We know Harivansh Rai Bachchan to be among the most distinguished and prolific poets in the 20th century. Although he primarily wrote in Hindi, his formal academic training was in English literature, and he served as a faculty member in the Department of English at Allahabad University for several years. He had a rich, multifaceted and eventful life, which he documents in his four-volume autobiography. The first volume describes his family, early life in Allahabad, his student days, and culminates in the passing away of his wife, Shyama ji, who succumbed to tuberculosis at a very young age. In the second volume, he describes his further training and search for stability in his professional and personal life, meeting Teji Bachchan and starting a new life with her. This volume essentially concludes with him getting a regular faculty position at the Allahabad University. The third volume is the motivation behind this blog post: it covers the period in his life when he travels to Cambridge as a visiting student to pursue a deeper study of the poet William Butler Yeats, and stays on to obtain a PhD, becoming the second Indian (after Balachandra Rajan) to obtain a doctorate in English literature at Cambridge University . In the fourth volume, he narrates his life after quitting academia, his move to Delhi to join the Ministry of External Affairs, and further developments as his children grow up. I am only a few pages into this volume, and have not been able to immerse myself fully into it.
A common theme in the first three volumes is that of the nearly continuous stream of struggles and upheavals in his life, and how he faced them with resilience and tremendous self-discipline. He shares his emotional journey with candour, and does not hesitate in letting us see (and feel) his vulnerabilities as he deals with bereavement, career struggles, unexpected disappointments, rejections and failures. Poetry enthusiasts will appreciate his attempts to describe his creative thought process, and to explain some of his poems in the context of his life events at the time of composition.
The third volume, "Basere Se Door" describes his PhD story, and offers us much to reflect upon and learn. Many aspects of his journey mirror issues and situations that we think about and live through in academia. This includes figuring out our academic goals (on our own, even if they are starkly different from that of our peers), taking steps to fulfil them (often involving life-changing decisions), staying focused on research while also dealing with anxieties due to not having job-certainty for long periods of time, balancing a feeling of contentment with a desire for growth in the phase when certainty arrives, the willingness to see oneself as a student all through our lives, and the mental flexibility to make tough choices if our perspective towards academia changes or if academia can no longer meet our needs.
After finishing his Master's, he spent nearly 10 years holding temporary academic positions, including that of a high school teacher, research scholar and short term lecturer. After 10 years of uncertainty in his professional life, he obtained a regular position as a lecturer in the Department of English literature at Allahabad University in 1941. Although he experienced a feeling of contentment after obtaining this position, he simultaneously encountered the common acquaintance of almost every academic: the impostor syndrome. He was sensitive to gossip around him about a Hindi poet being at an English department [I suppose multidisciplinary skills weren't valued much in those days]. As was his usual tendency, in response, he devoted an unusually high amount of time and energy on his teaching assignments. 
While he grew into his role as a teacher, he also observed the academic atmosphere in the university, and reflected upon what career progression meant to people there. Why is seniority relevant in the context of university, he wondered. Can intellectual growth be measured by a wall calendar? The mind expands or shrinks according to the work that it engages in. He felt that research and self-study demonstrated in a concrete form through scholarly publications should be used as a parameter for progression as opposed to counting age, in order to prevent stagnation of the mind.
"Admittedly, it is difficult to determine criteria to evaluate intellectual ability, but if universities don't make an effort to do this, who will?"
[Basere Se Door, Page 23, 2013 edition, Rajpal and Sons (The translation is mine, and I apologise for any deficiencies. I don't have access to the English translation of his autobiography.)]
His observations proved to be prescient. Despite being a meeting ground for intellectual giants in all fields in pre-independence and early independence days, Allahabad University lost its eminence over the next few decades (as did many of our older universities), mired in bureaucracy and unhelpful policies that did not nurture academic growth.
