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The last liberal

Sunday 4 November 2001, by GUHA*Ramachandra

In the moral and intellectual world in which Dharma Kumar was raised, an individual’s caste and religion were completely irrelevant. RAMACHANDRA GUHA remembers not only a brilliant historian but also a distinguished liberal who passed away on October 19.

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Dharma Kumar at her wedding ... Dehra Dun, February 29, 1952.

MY copy of the second volume of the Cambridge Economic History of India bears the following inscription: "To Ram, from a fellow radical". It is dated November 18, 1983, and the handwriting is that of the volume’s editor, Dharma Kumar.

At the time of the gift I was 25, Dharma 55. We were closely related by blood: too closely, some might say. She was at once my first, second and third cousin, and also my grandmother’s first cousin. Beyond the genes we shared a friendship that in 1983 was already two decades old. When I was five, she bought me chocolates and chewing gum and we talked about cricket. When I was 10, I was identified by her father, the chemist K. Venkataraman, as the last Ph.D. student he would have work under him at the National Chemical Laboratory, a laboratory of which he had been the first Indian director. But when I turned 15, I abandoned the study of science, having been warned that practicals in the afternoon would not permit me to play cricket at University. My uncle then decided that if I would not be his last student, at least I might do a Ph.D. with his daughter.

So I took a first degree in economics, and in 1977 joined the Delhi School of Economics, where Dharma Kumar was a Professor. During the first terminal exams, she was told by a colleague that I was sitting in the room looking out of the window, an empty page on the table in front of me. When I did poorly in the finals, the same colleague told her: ``I would advise your cousin to seek a change of career. It would be good for him, and better for economics.’’

With Dharma’s consent, I proceeded to Calcutta to begin a doctorate in Sociology. I became a Marxist, seeking to sublimate my failure in Delhi in a theory that promised individual as well as collective salvation. That choice of faith was not as surprising as it might now sound. For the Soviet Union was alive and well, the crimes of China’s Chairman were not known to the outside world, and brave little Vietnam had recently vanquished imperialist America. If History Would End, we thought in 1980, it would only be with our party as victors.

These, at any rate, were the beliefs I carried with me on my visits to Delhi. Over lunch and while walking in the Lodi Gardens, Dharma would engage me in furious polemic. I stood for equality and justice, these to be brought about by class war and revolutionary violence; she for democracy and freedom, these to be achieved through reason, persuasion, and constitutional change. If I wanted to become a social historian, she said, I must learn from varieties of historical method other than Marxism. And if I thought of myself as a patriotic Indian, I should seek to deepen and build upon the democratic foundations laid by a Gandhi and Nehru, not ally with those who wished to destroy them.

One day in Lodi Gardens we came face-to-face with a dapper little man in a goatee. He ignored me, but greeted my companion by name and with a certain effusion. Dharma smiled in turn, but as we walked on remarked: ``I’ve forgotten that man’s name. A pleasant fellow, though fashionably left wing. Not left wing enough for you, of course, but too left for me. He used to be close to Indira Gandhi, but then fell foul of Sanjay.’’

To this crisp summation of somebody else’s c.v., I had only to supply the name: Inder Kumar Gujral, a former Union Minister and Ambassador to the Soviet Union and — not that one knew it then — a future Prime Minister of India. It was characteristic that Dharma could not remember his name, and characteristic too that he not only knew hers but, judging by the spontaneous warmth with which he uttered it, rather cherished his slight acquaintance with a lady who had a reputation as Delhi’s most brilliant conversationalist.

Dharma Kumar was born in March 1928 into a family of unusual distinction and character. The achievements lay chiefly on the father’s side. He, the famous chemist, had two scarcely less gifted brothers: one, K.S. Sanjivi, Professor at Madras Medical College and founder of the Voluntary Health Services, was a doctor of great vision, skill, and goodness; the other, K. Swaminathan, was first a legendary teacher of English at Presidency College and then a more legendary editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. All three brothers were to be awarded free India’s third highest civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan.

Dharma admired and respected her father’s family, but warmed more to her mother’s. For one thing, they were larger. Her mother was one of six sisters who, growing up in Bangalore, could be ``forward’’ in ways that Brahmin girls in Madras could not. They spoke English and spoke their minds, rode on the pillions of their brothers’ motorbikes and in time encouraged their children to marry outside the bounds of caste and community. On this, her mother’s side, Dharma was the eldest of 21 first cousins; not merely the eldest, but by common consent the most beautiful, the most intelligent, and the most interesting.

