Remembering my father, Prof. BML Bhatnagar

Subhash Bhatnagar

Subhash Bhatnagar is an alumnus of Mayo College, Ajmer, IIT Madras (IIT-M) and IIM Ahmedabad (IIM-A). In his 30-year tenure at IIM-A he has served as a Chair Professor, Member of Board of Governors, Dean and Adjunct Professor. He was a full time consultant advisor to the World Bank in Washington DC for six years. He has published over a hundred papers and seven books. He is on the board of some NGOs, companies and educational institutions. He is a Fellow of the Computer Society of India.

Editor's Note: Prof. Brij Mohan Lal Bhatnagar, M.A., M.Com. was born on 30th December, 1914 at Khurja, District Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh. He retired as Principal, Government College, Dausa, District Dausa, Rajasthan. He passed away on August 25, 1994. A tribute to his legacy has also been written by his daughter, Smt. Tilak Mathur, his grandson, Gaurav Mathur, and his mentee, Gurudayal Singh Khanooja.

These days when I look into the mirror, I often see my father in the image. I am sure there are other aspects of my persona that I inherited from my father Prof. BML Bhatnagar. I have begun to think about the ways in which he influenced me, even though our time together during my early years was limited. He passed away in 1994 at the age of eighty.

While we lived together post his retirement, my assessment of my father was colored by our immediate transactions. I feel that now I am in a more reflective mood to make a more accurate assessment of my father and the legacy that he left behind for his kids. How I wish I could go back in time and ask him about his child hood and growing up years to better understand him and his views on life. People travel thousands of mile to discover their roots. How can I understand who I am and what made me so without tracing the lives of my immediate ancestors?

I can reconstruct a bit from little anecdotes that were shared with us when my sister and I were kids. My father was born in Khurja in western UP. My grandfather was an employee in the land revenue department. My father had four siblings, two brothers and two sisters. My father was the third born. My grandfather was transferred to different tehsils--Etah, Anup shahar, and Bulandshahar. My father had a carefree upbringing. He mentioned about playing in the waters of Ganges in Anupshahar.

Money did not seem to be a problem as my grandfather’s job provided some additional income. My father would recount how he sometimes found cash in different nooks and crevices of the houses they lived in. It is my understanding that my father and his siblings did not receive much affection and care from their mother. My grandmother was generally preoccupied with her own health issues. For many meals food came from the bazaar. I gathered that both my grandparents played a very small role in bringing up their children. Like many Kayastha families in those days, my father’s childhood was neither spent in affluence nor in deprivation.

Out of all siblings my father seemed to have been the brightest. He studied in St. John‘s College in Agra for his B. Com and later went to Allahabad University to do his MA in Economics. Both institutions were well known in the academia at that time.

My father often rued about a total lack of guidance from his parents in matters of education. He was a hard working student, inspired by many good teachers in Allahbad University. He often amazed and amused me and my sister by rattling off quotations from celebrated economists of his time after many decades of having read them. He was also a fun loving person and by no means a book worm. He would tell us stories about ragging in St John’s College hostel- pranks that were daring, innovative and funny.

He was a self-made man. He did well enough in his post graduation to start a career as a college lecturer. He was proud of the fact that he did well enough in his life, but was determined to make his progeny do better.

He valued education a lot more than wealth. His respect for his colleagues and students who were good in academics was far greater than that for wealthy people in his friends’ circle.

My mother was a matriculate when she married my father. My father persuaded my mother, after my sister and I were born, to study further. There was never any intent that she would work. She passed the Intermediate examination in her third attempt and later appeared for the BA exam.

Even though a lecturer’s salary was very modest, we always had a cook and domestic help for other chores, so that my mother could devote time for her studies but unfortunately she could not clear the BA exam. In later years he made sure that my sister and I received the best of education.

Both my sister and I went to public schools as national scholarship holders after clearing a four stage testing process held in different centers in Rajasthan. It took some effort and perseverance to guide a ten year old and eight year old through the entire process. To deny themselves the joy of raising their children at a tender age was a big sacrifice.

Subhash Bhatnagar was encouraged by his father, Prof. BML Bhatnagar, to appear for National Talent Search Exam (NTSE) in 1958, based on which he was selected to attend Mayo College, Ajmer with financial support from the Government of India.

My father’s views on life were simple, effective and far ahead of his times. He raised a small family. His views on a planned family were appreciated in the community. He often chided people for raising large families.

He spent well on the basic necessities of life. He did not care much about the frills. Within four years of his getting a job, he had constructed his own house in Kota, the city of his second posting in Rajasthan. The house had a large open compound where we played as kids. He bought the purest of ingredients for food, freshest fruits and vegetables without a concern for their price. We did not have many gadgets at home, but the few that were acquired were always the best in their class.

I studied at home till class five and was admitted to the local middle school in Kota in class six. All my childhood friends were good students living in our neighborhood.

