Oral history interview with Uma Dasgupta

Dasgupta, Uma Iqbal, Iftekhar 2010-01-10

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Interview Participants
UD
Uma Dasgupta, interviewee (female)
KM
Kris K. Manjapra, interviewer (male)
KM
Testing 1-2-3, testing 1-2-3, testing 1-2-3. This is a Bengali intellectual oral history interview recorded on January 10th, 2010 and this is an interview with Professor Uma Dasgupta in Kolkata. Professor Dasgupta, thank you for our time together. I wanted to begin by asking some information about your birth: your place of birth and date of birth. So let’s begin there.
UD
I was born on the 11th of February, 1942, and I was born in what was then undivided Bengal, the eastern part of Bengal, in a district town called Mymensingh, because my grandparents were based there.
UD
My father wasn't. At that point of time he was a member of the civil service, and so he was working elsewhere, but for my birth as was traditional in those times, the family -- whoever the family might have been -- would go back to the -- in my mothers case it was her parents-in-laws, since I was the second child. For the first child, she went to her own parents. That’s also quite typical of -- I mean it's a cultural thing. But for the second child it’s a little less, I guess, traumatic for the mother and in-law situation is not so difficult, whereas for the first child I guess parents would give a little more cushioning to the anxieties of a first mother.
KM
And what kind of family did you grow up in, both in terms of the let's say religious, political, cultural, some different features that you remember from your childhood, kind of, family context?
UD
Yes, well let me begin by saying that of course we were born Hindu. My parents were Hindu, but certainly never orthodox, never so, and we were -- of course we belonged to one of the higher castes. We were Kayasthas, but we were not Brahmins, but even if we were Brahmins, the Bengali Brahmins are not as orthodox as the Brahmins in some other parts of the country, and in the case of my family, I would say that not only were we not orthodox, but we tended to be more on the modern side because my father went to England to study at a fairly young age. He was then only between 17 and 18. He went to college in England. Now in those times that was not very common. He, there were a handful of --
KM
Did he go on scholarship?
UD
No he went on his father’s funding. They were of course a wealthy family, and indeed the costs were not like they are today, but all the same, I mean, surely it must not have been inexpensive either, and he stayed for seven years, just over seven years I believe in England basically studying agricultural economics at the University of Aberystwyth [Aberystwyth University] in Wales, which had a famous agricultural school, and then he was going for a law degree and was interned in the Inner Temple in London.
KM
What was your father’s name?
UD
S.C.Ray, if I use the initials, or Ray as we say in Bangla Ray, R-A-Y.
UD
The full name is Sudhindra for ‘S’, Chandra for ‘C’, and Ray for ‘Ray’, S.C.Ray, and my mother was Sati, S-A-T-I, Roy or Ray. My mother's family were from Barisal, Bangladesh or undivided Bengal at that time, but my mother's family were based in Dhaka because her father was a lawyer in Dhaka, so they all grew up in Dhaka. They were -- from my mother's side of things also there was a lot of modernity because my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, my mother's father was ostracized in Dhaka because he sent all his girls, and he was the father of nineteen children, of which nine were girls and all of the girls were sent to school and educated. So this is, let’s say, starting from around the late 19th century. My eldest aunt was a very early 20th century woman, so all --
KM
Were they Brahmos or --
UD
No they were not actually, but good question, because I think they had Brahmo traits in them, but no they were not -- institutionally they were not Brahmos. All were Hindus. So that’s basically my upbringing so far as my parents. I'll give you a couple of examples of what I mean by when I say that it was a fairly modern upbringing. First of all there was some even then, you know, predominance of joint family living. I was in born in 1942, and I was -- my brother was six years older than me 19 -- so 1936 was when my brother was -- sorry, my brother was six years older than me, is six years older than me, and he was born in 1936, but my .. my father decided that he didn’t really want a joint family upbringing for us. So he although kept a, I mean, it was very nice relationship with the larger family, throughout that I was exposed to, we were exposed to, my brother and I, and I can recall even til recent time how close the larger family has been although the older generation is all gone.
UD
The cousins are still here and now as I told you recently my elder first cousin died. So I was close enough to her to actually feel the death, and yet we were not brought up together, as we could have been in the family mansion house in Calcutta. My grandfather, my father’s father, who is a rich zamindar, rich member of the landed gentry, and also a lawyer and a freedom fighter, so quite a different kind of soul altogether, again not untypical of those times.
KM
What was his name?
UD
Mohim Chandra Roy. In fact their house, which they of course had to abandon at the time of partition and move to the Kolkata mansion house, which he had established, my grandfather had established for the sons who came to work in Calcutta. So he was rich enough to do that, but their house in Mymensingh is now the Mymensingh College, the Mymensingh Government College of the Bangladesh Government. So it was a large estate, the estate is mentioned in Nirad Chaudhuri’s, who was a neighbor, neighboring family, maybe also a family belonging to the landed gentry. I am not absolutely sure about that, but certainly a neighboring family also from Mymensingh and the Chaudhuris and we knew one another. In fact, Nirad Chaudhuri’s eldest sister was married to my father’s elder brother, so in fact there was even a family relationship,
UD
and in An Autobiography of an Indian [The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian] Nirad Chaudhuri does mention the elephant in my grandfather’s estate, which was a very, very lovely elephant called Kusum, and he mentions the estate. He mentions -- I mean he used to write beautiful, as you know, English, and much of his -- much of the beauty lay in his descriptions of the landscape in which he grew up. There are lovely descriptions of the landscape of our estate in that book, but I mentioned this only to say that it was quite considerable estate at that time.
KM
The -- what kind of land, what kind of agriculture was being done around Mymensingh that your family was kind of involved in? Was it rice?
UD
It must have been principally rice.
KM
Rice.
UD
Because, you know, for many years it was just a one crop -- that’s why our agriculture fell behind and agricultural improvement, that scientifical agriculture was somewhat later. In fact that came with, let’s say, my father’s generation. He was asked by Tagore, [Rabindranath Tagore] again coming back to the history of Tagore’s rural reconstruction program. Tagore used to keep an ear out for people, for the very few, the minimal number who were trained in modern agriculture.
UD
He sent his own son to train in modern agriculture to the USA in 1906 and apparently through some source he had learned that my father had come back after a degree in agricultural economics and invited him to come to Sriniketan. So I say this only to mention that scientific agriculture, which Tagore was very keen on and Tagore was actually pioneering in that effort, came only you know with the let’s say the 20’s of the 20th century, not any earlier and my father -- my grandfather's estate was of course agricultural lands that they owned but for the taxes, it has to be the rice crop principally, one-crop agriculture.
KM
The mansion house in Calcutta where is that?
UD
It’s in Bhawanipur.
KM
Do you remember the address?
UD
Yes, of course, 10, number ten, Priyanath Mallick Road, Priyanath Mallick Road, and that’s where now it's been promoted in 19 -- in the 1980’s, it was bought by an industrialist, copper industrialist called R.P.Poddar. It’s a six-storied house where my father’s family, my father -- there were six siblings, six -- actually nine siblings, but six brothers and each brother got a flat. It’s a six storied house, on each floor.
