In memoriam

Sudesh Vaid 1940-2001

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Sudesh Vaid was the kind of person who made a deliberate and conscious choice to occupy a small space in life. But in so doing, she enriched and enlarged this space so hugely that her untimely death from cancer had large numbers of people, both young and old, weeping. Sudesh herself would have laughed, and would, in all likelihood, have hailed her death with the same indomitable spirit and courage with which she greeted the news of her illness, and indeed every other setback – of which she had several – in her life. She died as she had lived, fighting and uncowed. The night before she left us, she awoke through a haze of pain and a near coma to assure her gathered friends that she was not going yet.

The space Sudesh occupied was small, but it contained within it many different and overlapping worlds. She was, first and foremost, a teacher, and her work at Indraprastha College occupied a great deal of her time and attention, such that, recently, when she was laid low by illness and advised the use of a wheelchair, her one concern was how she would make it to her classes since the college had no ramps or wheelchair access. Her students speak of her with affection, and some trepidation, for Sudesh did not suffer fools easily. Plainspeaking, and doing so rather brusquely, characterized many of her interactions with people and it was only when you got to know her that you discovered that rather brusque exterior hid a soft, sensitive, empathetic core.

If teaching occupied a large space in Sudesh’s life, so did her work with PUDR, the People’s Union of Democratic Rights, to which Sudesh had a long- term commitment. The PUDR ‘community’ of young and old activists were her real ‘family’ although she remained close to, and supportive of, her biological (natural) family, her brothers, her sisters, and a young niece, Kirti, whom she brought up as her own daughter. ‘See how lucky I am,’ she would often say after Kirti came to live with her, ‘I’ve got a readymade, grown up, lovely, daughter.’ And indeed, in the care and attention she lavished on her, Kirti was as much, if not more, than a daughter to Sudesh.

PUDR’s particular brand of ethics – a fierce commitment to the underprivileged, coupled with an equally fierce independence – no investigations, for example, were funded other than from the investigator’s own resources; no report carried the names of any investigator, the assumption being that you worked for the cause and not for personal gain – was very much Sudesh’s own. She held on strongly to what she believed, and yet made space for other voices, other views. Her house in Indraprastha College – D II as it was affectionately known to friends and family – remained (a rarity in these days) always open and welcoming, a space where people gathered to talk, to work, to laugh and joke, and lately, to provide care and nurture to Sudesh.

Much of what Sudesh practised in life was learnt though her political work in the left, democratic and feminist movements. Until some years ago, a great deal also came from interactions and discussions with her partner and friend C.V. Subbarao, whose death some six years ago was the first of the major setbacks Sudesh faced. Nonetheless, and characteristically, while all those of us who loved and valued Subba dearly, cried at his going, it was Sudesh who resolutely refused to weep and kept our spirits up.

The loss hit her years later, and when it came, accompanied by deep depression, it was her PUDR family, and her women friends (known affectionately as murgis) who rallied round to offer support. Much needed, for barely had she emerged from the depression that she was struck by a host of other illnesses in what began to seem like an endless and unfair stretch of suffering and pain.

No account of Sudesh’s life would be complete without mentioning her deep involvement in the women’s movement and feminism. This, again an important aspect of her life, spanned and interlinked both the academic and activist worlds. She was one of the first people – and this in the days when women’s studies was not yet fashionable – to work along with other colleagues to organize a seminar on women and culture at Indraprastha College. This later turned into the pathbreaking book, Recasting Women (jointly put together by her and Kumkum Sangari), which remains till today the definitive book on history and gender.

It was her commitment to feminism too that led Sudesh to work, along with her friend and colleague Kumkum Sangari, on sati. Their joint work, which takes as its base the Deorala incident of 1987, once again set the standard for research and demonstrated all Sudesh’s strong qualities – rigour, compassion, anger, understanding. I remember well that one of the things that troubled her enormously was how, when speaking to Roop Kanwar’s father, she could feel both anger and compassion.