Dharma spent her childhood in Lahore and Bombay, two once polyglot cities where her father taught. From the J.B. Petit High School she moved to the Elphinstone College, than at the height of its reputation. After she had been admitted, the clerk in the office gave her the personal particulars form to fill up. In the ``religion’’ column this precocious freethinker and rebel wrote: ``atheist.’’ When the babu objected she changed it to ``nil.’’ This was not acceptable either, so Dharma now described her faith, in the designated space, as ``Neo-Malthusian.’’ The clerk passed this: it seemed plausible enough, in a city that had all kinds of odd creeds, from Theosophy to Christian Science.

At Elphinstone, Dharma’s closest friends were a Goan Catholic, Angela Soares, and a Parsi, Mani Vasunia. The ecumenism was typical of the girl and of the city, or at least of certain sections within it. Once, this threesome was accompanied for a movie by a Miss Wandrekar. The new member of the gang was later scolded by the daughter of Professor G.S. Ghurye, a renowned scholar and Sanskritist. ``Do you not know,’’ she was told, ``that only one of the three is a Hindu, and even she is not Maharashtrian.’’

In the summer of 1946, having just turned 18, Dharma took a slow boat to Cambridge. It was, in fact, a troop ship, and she was one of the handful of civilians among hundreds of war-weary soldiers. In Cambridge, as I heard from an aunt of ours later, every Indian boy studying in England fell in love with her. The aunt mentioned names, which I cannot repeat, for they include some reputable and since happily married scholars and civil servants. And there were also English admirers. Being chased and courted was one reason why Dharma only got a second-class in her Economics Tripos. It was an upper second, a ``II: I’’, but a second nonetheless. A Tamil friend of her father’s told him, in disgust: ``You spent all this money and she spoilt her record by getting a second. You should have bought her a good husband instead’’.

Dharma returned to an India in the first flush of freedom, and joined the Government, something Oxbridge returnees then did as naturally as they would now join Citibank. Her job in the Reserve Bank of India was dreary, but outside office hours she participated vigorously in the cultural life of Bombay. She ran an art circle, wrote about dance (especially about Shanta Rao), contributed to the fledgeling Economic Weekly and ran rings around the young men of the city. Intellectually speaking, that is, for she had now met and married Lovraj Kumar, India’s first Rhodes scholar, an individual of an equal intelligence and charm, if somewhat less combative by temperament.

In or about 1960 the couple moved to Delhi. Lovraj had also joined the government, but Dharma was bored by fiscal policy. She took a leave of absence, and proceeded with her daughter Radha to Cambridge, enrolling for a Ph.D. in economic history. The work was awarded the Ellen MacArthur Prize for the best dissertation of the year, and later published by Cambridge University Press under the title Land and Caste in South India. This landmark study enlarged the scope of Indian history while upturning some of its stereotypes. By studying caste as well as class, it successfully integrated economic and social history. Its principal conclusion was that a large class of agricultural labourers and serfs was not a creation of the British, but had been part of the social structure of pre-colonial India.

On both counts Dharma’s work became controversial, among nationalists who believed colonialism was a synonym for evil, and among Marxists who saw caste as a mere ``epiphenomenon’’ of class. Land and Caste in South India was a brilliant exercise in historical revisionism which, had it been published three decades later, would have been as politically correct as it was politically incorrect in 1965. For the Dalit intellectuals of today recognise — following Phule and Ambedkar — that pre-colonial society could sometimes be as brutally oppressive as British rule. And it is now a sociological commonplace that while caste sometimes operates in conjunction with class, one domain cannot simply be collapsed into the other.

Land and Caste in South India allowed Dharma to move from the Reserve Bank of India to the Delhi School of Economics. There she remained for nearly 30 years, a vital member of a teaching institution that was world-class as well as genuinely liberal and collegial: un-Indian in both respects. It was from the Delhi School that she edited the Cambridge Economic History of India. From 1971 to 1998 she was also the editor of the Indian Economic and Social History Review, comfortably the leading journal in the fields its titles designates. Among the contributors to the journal have been many Marxists. For its liberal-minded editor did not care to categorise or judge historians by doctrine; only be method, empirical evidence, logic of argument and coherence of presentation.

As for myself, it is only now, almost 20 years later, that I can truly understand the inscription in my copy of the Cambridge Economic History of India. For ``radical’’ means ``going to the root’’: and doing so fearlessly, regardless of fashion, conventional wisdom, or the likely reaction of your peers. In this regard Dharma Kumar was far more radical than the self-advertised leftist and feminist, whose ``positions’’ are often founded on self-righteousness rather than logic or evidence.

Dharma Kumar was a distinguished member of a rapidly dwindling species: the Indian liberal. In the moral and intellectual world in which she was raised, an individual’s caste and religion were completely irrelevant. That world has now been replaced by the crude and morbidly vicious certainties of identity politics; of the left, which does not allow that Brahmins can be public-spirited; and of the right, which does not believe that Muslims or Christian might be as patriotic as the last Hindu.