UD
It's no longer the beautiful mansion house that it was, where all of us cousins got married. Until my youngest first cousin, the house was intact till then, not that this was -- this was co-incidental, not that the house didn’t get promoted til she got married, but it just happened luckily that all of us had that privilege of getting married in this beautiful mansion house. Whether we lived there or not. We didn't. My father's family with -- my father was the only member of the family who didn’t actually ever stay -- well, he stayed in his earlier years in the mansion house when he first came to Calcutta but actually established his whole family, my brother and me and his wife, my mother, in a Government-requisitioned bungalow in Alipore where we grew up.
KM
So --
UD
From the age of four.
KM
So, between from the time you were born, two months after you were born til the age of four you had mentioned you were with your family, your father and mother travelling --
UD
That’s right, in the districts because you know Government officials always first got district postings and his first Calcutta posting was when I was four, so that’s from the time when we were continuously in Calcutta til his retirement.
KM
Where did -- where was your house in Alipore, the address?
UD
On Baker Road. It was 33 Baker Road, 33 Baker Road. This was where the Alipore Post Office is, old red brick, still looking quite handsome and the Alipore Judge -- I should also mention that where the Alipore Judges Court is, one of the lower courts. You know, Calcutta is the High Court, and I think three lower courts, district and sessions court and then this is the Alipore Judges Court, quite an important court. So Baker Road actually has these two landmarks, I mean, and it was a very exclusive kind of area. As you know in British times Park Street and Alipore were the two what one would call predominantly British or Anglo Indian areas,
UD
except of course where they worked which was Writers' Building which was in Dalhousie Square area, the Dalhousie Square which is now called Badal Dinesh Square -- Badal Benoy Dinesh -- BBD -- Badal Benoy Dinesh Square, but anyway that’s where they worked, Writers' Building, from the days of the East India Company. That’s why it's called Writers' Building because East India Company had their writers work there and then it became the seat of government, but Park Street and Alipore were basically where they lived, particularly Alipore which was a quiet residential, very dignified area. Still it continues to be, although in Calcutta you know it’s always a bit of a mix, which is good about Calcutta, you know, that the poor and the underprivileged are not entirely shoved away as in some cities it is. However, Alipore is still a very prestigious locality. So is Park Street, but Park Street is more commercial than Alipore.
UD
Alipore is more residential and the Governor General’s summer residence -- sorry winter residence, winter residence was in Alipore, which is now the Library, the National Library which used to be the Imperial Library once it was no longer the Governor General’s winter residence. The summer residence used to be in Simla and the winter residence used to be in Calcutta in Alipore.
KM
And what -- so when you arrived at age 4, maybe we can go a little bit into your childhood, your entry into education in Calcutta and move to your potentially into your entry into College, but what -- how would you describe your educational -- early educational upbringing?
UD
Again it was a... It was pretty, kind of anglicized, if one could use that word. My father as I have already told you was in England in his early impressionable years so I think he...even though it was colonial times and he was certainly a patriot, but I think he recognized the strengths of British culture, the discipline that I think he was exposed to, and my mother, I think similarly thought, although she had not been to the West til much later, but my mother I think thought with him. So they sent me to a Roman Catholic Convent which is the Loreto School, I mean there were series of schools all over India, but this was their head school called Loreto House in the Loreto School which is called the Loreto House which is on Middleton Street. I don’t know if you have seen it behind Park Street which used to be Sir Elijah Impey's garden house. Beautiful, beautiful surroundings, that’s where I went to school from 1950 to 1958.
UD
Earlier I went to what they called -- what they would today call Montessori, but of course Montessori is specific to a Montessori kind of a method of teaching. I am not sure that my little school before I entered in class 1 in Loreto House was a Montessori one, but certainly what they would call in generic terms a nursery school and that used to be Miss B. Hartley's
KM
Where was that?
UD
That was in Bhawanipur near our mansion house and not far from Alipore. Bhawanipur is not too far from Alipore.
UD
So I went to Miss B. Hartley's maybe for a couple of years of nursery schooling and then went to Loreto House and did my senior Cambridge which was what was on offer then. You see the Indian School Boards were just beginning to come up, so Loreto House was pretty, you know, Western in its offerings. I mean I did have Bengali training in school but much later, not from the beginning. French was the second language that was on our curriculum and English of course. However, I must add quickly, hasten to add that although my parents had sent me to this school, they were socially not elitist, my parents. They believed that this was only for reasons of good education that my brother was sent to St. Xavier’s School, a similar school, and I was sent to Loreto House. They were very careful in making this point with us even as children that, look, we haven’t sent you there to, you know, become English men and women, because that’s not what we are, and that's not what you are. Take the best from these schools They are disciplined schools.
UD
They are committed to education. You know, in the language that we would understand as young children, so don’t speak only in English at home. It's all right to speak it in school if that’s what is expected of you, and it’s good you are learning English well, but at home you should speak your own mother tongue to communicate. Don’t use terms like -- you know school children at every age have certain slang words, slang that become quite common to their everyday utterances such as, Shut up, or, Get out, or, Don’t be stupid. We were forbidden to do that kind of thing between ourselves even as brothers and sisters, you know, don’t do that. Just learn to be gentle when you chide, and you can chide in your own language. Don’t use words like shut up. So I remember those very well. So they were not socially elitist. In other words they didn’t want us to run away with the notion that we were in that school because the most privileged of children went to that school, went to such schools.
KM
I think I have seen when I have looked at your bibliography for example on the Harvard catalog that Panchali comes up
UD
Pather Panchali
KM
Pather Panchali because you acted in it.
UD
You know I didn't, but it was my name. You are absolutely right. Very strangly I still get asked that question.
UD
I think there might have been a similarity also facially, but I don’t know, but so many ask me that question, even the pharmacist around the corner when I first moved in to this locality. I was stopped one day and was asked, Do you mind if I ask you something? I said, No. You know, are you the same Uma? But, Kris, you know strangely again and the schooling question that you're asking and this is coincidental of course and accidental, I wasn’t expecting to even bring this up. I wasn’t thinking of it. It would not be relevant to your question about my schooling, but I did happen to be asked by -- well not I, my parents were asked by Satyajit Ray because he always use to pick on, you know, complete strangers to do his acting. He was famous for that. I mean, he picked only one percent of his cast from established artists.
UD
The rest were all his finds, and I used to learn like all Bengali girls arem learn to dance and sing in a dancing and singing school called Gitabitan also in Bhawanipur, and it was run by Satyajit Ray’s aunt, and so I think he must have asked her, Can you look out for a young 12-13-14 year old to act as ‘Durga’ in my Pather Panchali, and so she must have told him that there was somebody like me who she thought maybe had fitted in to his -- the way of describing the kind of person. I don’t know. I am just putting two and two together, but all this is sort of perfectly true, and so she asked my parents on his behalf, you know, Would you let her? After all Manik was Satyajit Ray’s nickname was famously. You know, it would be entirely safe because after all this was not very free times, although my parents were pretty modern and with a fairly advanced outlook, but still I mean children being sent to cinema was not all that, but Manik as you know, you have nothing to worry.
UD
That was his first film you must remember, so although he was famous, he was famous in a different way because he came from a famous family, but he was still not a famous film maker. That was his very first. It was his debut. So my -- so she asked my parents, Would you let her? It’s a small part. It won’t take up too much of her time. So my parents said, Well we have to ask her school. We can’t do this without her school being told. And indeed if my parents were not conservative, my school was. A Roman Catholic convent school in those days was a very, very, very conservative place. We were not -- girls were not allowed to go in to the verandas, lest we communicated with people downstairs, with young men downstairs obviously, or if we were reading a romance, a novel that was romance, you know, we would have to hide it. So it was much more conservative than my parents, than my upbringing with my parents, but anyway so apparently my parents asked the school.