For a short while Sudesh and I worked together on Partition. She offered to come in and help when, burdened with the grief of so many terrible stories, I was unsure about how to go on. For a while Sudesh and I worked together, interviewing people, and as we shared their stories and their grief, considerably lightened by discussions over hot tandoor rotis and dal fry in Jangpura, things became more manageable. Typically, when she decided not to continue with this work, for in many ways she found it too painful, she felt she had to give something back to the people she had spoken to. So for several months she worked painstakingly at making up a list of losses of life among Sikhs and others from a few villages in Rawalpindi, and then offered this list to the gurudwara in Jangpura, the place where many refugees had settled. For this, she was honoured with a saropa, which she treasured.

In death, Sudesh Vaid is finally at peace. Her farewell was, in many ways, a thing of beauty. Her friends, comrades, colleagues, family, wept openly. Her natural family generously allowed her PUDR family, in many ways her ‘real’ family, to perform the last rites, not with prayers and incense, but with songs and slogans. And fittingly, while it was PUDR activists who held her bier aloft as she left her home at IP College, it was her women friends who carried it to her final resting place. Had Sudesh been able to see she would have urged us on with a heartiness and cheer, and would have demanded to know what it was we were crying for.

Urvashi Butalia


Dharma Kumar 1928-2001

Dharma Kumar, who passed away on the 19th of October, after a prolonged illness, was a friend of mine. She was a distinguished economic historian, much admired by the academics in her profession all over the world. In an obituary, one is expected to dwell at length on her achievements, but I find it difficult to move beyond my severe personal loss. She was a close friend for 46 years. Her affection and generosity vastly improved the quality of my life. Like many other friends of Dharma all over the world, I will miss her laughter, her wit, her angry retorts, and her passionate advocacy of liberal causes. Above all, I will miss her loyalty and emotional support that I had come to accept almost as my entitlement.

The last three years of her life were truly painful. After a brain-tumor operation in 1998, she lost her ability to move around without help; and she lost the ability to speak. Nobody who knew her could ever visualize a Dharma who could not talk. The last time I saw her (after an absence of seven months when I was away) I greeted her with the usual unthinking, mechanical question: ‘How are you, Dharma?’ To my horror she took the question literally and gave me a look of despair, which I will never forget. I am sure death came as a deliverance to her; but I shall go on missing Dharma.

Dharma Kumar was born in a family of distinguished Tamil Brahmins. She was the only child of Dr. K. Venkataraman, a renowned professor of chemical technology. His two brothers, Dr. K.S. Sanjivi, a Professor of Medicine, and Professor K. Swaminathan, the renowned editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi were also distinguished personalities of considerable repute. Therefore, not surprisingly, Dharma always wanted the life of a scholar. In her early youth, she lived in Lahore and Bombay, where her father taught at the two universities. This experience in her formative years gave Dharma a cosmopolitan worldview and lifestyle.

After studying at the Elphinstone College in Bombay, she went to England and read economics at Cambridge. In 1948, she returned to India with a Tripos in economics. Those were heady days for economists. Jawaharlal Nehru’s eloquent call for economic development and social transformation attracted many distinguished economists from all over the world to help India in its efforts at formulating enlightened economic policies. Bright young economists from different British universities – K.N. Raj, I.G. Patel, V.K. Ramaswami, K.S. Krishnaswamy to name a few – came back and took up government service. Young Dharma followed in their footsteps and joined the Reserve Bank of India as a research officer.

In Bombay, she met and married that remarkable man, Lovraj Kumar, the first Indian Rhodes scholar and a person of great intellect and diverse abilities. After some time Lovraj and Dharma moved to New Delhi, where Dharma worked in the Ministry of Finance. In Delhi, she became a close friend of another remarkable man, Pitambar Pant, who as a disciple of Professor Mahalanobis and a private secretary of Jawaharlal Nehru, was the untiring trouble-shooter in India’s ambitions experiment with development planning.

Much as she liked the company of these talented people working with the government, Dharma was deeply uncomfortable in the role of a civil servant. She craved for the academic environment of open debates and clash of ideas. She left government service and went back to Cambridge to research for a Ph.D. The fruits of that research eventually came out as a highly acclaimed book, Land and Caste in South India, published by the Cambridge University Press in 1965.

