Anacapa Scholar Talks Books and Gandhi

Photo Credit: Colly Smith '16
Photo Credit: Colly Smith ’16

After a vacation in Ojai and a curiosity for the culture that is the American boarding school, Vibhuti Patel took a childless admissions tour of the Thacher campus. As her tour concluded, she struck up a conversation with Mr. Mulligan, who suggested she come teach as an Anacapa Scholar.

Ms. Patel accepted the offer during winter of last year and has just arrived on campus, taking up position as this winter’s resident Anacapa Scholar. During the winter trimester, Ms. Patel will teach a class on South Asian literature to seniors and she will lead the faculty book club, as well as to audit and help teach other classes.

She worked as a contributing editor at Newsweek International for thirty years, and her work has been featured in such publications as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. She has also taught at Elphinstone College at Bombay University, the UN International School, the American University in Cairo, the New School University, and the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.

I sat down with Ms. Patel at the Anacapa Cottage and discussed her hopes of coming to Thacher, her experience meeting Mahatma Gandhi, and books she’d like to recommend to students.

What were your hopes in coming to Thacher?

Just to be on a campus with young people. I love being with young people because it keeps us teachers young. It changes your way of thinking. I’ve always loved teaching young people.

What’s a favorite place you’ve traveled to?

I’ve traveled all over the world, it’s hard to name one favorite place, but I love Paris and I love Venice.

What’s an important lesson you’ve learned as a teacher and as a journalist?

Both these professions offer intellectual stimulation and communication. I like journalism because it’s similar to teaching. With teaching you’re communicating directly with a physically present student, whereas as a journalist, your readers are unseen, but you are using the same methods as teaching. You’re doing your research, you’re preparing for your argument, and hopefully you’re throwing new light on your subject material.

I heard you were touched by Gandhi. Could you tell me about that?

My father was a disciple of Gandhi and dropped out of college to follow Gandhi, so Gandhi was very much a part of my life. The British threw my father in prison when I was three months old. When my father came out of prison he took me to meet Gandhi. I was only two years old then.  He was a very austere, simple man, and so he didn’t know what to do with me, a small child. He handed me his three-monkeys statue to play with as a toy. The three monkeys embody ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’. As he handed it to me, he said, “We both have a lot to learn from these monkeys.”

What was a powerful teaching experience you had?

When I was at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, I taught Indian literature to Arab women. They were design students, and they would come to class each day in their hijabs. When picking the course material, I made sure to pick books that wouldn’t generate any controversy, such as Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and I ended up picking a selection of books all written by Indian women. None of the women in the class had any sense of Indian literature because their only perception of Indians was of their house workers and maids, so I had a chance to shape their perception. I knew that they would be powerful because they were the first class of educated women, and I felt that I really had a chance to shape their ways of thinking. That was a very powerful teaching experience.

If you were to recommend a book for a Thacher student, what would it be?

Of Western literature, these iconic books:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Of Indian Literature:

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

(all available in the Thacher Library)