UD
The school said, No we can’t do that you know, can’t let her go and act in a film. So it was turned down. This is very coincidental because I still get asked and indeed I -- it was a, it is a thing in my life my, and it is a little part of my life, yes, yes.
KM
What was the name of Satyajit Ray’s sister who headed the school that you attended, the dance school?
UD
She was Kanak. she was a spin -- I think she was a spinster, so Kanak Ray Choudhury, Kanak Lata. You know earlier women use to have longer names, I mean, so Kanak, they usually had a kind of suffix Kanaklata, Kanak is the name of a flower and Lata is a creeper so Kanak Lata Ray Choudhury, Ray Chowdhury, because Satyajit’s grand father used to write his name as Ray Choudhury.
UD
They shortened it to Ray. Upendra Kishore Ray Choudhury was his grand father the first ever printer in India, who learned printing technology in England in those days. I think it must have been late, very later, or very early nineteen century, I'm trying to remember.
KM
And how so -- did you finish, did you go through Loreto until the time of your intermediate?
UD
Until school leaving
KM
School leaving
UD
Which was senior Cambridge, which was basically class 11
KM
Class 11
UD
And then, then, you know Loreto House I look back to certainly with great pleasure, but I must also say that as I grew older didn’t quite match with my more Bengali cultural milieu. It was a mix of girls from Anglo-Indian families, also British European and of course Bengali, Non-Bengali Indian upper class and that upper class was, you know, I always think of upper class, that’s in my own life, and I truly have always done this quite naturally,
UD
that to me upper class is really cultural thing, not necessarily -- although I know that's not the perfect analysis of that term, but to me it didn’t always matter whether, you know, the upper class came from the wealthy. It matters whether the upper class in my sort of understanding came from a wealthy background. I mean it was a -- because I think my father was a Government officer. He wasn’t wealthy, but his father was wealthy, and my mother was always very careful about saying this, about sort of bringing that into our understanding. We were not wealthy. We were comfortable, but it’s really your grandfather who was wealthy. So you know, if we bask in his wealth then we are wealthy, but not us as Government, and you know they were very -- I think people of Government office were much more honest and down to earth in those, and we never used Government transport for any of our sojourns. Of course my father was given a car for his Government work.
UD
It never occurred to us that we could be part of that same privilege, which is unheard of, which is -- I mean if people, if I say this today I think a Government senior, well placed Government officer would think am I from a different planet altogether? Perhaps I am or I was. So also we were brought up in that very, in a more strange academic way I think, you know, haute culture, but you know by way of literary training, I learned, I read all my Tagore with my mother. I dedicated my first book not just to my husband but also to my mother which is absolutely true with whom I first read Tagore because it was not taught in school.
KM
What was the, when did you begin reading Tagore?
UD
When I was about 10, 12 but of course with my mother. I mean she introduced me to the easier Tagore. Tagore was not all that easy. I mean, you have to mature into...
KM
And how did you go? What was the course of your introduction, induction into Tagore, rather, over your adolescence from ten on?
UD
Mostly through of course songs we learned, as I said all Bengali girls adored singing, and that’s mostly Tagore songs, mostly Tagore songs, so Tagore poetry came through the songs, but with my mother and she used to sing.
UD
She and my father both, you know, my mother used to play the organ, the standing organ and sing, and my father joined her in singing. So that’s the Tagore poetry that came into our lives from our childhood very naturally. We didn’t even think, This is Tagore. The song part, but the reading part was much more rigorous, and my mother first started me on a couple of his short stories about young girls, used to sometimes write very great stories of pathos, young girls, young rural girls, hard lives and then took me through his easier novels, and onwards. I mean then I was able to do this. But to come back to your question about college, I could have stayed on and gone to Loreto College because Loreto also had a college. It was a school and college. School was the principal, I think, identity of the institution, but college certainly. It’s still there Loreto College, St. Xavier’s College, though St. Xavier’s College I think over the years earned more fame, but Loreto College...but I felt I wanted just to move away with this milieu
KM
Yes, that’s fine.
UD
Move away from that milieu. So me and another friend of mine, also a friend from school, daughter of a member of Indian Civil Services, ICS, also again not wealthy but very highly cultured family, both of us felt that we wanted to move away from that more socially elitist milieu, which had nothing to do with the school nuns, the Irish nuns etc., which had everything to do with the student population. So we went to a more Bengali college, more like our own milieu, we felt, called Lady Brabourne, and I did just one year there because you know it’s today’s trend that junior school or whatever, school leaving, then 11 and 12 is high school, so then we did junior Cambridge and senior Cambridge exams were held in -- the exam papers came from Cambridge, from the Cambridge Board,
UD
so up till 11 was done and intermediate is the word you use which in our system, in the Indian system, what used to be a two-year period which was 11 and 12. But we -- I did -- Joyoti and I, my friend and I who moved from Loreto House to Lady Brabourne College in Park Circus, did just one year of intermediate studies giving us, it’s called an Intermediate College degree but it's, I mean, after all the BA is really the first degree, so these are more certificates that take you -- that enable you to go to the next stage of education and from Lady Brabourne College I moved to Presidency College to do my honors or to do my first degree, my undergraduate degree as you say it in the US, at Presidency taking honors in History.
KM
Before crossing the threshold into your Presidency College period, I want to come back to this 1950s era, decade, although you entered Presidency in what year?
UD
Entered Presidency in 1960.
KM
1960, so from 1947 to 1960 was obviously a tumultuous period in Bengal: creation of two Bengals, the refugees in particular, and then of course the kind of rise of Maoism and Marxism which caused some unrest.
UD
That was a bit more later than 1960. That came at the end of the 60s.
KM
At the end of 60s.
UD
The Maoists, the Naxalite Movement, that is what you are referring, that came at the end of 60s, but anyway.
KM
So in the 50s really then it’s a question of refugees that are coming into the city.
UD
Absolutely.
KM
So what was your experience of the social world, social unrest of this period? I mean, do you have memories of that? Were you ever affected by that, also in terms of the questions that you had in your mind?
UD
You know, Kris, we were all refugees. We too were refugees, and I think we were pretty aware of that, you know, because my, yes, my father always used to say never built a home of his own, that is a house. He never owned property of his own.
UD
His father’s property was there, and I talked about that, and that’s where still, you know, my brother lives, and my parents died in that property, but my father never -- he could have -- built a flat of his own or bought a flat of his own or built a house of his own. He didn’t because -- and I asked him once, Baba, didn’t you think of -- and he said, No I knew I was in Calcutta really for my job. After my job, we'll go back to the family home in East Bengal. And I said, Oh. He said, no -- you know, after all, that never happened. We became refugees. We could never go back to our hearth and home. So indeed I think we all had the sense of being refugees, whoever had their roots in East Bengal, and so many Calcutta families did have that, so many.
