First Person: My Columbia Connection and Amit
BY MERVYN ROTHSTEIN '64
I had a chance this fall to renew my long and valuable relationship
with Columbia, this time because of a friend: prize-winning Indian
novelist, essayist and singer Amit Chaudhuri.
I have been on campus often in the past 20 years, largely because
of my work as a writer and editor at The New York Times.
In the mid-’80s, I taught reporting, writing and editing as
an adjunct at the Journalism School, and in 1985, I wrote a profile
for the Times of one of my favorite College professors,
Howard Davis, a professor of art history who had been honored as
a great teacher. I returned to 501 Schermerhorn Hall, the same lecture
room in which I had sat more than 20 years earlier, to hear Davis
lecture on Italian Renaissance art. As the students entered, I realized
that many, or perhaps all, of them had not been born when I had
taken the class.
In the early ’90s, covering the education beat for the Times,
I was back on campus, writing about the first-year student orientation
program and later attending Literature Humanities and Contemporary
Civilization classes for an article on how the Core
Curriculum had changed during the decades. And in 2000, 40 years
after our class first showed up as freshmen, I spent a week at orientation
for an article comparing Orientation 1960 with Orientation 2000.
Last fall, though, I was on campus because of Amit. I had interviewed
him for the Times in 1999, when his first book, Freedom Song:
Three Novels (Knopf, 1999), had been published to critical
acclaim. The next year, when his book received the Los Angeles
Times Book Prize for Fiction, he stopped in New York on the
way back from claiming his award, and we had a chance to chat and
Then, in early 2001, I visited him in India. My daughter, Jill,
had won a graduate teaching and travel fellowship and was living
and working in India; my wife, Ruth, and I arranged to meet her
in Calcutta, where she had taught in a school program for underprivileged
and street children. Amit lived in Calcutta with his wife and young
daughter, and we arranged to get together. Over tea at our hotel,
Amit mentioned that he had always wanted to live for a while in
New York, and that he wished he knew someone who could help him
get a visiting professorship at a university there for a semester.
I said I would gladly see what I could do.
When I returned to New York, I sent an e-mail to Annette Insdorf,
the director of undergraduate film studies. In one of my many incarnations
at the Times, I had been acting deputy editor of the Sunday
Arts & Leisure section, and Annette often wrote for it. I told
her about Amit, and what he was hoping to accomplish, and she forwarded
the e-mail to Alan Ziegler, the head of the writing division at
the School of the Arts.
It wasn’t that easy, but a year later, I received an e-mail
from Amit saying that he had been named a visiting professor at
the School of the Arts and would be teaching a seminar in the fall
semester on Indian literature (an anthology of which he had just
edited). He arrived Labor Day weekend, and our families socialized.
We had a party for Amit, and I returned to campus twice, once
for a reading that he gave in Schermerhorn Extension of one of his
essays, and again for a concert recital in Lerner Hall at which
Amit sang Hindustani classical music for two hours. Sitting in Lerner
made me think of all the hours I had spent in Ferris Booth Hall
in the Spectator offices, reporting, writing and editing. Those
days have served me well.
Each visit I make to Columbia reminds me — though I don’t
really need reminding — of what a bountiful and rewarding
place it is, and what a life-shaping experience it provided for
me and for all of us.
The concert took place just four days before Amit taught his last
class of the semester and headed back to Calcutta. I hope to see
him again soon, but I miss him already. I hope to see Columbia again
soon. I miss it already.
Mervyn Rothstein ‘64 was a reporter and editor on the Columbia
Daily Spectator for four years, and has been a writer and editor
at The New York Times for 21 years. He also has written for Playbill,
Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado and other publications.