May 08, 2006

Remembering Raj

This piece about Raj Chandavarkar is my MidDay Monday column today -- unfortunately the Web link off their page seems broken, so here it is. Thoughts welcome.


For Raj, via Pooh

How do you pay tribute to someone you still cannot believe is gone? That humour, that sensitivity, that humanity, that faultless scholarship, how can it be that it is so suddenly taken from us?

One of my fondest memories of Raj Chandavarkar -- and this is difficult not just because he's no longer here, but because there are many such fond memories -- one of my fondest is the time I visited him in his office at Trinity College, Cambridge. I had been in town for some weeks already, and we had met several times, but I had not yet taken him up on his offer to show me around the Trinity library. He mentioned it again and again, saying it was worth a visit, but somehow ... "A library?" I thought, almost subconsciously. "What's there to see in in a library?"

But since it was Raj, I eventually succumbed to his gently persuasive ways. Just days before I left Cambridge -- was it the last day? -- I showed up at his office door. "OK," I said, "I'm here to see the library."

That familiar sparkle gleamed from his eyes. We walked over to the library -- a spectacular place beautifully shaded by natural light that came in seemingly from all around us. But it wasn't the light that he wanted me to see. He hurried me over to a series of showcases lining the sides of the room, which housed notebooks covered in a busy, untidy hand.

"Read," said Raj, twinkle intact still.

I did, and it took me just a couple of seconds to understand what I was reading. It was the original "Winnie The Pooh" manuscript, in AA Milne's handwriting, complete with cancellations and corrections in pencil. I don't know why, but there was something here that touched my soul: this glimpse of the childhood classic we all grew up on and loved, in its very formation. It was uncannily as if Milne was himself beside us, hunching over this display case, putting words down, thinking them over, changing them here and there. Here was the very source of a hundred years of childrens' delight, a set of uniquely lovable characters, a whole Disney-fuelled cornucopia -- films and books and stuffed toys and knick-knacks.

All that, from these handwritten pages.

And this is what two grown men stood chuckling over, this is what one of the finest historians this country has produced had wanted so much for me to see.

Today, when I look back at my friendship with Raj Chandavarkar, there's much to savour. I remember reading his books and mulling over his thought-provoking ideas. I remember quoting him in my articles and my first book. I remember the long luxurious evenings spent listening to what he had to say about his research in the police archives. I remember the good feeling I got when he would email me to compliment something I wrote. I remember his words of support during a particularly nerve-wracking episode over something else I wrote.

And of course, there was much more to Raj Chandavarkar than my encounters with him. This was a son of this city in every sense. He grew up here, there's that. But later in life, his professional passion was here too. His meticulous research in archives here formed the foundation for his books. When I was writing about tribes that used to be considered "criminal", it was in one of Raj's books that I first found a plausible theory for why the British dreamed up something as peculiar as the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. He explained how it fit their notions of policing a large colony with a diverse population.

In the last few years, Raj had been working in the police archives. Going by what he told us, they were, above all, a storehouse of incredible stories that he related in his self-deprecating style. Not just what he read in various documents, but the odd characters he would meet there, also apparently doing research.

He was deeply concerned by what is happening to Girangaon, the mill lands that once were the soul of the city. This is why he wrote the foreword for Neera Adarkar's and Meena Menon's acclaimed book of oral histories from the area ("One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices"). "The history of Girangaon", he reminds us there, "[is the] history of modern India."

This was perhaps our best labour historian, a true scholar who took the time to do the hard work of his profession. That's what gave him his deep knowledge about, and insight into, everything that he took an interest in.

Raj was all of that, and so many of us mourn his passing for it all.

Yet even so, I like to remember him by that visit to the Trinity library. It said things to me about the kind of person he was, about the things he took pleasure in. And who am I kidding: it was also a quiet compliment that I have always treasured, a sign that he understood me and knew the things I take pleasure in. But truly: a man who, even as a well-known historian into his early 50s, can appreciate the humour and wisdom of Winnie The Pooh -- this is a special person in every way.

So go well, my friend Raj. I promise you I will go back to that library one day, and pore over AA Milne one more time. Maybe I'll hear your soft chuckle again.


Bombay Addict said...

Very moving. I've read his foreword in 100 years, 100 voices (a brilliant start to a great book), and I didn't know there was so much more to him. RIP.

Wild Reeds said...

Beautiful anecdote about Winnie The Pooh manuscript. I spent years reading the stories to my niece and I know them all - Tigger, Eeyore, et al. I'm sure the experience must have been unforgettable for you.

Anonymous said...

As a current (or should I say former - I still can't get used to that) student of Raj's, I was moved by your words. He was a fantastic teacher, and his enthusiam touched many.

His death was so unexpected because he had such a vitality. He will be missed.

Robert Davidson said...

I was at Lancing with Raj from 1968-'72. We were firm friends. I am ashamed to say it, but in that Public School at that period there was an undercurrent of racism, not necessarily articulated all the time, but present in the minds of both Students and Teachers. Luckily the two most influential History Masters (Robin Reeve and Ted Maidment) were both Socialists, and Raj and I found we shared many of their ideals and their vision of a more egalitarian society,(becoming those objects of derision - Public School Lefties) as we studied nineteenth and twentieth century British Social History with Robin Reeve, or the American Civil War with Ted Maidment.
Raj was an excellent historian, possessed of a high degree of analytical aptitude, which will come as no surprise to any that knew him. What they may not know is that Raj was a hugely talented Public Speaker with the power to hold an audience transfixed. We were both members of the school Public Speaking Team, and, due almost entirely to Raj's presnce as the main speaker on the Team, we won the 1972 English Soeaking Union's Annual Schools Public Speaking Competition.
Following our leaving school we lost touch.
I have often wondered what Raj was doing. I had speculated that he might be in Indian Politics, utilising his impressive demagogical and rhetorical prowess in that arena.
I am glad to discover what his contribution has been - I am only sorry to realise he had been closer to home than I could have imagined, and the fact that I have lost the chance to meet him again is a matter of great sadness to me.
I mourn his passing.
Robert Davidson.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thank you for your note, Robert. Would you send me a note by email, dilip dot fb at gmail dot com?