KM
What was it like to, for you -- were you aware, if you like, your roots, your birthplace was no longer, would no longer be a place that you could visit easily because it had been now it was now another country? Was there a sense of trauma or a longing or nostalgia or curiosity for you…. at this stage? How -- do you remember any kind of emotional response, if you like, to --
UD
Not me Kris to be honest, no, because I guess I had very little association which was part of my consciousness. My brother, I would say, because after all he was six years older than me, so he had nice little memories of Mymensingh, our parental or ancestral home, and I mentioned something that’s probably very relevant to this and something that I grew to realize. Now, but just let me go back for one moment to the refugees thing, that we all felt, as I told you, part of the refugee world.
UD
However there were refugees and refugees, because my father always had an established job. We were refugees, yes, you know emotionally, socially, culturally, factually that I don’t think my father ever escaped from. Never did he even sort of -- I mean never did the question arise. We were refugees. After all, I mean, our home was elsewhere, but we were not part of this larger refugee population who were really struggling hard to make it. That of course I came to realize more and more as I grew up as part of my training, as part of my, you know, body of knowledge, and as part of my realization. So that is one thing that I wanted to mention to you that yes certainly refugees, but not all refugees were the same. Even my father’s elder brothers two of whom never actually worked for anyone, you know, they looked after the family's estate after my grandfather. They went to college, they were educated, but they were men of leisure. They still belonged to that leisure class. My grandfather was not like that.
UD
He was a working lawyer, so he was an unusual man. Unusual individually certainly, I would never deny that, but he was one of a kind then, you know, wealthy, earning but freedom fighter, you know renouncing a lot of...sort of always Gandhian wearing khadi but not quite following Gandhi’s you know trail but a Gandhian in ideals. But my two older uncles, elder uncles, my father was the fourth brother, so one of them was a working person like my father, but two of them weren’t. They lived on the estate. They also became refugees and believe me they lived in the family mansion so they had a roof, a very handsome roof on top of their heads but they were no longer wealthy and yet they lived quite a bit on the wealth of their father’s property and were used to that wealth so they became -- and I have childhood memories of that, especially of one uncle who found it extremely difficult to make that adjustment and became almost bedridden without much of an illness for many years of his life, and I have childhood memories of that,
UD
not so much because I associated with my ancestral family in the sense of your question, Was I missing it? No, but as I grew older I realized, Oh dear, this is what happens when you sometimes have to leave your hearth and home, so it came to me as a realization. That’s one thing. The other thing which I think is relevant, and I should say this, although it’s kind of an extension, but it’s probably important to an historical understanding of that period and those of us who are actually offsprings of that period in many ways, not so much as an individual you know missing something but as an individual realizing even with all our really sort of heartfelt liberalism and non-communalism. I mean, my husband used to -- I have a little joke about me saying that Uma had asked me one time, Is there a Hindu-Muslim question? Because, you know, my mother used to you know being a very sort of liberal person not even thinking of these things.
UD
We had an aya to look after us who was a Muslim aya, and we had a cook, a baworchi, a bawarchi, as it is spelled, but in colloquial terms we say baworchi, who was a Muslim. In fact even when I was married my husband used to say, Oh the kababs that I have at Uma’s house or my parents in laws' house is really delicious because you know they were the people who were -- to whom that cuisine was culturally natural. Anyway, so therefore you know to me the Hindu-Muslim question almost didn’t exist. That’s what my husband meant and indeed all our training, all our education, all the textbooks we learned, you know, added to that feeling that, yes, it was there but almost as if it was there theoretically. That’s what we learned. I grew to realize that even with somebody as mild a personality as my father or my brother, who was very young and also a mild person, although perhaps sharper than my father as he grew older,
UD
did have a slight feeling of suspicion about the other community, and as I grew, let’s say, to be in my 20s I thought to myself, Well, you know it’s not just a theoretical question. That doesn’t mean that we should subscribe -- never, not on our dead bodies -- to communalism. A man is a man is a man. That's where it begins, and that's where it should end in our lives, but we must also recognize that when people have to leave their hearths and homes, it hurts, and you know, there are reactions. There's bound to be reactions not to obviously respond to those reactions in a negative sense but to be a little more understanding of those reactions that, Ok you can’t be absolutely dishonest to your own life experience, and although you should keep it under wraps and under control and you mustn’t say, Well the Muslim turned us out, so let's turn out the Muslim, and that’s what my father would never have said and didn’t ever say, nor my brother,
UD
but that feeling that we are probably not the same people because they didn’t want us is something that we who are differently educated and who also feel differently absolutely from the inmost depths of our hearts but should recognize this as more of, more of a true analysis of the history that we have actually lived through. I may not have actually been really any significant part of it because I was so protected. I was a child. So long as you are in your parents arms you hardly know, you know, anything harsh going on around you, and our upbringing was always kind and affectionate and protected, but we can’t wish it away for those who actually have experienced the harshness, which I didn't because I was born later.
KM
And when you entered Presidency, what was the intellectual climate? What was your path through this institution and how did you -- by the time that you ended, where were you heading? What did Presidency College become for you?
UD
Almost an intellectual exercise. I mean, I heard you kindly describe me as a Bengali intellectual. That's not something that I would normally think about, when I think about myself, but yes I mean if intellection is really what an intellectual is meant to be doing in his or her life, then basically education, knowledge, understanding, and intellection has been our path and it probably became so more consciously after one went through those wonderful years at Presidency '60 to '64. '60 to '62 was B.A. and '62 to '64 was M.A, which we didn't do -- we couldn’t take classes at Presidency at the Masters level, which you can now but not in our time,
UD
but we took classes at the University of Calcutta, but we were still affiliated to Presidency. The term used was through Presidency College. There were a few students who came to the university's classes through Presidency College. What did it mean? It really meant that we were recognized as Presidency alumni who allowed us to use that officially as a term, and more importantly than anything else we could use the library. So we had two sources so far as library use was concerned: Calcutta University's library and Presidency College library and that is what really led us to go through that route, and we had to pay a very small, very tiny fee to be students through Presidency College. We truly were the alumni, of course. So, yes, you know, those years were still years of assimilating knowledge, more knowledge-oriented because of our examination system too, which was of course even in Presidency, where one learned to ask questions because we had -- not every teacher was, you know, was unusual or a brilliant individual,
UD
but several were and they certainly made us conscious that, look, yes you are assimilating knowledge but you have to start asking questions and not just accept knowledge. So, yes, we learned that consciously by being consciously told and being made consciously aware. At least some of us must have picked up on that, maybe not everybody, but that’s like life. Everyone doesn’t picked up on that. There’s nothing congratulatory about it, although it's nice if it happens, of course. What I mean to say is that it should not be a value judgment, but yes, some of us picked that up and also the fun of discussion. We used to go to the Coffee House [College Street Coffee House]. Part of Presidency College life was spending time in the Coffee House just discussing, arguing, discussing, raising questions. So it kind of began there and then onto a feeling that one wanted only to do this. One wanted only to move further into a life of reading, understanding, acquiring knowledge.
UD
So yes, degrees...you know certainly it was not that one wasn't conscious that one had to or one wanted to move to the next higher stage of earning a degree, but to be honest in our generation we were still not quite so focused on career. It was more the natural way of actually acquiring more education, call it that. Even if I don’t use the term knowledge which probably is a later insert into my own mindset, how important knowledge is, and what is education about but a combination of knowledge and understanding? Ask questions then only can you understand the answers to those questions which knowledge gives you, but let's say education, higher education. It was the natural path also so for my parents. I think they would have been extremely disappointed if I didn’t go that -- what seemed to me also the natural path, you know, didn’t even occur to me that I could stop before taking a doctoral degree.
