Janaki Bakhle, UC Berkeley’s New First Lady

Janaki Bakhle poses on campus with her husband, UC Berkeley Chancellor Dirks
Jennie Yoon/Staff
Janaki Bakhle poses on campus with her husband, UC Berkeley Chancellor Dirks

Every morning around 8, Janaki Bakhle takes her two labrador retrievers out for their daily walk through the UC Berkeley campus.

She leaves her perch at University House, nestled between academic buildings on the north side of campus, guiding Boo Bear and Kulfi — which means ice cream in Hindi and Urdu — past the Valley Life Sciences Building.

As the threesome winds through campus, Bakhle greets a colleague, acquaintances and the security guard outside her home, lamenting over the weekend’s Cal football game and letting passers-by pet her dogs.

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Jennie Yoon/Staff

Leashes in hand, Bakhle, wife of Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, experiences the campus just as any other Berkeley resident might. But the associate history professor, Modern Indian scholar and published author is also the associate of the chancellor — UC Berkeley’s very own first lady.

She’s heading into her second year on the post, which she has held since Dirks took his position in the summer of 2013. The pair came to Berkeley after 17 years at Columbia University, where they served as professors in the anthropology and history departments.

While Dirks started his new position as chancellor, Bakhle spent her first year in Berkeley getting acquainted with both the campus and the city itself. Though she attended countless university events, her energy was mainly spent moving into her new home on campus, making sure their 15-year-old son, Ishan, was settled in at his boarding school in Massachusetts and finding the best place in Berkeley to buy groceries — particularly blueberries and fresh orange juice, which the chancellor “cannot face mornings” without.

“Berkeley has always been one of those universities that we really wanted to come to,” Bakhle said in an interview with the Weekender. “It has been less a transition and much more excitement and anticipation. There was no trepidation for either of us in coming here.”

For Bakhle, moving from New York to Berkeley was a dream come true.

“When I was getting to know her, we’d have discussions and sometimes we’d even argue different positions, and I realized that she’s veraciously intelligent and engaged,” Dirks said. “I really admired that.”

Born in New Dehli, Bakhle grew up in various parts of northern India. She attended university in Mumbai, receiving a degree in economics before moving to the United States at 22 to study Indian history at Temple University.

After four years in the graduate program, she left her studies and got a job as assistant to the director of Temple University Press. Bakhle spent 10 years in the publishing field, eventually joining the University of Minnesota Press, where she became a senior editor.

It was in 1994 during her time at the University of Minnesota Press that Bakhle first met Dirks, who was a professor of anthropology and history at the University of Michigan.

Both South Asian scholars, Bakhle and Dirks connected with ease. A collection of writings for the University of Minnesota Press was out for review by Dirks, who was late with his deadline. When he came to give a talk at the University of Minnesota, Bakhle took the opportunity to attend his lecture — and confront him about the unfinished review. The rest, they say, is history.

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Jennie Yoon/Staff

“When I was getting to know her, we’d have discussions and sometimes we’d even argue different positions, and I realized that she’s veraciously intelligent and engaged,” Dirks said. “I really admired that.”

Two years later, they were married.

The wedding was in Santa Cruz, California, where Dirks recalls Bakhle falling in love with the beautiful view of the bay.

“Every time we come to northern California, I just don’t understand why we don’t live here,” she would tell him when they visited.

Now that they do, Bakhle couldn’t be happier. She and Dirks are fully immersed in the Berkeley community, where they live not only as a couple, but as colleagues.

On Sept. 19, Bakhle ran into Dirks in front of California Hall. She was on her way to her office in Dwinelle, and he was headed to a ceremony at the RSF.

They walked through campus together, arm in arm, chatting about their days as students walking past greeted the chancellor. Dirks tried to convince her to put off her work and come with him to the event, but Bakhle had papers to grade.

He’s not always trying to make her play hooky. Because they share common academic interests, Dirks and Bakhle often work with graduate students together and consult each other on their own scholastic endeavors.

Bakhle has pursued a scholarly focus on India and South Asia throughout her academic career. She first took interest in the cultural and historical significance of Indian classical music during the colonial period in India, which led to her first book, “Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition.”

This semester, she is teaching a graduate course on Subaltern studies, which is part of Indian nationalist history. She teaches the class in a small seminar room on the second floor of Dwinelle.

On Sept. 16, the discussion was on the East India Company and colonial India. She dove straight into discussion, alternating between her own lecture, questions and a presentation prepared by one of the students.

For Bakhle, teaching is more than just lecturing to students. It is about putting professor and student on a level field, where they can learn from each other.

Ben Otto, a fourth-year graduate student in the UC Berkeley Graduate Theological Union, said Bakhle is extraordinary.

“She has taught me that if history is worth doing, it’s worth doing very well,” said Otto. “Her expectations are high, and she inspires her students and challenges us to meet those high expectations.”

Contact Jennie at [email protected]