Among the greatest of Dharma’s gifts was her ability to befriend the young. Boys and girls of any social background or political orientation were welcome to be dined by her or walk with her. She asked only that they read widely and have views of their own. She fed them, she argued with them, she educated and inspired them — and if the need arose she also raised money for them.

One of Dharma’s younger friends was Vikram Seth, When he came on holiday from Oxford they played Scrabble together — it was, I gather, a terrific and very even contest. Later, it was at Dharma’s suggestion that Vikram went to Stanford University to pursue a doctorate in demography. That project was abandoned, but the two stayed in touch, and would meet on the novelist’s visits to India. A character who makes a cameo appearance in A Suitable Boy is based on Dharma. This is Ila Chattopadhyay, a professor of charm and eccentricity who refuses to rubber-stamp a selection committee’s choice of an unqualified candidate. The portrait is not unflattering, for it emphasises the qualities of courage and independence of mind for which Dharma was famous and, in the Indian context, untypical. At other times Dharma might have been pleased. But the novel appeared just as she was retiring from the Delhi School of Economics, an involuntary severing of a connection with a place that meant more to her than any individual. It was thus that she grumbled about the fact that in Vikram’s portrait her sari was crumpled.

Dharma took her retirement very badly. Not long afterwards her husband died. What kept her going now was the Indian Economic and Social History Review, and the creation of the literary journal now known as Civil Lines. It was in her mind that the idea first incubated, and in her house that the first, formative discussions about the journal took place. She had brought on board three younger colleagues: Rukun Advani, Mukul Kesavan and Ivan Hutnik. I was then living in the apartment below her, and thus became a silent and somewhat awed participant in the meetings. The allusions flew thick and fast, with novels and novelists summed up with devastating precision and insight. These were among Dharma’s last happy days, spent in the company of young Indians who shared her love of literature and matched her remark for witty remark.

Dharma was a supremely gifted storyteller, but it is impossible to capture in print the spirit and content of her stories. The clipped, slightly quavering voice, the immaculate diction and the graceful phrase so effortlessly chosen, the chuckle aforehand and the burst of laughter at the end: all this in the backdrop of Dharma’s drawing room, with she in a sofa in the centre, allowing her to take in with one glance the others present. her own academic prose suffered too much from what her Cambridge friend Jack Gallagher called ``Tamil terseness’’. Her few non-scholarly essays are better in this respect, as for instance the delightful ``Scenes from Scholastic Life’’ that appeared in the second issue of Civil Lines.

There are some marvellous stories in Dharma’s unpublished memoirs. She recalls a conversation with Nicholas Kaldor, an eminent Cambridge economist who advised the Government of India en route to a British peerage. After meeting a beautiful Indian girl named Lata Sen, Kaldor told Dharma: ``I have done some research on your country, and discovered that all women named Sens are gorgeous and all men named Sens brilliant’’.

``But Nicky, you know only two Sens,’’ she protested. ``Yes,’’ admitted Kaldor, ``but my other generalisations are based on even less evidence.’’

In telling this tale Dharma remarks that ``Nicky’s frequent jokes included some against himself’’. She could have been speaking about herself. She liked to tell the story of her friend Nur Yalman, a Turkish anthropologist who had once worked on the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Nur and Dharma had been Fellows together in Cambridge, but then lost touch for many years. In the last 1980s, Nur was in Chicago attending the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies when, from the other end of a long hotel corridor he heard someone saying ``That is not the point.’’ This can only be Dharma, he thought. It was.

Soon afterwards, Nur Yalman came to Delhi on holiday. He stayed at a suite in the Oberoi Hotel, but spent the days with Dharma and his fellow anthropologist, T. N. Madan. I remember a dinner-table conversation, where Nur unsuccessfully tried to convince her that a sign of how civilised the ancient Tamils were was the number of terms they had coined for ``cousin’’. The debate went on, till Dharma played the trump card: ``Even the Tamils cannot find enough words to describe how Ram is related to me’’.

When the time came for him to leave Delhi, Nur Yalman had an unusual request to make. Could Dharma help him choose presents for his two former wives and his current girlfriend? On Nur’s last day the old friends did the rounds of the Delhi emporia, the present chosen by Dharma and — despite the visitor’s protests — paid for by her too.

Among Dharma’s favourite people were gifted and capable civil servants. Her husband was one, of course; and so were two younger officers I also came to know well. This pair had a mix of qualities designed to dear them to Dharma. They were urbane as well as patriotic, superbly efficient in their work yet interested in the world outside government. Both spoke Tamil, thus reminding Dharma of her childhood; but both also had a humour and cosmopolitanism generally absent in Tamils reared in the neighbourhood of Mylapore and Triplicane.