UD
My brother of course became a banker, so he only did up to his Masters, and I would say my parents were sort of, you know, very disappointed about that, but I think my parents would have been happier if he also went that natural path, but he didn’t. He was -- he didn’t want to so they also did not insist, but what I mean to say is even for my parents it was very much -- it was welcome for them that I didn’t want to stop before I did my PhD sort of continuously, and then of course one entered into the portals of teaching, the portals of university life. My first teaching job was at Jadavpur University after I came back from Oxford with a D.Phil in 1969.
KM
In which department?
UD
History.
KM
In the History department.
UD
Modern History, yes. Actually Jadavpur didn't have divisions. It was just History. Calcutta University has a division in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern History. There are three departments so...yes, I mean, I would say so just to sum up or round up my answer to your question about the world of Presidency, I think the world of Presidency probably somewhat consciously but also I would also say to some extent unconsciously almost like you know just
UD
going about it without necessarily always stopping and saying to oneself, you know, Is this I mean -- are there other alternatives that you want to think of? Perhaps not. I am not conscious that I asked too many of those questions. It was something that appealed to me and something that I just got further and further into and never kind of looked back, I don’t think. Somebody asked me not so long ago, in fact a cousin of mine because she I think felt similarly about her daughter. A little younger to me, my cousin, and her daughter also went to Oxford and then didn’t pursue academic work so she asked me in the context of, I think, her musings about her daughter, one day she asked me, Have you ever looked back? Have you ever thought that you could have done something else, you know? She asked me suddenly and I said, No really not. I can’t think -- I mean, if I have to really think back -- I can’t think that I thought of doing anything else.
KM
And just not to overstay our time, is it Ok if we go for about ten or fifteen more minutes?
UD
Yes, if it's all right for you, Kris.
KM
That's fine, yeah. I am in no rush, but I don’t want to extend it beyond what we had originally spoken about because I know that there are other engagements that you have, but I wanted to ask you a little more about the Presidency College context particularly in terms of your fellow students, if there are any names of friends who you learned from who you, you know, had a reciprocal kind of relationship, of knowledge, understanding, learning,
KM
and then also teachers, mentors that you had either at Presidency College or then later on at Calcutta University or then when you went abroad, so in terms of fellow students and teachers what was the -- what was the kind of social world that you recall from that period?
UD
You know, if life is an accident which to some extent it must be for all of us, I was lucky findind a mentor in my husband who was not my teacher at college. He joined -- he was in Cambridge. He was 10 years my senior.
KM
Who was your husband?
UD
Ashin Dasgupta, the historian, whom I lost in 1998. He died at the age of 68 in 1998, and he was in Cambridge doing his PhD from 1954. He finished his Masters in 1954 like I finished my Masters in '64, so that’s exactly, I mean, to the day almost ten years between us and then went to Cambridge and came back in '62, and he was a State Scholar, what we call a State Scholar, to the University of Cambridge, in other words funded by our Government, our state Government, Government of West Bengal. They used to give scholarships to a few, very few, to a handful of the best students if there were applications from them to study in Cambridge or Oxford, and my husband was one of them, and the precondition was that you signed a bond for 5 years to come and serve as a professor in a Government college and of course there were several Government colleges, but Presidency was the best of course not just as a Government college, but as a college.
UD
Presidency is a landmark as you know in the history of Indian higher education, especially -- there were two Presidency Colleges: one in Calcutta and one in Madras, then Madras. And Presidency College, Calcutta, had such a fine row of alumni. Almost every leading personality in Bengal, certainly many in India, were Presidency College alumni. So it had a terrific reputation. So anyway, there was that precondition, a bond that State Scholars had to sign that you would come and serve for five years. After that you are free, and if you don’t do five years then you have to return that part of the money to the Government that you haven't returned by way of service. So he came back in '62, just the year I was coming out of Presidency College, so I wasn’t taught by him in the classroom, neither in Presidency College nor in the University of Calcutta, where I took my classes as I told you,
UD
Presidency College Alumni, and I took the classes in the University of Calcutta but studied through Presidency College by way of the privilege of using the library, but I didn’t still take classes with my husband because by then we became friends through a family friend, and I think we were becoming closer, and there was a sense that although we had a three-year courtship, so it was not as though we got married in a day or two, but I think we had that sense that since we were in the same field and in case we do get married -- which we did while I was doing my Masters, after one year of my masters, after completing one year of my masters -- that we shouldn’t make things complicated because there are rules, you know, if you can’t -- I am sure these rules are global -- that you can’t have a first of kin -- you can’t examine papers of a first of kin. So we didn’t want to make anything complicated. But I was reading with him at home.
UD
I was studying with him even while -- studying in the sense of discussing, raising questions, getting to benefit from not only his great learning but also of his wisdom, which was ten years older than mine. So I found my mentor in my husband, and although there were many brilliant teachers that I can recall and feel I benefitted from, especially one teacher who used to -- an historian called Amalesh Tripathi, who was senior to my husband, who used to be actually the head of the Department of History in Presidency College throughout my four years there, and he was a man who was not only a learned man in his own specific field, he was an economic historian of Bengal, but also a man very learned in the European Renaissance, which he greatly I think I admired, and he was a wealthy man.
UD
Not all the teachers, most teachers were not -- didn’t have family weath necessarily but he had, Tripathi had, and he was also man from the gentry class of -- and they were placed at the Orissa border, Orissa-Bengal Border, of course that’s what I meant, and he had a great collections of books, books of European Renaissance paintings etc, and he was very good about bringing those books and sharing them with his students, and we were a small class. You know, Presidency now takes thirty, which is not a large number either, in their honors class. At that time we were I think just fifteen or sixteen. Anyway, so I feel quite indebted to him because it was why --
KM
Did you visit him at his home?
UD
Yes, I visited him at his home too,
KM
Do you remember where his home was ?
UD
Yes in Golpark, you know, the Golpark Ram Krishna Mission Institute of Culture where I think you stayed one time, very, very, very close by to there. He had a house, a flat in a Government housing estate in Golpark, one of the oldest of the Government of West Bengal housing estates. Then well known teachers used to be allotted such housing from the Government, so yes I visited his home. He was quite encouraging of that. He would share more books.
UD
He was encouraging of students who were a little more curious or a little more, what shall I say, keen to learn, so -- He was a reserved man, so it was not that he was always saying to students, Come, I will lend you books. He was sometimes like that too, was a very generous kind of teacher of whom I think there were quite a larger number then, or even now they are there, but I wouldn’t say he was quite in that category, but if he found a student who was very pursuing of an interest then he was encouraging, but anyway basically I would say that apart from Amalesh Tripathi I have a recollection of some other teachers who taught very well. The other was Dilip Kumar Biswas who taught us Ancient Indian History, a paper in Ancient History. He was a very good teacher, and he was a leader of the Brahmo Samaj Movement. He was a Brahmo himself. It was a modern day Brahmo Samaj Movement, of course. So actually he became one of the -- somebody like a high priest of the Brahmo Samaj when I was in my 30s or 40s.