It was a diverse group of Sindhis, Sikhs and Hindus. My father must have selected my friends. We were provided many sport facilities like badminton, volleyball, football, and carom board, so that we could play in the large compound within our home. Caste and community had little influence on the choice of our friends.

All my friends called my father Babuji, the way I addressed him. Even though I left my friends after 3 years to go to the boarding school, their relationship with Babuji continued for many years. He was a guide, and a friend to them. He would plead with their parents to permit them to study further.

My friends went to him for advice on all matters. The relationship continued till they settled down into good jobs (lecturers, engineers, PhDs) and raised families. With some of my childhood friends Babuji’s relationship was lifelong. They believed that my father’s encouragement and advice had something to do with their ability to achieve their own aspirations.

As I reflect I find that he bestowed on me a rich legacy, largely positive and some that I could have left behind. He was a teacher, teaching at the college level a subject that many would call difficult and uninteresting. He taught accountancy and economics at the undergraduate level. I do not know if it is a coincidence that I preferred to become a teacher too, even though I had acquired an MBA degree from IIM Ahmedabad, highly sought by the corporate sector.

Subhash Bhatnagar did his family proud by qualifying for IIM, Ahmedabad.

I had always found my father to be young at heart, very easy getting along with persons much younger to him. He related well with many young people living on the campus where I spent most of my working years. He endeared himself to many of my friends and colleagues, who remember him long after he was gone.

Some colleagues who had moved away from the campus would come to see him when they returned to the campus occasionally. This relationship had no connection to my own relationship with such people. In fact with some of these colleagues I did not relate to very closely.

My father was an effective teacher-I could tell from the respect he commanded from his students, long after they had graduated. If ever his students crossed him in a street, on foot or on a cycle, they would get down and bend in salutation. It would be a brief but a very pleasant encounter, a few minutes of walking together, full of camaraderie.

Some of his students became his fellow professionals. He was always full of admiration and praise for such students, and never showed a hint of competition with them. Some of them went into politics becoming ministers. He was too self respecting to seek any favours from them. He had a sense of pride in his profession, never feeling inferior in any way to people in position of power and authority. He always met such people on an equal footing.

Sometimes he did share with me the secrets of his effectiveness as a teacher. He was proud of a booming voice and clear diction. He was critical of teachers who mumbled softly in class room. He was a conscientious man, doing adequate preparation for his classes, even if it was something he was teaching for the umpteenth time. He peppered his lectures with many real life examples, making dry subjects interesting. He wanted the weaker students to learn well and cross the hurdle. I still remember his advice to me to prepare material that is worth one and half times of what one wished to cover in a class. I found it to be a good advice.

Once he had superannuated, he did private tuitions for many persons who had difficulty in passing. Some of them appeared for examinations as private students not enrolled in a college. I recollect many a parent coming to our home and pleading with him to accept their ward for tuition.

Many he did accept, some who had been involved in college violence and were rusticated, others who were weak in studies. He took this as a challenge, made such students learn the subject and also reformed their waywardness and behavior. Needless to say that such students and families were beholden to him for years. A few showed up after he passed away in 1994 nearly 3 decades after they had been his students.

My father was extremely protective and generous towards those he loved. My son was a beneficiary although when he grew a little older, the love seemed a little oppressive.

We had acquired a pet – a Pomeranian pup named Snowy – to keep our son company. My father bestowed all his affection on this pup. He would constantly watch over the pup, not letting it roam free. When we went to the US for a year, and my mother joined us for two months, he declined to come because Snowy could not be left in other peoples care. Snowy bit my father many times and each time my father believed that it was his fault as he had stepped on Snowy. While travelling from Ahmadabad to Kota with my father, Snowy had to be kept in the guard’s compartment as per the rules. My father spent half his journey in the guard’s compartment with Snowy, leaving my mother alone in her coach.

I could never comprehend his zeal for honesty and integrity of my father, knowing that he had seen his own father accept illegal gratification. My father never paid a bribe for a railway ticket or for anything else in his life. He would plan his journeys and book tickets in advance. A college teacher does not get many opportunities for illegal gratification except when correcting answer books for public exams. He would tell us tales of people who approached him to favour certain candidates while correcting exam books. He had great contempt for such people and shooed them away politely.

In later years of his work life my father was posted as a Principal of a college in a few different cities. Even in his administrative role he was scrupulously clean and fair to his subordinates. Although, he did not teach in his role as a principal but he mingled with his students. He developed his art of teaching into public speaking. He became an inspiring orator, peppering his speeches with Urdu couplets, attracting great admiration. No wonder he is remembered by his former colleagues with affection and respect even after decades.


So glad that Prof. Bhatnagar has been written about so thoroughly ... a true old-style guruji, even though people called him Babuji.

Simply wonderful!

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