Cover Story

A True Son of the Soil


He is the perfect example of a man who carries his love for his native land on his sleeve. The love for his people and culture runs so deep in his veins that it surfaces along with him wherever he goes, even across the seven seas amidst alien cultures. Yes, we are talking about none other than Dilip Kumar Datta, a mathematician and writer who has strived earnestly to promote Assamese culture across the globe.

A former professor of Mathematics in the University of Rhode Island, USA, Prof Dilip Kumar Datta has written more than 15 Assamese books, which include the 'Dr Bhupen Hazarikar Geet aru Jeevan Rath', 'Subhadinar Nirghanta', 'Mane Mur Kaina Bichare', 'Miss Gauhati', 'Premat Parilo Neki', 'Bishnu Prasadar Prasad' among others. At the same time, he has also authored a number of books on mathematics which include Concept of Geometry, Math Education at Its Best, and Finite Math for Liberal Art among others.
As a researcher, preserver and promoter of Assamese culture, he has to his credit a rare collection of lesser known and un-released songs of late Dr Bhupen Hazarika, Bishnu Prasad Rabha and many other eminent and lesser known artistes of Assam. Through the 'i-tune' software, he has uploaded many Assamese songs on the Internet, thus taking Assamese culture to the world stage.
In recognition of his immense contributions towards the preservation of Assamese culture, especially Bhupen da's songs, Dr. Dilip Kumar Datta has also been bestowed with the prestigious Swabhav Shilpi Amulya Kakati Memorial Award. The melange team met him during his recent visit to the State to know more about his early life, travels to foreign shores and his love for Assamese culture. Following are excerpts.
Q. Where were you born? Please tell us a bit about your childhood memories.
Ans: I was born in Jorhat. My father Phanidhar Datta was one of the founding members of JB College in Jorhat. Most of my early childhood memories revolve around our house, which was just next to the college. Although my father's ancestral house was in the village, we stayed in the town because he used to practice law as well.
My initial schooling started in Jorhat itself. The school was located on the banks of Borgohain pukhuri, a river tank in Jorhat. In that school, we did not have desk or benches and everyone, including the teachers, used to brings mats from their respective homes. When I was around five years of age, my father got a job in Cotton College and we shifted to Guwahati.
Q. Tell us about your initial days in Guwahati.
Ans: After coming to Guwahati, we stayed in the Uzanbazar area. I had frequent interactions with the Bhupen Hazarika family while I made friends with other people residing there. From childhood itself, I had a deep interest in sports and I found several playmates and friends in people like Nip Baruah, Dilip Coudhury and the like. They were exceptionally talented people and good sportsmen.
I developed a very good friends circle in Uzanbazar. Everyone knew each other in that area and we developed a very close rapport. The atmosphere was very good and my friends and playmates were more like family members to me. While they would laugh and play with us, they would also reprimand us for our mistakes. Nip Barua, in particular, was a gem of a person. He was very affectionate and besides being a good sportsperson, he excelled in the arts as well. I used to go to a primary school near Latasil playground along with his brother Ramen Barua. After that, I went to MCME school in Uzanbazar itself.
During that time, my father was appointed as hostel superintendent of the 3rd Mess of Cotton College. So we had to shift to the College Hostel. But my interactions with the people of Uzanbazar continued and I spent most of my time with my friends from that area.
Coming to my educational life, I passed my ISC examinations and then completed my BA with honours in Mathematics from Cotton College. Staying in the Cotton College hostel, we were surrounded by a lot of intellectual and spiritual people whose words and pieces of advice helped lay the foundation of my life.
Q. You were the first student from the State to study in Ramjas College under Delhi University. What made you decide to go to Delhi?
Ans: After passing my ISC examination, I had gone to Kashmir for a vacation. On the way, we had stopped in Delhi University and I found the atmosphere of the entire place to be very nice and conducive. During that visit, I came to know that DU offered provincial admission to bright students, which was a sort of blessing because Gauhati University always took a long time to declare their results.
