by Muzaffar Alam, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Nayanjot Lahiri, Rukun Advani
Fourteen years ago, Sunil Kumar held a copy of his first big book in his hands: The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate
(Permanent Black, 2007). He hadn’t bothered trying to publish it with
any of the big American or British university presses, though they’d all
have taken it like a shot. It had been very long since anything
substantially new and eye-opening had been written on the Delhi
Sultanate, and Sunil, reckoned a dilatory perfectionist whose motto was
much too fervently “Better Never Than Now”, was known to have been
writing it for more than a decade. He could have had his pick of
Some years later, he emailed saying he’d had enough of being a Reader at SOAS. He could have been in London forever, or moved on from there to the redder-leaved pastures of the Ivy League. By this time his book had brought him recognition as a scholar and his teaching a repute for devotion to students in an area of specialisation which had very few of his calibre. He knew Persian and Urdu and could have had his pick of university departments in the West.
Looking back, I think there were several reasons for his decision to be with Permanent Black as his publisher and to the city of his Sultanate as a teacher, and they suggest what he was like as a person. He was, first, part of our pre-Facebook generation in a real sense – in that he did not want to draw daily attention to himself. I don’t know how much he used social media, but I see him as the kind of old-world person who uses it only in the larger interest of furthering knowledge and keeping students abreast of new information.
Second, I think Permanent Black was his choice because even the tenuous bonds of an old friendship meant more to him than international fame: he and I were in the same batch of the same school in Lucknow in the early 1960s. His father, a policeman, was posted there off and on. I recall Sunil – he was not known as Saddie until his college days – joining and rejoining our class, depending on when his father happened to be posted in Lucknow. His appearances and disappearances struck me when editing his book as not dissimilar to those he ascribes to the Delhi Sultanate – one of his arguments in the book is that the Sultanate was less a solid political entity than a fluid formation which could fade into the landscape before resurfacing (perhaps an inspiration of sorts to the Congress Party now).
Later we were college batchmates, and though we did not move in the same circles our passing dining-room exchanges were always affectionate. The reason I saw quite little of him over our college days was that he had acquired a terrific and enviable reputation in two fields: basketball and romance. It was difficult to tell over our three years of living within five minutes of each other (1972 to 1975) whether Saddie was more devoted to holding a basketball or his tiny college girlfriend Anjali, over whom he, 6 ft+, towered. He was usually spotted carrying her around on his shoulders near a basketball court. By this time Sunil was universally called Saddie, after the comic-strip character Sad Sack, on account of his habitual expression of melancholy. The melancholy may have been caused by the difficulty of smuggling his girl into his hostel room; or else because, with one hand forever holding a basketball, he was finding himself handicapped while also having to attend to her; or else because he’d tried throwing her through the net and missed, and she had made it known his future was either her or basketball.
We emailed each other fairly often over books that he needed for review in the IESHR. Everyone knew he was the journal’s mainstay, the other editors having all found professorships abroad. He swore he was working on other books and would send them all to me to be published. I thought that was very generous of him: his book had been so meticulously written that I’d editorially contributed not a word to it.
Or perhaps because, as he told me on a visit to Ranikhet with Anjali, because I had in fact contributed just one word to his book: the word “Sweetie”. Almost everyone who has read Saddie’s book has remarked on the first sentence of the book’s Conclusion. Here is the sentence:
An impatient reader of this book might justifiably ask with exasperation at this moment: “So, Sweetie, when did the Delhi Sultanate emerge?”
This unacademic sentence, he said, was the consequence of one of my exasperated questions to him while editing, and he had wanted it worded exactly so in the book. It lightened the mood of a heavy monograph, he said. Subsequently, during one of our chance meetings, he said the sentence had once flabbergasted even the mighty of Aligarh: during his professorship interview at Delhi University, one of them had opened his book on that page and asked him how he could have allowed such a sentence to pass. Saddie said he had smiled sweetly back at the interviewing Sweetie and told Her it was the result of a conversation with his editor – the fellow had called him Sweetie when asking him the question, and this had made him decide to retain it in the same form on account of their old friendship.
