Three memories of Sunil Kumar, the historian who resisted majority policy


Rukun Advani

Fourteen years ago, Sunil Kumar held in his hands a copy of his first big book: The emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286 (Permanent Black, 2007). He hadn’t bothered to try to get it published in any of the big American or British university presses, although they all took it as a blow. It had been a very long time since anything substantially new and revealing had been written about the Delhi Sultanate, and Sunil, considered a dilatory perfectionist whose motto was far too ardently “better never than now”, was known to have written it. for more than a decade. He could have chosen the publisher.

A few years later he emailed saying he was tired of being a reader at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He could have been in London forever or gone from there to the redder-leaf pastures of the Ivy League. By this time his book had brought him recognition as a scholar and his teaching had earned him a reputation for dedication to students in an area of ​​specialization that had little of his caliber. He knew Persian and Urdu and could have chosen from Western university departments.

Looking back, I think there were several reasons for his decision to be with Permanent Black as an editor and in his Sultanate city as a teacher, and they suggest what he looked like as a anybody. He was first of our pre-Facebook generation in a real sense – in that he didn’t want to draw attention to himself on a daily basis. I don’t know how much he has used social media, but I see him as the kind of old world person who only uses it in the best interests of deepening knowledge and keeping students up to date with the news. information.

Second, I think Permanent Black was his choice because even the tenuous ties of an old friendship meant more to him than international fame: he and I were in the same batch at the same school in Lucknow in the early 1960s. His father, a policeman, was stationed there intermittently. I remember Sunil – he wasn’t known as Saddie until his college days – joining and joining our class, depending on when his father was posted to Lucknow.

His appearances and disappearances struck me when editing his book as being similar to those he attributes to the Sultanate of Delhi – one of his arguments in the book is that the Sultanate was less a solid political entity than ‘a fluid formation that could fade into the landscape before resurfacing (perhaps some sort of inspiration for the Congress Party now).

Later, we were teammates in college, and although we didn’t frequent the same circles, our passing exchanges in the dining room were still affectionate. The reason I saw him little in our college years was that he had gained a formidable and enviable reputation in two areas: basketball and romance. It was hard to tell in our three years of living within five minutes of each other (1972 to 1975) whether Saddie was more dedicated to holding a basketball or his college girlfriend Anjali, above which it dominated, more than six feet.

He was usually seen carrying her on his shoulders near a basketball court. At that time, Sunil was universally referred to as Saddie, after the comic book character Sad Sack, due to his usual expression of melancholy. The melancholy may have been caused by the difficulty of smuggling her daughter into her hostel room; or because, with one hand still holding a basketball, he found himself handicapped in having to take care of her as well; or because he had tried to throw her through the net and missed it, and she had let it be known that her future was either her or basketball.

We emailed each other quite often about books he needed for review in the Journal of Economic and Social History of India. Everyone knew he was the mainstay of the journal, with the other editors all finding teaching positions overseas. He swore he was working on other books and would send them all to me for publication. I thought it was very generous of her: her book had been so meticulously written that I hadn’t written a word in it.

Or maybe because, as he told me during a visit to Ranikhet with Anjali, because I had in fact contributed only one word to his book: the word “Honey”. Almost everyone who has read Saddie’s book has commented on the first sentence of the book’s conclusion. Here is the sentence:


An impatient reader of this book might rightly ask in exasperation at this moment, “So, my dear, when did the Sultanate of Delhi appear? “

This non-academic phrase, he said, was the consequence of one of my exasperated questions he had asked him during the editing, and he had wanted it to be worded exactly that way in the book. It lightened the mood for a heavy monograph, he said.

Later, during one of our chance encounters, he said that the phrase once flabbergasted even the mighty Aligarh: during his interview as a professor at Delhi University, one of them had opened his book to this page and asked him how he could have allowed such a sentence to pass.

Saddie said he smiled sweetly at Sweetie’s interview and told her it was the result of a conversation with his editor – the guy had called him Sweetie when asking him the question, and it was. had decided to keep it in the same form. because of their old friendship.

When Saddie told me that, I felt as elated as his basketball, throwing cleanly and happily through the high net he was always aiming for. My dissatisfaction with his early departure runs much deeper. Despite our physical distance from each other, we were instinctively close. In fact, I have rarely loved a college friend so instinctively because Saddie, in my opinion, was the ideal scholar: quietly learned, outspoken in his opinions, selflessly caring for students, full of warmth to those he. loved and politically sane in a philosophy within which so many have succumbed to the baseness of those in power.

Muzaffar Alam

Sunil was a great friend, a perfect gentleman. Whenever I was in Delhi he insisted on having a long and relaxed meeting with me to talk about my work and teaching experience in Chicago. He listened intently to the issues I was facing with the limited resources of my areas of interest, my desperate efforts to make sense of it, and whatever else I would think of to relate to my work. In response, he flashed a beaming smile with the suggestion that I should prepare a draft early and send it for discussion and review for publication.

He knew that I was slow, even lazy, and that I would not act so effectively on his advice. He would always be very kind and generous and interpret my failure and slowness in terms of a perfectionist. Then I would have my turn, feeling encouraged to remind him of his long-standing promise to finish a great track he had on Tughlaqabad.

I read it decades ago in the 1990s when I was at Jawaharlal Nehru University and incorporated it into my classes on medieval India. Even then, it read like an almost complete, well-researched and well-argued monograph on these historic ruins of pre-Mughal Delhi.

Sunil was very helpful to our young friends, students and colleagues as well, who had recently written excellent theses on the social and cultural history of South Asia. He encouraged them to send their articles to him for publication in IESHR.

He has indeed published several good articles, and thus gave, with Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a new direction to IESHR. One of the last conversations he had with my friend Rajeev Kinra was about his article on the Mughal Indian sulh-i-kull, and he wished Rajeev had sent it to him at IESHR. Another friend, Manan Ahmed Asif, writes that he was “a model of an ethical historian who stood firm against majority politics. He was a meticulous scholar and a kind mentor ”.

Nayanjot Lahiri

Sunil was first described to me as the tall “Saddie” basketball player who had a girlfriend who was half his height. Anjali was his name and he had to bend down to put his arm around her. They soon married and had two children. At that time, or even before that, Sunil disappeared to study for his doctorate and it was only when he returned that I officially met him for the first time.

I was studying for my doctorate at the Department of History at the University of Delhi which he had just joined. Considering that the department was made up of a lot of middle-aged foggers then, much like us today, his young personality and American way of speaking was a wonderful change.

I then joined the department and we became colleagues until 2015. In the early years, we used to attend an Mr. Phil seminar on history books that were worth sketching out and it is because of him that I read and liked Georges Duby The three orders and that of Peter Brown The worship of saints. I also remember the enthusiasm with which he took history students, his own and those of other institutions, to visit the medieval sites of Delhi. On many occasions I have heard vivid descriptions of how much they enjoyed being with him in Tughalakabad and the Qut’b complex.

What I remember most about Sunil is that he freely expressed his opinions on the discipline, on history books and on his colleagues. Around 2007-2009, when many talented historians had been appointed to the department, he was on leave. However, when the new course for the masters program was sent to him, he wrote to say that “the infusion of talent” had made “such a difference for the academic environment of the institution”, “I can feel change and vitality is in the air and I can’t wait to be back, ”he added.

In the same email, he simultaneously objected to the names of some college professors he described as forming “dal mein cockroach ”and pleaded that the favoritism posts that had previously been created for these teachers do not linger.

Sunil was much loved and respected by students and academics, but it was mostly this – his propensity to shoot from the hip – that I will always remember.

This article first appeared on the Permanent black blog.

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