Harivansh Rai Bachchan spent the next 11 years teaching at the university, and describes these years as those of good health, professional stability and personal contentment. He raised his children, and spent time in study and creative writing, but stayed away from formal movements taking place in the Hindi poetry world. But, instead of settling down into complacency, his mind was agile, and open to opportunities to learn and grow. Therefore, at the end of 1951, when the British Council announced some travel support for faculty members to spend six months at a British university, he decided to apply. He revived a research project that he had initiated several years ago on the work of William Butler Yeats. Putting his plan into action was not easy: after receiving invitations to spend a few semesters at both Cambridge and Oxford and getting a sabbatical from AU, he had to arrange for finances for a 15-month stay in England. This required negotiations with publishing houses who published his poetry, and dipping into family savings, but he received whole hearted support from his wife in his plans . When he did not get any reply from the education ministry to his application for financial support, she encouraged him to write straight to the Prime Minister. Pandit Nehru not only gave him an appointment, but also immediately approved the entire amount that was required. Meanwhile, the British Council did not approve his application for traveling expenses, and he had to make those arrangements on his own. Finally, in April 1952, at the age of 45, this professor with a permanent academic position left his secure establishment in Allahabad, and flew to England to become a student again. I was personally quite inspired by this episode in his life, because it teaches us to not let age or complacency come in the way of our intellectual goals.
At the time of his voyage, Mr. Bachchan had not made any plans for pursuing a doctorate. His plan was to explore some questions about the work of Yeats while spending six months in Cambridge, followed by nine months in Oxford. At Cambridge, he met Professor Thomas Rice Henn, who agreed to supervise his work, and gave him access to all his collected books. He writes about his daily schedule:
" I would go to the university library after breakfast, and study there until 1.30 pm. After a light lunch, I would go to Mr. Henn's office, and study until 6 pm. Often, he would drop in during that time, with questions and suggestions about my reading. After dinner, I would either attend a seminar, take a walk, or enjoy theatre or cinema. After that, I spent several hours reading anthologies of modern English poetry, making journal entries or writing letters before going to sleep."
In Henn, he found a hands-on advisor who provided him the necessary guidance and resources for his project. Naturally, with the progress that he made on the project, he started to consider the possibility of staying on at Cambridge and expanding his work into a doctoral thesis. He was encouraged by a friend, Vishwanath Dutt to follow this plan. Henn enthusiastically agreed, but explained that since Bachchan had only two years, he would have to formally register for a Master's in Literature, and write a thesis: if the degree committee found the thesis and his performance in the viva strong enough (and this would be exceedingly hard), they would consider the thesis for the award of a Ph.D. With the further support of his wife, therefore, he registered for an M. Litt. and started working on his thesis.
His doctoral studies started full steam. His description of Henn as an advisor is touching: Henn met and guided him regularly, kept his project goals on track, gave him feedback on his writing (this included approving thesis chapters which contained a point of view very different from that of Henn, as long as they were supported by literary evidence and proper analysis), and often invited him home for meals and long discussions. He was also sensitive to Bachchan's mental anxieties on account of his family in India (especially the financial and other hardships that his wife was facing bravely on her own ).
As part of his thesis preparation, Bachchan also visited Ireland to meet Mrs. Yeats and other people associated with Yeats. They met him graciously, and answered all his questions. He describes a heart-warming episode at the end of his stay in Ireland, when he invited Mrs. Yeats and some others for a farewell dinner. After dinner, the hotel manager refused to accept any payment for the dinner gathering, because he was a guest of Ireland. Bachchan suspected that Mrs. Yeats had secretly paid the hotel bill herself, so as not to strain the finances of a struggling PhD student.
The book is full of such incidents and many others, which tell us about the importance of deep and regular work for a thesis, staying focused , good mentorship and a support network of peers from graduate school. His housemate was a statistics student by the name of Ranvir Singh Bawa, who taught him how to live with minimal expenditure, and supported him emotionally through good and bad times.
