Guest post by SAURABH MISHRA
These days, when lynch mobs, cow-killings, and aggressive patriotism dominate the headlines, what does the passing away of a mere historian mean? Not much, it seems. Yet, for those who knew Dr Biswamoy Pati, or had the good fortune of being taught by him, this has caused nothing short of a major storm in their lives.
I got to know Dr Pati in the summer of 1996, when he was a young and energetic lecturer in Delhi. I waited eagerly for his lectures (as did everyone else), which were really my first introduction into new ways of thinking about the world.
Over the years, my perception of him went through various phases – from ambivalence, to adulation/awe, to a deep emotional dependence on him, and various shades in between. This summer, as I arrived in Delhi, I was looking forward to seeing him again. Little did I know that our telephonic conversation the week before would end up being the final one.
During the time that I have known him, I have seen him struggle to make sense of the rapid gamut of changes in India and elsewhere. We made our acquaintance in a post-liberalisation Delhi, when Coca Cola and Pepsi were beginning to make their presence felt. I saw him try to grapple with Hindu nationalism, which went against everything that he had always stood for. I saw him struggle with the changing nature of left politics in India. In the last decade or so, he was trying to come to terms with an aggressive consumerism that appeared to challenge his ‘old-world values’ of honesty, frugality and simplicity. Perhaps his refusal to give up his old denim jacket, and his ridiculously outdated mobile phone, were his private rebellion against everything that was changing around him. ‘Go and meet him/her’, he would often tell me, ‘s/he is one of those old-fashioned people you will really like’.
All this came across clearly in the scholarship that he produced, which was deeply motivated by his constant political engagement with everything that was happening around him. As communalism became an ugly reality, he decided to write a history of conversions; when the mainstream media chose to ignore the existence of tribal people (except as obstacles to ‘progress’), he decided to devote his life’s work to them; and as the privatisation of health care reached unprecedented heights, he chose to work on a social history of medicine in the subcontinent. As one of his students recalled, he believed that one needed to “understand the margins, and the history of the centre [would] automatically fall into place.”
Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Dr Pati was the way in which he conducted himself. For someone like me, whose previous socialisation had been in hyper-masculine and deeply hierarchical settings, his absolute refusal to put himself above his students, or his ability to interact with everyone in exactly the same egalitarian way, appeared to present a completely new way of being in the world. In an academic setting that often replicates the hierarchical conditions that it attempts to critique, he was one of those who consciously challenged it through his life and work.
There is much to say when it comes to someone with such passionate beliefs. I wish people like him, who show the courage to go against conventional ways of thinking, or to challenge powers-that-be, received more attention. It is not difficult at all to understand, though, why those who like to form easy opinions, or froth with righteous rage at imagined enemies, would not be interested in him.
ShivanginiTandon, ‘Remembering BiswamoyPati, the Professor who Helped Understand History from the Margins’, 30 June 2017, The Wire.
Saurabh Mishra is a Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield. He was taught by Dr Biswamoy Pati at Sri Venkateswara College between 1996 and 1999.