as Navjyoti often said, a Latin term, though it became quickly apparent that the Greeks and Romans were regarded as relative late-comers compared to the Indian philosophers, and rather limited in their understanding of the nature of the humanities. The research, I began to understand, meant knowing thoroughly the “ontology” of each art.
One student was responsible for the defining the essence of painting. Prakani, herself was to articulate everything, precisely, about how fantasy functions in cinema.
The standard of exactness, was in direct opposition to the way I’d been shuffled through the humanities. In my generation of English majors and writers, there was certainly an element of shared clarity, but very little delineation or expectation of definitive explanation. Only gradually did I begin to wonder if the pursuit of a complete, thorough understanding of the ontology of, for instance, dance, was not only reasonable goal for an technical university, but an expression of intent deep in the culture and learning of India. A sense that to know everything there is to be known is possible to the dedicated, the devoted acolyte.
Rebecca Kaiser Gibson – Fulbright to India 2011
*The admirable and beloved Navjyoti Singh has since died.