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The historyteller

I discovered Tapanda on a boat to Britain, talking about Bengal, the planetary system and death.

Written by Amartya Sen | Updated: November 29, 2014 12:55:07 am
tapan-l Tapanda provides an insider view of the lives, thoughts and contradictions of this doomed social group of Hindu landlords of East Bengal, whose fortunes suddenly collapsed as they left for India at the time of Partition, to avoid being in East Pakistan. (Source: The Hindu photo)

Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri — Tapanda to many of us — who died in Oxford on November 26, was not only a leading historian, but a person of many different talents. He was an outstanding teacher, whose pedagogy extended far beyond those who were formally his students at Oxford or Delhi or Calcutta. I was never his student, and yet, thanks to our friendship over 62 years, I learned a huge amount from him on a large variety of subjects, including a great many things about history. Being of lazy disposition, I relished the fact that often enough, the most effortless — and quickest — way of learning something about the past was to ask Tapanda a question about it. He was an extraordinary believer in enlightenment and enjoyed learning about things that he did not know, but seemed to enjoy almost as much as sharing his knowledge with others.

Tapanda’s gifts as a conversationalist were exceptional. He liked being amused, and enjoyed amusing others. Some of the funniest stories I have heard in my life have come from Tapanda. However, he was never a believer in humour for its own sake — never a maker of stand-alone jokes. His stories and recollections informed us even as we were vastly entertained. He also had a deep sense of equity and justice. One of the many consequences of that general, though very implicit, commitment was that his humour was never at the expense of anyone in a tough position. His most amusing stories could, however, be devastatingly funny about the high and mighty. Tapanda’s humanity and sympathy were as striking as his magical ability to entertain and engage his friends.

Tapanda’s sense of justice found expression in his account of history, and even in his memoirs. His family belonged to the class of Hindu landlords in Muslim-majority East Bengal — what is now Bangladesh. He describes in his memoir, The World in Our Time, how outrageously the poor peasants and other rural workmen were treated by the land-owning potentates. His anger at the system within which he was growing up is as clearly articulated as his perceptive discussion of how this privileged class became increasingly trapped in self-doubt and bewilderment as political values changed in the course of the fight for Indian independence. As it happens, many young men and women who came from that exploitative background went on to become radical — sometimes revolutionary — leaders of the politics of emancipation.

Tapanda provides an insider view of the lives, thoughts and contradictions of this doomed social group of Hindu landlords of East Bengal, whose fortunes suddenly collapsed as they left for India at the time of Partition, to avoid being in East Pakistan. The overnight disappearance of the erstwhile tormentors of rural East Bengal is told with remarkable human sympathy, for all sides, as Tapanda recounts the history of that period, even as he vastly amuses the readers of his memoirs with the oddities and absurdities of Bengali political life.

Tapanda’s dedicated work in history, as opposed to his memoirs and his writings on contemporary literature, politics and culture, spanned many different historical problems. It included the history of Bengal, starting with his early work on Bengal Under Akbar and Jahangir, and his highly original investigation of Europe Reconsidered: Perceptions of the West in Nineteenth Century Bengal. It extended to his studies of European colonialism, including the history of British India, which gave readers the thoroughly researched Jan Company in Coromandel, and his highly original historical analyses in Perceptions, Emotions and Sensibilities: Essays on India’s Colonial and Post-colonial Experiences. He also edited, jointly with Irfan Habib, the first volume of The Cambridge Economic History of India.

These were powerful contributions to historical research, and yet I cannot help feeling that Tapanda was much more than a historian of distinction. He was very happy in his family life, with his wife Hashi, daughter Sukanya and granddaughter Lila. He was also unusually happy in the company of others. Tapanda had very important things to say on contemporary politics, society, literature, the magnificence of human beings, and the human follies that trap us into little corners. I was privileged to see him in various phases of his life. It began when we travelled together to Britain in August 1953 in SS Strathnaver — he was on his way to research at Oxford, while I was going to be an undergraduate in Cambridge. I had known — or more exactly seen — Tapanda in Calcutta before, but it was on the boat from Bombay to London that I suddenly discovered this astonishing intellectual from whose wisdom I would benefit for more than six decades.
The ship was full of colonialists (both reformed and unreformed), rather loud Australians (it was coming from Sydney), a huge number of Indian seekers of higher education in Britain, and the Indian women’s hockey team. Even though I could not persuade Tapanda that the hockey women were very agreeable company and great fun to chat with, he and I spent a lot of time together discussing every possible subject that human reasoning could encounter. While many of our compatriots were busy playing Bingo, which is an astonishingly efficient way of destroying time, Tapanda and I exchanged our views on Bengal, India, Asia, the world, the planetary system, and the universe.

We also discussed death. Two days after Tapanda’s passing away, I remember our conversation on the subject on a well-lit deck on SS Strathnaver. We agreed that there was no possibility of any kind of consciousness after that unfortunate event. It would have been nice if we were mistaken.

The writer, a Nobel laureate in economics, is Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University

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