09 April 2015

Meera Kosambi: A Tribute by Supriya Guha

(Published in H-Asia, Thursday, March 12, 2015)

Although we had met at Women’s Studies conferences in the early 1990s, Meera Kosambi and I became better acquainted with each other in 1994 when she visited the Research Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of Calcutta. A very large audience had come to hear her speak, at least some of whom were drawn by her famous surname. In typical Meera Kosambi style, she disappointed the adulatory “questioners”, who stood up at the end of her talk and attempted to pay fulsome tributes to her father, by asking how their remarks were relevant to the subject, which was the Age of Consent Bill of 1890. I observed at that time that she had mixed feelings about being known as D.D. Kosambi’s daughter. She told me later that she had been very close to her father but his had been a formidably scholarly reputation to live up to.  Although her introduction to the world of women’s studies was because of her biographical study of Pandita Ramabai, her original research had been in the field of urban planning and she was eager to visit Fort William to study the layout of the Fort. She observed that it was like a mirror image of the plan of the Fort at Bombay.

Some years later, I joined the Research Centre for Women’s Studies at the SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai and worked under Meera. The Centre had been the pioneering Centre and the prototype for the series of University Centres established with state funding across the country. The vexed question of the relative emphasis on academic work and “outreach” activity (in other words, interaction with NGOs) had led to somewhat blurred lines in some centres but Meera was quite categorical that she saw Women’s studies as being deserving of the same rigour and respect as any other discipline. She disapproved of the “happy-clappy” climate of some of the women’s studies workshops and conferences she had attended and declared that the Centre she was in charge of was not to be regarded as a “drop-in centre” and it was not to be regarded as a place for folk singing, craftswomen and political activity. While some of the staff missed the old friendly milieu, the excellent library and documentation centre were more conducive to research.

At that time, Meera was working on a series of letters written by Anandibai Joshi from India to an American correspondent. The American family had preserved these letters and given them to Meera when she visited them in the USA, after visiting Anandibai’s grave in Poughkeepsie, NY.  I remember she showed me one in which Anandibai wrote to thank “Eighmie” (surely the most fanciful spelling of Amy that you could have) for a curl from her head.  I imagined the disgust a tuft of human hair might have caused in a Brahmin woman of the 19th Century, but Meera pointed out that Anandibai had in fact reciprocated and sent back a lock of her own, though with an explanation of what a daring business it was for a married woman to be cutting her hair.

I noted Meera’s extremely meticulous manner of working and her complete concentration on whichever task she had at hand. She lived at that time as a lodger with a family in South Bombay and she told me that her way of relaxing, after a hard day of academic and administrative labour, was to do fine embroidery. My colleague, Veena Poonacha, pointed out that her scholarly work had precisely the same fineness of detail as her needlework.

She spoke with disappointment of what she saw as the erosion of the academic culture of Maharashtra or of the lack of veneration for scholarly achievement. Her own strength was that she was completely bilingual, having had her primary education in Marathi. Meera told me that because she was a girl her father had encouraged her to enrol as a member of the Rashtriya Sewa Dal, which was affiliated to the socialist, rationalist strand of political activism in her native Poona. (She was distinctly piqued when someone assumed that this was in some way connected with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which was anathema to her.) She spoke with respect and awe of her father and grandfather but with the deepest affection of her mother.

Meera began writing and publishing fairly late in her career. It might almost appear that she lived under that overwhelming shadow of her distinguished father well into her middle age and it took her time to come into her own. She often spoke to me of the importance of self-belief and knowledge of self-worth. And when she did finally discover her niche, she produced a body of work that reflected her own thorough, punctilious personality and her loathing of pretension.

Supriya Guha

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