Dharma started her career as an academic economist with a certain degree of restlessness. She tried her hand in several fields. Her empirical research on India’s textile industry was good but unremarkable. Her paper on the relevance of the newly formed European Customs Union was thought provoking. Her analytical paper on the growth-problems of a dualistic underdeveloped economy was a competent piece of research. However, ultimately she found her niche in economic history. She became the editor of the second volume of the Cambridge Economic History of India. This volume is a significant contribution to historical research on the economy of modern India.

In 1967, she joined the faculty of the Delhi School of Economics, first as a reader and then as professor of economic history. Here at last she found a home, where she remained as a towering personality until her retirement in 1993. During this period she produced and supervised the production of several research papers. In my judgment, her greatest contribution to Indian scholarship was the emergence of the Indian Economic and Social History Review as a journal of international repute. As the editor of IESHR she encouraged young scholars to research and publish. She goaded established scholars to work on interesting problems. I have seen the amount of time and energy she devoted to all the various aspects of bringing out a journal. It was really impressive.

I am not an economic historian, but as a friend and colleague I watched with fascination her dedication and energy. I took pride in my friend as she grew in stature in the world of scholarship. We collaborated on various projects of social and political concern, particularly in the 1970s, when liberals in India had much to be worried about. We worked together to nurture the Delhi School of Economics as a centre of learning in the social sciences. I knew how much pride Dharma took in her achievements in this difficult enterprise.

For over four decades, Dharma remained a formidable presence in the intellectual and social life of Delhi. Dharma and Lovraj were exceedingly hospitable and generous. Therefore, it was not surprisingly that their home became a centre of repute for good food and lively discussion. Dharma’s wit, erudition and passionate advocacy of various social and political causes always livened up all discussions. Her many close friends – Romesh and Raj Thapar, Pupul Jayakar, P.N. Dhar, V.K. Ramaswami to name only a few – helped to create a fascinating environment in which occasional visitors saw a great deal of intellectual excitement and social grace. Dharma’s outspoken views, inevitably earned her admiration from many friends and bitter criticism from numerous opponents.

I think the main reason why many Indian intellectuals – particularly social scientists – found it difficult to appreciate Dharma’s intellect was their inability to accept the legitimacy of her beliefs. She was deeply patriotic, but she totally rejected the ideological tenets of nationalism. As a liberal, she passionately embraced the ideals of European enlightenment. In the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, India had many powerful voices who blended their patriotism with liberal values and dreamt of a free India as an open society. Subsequently, other ideological forces – particularly those of Hindu and Muslim nationalisms – came up to muffle those voices.

Moreover, immediately after Independence, the Cold War brought about an ideological polarization all over the world, with rather unfortunate consequences for Indian intellectuals. Most Marxists accepted the primacy of anti-imperialism in their struggle for a better world. In that struggle nationalism, through a peculiar identification of nationalism with national liberation movements in the age of empires, became an inseparable ideological partner of Marxism. For historians, this was a disastrous amalgam. As Eric Hobsbawm mentioned, in the context of his search for an adequate definition of nationalism, that the ideology of nationalism needs to be based on an agenda of falsifying history for creating helpful myths.

Therefore, when Dharma showed on the basis of empirical findings, that discrimination and exploitation in rural India were not the creation of colonial rulers, but were very much in existence in the pre-colonial era, she became, to the Marxist-nationalists of India, a symbol in the mould of Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Although her dissertation, Land and Caste in South India was awarded the Ellen MacArthur prize for the best dissertation of the year by Cambridge University, her scholarship was denigrated and she was labelled ‘pro-imperialist’. Incidentally, if her book had come out 30 years later, it would not have generated that much passionate antagonism, certainly not in the circles of left-leaning intellectuals.

Like Dharma, I have been a teacher. I have also shared her faith in the power of ideas. Today, it is easy to feel discouraged by the sight of declining standards in our universities and the rise of identity politics and xenophobia in our society. But I remember how Dharma used to look each year with affection and hope at the entering class of students at the Delhi School of Economics. I would like to believe that Dharma was not the last of her kind; passionate liberals will emerge from the ranks of today’s and tomorrow’s youth. They will have much to learn from the life and the work of Dharma Kumar.

Mrinal Datta-Chaudhuri