Nandini Iyer, professor, UCSB and SBCC | Credit: Courtesy

Nandini Iyer: 1931-2021

Many, many people knew the small, elegant figure in a gold silk sari, zigzagging around town, often at high speed, from the Sanskrit class she led at UCSB to the World Religions classes she taught for decades at City College to the tai chi class she was attending and Trader Joe’s and a lecture at the museum and the class she chose to teach in her eighties at the Braille Institute. I got used to showing up at CVS — almost anywhere, in fact — and hearing, “How’s your wife today? She’s such a neat lady!”

“Not my wife,” I’d say. “My mother. But I can see why you made the mistake.”

We could barely step into a restaurant without someone coming up shyly and saying, “Excuse me. You won’t remember me, but I was your student, in Philosophy, 40 years ago. You really changed my life!”

Yet very few knew that the friendly and fun-loving figure in front of them, Nandini Iyer, had graduated with a First Class degree (rarer than a summa cum laude) from the highly competitive University of Bombay, gone on to become the first Asian woman ever to get First Class Honours[CQ], in philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford, as well as the first Asian woman to speak at the Oxford Union, the debating society that has long been the cradle of prime ministers — and then had taught at Oxford next to Iris Murdoch and many another household name.

The seemingly bottomless fund of knowledge she drew upon concerning the Hundred Years’ War, the long stanzas she could effortlessly quote from Shelley and Tennyson, and the Bible that she knew better than most of the well-meaning evangelists who showed up at her door to introduce her to the Good Book were all a testament to a deeply classical, formidably well-rounded Indo-Anglian education that she carried like a treasure through life.

She was born to a cosmopolitan family in Ahmedabad; her father, who got his doctoral degree from Harvard, was helping to run the British-built railways in India, and her mother was a Gujarati novelist (and constant fighter for social justice). My mother’s family had always been involved in the law and the rights of the dispossessed, and Gandhi had come by the house at times. Both her brother and her brother-in-law went to MIT — not a common thing before the war — and her father, who would steer his 1930s Pontiac around Bombay, loved to head off to Europe and Japan for months on end, while the youngest of his three children, my mother, stayed in large family homes around India, went through the celebrated Cathedral School in Bombay (whose other products include Salman Rushdie and Fareed Zakaria), and then became the relatively rare young Indian woman to take the exam to get into Oxford and board a P&O ship for the 16-day trip to England.

My mother was wildly gifted from the beginning: She won prizes for both art and biology as a girl and, 70 years on, could remember her lines from performing in The Mikado and acting as Wilde’s Lady Windermere. She represented Africa, for some reason, in a carnival of nations presented before Princess Margaret and was photographed by Britain’s society magazine Tatler. In Ved Mehta’s book Up at Oxford, she is presented while in England as an ideal of sorts for a newly arrived writer: “scholarly,” “such an impressive social presence,” and, with her husband, “so strikingly handsome that they could have passed for movie idols.”

But she never let this go to her head, and after she became engaged to my father, Raghavan Iyer, whom she had first met when she was 17 (and he 18) in Bombay, she gave herself over to the Theosophical tradition to which he was firmly committed. She became a vegetarian, added an unbreakable spiritual center to her love of film and travel and conversation, and, shedding her three-inch heels, devoted much of her time for the rest of her life to teaching and studying Theosophy as well as the other religions she spoke on at churches and in temples everywhere.

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When the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions brought my father to Santa Barbara in 1965, my mother dropped her teaching at Oxford and her appearances on the BBC and began teaching philosophy at UCSB, Spinoza her particular passion. Later, she would share her compendious knowledge of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and every other religious tradition with generations of students, many of whom would ask her, at semester’s end, which was her chosen faith (they couldn’t tell!). Around Santa Barbara, she seemed ubiquitous, studying Japanese flower arrangement and vegetarian cooking, giving talks at the Vedanta Temple, and rarely letting a classical music concert, ballet, or play appear without her taking it in. Whether it was in her Alfa Romeo — or, later, her sleek blue sports car — she usually left an impression of dash combined with soft-hearted fun and an almost regal sense of self-possession.

Indeed, whether she was lecturing in Kyoto or Amsterdam, she always came with a huge supply of jokes, and her close friends included housekeepers, secretaries, and massage therapists, as well as Nobel Prize–winning economists. Quiet and supportive when with her brightly colored husband, she was full of life and talk when on her own, and friends and strangers would grow used to animated telephone conversations late into the night, her advice on matters both personal and political, and her slight figure telling one last story in a parking lot before heading off to Vons sometime after midnight.

As her son, I inherited and relished her interest in everything and her love of adventure. After she turned 67, we traveled together to places she’d always longed to see — Cambodia, Easter Island, Syria, and Jordan — and I was never surprised to find her traipsing along beside me through a Southeast Asian jungle at 4 a.m. At 78, she was to be found walking for long hours under the midday sun through Ephesus, Pompeii, Patmos, and Jerusalem, and even at 80, she was to be seen spending a whole morning wandering around St. Petersburg (and Berlin and Stockholm). For years, people — not least my mother — would ask me why a son would go to bed at 8:30 while his mother was slipping back into the house after a horror-movie double-bill at 1 a.m.

I knew her as a constantly doting mother who would drive around town for hours to find my favorite kind of chocolate and well into her eighties would get up without complaint at 3 a.m. to take me to the airport. When, as a boy, I lost a cherished security blanket along the road near Lake Casitas, she drove for eight hours through the dark to find it. But for everyone else, she was a wise, spirited, and infectiously cheerful friend and, most of all, teacher, and one who could illuminate the great spiritual traditions with one-liners and references to Shakespeare while linking her beloved cats to the great goddesses of classical mythology.

She always seemed unfallen in a way, an innocent girl in her love of novels and Jeopardy! and the Audrey Hepburn movies being shown on Turner Classic Movies, and a sage presence in her almost unrivaled erudition and inner seriousness, who contributed to more charities than I can count and would lend much of her savings to an acquaintance she barely knew.

She will be missed by much of the town, I suspect; for me, of course, she will be irreplaceable.

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