UD
He died not so long ago. He died about three or four years ago, Dilip Kumar Biswas. I kept in touch with him later on in life. We contributed essays to volumes on Bengal history and culture. So he was the other teacher I would say with whom I was quite a bit in touch, but I would say my husband was my best intellectual companion, and I feel very indebted to him, and indeed in one of my books, I think the one that Penguin published, I have said in the acknowledgements that I really have followed his path of honest -- what I consider at least I hope I'm right in thinking that I have been as honest to scholarship as I had found him to be. So I have acknowledged this to something that I feel I have actually put on record, because it is true what I feel. Well, about my classmates, not many in History actually went into teaching or academic life. Some of my classmates, sorry my college mates of the same years in English literature became teachers.
UD
Two of them that I can recall became very well known teachers of English Literature in Jadavpur’s Department of English Literature, Jadavpur University's. In History three or four of the best students actually among them in the History class to which I belonged, two of them actually became members of the Indian Administrative Service, so high Government positions is what they held, and they did well, I mean, had good reputation. And two others, both women -- these two were men, the men who were the Indian Administrative people, and two of the women became lawyers. One still practices in Delhi, and one actually became a lawyer in the US. She moved with her husband to the US and still lives there, and I don’t know very much about what sort of practice she had, but she turned herself into a lawyer. She took training -- education and training as a lawyer later on in the US after she moved with her husband to Washington DC because he I think went with a job in the World Bank.
KM
Do you remember the name of either the English students or the History students?
UD
Yes I do. In fact the English students are quite famous names, especially the woman, Malini Bhattacharya who later became a part-politician, I would say. She became a member of the -- she went in for elections for the CPM party [Communist Party of India - Marxist]. They are both ideologically committed Marxists. I don't quite know what they are, you know, very recently because there has been a lot of rethinking, but I have not seen them much in focus recently, so if they haven’t been rethinking which many have out of their disappointment, then they are probably just the same, or if they have been rethinking, they have not been rethinking loudly.
UD
Well she became a Member of Parliament. She's now I think the Chairperson of the Women’s Commission, Commission for Human Rights of Women. She also became a pretty aggressive feminist in the early days of the Feminist -- global Feminist Movement in doing her part here, Malini Bhattacharya, and her husband didn’t quite become a public figure, she did, Mihir Bhattacharya, but became and remained a committed teacher and also did develop a secondary interest, which I think became important in Mihir’s life which was in film, teaching of, teaching films in Jadavpur University. They opened a new department, partly due to, I think, Mihir’s leadership in bringing a sort of, what should I say, the discipline of film making, at least the theoretical. I don’t think they did any practical work, but the theoretical part of film making into the course of studies into the syllabi. So there are two in English. These are the two names that...
KM
And now just in the last section here of our time together, can you tell me when you went to -- you went to Oxford for your PhD. What were the questions that you had in mind that you would write on, that you thought might come to fruition in a dissertation, and what did you end up actually working on and then in terms of your advisor or the the influence of the Oxford environment on your development, how have you recalled that phase?
UD
Yes, good question. Can you ask this because it has been truly important in my own both, well basically inner life and outer life, I mean. Of course Oxford has been, as I told you earlier when we were having a snack together, that Oxford feels like home, so yes outer life but outer only more in connection with the inner.
UD
I felt very happy to be in Oxford because it seemed to me -- and that would probably tie up with your earlier question and my response to it. It seemed to me the most natural monument to higher learning, to education, to the combination of knowledge and understanding, and as a gift to humanity because I saw the most dedicated scholars in Oxford, Kris. The most dedicated scholars. I am sure there were similarly dedicated scholars in our society, but you know life is a bit harder here of course and in those times, not that Oxford paid their dons a great deal of money, but they made every arrangement possible for the dons to work in peace, work in comfort, you know, every arrangement: wonderful libraries, office rooms, nothing elaborate, nothing fancy, college life, you know, college life for dons where they could eat their afternoon meals as fellows of the college.
UD
The college looked after them, so all day of reading, thinking, teaching based at Oxford College because what is Oxford University really but, you know, a conglomerate of colleges, and college is like your home as an academic, as important an entity as your family home. This is your academic home where they are enabling you to work in an environment which I think is very important in an academic’s life, in a scholar’s life, where you are not too burdened with other more material necessities, not that they are not important but what I mean to say you need some hours of your everyday life that are completely free that can leave you completely free of too many other demands on your time. I found that in Oxford. That is hard to obtain in our academic lives in India, and I admire the fact that those who still do and have done over so many years, and my teachers are among them, academic work, scholarly work in an Indian environment.
UD
I admire them greatly because I realize how much effort, dedicated effort they must have put in because they don’t get societal help to that extent. So Oxford is very important to me in admiring and kind of in consolidating that goal in my life, that academic life felt natural, that scholarly life felt natural. You know, whether one did it better than somebody else, whether one was a more profound scholar than somebody else, were not the questions. Those were there. I mean you can always feel very touched by a profound scholar, but that does not come everyday in your lives. Not every scholar I met in Oxford or during my life or I met in India during my life here have seemed that way.
UD
Not every time that I, let's say, would judge my own work feel that, you know, that I couldn’t have done even better with my scholarly work, so those are not as important a question in my mind and have settled over the years as a secondary question to the primary one, which is enjoying and really deepening one’s kind of connection with reading and writing, engaging in that. That has felt more important to me than you know than….
KM
So we were speaking about Oxford and the, also the respect you have for Indian academics who don’t have the same kind of societal support as the dons, as the scholars in Oxford receive the -- who was your advisor, by the way?
UD
My advisor was -- and indeed it's from her that I first got that feeling -- was Agatha Ramm, who was senior history tutor at my college, Somerville College, which was then only a college for girls. Now of course all the girls' colleges -- it was the oldest college for women in Oxford and one of the older colleges taking men and women together, but she was actually a scholar of British policy making, you can call it. She wrote tomes on Gladstone [William Gladstone], and so I was...she was officially made my advisor and however as one grows into one's research, I felt in the scholarly sense a distance from her because she found policy history, she found her forte in policy history, and indeed my general subject was British Indian for a D.Phil. You know, they just let you do for a year or so stay with a very general theme and mine was British Indian History, the late 19th century, socioeconomics, sociopolitical economy, political and social economy,
UD
and she, Ms. Ramm who was then in her middle fifties a very typical, what in those days -- I don’t know whether the term is still used. I don’t think so because even at Oxford some things have changed, although most things haven’t, and I have been back to college over the years with alumni grants for continuing research, grants for alumni. So she used to be called a 'blue stocking' in those days, which is that her entire life is dedicated just and indeed she was a spinster all her life, a very humane person, but you needed time to actually understand and feel your way with her because she was quite, could be quite severe, although she wasn’t as I learned from the years, but she gave you that feeling of awesomeness and bit of distance and then getting -- but then anyways she said to me, Mrs. Dagupta, she used to call me because I went after my marriage of course, so I was my husband who was a fellow at St. Antony’s College, and I had gone with the British Council student grant to do my D.Phil,
UD
and she said to me, Mrs. Dasgupta, you know the Salisbury [Lord Salisbury] papers at Christ Church College are now completely virgin. The family had just deposited these papers, so I recommend that you start a dissertation working on the Salisbury papers, Salisbury was Secretary of State for India 1870 to 1880, and we work together she said on British policy making on India and I will learn from you. She was actually very, very humble in her own scholarly sense, and I began to do that. And, but I found the papers excruciatingly boring because they were all about foreign policy, which I had no interest in. I had to be absolutely honest as I'm sure that’s the only thing that could be expected of any one of us. I had -- my mind wasn’t quite formed then about what my dissertation should best be, but I was certainly not looking for foreign policy history either. That I think I knew, but of course she was my teacher and she gave me good advice, so -- I mean she gave me more than good advice.
