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Profile: Dr Rajendra Chitnis

Dr Rajendra Chitnis in a pub garden

Dr Rajendra Chitnis, Ivana and Pavel Tykač Supernumerary Fellow in Czech

Dr Rajendra Chitnis, Ivana and Pavel Tykač Supernumerary Fellow in Czech, Fellow for Anti-Racism and Associate Professor of Czech, teaches classes in Czech and Slovak literature from the fourteenth century to the present and translation from Czech and Slovak into English. From 2014 to 2016, he was Principal Investigator of an AHRC Translating Cultures Research Innovations project, Translating the Literatures of Small European Nations, which was published as a book last year. 

Why did you become an academic?
My parents were university lecturers in French and History, but they remain perplexed about which aspect of their working lives could have possibly persuaded me to follow in their footsteps. I think the decisive moment came in my early twenties. I graduated in a recession and couldn’t get a job, so I went out to the Czech Republic to teach English. I ended up teaching English and British Studies at Palacký University, Olomouc, a beautiful, Oxford-like city. I had lots of very motivated and interesting students and wonderful Czech, British and North American colleagues, who created a fantastic working environment, full of inspiring conversations about how to teach and think and how to teach people to think. Though academic life these days seems to militate against it, you can still find those students and those conversations, and they make it all worthwhile.

How has your research and teaching changed during lockdown?
The loss of live, in-person teaching has been miserable for everyone. It was good for my spirits to do some face-to-face classes last term. Small-group discussions and the chats around them are the heart of teaching at Oxford, and they are not the same virtually. Our teaching is also affected by the restrictions on student life more generally. Some students are starting to struggle for motivation and have realised that their motivation to study increases when it competes with all the other things they could be doing. It is especially hard for first years to get to know one another and feel comfortable in class about saying what they think and asking what they want to know. We have all learned to be creative, but in this respect, I can’t wait to get back to the way it’s always been done.

As for research, at the start of my career, I didn’t need much more than literary texts, which I interpreted and compared to other literary texts. More recently, however, my research has involved much more cultural history and I have discovered the temptations of the archive. My current book project depends on archival research in the Czech Republic that hasn’t been possible for nearly a year now. At first, this gave me time to write up other pieces that needed finishing, but now I find myself back just working with texts and wondering why I ever stopped doing that.

Have you faced any challenges in your life that you are happy to share here? 
Not compared to the kinds of challenges I know others have faced. Through my children, I’ve seen that well-being, mental health and the way we treat and view one another are much more visible and verbalised in schools now, so they will be able to answer this question much less self-consciously in thirty years’ time. They’ll probably say their dad.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of being an academic?
Finishing something. As an academic, you usually have so many things on the go at once that just finishing a book review or a pile – or zipfile – of marking can be a cause for celebration. That said, I still don’t know anyone who has the same freedom to decide what their working day will look like and be about. As I think more about this question, though, I realise that nothing beats seeing a student with whom you have worked closely, who has stuck at their studies through all manner of adversity, get the degree they deserve.

What books would you recommend for someone who is exploring Czech literature for the first time?
Of translated writers, Bohumil Hrabal’s absorbing monologue of a book-pulper, Too Loud A Solitude, remains my personal favourite, but some really good Czech writing has been translated recently. For twentieth-century history, I’d recommend Tomáš Zmeškal’s powerful family saga, Love Letter in Cuneiform. If you want to get lost in the labyrinth of magic Prague, then Daniela Hodrová’s A Kingdom of Souls is a unique experience. Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop is a thoroughly dark satire about the Holocaust industry in East-Central Europe, in the spirit of the 1980s Czech underground, and Petra Hůlová’s Three Plastic Rooms, the monologue of a very wise and funny Prague prostitute, is another excellent analysis of the morals of our times. Translators are also exploring older Czech literature, like the rich Decadent writing of the 1890s showcased in the anthology And My Head Exploded and in Jiří Karásek’s A Gothic Soul, the moving confession of an alienated young gay man in turn-of-the-century Prague. Otherwise, for humour you need to go to Slovak literature, which I also teach, and which has started to be translated more regularly in the past decade and is really worth people’s attention. Peter Pišťanek’s Rivers of Babylon remains the best account of gangster capitalism and the rise of the oligarch in post-Communist Europe.

Do you have any funny/favourite moments from your time at Univ?
I only arrived in October 2019 and felt like Alice in Wonderland for the two terms I was in College before lockdown. In my first week, the Master, Sir Ivor Crewe, and Lady Crewe hosted a supper for new staff in the Master’s Lodgings, and I will always remember them coming through a crowd towards me as I stood in confusion at the entrance, knowing exactly who I was and making sure I felt welcome. I also think back with increasing nostalgia to a dinner held in the Winter Common Room in February 2020 for a visiting professor of Slavic Studies from Harvard, which, in the variety of guests and conversations and the convivial atmosphere, captured everything positive about College life. I hope we can get back to that very soon.

Describe Univ in three words.
Friendly; Inspiring; Labyrinthine

You can find out more about Rajendra in our Academics A-Z.

Published: 1 February 2021

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