By Jyotirmaya Sharma, In Seminar, February, 2007
She worked on the dispossessed, the exiled and the hopeless. As a historian, Papiya Ghosh was not necessarily concerned with the mainstream. For her the migrant workers of Bihar were of great concern, and among them the Muslims, who were shortchanged doubly. Her work spanned all those within the sub-continent who belonged and yet were marginalized. The displacement of individuals through the actions of individuals or the caprice of history bothered her. Her posthumously published work, The Partition and the South Asian Diaspora: Extending the Subcontinent, is a lasting testimony to her intellectual concerns. These stories were to her the real stories to be told loudly and clearly, just in case those who did not have a voice were forgotten.
Papiya Ghosh loved stories. Every event had to be narrated in the form of a kahani. She needed every detail about colour, texture, smell and sound to be part of the narration. She herself told fantastic stories, and her anecdotes were told in a masterly mixture of English and Hindi, where like criss-crossing streams the two languages and phrases she had invented merged effortlessly into one another.
Papiya is now dead, and the ghastly manner of her departure cannot be rendered as a ‘kahani’ in the way she liked to listen and speak. A friend who knew her told me recently of the effort she has made in order to get the Papiya we knew back to mind without the events of 3 December intervening. We, her friends, were so used to listening to good stories in Papiya’s company that it is difficult for all of us to comprehend the manner of her departure.
For me, the first memories of Papiya would always be that of her rooms in the Public Entry building of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. Her hospitality was matchless, and her room the very picture of beauty and order. She hated clutter, disorder and ugliness in all forms, and her immediate environment reflected her finely honed aesthetic sensibilities. It was in these rooms where gossip achieved metaphysical heights, quarrels were sorted-out, and friendships for life made.
She had a pet name for all her friends. Those who were not her friends, but amused her were also rechristened. The list included Dolly, Sally, Awareness, Victoria, Imelda, Earl Grey, Molly, Reindeer, Savvy and so on. I was Tiger, named so after I growled at a speaker in one of the weekly seminars at the Institute. And of course, she was Polly. We became these names, for her, and for each other.
The centre of her intellectual life was driven by a deep consciousness of her identity as a Bihari and as a liberal. If these two identities came in the way of each other and stood in antagonistic opposition, Bihar eventually won hands down. She stayed on in Patna despite threats from the land mafia because leaving would not merely mean geographical displacement, but abandoning an idea and an engagement.
When I visited her in Patna in 2000, her greatest regret was that Auntie Ghosh, her mother, was no longer there and would have loved to meet me. She played some Rabindra Sangeet, and when I remarked that a particular composition was my favourite, Papiya tearfully told me that it was Auntie Ghosh’s favourite number too.
In 2001 and 2002, Papiya came to Hyderabad and pronounced that my new flat was ‘khoob bhaalo’. She loved the view from the hilltop, where she gazed fondly at the view of the Golkonda fort. She loved the dinner Peacered (her name for him, a translation of Shantilal), my cook, had made for her, and he was rewarded with several pictures taken of him in the kitchen with his paraphernalia around.
Four days before she passed on, we spoke on the phone for a long time. She always asked for the well being of the living as well as the dead. Papiya never failed to call me on the death anniversary of my grandmother, and she even remembered the day our favourite dog, Sumo, died. She sent up prayers for all of them. Her generosity and her sense of empathy were boundless.
Today when I look around, the beautiful porcelain coaster on which I place my morning cup of coffee was given by her. The wooden elephant from Indonesia on my shelf was a birthday present from her. A small porcelain bowl on my desk was her gift when I left the Institute. There are at least two dozen books on my shelves that were given by her over the years. If these objects are also part of a story, then, the manner of her departure only heightens one’s awareness of how narratives take a different turn and change the very way in which stories are begun, continued and come to an end.
Papiya was constantly sending up duas for everyone, especially her friends. Maybe, we, her friends, did not regularly send up enough ‘duas’ for her. Maybe, we never felt that someone so vivacious needed prayers. The Almighty shortchanged her in the end.