UD
I mean, what better advice can one get than to be shown papers which had still not been read because for a dissertation you really need, you know, an original thesis and an original thesis, you know, comes out more easily out of a set of papers that hadn't been read earlier. So, you know, and the thing is good for a teacher at the beginning to make things slightly easier for a new PhD or a D. Phil student as you know the degree is called in Oxford, the D.Phil., the doctoral degree. So I, you know I for a year I was just really struggling reading those papers hour after hour at Christ Church walking in the meadows which of course were beautiful and breaking my day, and I used to tell her this of course that I still hadn’t found anything of real interest or attraction in that and she used to say things like literally, you know, Mrs. Dasgupta that is what research is about. It’s really about a needle --sorry, about a thread going through a needle.
UD
You know how difficult it is to thread a needle? Yes, Ms. Ramm, I do. And how nice it is when the thread comes out from the other end? I said, Yes Ms. Ramm, I do. So she said well, that’s what I hope for you. So keep at it, keep at it. So I did for a year. However, the saving grace was that because of Salisbury's foreign policy making, also policy making actually not just what...The papers also had some materials, I mean closures and things like that, petitions, memoranda coming in through, you know, the India Office to the Secretary of State about Indian responses, Indian reactions. So at the end of the year I said to her, Ms. Ramm, I don’t think I can do foreign policy, Salisbury's foreign policy, although the material is all there, but I can recover from my reading of those papers something in this direction, and she said, Ok, I will let you defend that then. I will refer you to the History Board. So her training was very good. She was not making it easy for me every time. Yes, go and read a virgin set of papers.
UD
That is certainly a good way to breakin a researcher, less daunting in some ways, but you have to go and defend yourself then before the History Board, so let me refer you to the History Board, and then you can defend your way, you can build your thesis around that area, your dissertation, and so she referred me to the History Board and there was another interview and I said, you know, this is -- I would like to work on Indian responses to British policy making in India for that decade, and I would like to read the Indian literature, the Indian material, so I won’t make this period longer I mean I could add another Secretary of State the one following Salisbury or the one also preceding Salisbury making it maybe a 20 year period altogether, but rather than do that let me, let me I know I have already been enquiring exploring. I know there is enough Indian literature. The Indian press was then a newcomer but very fresh so I’d like to read in my own language and I can also read Hindi
UD
the Hindi language newspapers, the Bengali was very rich at that time, and I could get translations for the Tamil and the Telegu, and some translations were already there in the papers because the Indian Government used to send summaries. Those were summaries, true, from all the what they call the native newspaper, native newspapers. It used to be called Summary Reports of Native Newspaper Reports. So somewhere it was already there also in English, but then I could get translators to do because the Indian Government was probably just taking sections that were of interest to them. So I said, This is what I’d like to do and call it something like Rise of an Indian Public and subtitle it, you know, British Policy and Indian Opinion for those years. And so that defense went well and so they then let me officially move to that topic for my dissertation and all of it worked well and Ms. Ramm and I, I think, grew to become friends and later she retired from Somerville College and went to live in a retirement home in Norfolk.
UD
We kept in touch occasionally of course by writing letters, but also if I visited I spoke to her on phone, and I grew to find in her a very fine soul, the soul of a scholar, I would say. A life dedicated to her scholarship and of course she also had other interests. She, like many British people do -- I mean, it's almost a second nature to them culturally, gardening and landscapes, and she loved the Norfolk countryside. So she would, on the phone -- she was lonely towards the end -- so on the phone sometimes talk long with me over her life at that time. And I was lucky when she died, lucky in the sense when she died, because she died in her sleep beautifully. She was pretty good age, 88-89, and she went away peacefully in her sleep, and I happened to be -- this was three years ago -- at that time visiting my son’s family, as I do every summer, and so I could attend her memorial service at the Somerville College Chapel, which is beautiful.
UD
So I felt that there was a kind of continuity of our association from 1965 when I first became her student to 2006 when she died. It was off and on of course in the more recent years that we were in touch. We didn’t lose touch and she wrote me a nice testimonial, I mention this only to say something about her that I already mentioned but I obviously grew to value so much, which is that she did mention in that letter that I learned from her work as much as I taught her about her work and that is really herself. I mean, yes, she did, but that’s because she was willing to learn about something. She had absolutely no notion of Indian history except from that end, British foreign policy, no other notion. So she got quite interested in the material that I was -- So it was true that learned from her meaning -- yes?
KM
When did you return to Calcutta?
UD
1969
KM
1969 and my very last question is -- do you have time for one last question?
UD
Yes, how much time?
KM
Let's see what time it is.
UD
5 til 12.
KM
Oh, do you have time for one last question?
UD
Ok, all right, yes I will quickly. Doesn’t matter not everyday is the same day.
KM
If we can get just a synoptic response, the 1960s was -- no sorry, this period, 1970s was a period of let’s say the coming in of the left in a big way, not just in terms of politics but also in terms of scholarship and Professor Dasgupta, Ashin Dasgupta is known as an important figure offering an alternative, at least this is how he's understood often in the field and your scholarship can also be understood as not in the Marxist vein, offering a different approach so I am wondering how you, I mean, coming back to this changing intellectual environment, experienced it and how, did you feel it was in some ways an important project for you as a scholar to provide a different approach or not? Did you see your project as political in that sense that you had to provide a different approach to the more Marxist CPM trajectory that was becoming increasingly powerful? It’s a big question at the end.
UD
Well since you did refer to my husband and indeed it’s very important. He valued it. I would say he did because he was always in the thick of it from his student days. They were much more vigorous in their, in their intellectual exchanges as students. You know, there's Amartya Sen Nobel laureate today, Sukhamoy Chakravarty the economist and so many -- he was also famous as an economist, my husband constantly arguing over Marxism which Amartya Sen believed in, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, believed in and they were brilliant students of economics and my husband just a year senior to them, so contemporaries, but just a year senior to them, brilliant student of history, didn’t believe it so to speak. So as you said he was offering an alternative, and I think that there was that element in him not so much in the practical sense because, you know, I think for both of us the greatest disappointment was and especially for him because after all his time is,
UD
his time is as a first teacher you know as a teacher for the first time in Presidency College was still free of Marxist or CPM, let me call it. I mean, I hasten to call it Marxist -- of course it was Marxist, not so much ideologically but politically, they're for CPM Party. Freer of the capturing institutions kind of policy or politics that came over. If it -- and that is mostly from the 70s. Well, maybe a bit earlier, but you see as it was happening quickly in Naxalite times, in Maoist times. It shattered my husband, because he really mourned Presidency College. Some of the most brilliant students went away and indeed there were idealists who we were never unhappy that they did it for them, but then they couldn’t take it because they were all urban brats almost, but of course their minds were stirred. Their heart was stirred. They went into the rural world and found that they really couldn’t associate with it so they came away. Some of them were shunted off to Delhi by their more wealthy and privileged parents. Others went to jail.