No one story could ever typify Dharma, but a story told me by these civil servants comes closer than others. She had gone to the India International Centre to attend a performance by the Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli. She reached on time, but the performance was delayed by a complicated explanation, which the artiste felt she owed the North Indian audience. For over a quarter-of-an-hour the dancer spoke of how in Bharatanatyam there was a thin line that divided spirituality from sensuousness. At last Dharma had had enough. ``Dance,’’ she commanded from the floor, stopping the artiste in mid-sentence.

One day, browsing in Dharma’s bookshelves, I found a first edition of a novel by Khushwant Singh. It was called I Shall Hear the Nightingale, and was dedicated ``To Dharma — who aspires to know’’. I took the book to her, and she at once said, with a smile, ``This was in his pre-Sanjay Gandhi days.’’ The remark has to be placed in context. This conversation took place in 1978, and the professors of the Delhi School, Dharma included, had opposed the Emergency. About 15 years later, the Emergency and Sanjay Gandhi both almost forgotten, Dharma suggested that I go meet Khushwant Singh in connection with my research on the anthropologist Verrier Elwin. The Sardar settled me into a chair, and asked how I was related to Dharma. Then he said: "It took me 250 pages to make a pass at Dharma — and it got me nowhere."

So the rejection was long remembered: indeed, when the book was republished a couple of years ago the dedication was unaccountably dropped. Still, this act was gentle compared with the treatment of Dharma by some others in her declining years. In the summer of 1998, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The operation (conducted in London) went awry, and she returned to India with her movements and speech gravely impaired. Her mind was, so far as one could tell, still very clear, but she would speak only a few words, and was confined to a wheelchair.

Till her death on the October 19, Dharma was cared for by her mother-in-law, Mrs. Sushila Sahai, a lady of extraordinary bravery and compassion.

Friends visited Dharma off and on, but not many. The intellectual class of Delhi disgraced itself. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of men and women who had known Dharma well, who had been helped by her, who had been happy enough to partake of her conversation and hospitality when she was in her pomp, simply discarded her. Among these people were many who in print and in public meetings proclaim their concern for and their identity with the suffering masses of humanity.

Worse was the behaviour of a Calcutta Marxist of Dharma’s age, who wrote a column about her in the Economic and Political Weekly. Here he expressed concern that the charming girl he had known in Bombay and Cambridge had now become a ``vegetable’’. This, on three counts, was an exercise in bad taste: as an obituary of a living person, as an account of a distinguished scholar on the basis of her looks rather than her books (not one of which was mentioned), and for the use of that deeply offensive (and as it happens, inaccurate) term, ``vegetable’’. Some letters of protest were sent to the EPW by, among others, Andre Beteille and I. G. Patel. These were answered by letters written in defence of the columnist, which claimed that, anyone who found fault with this premature and crudely worded obituary was merely a right-wing reactionary.

The treatment of Dharma Kumar in her last years by such people may perhaps be an indication of how, contrary to popular myth, India does not show any more compassion for the elderly and ailing than does the (in this respect) much-maligned West. Or perhaps it is only a comment on the amorality and selfishness of certain kind of ``intellectual’’ Indian. Dharma herself would have wanted me to recall the other side, to remember also the friends who kept their faith. Indeed, in a single year, 2000, three scholars separately and independently dedicated books to Dharma. These were a cousin, a colleague from the Delhi School, and an economic historian who had been encouraged by her.

I have memories of Dharma that go back almost 40 years, but shall close with a more recent one. When I went to see her just before her final hospitalisation, she was entertaining another visitor.

This was Professor K. L. Krishna, a quiet, self-effacing yet celebrated teacher of econometrics at the Delhi School of Economics, a man who in character and intellect and institutional commitment exemplifies the best kind of University scholar. With some effort, but with visible pleasure she told her devoted nurse, ``Professor Leela Krishna aye hain.’’ Professor Krishna was carrying a gift for Dharma, a recently published book based on a dissertation on national income finished at the Delhi School in 1966.

The author, S. Sivasubramonium, had disappeared into the bowels of the United Nations, but at Dharma’s urgings had returned to his thesis on retirement. This, suitably updated and polished and published, was now in the invalid’s hands.

The nurse asked her to read out what Dr. Sivasubramonium had written on the fly-leaf. She did: ``To Professor Dharma Kumar, for her encouragement and inspiration without which I would not have finished this work’’.

Unlike her inscription for me, this one contained no teasing wit. But what it lacked in mischief it made up in manifest sincerity. And it was every bit as true.

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