In those days, very few students from Assam used to go to Delhi for studies. Most would go to Kolkata at the most. My father was not too enthusiastic about my plans to study in Delhi because he thought it would cost a lot of money. However, we found that studying in Delhi was cheaper compared to studying in the engineering college in Guwahati. While my elder brother who was studying in Assam Engineering College needed around Rs 250 per month, a professor acquaintance of DU told me that I would need only Rs 120 per month to study in Delhi. 
The time I spent in Delhi University proved to be very beneficial for me. The professors were very supportive and the entire ambience was conducive for learning. Plus, they also encouraged students to play sports, which was very favourable for me.
While in DU, I realised that there was a need for teachers of mathematics across the entire world. Deep down, I harboured an ambition of going to different countries of the world to teach maths. I had by then started studying for my doctorate degree but at that period of time, the economic condition of my family had worsened as my father had left his job. My elder brother was teaching in the Assam Engineering College and with his monthly salary of Rs 250, it was getting difficult for him to manage the entire family. He called me back to help him and I came back and joined the Assam Engineering College.
Q. So how did you land up in London then?
Ans: While in Assam, I saw the advertisement for two scholarships - one was the Commonwealth Fellowship offered by the British government while the other was offered by the American government. I got selected in both and chose to accept the Commonwealth Fellowship because it was more difficult to get than the American one. So accordingly, I landed in Southampton University in London for a three year-long course, which, however, I completed in two years.
At that point of time, I was also yearning to come back home. But jobs were hard to come by. I got an offer to teach in India but the salary was too less and I realised that I would not be able to help my family much with that amount. During the same period, I made friends with another fellowship student from Canada. He encouraged me to apply to a university in Canada. I was a bit apprehensive but since I had nothing to lose, I applied to the Calagary University in Canada for a fellowship opportunity. Much to my surprise, they replied back and offered me a job with a starting salary of 1000 dollars! That was a big amount even in British standards and it took some time to digest the news. After it was verified that the job offer and salary was not a hoax, I soon packed my bags and left for Canada on a ship. 
In Canada, I joined Calgary Univeristy. Initially, I loved the place but then the climate was too cold for me. Since I am sports-loving person, snow sports did not really appeal to me. So after two years in Calgary, I landed in Rhode Island of America. I initially thought I would stay there for a brief while and then move to Australia. But then, Rhode Island is a beautiful place and I somehow stayed on in that place till now. Even after my retirement from the university, I am still working there as a Professor Emeritus and in other capacities.
Q. How did you start writing?
Ans: I have always loved writing from my childhood. I used to write poems as a child. Also right from my growing up days, I used to have a lot of interaction with intellectuals and writers like Surya Kanta Bhuyan, Bani Kakati, Nalini Bala Debi and the like. I believe these interactions nurtured the writer in me. But I never took writing seriously until I reached London. In London, I started writing about my experiences in the form of a column, Londonor Sithi, which appeared in Assam Bani. 
Q. So that was the time you started collecting Bhupen Hazarika's songs...
Ans: Yes, In London I would remember Bhupen da's songs and started collecting them. In those days, record players were very few and it was difficult to carry big bulky records around. But when plastic records were introduced, I started compiling his songs and their lyrics. Later on, I thought that it was not enough to write just the lyrics and started writing about the meaning of the songs. Gradually, this led to my research on Assamese folklore and Assamese music.
Q. Not just documentation of Assamese culture, you have also written several books on mathematics. Please tell us about them.
Ans: Being a teacher of mathematics, I have written several books on maths. But most of them were written while I was in America. 
Q. You have also written a book, Tales of Western Inspiration and Indian Karma. Please tell us about it.
Ans: The book is about the efforts of British missionaries to spread western education in Assam. The book also reveals the karma of some Indians, who acquired western education against formidable odds and tried to help others easily acquire what was so difficult for them.