UD
Their careers were checkered for life because where was the idealism? More and more you found that, yeah, in an individual it existed, and there were a few such individuals. I am not ruling it out, but in general, no. So my husband, I think, felt he was in a sense in the thick of it. I was also teaching in Jadavpur, my first job, during Naxalite times, and some of my students were, you know, jailed Naxalites at one time, you know, who were back in the classroom, and indeed while I was teaching on several occasions, not one you know, we were on the third floor and there was the roof on top and from the rooftop suddenly because Jadavpur had both groups strongly entrenched: CPM and the Naxalite, as you know they were a splinter part. Bombs would come down, you know. Pitched battles would take place. As soon as the bombs would come down, two of my Naxalite students of whom one was Gautam Bhadra who is now you know... and he would -- they would raise hands and very politely and say, May we go?
UD
We would understand. Yes, go. And then of course ultimately when the bombing became a little too much, too much noise, too much fear, too much, too nerve-wracking, we would -- we the class, we would all sort of finish, adjourn rather, and if any of us went down we saw students completely transformed you know blood red eyes, you know, steel rods at one another or iron rods at one another. It was horrible, but you know, I don't why, I felt a distance from it because my intellectual history or the history of intellection in my life was not so much was not so much alike my husband where they were actually arguing over you know ideologies, quite vigorously taking sides. I never did. It could have been partly my background. I can’t quite put my finger on. It could have been that some people just have some how remained free of it.
UD
I, you know I was never unhappy when the Naxalite students came to me to discuss their subject, and I did not actually feel that they were Naxalites, and therefore -- although I hated the thought that they were into murders. In fact Gautam was jailed. Gautam’s parents wanted me to be a police informant of a kind. They appealed to me saying that, you know would you say to the police that when they come to you that you are one of the three teachers that he has named as people he trusts or whatever, something of that kind, that he didn’t murder. I said, Look, I am not going to tell the police that he murdered. I don’t know that he did, and if the police come to me that’s exactly what I am going to say. Similarly the police come to me, and I had to say I don’t know also to that question because I really don’t know, so please, you know I know how hard it is for you, but you know I can’t be a police informer of any kind. Gautam is my student.
UD
I know how much history he knows.I admire how much history he reads so, but this part I don’t reject. I mean, I just take it as it is, but don’t request me to -- anyway so I am just giving you this as an example to show, to tell you that it’s all true how involved one could have got. Maybe because I had, you know, what the young of today would say, blocked it out in some ways that I blocked it out, and I just concentrated on either my teaching or my postdoctoral research or just research, it didn’t matter if it was post doctoral or not, reading and writing and I didn’t really engage in that. So, yes I would say that in a sense throughout my husband’s life who was very much, you know, he didn’t -- in that sense he didn’t take sides. He didn’t, but I think he disliked the aggression of it. He disliked how politicized education was becoming and there I would like to end by saying that indeed I do have feel that disappointment greatly,
UD
and I wish I could have just stopped at how I compared Oxford and our academic lives here because there are many dedicated scholars here too, and I wish I could have stopped at that feeling of respect that they do it in spite of all the obstacles, the road blocks in their lives and our lives together, but I wish I could have stopped there but indeed I do -- I have not been sort of participating. My husband participated only as a very gentle soul and as an intellectual. He never participated in it politically. He never did, but because he was an important intellectual, because he was an important scholar, because he was known for his wits, so to speak, therefore he was often a focus of attention. It was important what he was writing or saying, even peripherally regarding the political situation, which he was even as a student, you know about Congress [Congress Party] politics and about Marxist politics. It was important what Amartya Sen was saying, what Ashin Dasgupta was saying. They were writing.
UD
I never wrote such political columns. I never wrote in the college magazine or in newspapers. So in that sense our paths were different, although at the base of it I think I too -- I was more distanced from it than him, as if it didn’t quite touch me. Finally, you know, I moved into studying Tagore [Rabindranath Tagore] when we went to live in Santiniketan for ten years. It was a personal decision of -- I am sorry to use that word but it is probably true -- convenience. Not reading Tagore, of course. That was part of my life. I started reading it much earlier, doing research on Tagore, but finally it ended up by giving me my life succor, because my life also personally changed. I became widowed, so it really made my life into a kind of journey with him, and I read Tagore’s politics, if there was such a thing, but it was a politics of withdrawal, again, and I feel very much at home with that.
UD
In my case I can’t say it's a politics of withdrawal, but I needed to have done something in order to say -- but mentally yes, as I said I think the young would say she must have blocked it out. My son would say, My mother must have blocked it out. So I didn’t act, as I wasn’t a women of action. My husband was to the extent that he wrote. I didn’t even do that. Tagore actually joined the Swadeshi movement, as you know, but he withdrew from it, and he always kept in touch -- of course their world of politics was very different. I mean, it was a colonized country, so it was an everyday pressure, the humiliation of being colonized and isolated, although Tagore didn’t ever let that get in the way of his wanting to associate with the world, reach out to the world. I feel completely at one with him there, and it sort of may have been my natural thing. Probably it was. I felt completely at home in Oxford. I didn’t ever feel truly that I was in a foreign country.
UD
I thought, Well, this is cosmopolitan world of learning, where so many of us are gathered from everywhere. Obviously the English were in a majority, but it didn’t matter one bit to me. So I think I kind of moved into that world very naturally out of my own strong inclinations, and basically that’s where I have, you know, that is where I am, Kris. I am standing fairly steadfastly with almost the world passing me by, world meaning my immediate world, that I don’t -- I am sorry to say this. I don’t say this with any pride, but over the last three elections I haven't even voted. So my withdrawal in that sense is pretty, I think, must be pretty strong. I do talk about it only because it's nothing to be boasting about. People have said that you are wasting -- I have talked about it with friends, close friends -- but you are wasting the vote. Yes, I am, but who do I vote for? No, but you can vote for a party not for a -- or you can vote --either way, whoever felt like saying vote.
UD
You can vote for an individual. I have to be honest I am not -- it’s not so I don’t feel my reaction is so important that I need to publicize this but honestly if you say why don’t you vote for individual, I haven’t found an individual who I can vote for. If I do something, I will. It’s not that I have closed those doors, but for the time being I haven’t and similarly for a party I just don’t find a party that I can vote for. Someday if this happens, I mean, it can. I mean, there’s nothing to stop it, then I will respond. At this point of time my response has been very negative. I am sorry, but that’s been my honest response. Therefore it’s just my immediate world and since I left my research professorship in the Social Sciences Division at the Indian Statistical Institute at the age of 62 in 2004, I haven’t taken a job. I just engage in reading and writing, so I am bit isolated, not so deliberately.
UD
I am happy to be with people if there is any scope for discussions etc. but of course there is less and less of that and with me being widowed is also less, no possibility of too much discussions at home. Sometimes, yes, with my son and daughter-in-law but more by way of introducing them to my world rather than -- because they are not quite in the same world, but I enjoy doing that quite a bit, and they have taken interest through my books, but what I am trying to say is that I am more or less on my own, and so I wouldn’t put myself in that trajectory.
KM
Fascinating, thank you
UD
Thank you
KM
for our time. It was a wonderful interview, and thank you for what you shared. I appreciate that.
UD
Thank you so much.
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