One of the most exciting parts of the book is the period after his thesis submission in 1954. He prepared thoroughly for his viva. Although Henn had advised him to focus on his research work and not get distracted by anxiety about results, Bachchan was conscious of what was at stake. He had heard scary dissertation stories. Would they tear the thesis into bits during the viva, he wondered. Would he be able to answer all their questions? During the four-hour long viva, he desperately searched for hints about what the committee thought of his work, but all members maintained the proverbial British "stony face" during the proceedings. Post viva, in which he thought he did well, he had to wait for a few weeks before the final decision of the committee. Finally, on the day the results were declared, he walked with Bawa to the main office. It was Bawa who had the first look at the notice board, and confirmed that the 47-year old Bachchan had indeed received a Ph.D. His instant reaction was the same as that of his wife when she got the good news later, "Izzat Reh Gayi." 
Dr. Bachchan's life was full of interesting contradictions: on the one hand, he was unable to afford a gown for convocation. On the other hand, when he returned to India, he was welcomed and hosted by the families of some of the richest industrialists of India. He returned a happy, content and confident man to Allahabad, and rejoined the university with renewed hope.
But, the biggest "anti-climax" was yet to happen. Instead of appreciation from his colleagues for his academic accomplishment, he had to face jealousy at the work place. The university could no longer give him the work satisfaction and intellectual stimulation he was hoping for, and he was disappointed by the toxic reactions to him. And so it was that one of India's greatest poets, and a knowledgeable English lecturer who had achieved a nearly impossible academic feat decided to quit academia. He was invited by Pandit Nehru to join the Ministry of External Affairs as an expert who would supervise the translation of all documents and communication of MEA into Hindi, and to introduce new initiatives to promote the use of Hindi at the work place .
It was with a heavy heart that he left Allahabad with his family, after having spent nearly all his life there. After devoting years to scholarship and teaching, he moved into an entirely different sphere of bureaucrats. This, he realized, was what would make him happy at that point of time, and he did not hesitate to change course. This also makes us reflect upon the deterioration in the work culture at universities in India in those days, and how they lost several bright minds as a result.
One final thought: it requires great integrity to accept and appreciate the academic accomplishments of others, and great clarity of vision to support and nurture such talent.
 There seems to be some ambiguity about this. Some online portals mention that Harivansh Rai Bachchan was the first Indian to obtain a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University. But, in his book, Mr. Bachchan mentions that his friend who encouraged him to try and obtain a PhD gave him the example of B. Rajan as the only person from India until then to have obtained a PhD in this subject from Cambridge.
 He also consciously underplayed his identity as a poet in the university. He insisted that his students address him as Mr. Harivansh Rai, and not Mr. Bachchan (or Bachchan ji). He mentions his conscious efforts to dress, walk and behave "like a lecturer of English".
 In the book, he expresses his gratitude to her on several occasions: she was a remarkable woman who braved anxiety and unpleasant situations in Allahabad in his absence, but provided unconditional support to him in all his academic plans.
 He describes a rare occasion when Professor Henn flew into a temper. One morning, Mr, Bachchan was excited to see a frozen lake for the first time, and walked over it to come to office. When Henn heard this, he got extremely upset at this irresponsible and dangerous act, and questioned Bachchan about how his family would cope if something happened to him. Bachchan was grateful for the concern.
 which is undoubtedly hard while also facing financial pressures. Pandit Nehru, who had been generous in the beginning, refused his request for further support: apparently, some colleagues of Bachchan had spread malicious rumours about him. Bachchan had to further dig into family savings to finance his doctoral study. Today, PhD students receive their fellowship as part of well structured schemes, but one cannot help thinking about students in India who routinely do not receive their fellowships on time, and battle disappointments and anxieties on this account.
 Hard to share the sentiment in translation. Roughly, they are both relieved at not having to "lose face".
 This, in itself, was a difficult task, as he had to contend with contemptuous English-speaking civil servants. His experience at the ministry, and later life is described in Volume 4.