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.