Saturday, June 14, 2014

RIP Sukumari Bhattacharji (1921-2014) - Marxist, Atheist, Sanskritist

A tribute by Pratik Kanjilal
The woman who used Sanskrit as the key to understanding ancient India rationally and scientifically
Sukumari Bhattacharji died in Kolkata less than a fortnight before some ministers of the NDA government took the oath of office in Sanskrit. I wonder what the last of the great Indian Sanskrit scholars would have thought of the perplexing conceit of taking a living pledge in a dead language. Today’s identity politicians, almost all of whom would probably free-associate “Lata” with “Mangeshkar” or “creeper”, and not Sanskrit declension, would have found Bhattacharji equally perplexing. Her family had converted to Christianity; many progressive Bengalis did, a century ago. Christian by birth and Marxist (and atheist) by persuasion, she used Sanskrit as the key to understanding ancient India rationally and scientifically, not as a handy easel on which to paint a modern, retrofitted Hindu identity.
“You don’t know the Ramayana unless you’ve read Valmiki in Valmiki’s language,” she once told me. Very few Indians have done that, and it is an important standard, since the Adi Kavi sings of Rama the hero. Rama’s apotheosis happened afterwards, in interpolations, exegetical texts and folk traditions. The contemporary Ram bhakt would be baffled by such niceties. And by Sukumaridi’s response to the Babri demolition: to read Valmiki all over again, with more care than ever before, to discover if all this fuss was warranted — if there had ever been a maryada purushottam in the first place.
Sukumaridi nurtured a small family of informal students. I think I was adopted early, after she retired from teaching at university and started taking impromptu classes at her home in suburban Calcutta. By way of guru-dakshina, I helped to catalogue her huge collection of books and dusted them down with DDT. The internet was still a decade away, specialist texts from all over the world were irreplaceable, bugs were numerous in humid Calcutta and fortunately, DDT was cheap. Years later, when I told her that I had become a reporter deeply interested in the Jharkhand movement and Bhutan’s violent struggle with democracy, her lips thinned. “Criminal waste,” she said shortly. It was nice to know that she had taken me seriously.
Sukumaridi’s last informal student was the activist, researcher and writer Kumar Rana. Incidentally, coincidentally, he is the kid brother of Santosh Rana, the Naxal who supported democracy and stood shoulder to shoulder with the flute-playing Ram Dayal Munda and the famously frugal AK Roy in the Jharkhand struggle. Thanks to Kumar’s efforts, Sukumaridi’s collected essays are being published in beautiful editions by the Bengali house Gangchil, whose name is perhaps a nod to the English publisher Seagull.
Sukumaridi failed to teach me Sanskrit to her exacting standards. More accurately, I eluded teaching. Perhaps, I was more interested in courses in the Latin and Greek classics that she had instituted in the name of her late husband, Amal Bhattacharji, at St Xavier’s College. I hear that our Latin teacher, Fr Raymond Pilette, SJ, is also no more. Today, I retain fuzzy memories of deponent verbs, Julius Caesar’s campaign diaries in Gaul and the haunting last stanza of Virgil’s fourth eclogue. And, by some fuzzy but impressive logic, I can still get the drift of texts written in European languages that I don’t know a word of, like Dutch. It is pattern recognition across languages.
Nifty parlour trick, but if I can ever get my head together and model it on a machine, it might tell us something new about the history of languages and their relationship. Then I could finally ask the memory of Sukumari Bhattacharji, to whom I owe so much of my education, to excuse my pitiful lapse into journalism.
Indologist Sukumari dead
KOLKATA: Indologist and Sanskrit scholar Sukumari Bhattacharji died on Saturday. She was 92. She had pledged her body to the cause of medical research. Sukumaridi, as she was fondly called by her admirers, belonged to a rare breed of scholars who had equal grasp of English and Sanskrit literature. She began her career as a lecturer in English at Lady Brabourne College, joined Jadavpur University's Comparative Literature department on the request of Buddhadeb Basu, and later shifted to the Sanskrit department. 

Born to Christian parents on July 12, 1921, Sukumari used to joke that she shared her birthday with Julius Caesar. But her Christian lineage came in the way when she wanted to do her graduation in Sanskrit. Calcutta University didn't allow her. Sukumari did her masters in English in 1944 and took up teaching at Lady Brabourne College, a year later. She had to do her masters in Sanskrit as a private candidate,10 years later. 

Her command over Sanskrit helped her delve deep into Sanskrit texts — the Vedas, and Bhagavad Gita — and unravel the societal patterns in ancient India and evolution of culture and religion. "Sukumaridi wouldn't accept anything as they came. She wouldn't accept anything without reason. It inspired me as a student. It is this quality that also made her controversial among orthodox Sanskrit scholars," said Bijoya Goswami. 

Her Marxist outlook prompted her for a dispassionate and objective study of religious texts. Tracing the evolution of devis in her popular book — Legend of Devis, Bhattacharji analysed how Lakshmi — the goddess of harvest in the pre-Aryan agrarian society turned into alakshmi in the Aryan society. Some such original thoughts have found their way in her books — Bede Samsay O Nastikko, Bede Khuda O Khadya, Balmikir Ram. She authored 34 books such as The Gita — Its Why and How, Human & Society in Ancient India, Fatalism in Ancient India. But her erudition never overshadowed her amiable nature, her love for students and colleagues, recollects Bijoya Goswami. "We had set up a student welfare fund in our department. Sukumaridi took the initiative. It was meant to support students who struggled to come to the university. The fund remains till date. Many students gave back the money later, some couldn't," Goswami said. 

After her retirement in 1986, Sukumari Bhattacharji pursued her research at her Naktala residence till she shifted to an apartment in the neighbourhood much later. She was suffering from respiratory problems and was admitted to SSKM Hospital on Friday. City intelligentsia — Nabanita Dev Sen, Amiya Bagchi, Yashodhara Bagchi, Ratnabali Chatterjee — CPM leader Shyamal Chakrabarty, social activist Kumar Rana were present when her body was handed over to the RG Kar Medical College on Saturday afternoon.