When Saddie told me this I felt as elated as his basketball, thrown cleanly and happily through the high net for which he always aimed. My unhappiness at his early departure runs much deeper. Despite our physical distance from each other, we were instinctively close; in fact I have seldom been as instinctively fond of an academic friend because Saddie, I felt, was the ideal academic: quietly scholarly, forthright in his opinions, selflessly caring with students, full of warmth for those he liked, and politically sane in an ethos within which so many have succumbed to the vileness of people in power.
Sunil was a great friend, a perfect gentleman. Whenever I would be in Delhi, he would insist on having a long and relaxed meeting with me to talk about my work and Chicago teaching experience. He would listen attentively to the problems I faced with the limited resources of my areas of interest, to my desperate effort to make some sense out of them, and to whatever I would think of relating to my work. In response he would come up with a beaming smile with suggestion that I should prepare a draft early and send him for discussion and consideration for publication.
He knew that I am slow, even lazy, and that I would not act on his advice so efficiently. He would still be very kind and generous and interpret my failure and slowness in terms of my being a perfectionist. Then I would have my turn, feel encouraged to remind him of his long-time promise of finishing an excellent piece he had on Tughlaqabad. I read it decades back in the 1990s, when I was in JNU and incorporated it in my classes on medieval India. Even then it read like a nearly full monograph, well researched and well argued on this historical ruins of pre-Mughal Delhi.
Sunil was very helpful to our younger friends, students, and colleagues too, who had recently written excellent dissertations on social and cultural history of South Asia. He encouraged them to send him their papers for publication in IESHR. He did indeed publish several good articles, and thus gave, together with Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a new direction to IESHR. One of the last conversations he had with my friend Rajeev Kinra was about his Mughal Indian sulh-i-kull article, and wished that Rajeev had sent it to him to IESHR. Another friend, Manan Ahmed Asif, writes that he was “ a model of an ethical historian who stood tall against majoritarian politics. He was a meticulous scholar and kind mentor.”
I never thought I would write about my friend Saddy, Professor Sunil Kumar of Delhi University, in the past tense. A big, loose-limbed athlete, who played basketball not only for his college, but for years afterwards with kids much younger than him in the playgrounds of Saket (in south Delhi), I always thought he would outlive me and most of our contemporaries by many years. But now we get the shocking news that he has passed away in the early morning of 17 January in New Delhi, just a few months short of retiring from his position as Professor of History at the University of Delhi at the age of 65. In the past months he had been complaining periodically of feeling unwell, a situation compounded by his having to take on the incredibly stressful and thankless job of chairing the Department of History in the last some years. That was always going to be a hard task, but it was made far worse by a combination of the ambient political circumstances, and the very difficult context of the pandemic, which has had an impact on everything from teaching to examinations to admissions. When he finally finished his stint as chair just a few months ago, all of his close friends breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that at last he would be able to turn a page from the extremely stressful existence he had been leading. We all looked forward to his spending long stints in his second home in Goa, turning back to his projects on urbanism in Tughlaqabad, and related subjects. Alas, how wrong we were!
I first met Sunil in the mid-1980s in circumstances that, as he often jokingly said, resembled those of a Hindi film. We were both taking the 501 bus from ‘Bus Adda’ (or more formally the Inter-State Bus Terminal) towards south Delhi, and seated in the same row, when he casually pulled out a cigarette and lit it. I at once objected because we were in a ‘Non-Smoking’ section of the bus. After a sharp exchange of words, he apologized (somewhat reluctantly, I might say) and added that he had seen me somewhere, such as the Delhi School of Economics café. We introduced ourselves, and the next thing we knew, we had become good friends. I learnt that he was a lecturer in history in St. Stephen’s College, and that not long before he had returned from the United States, where he had been in Connecticut and Chicago. He had wanted to pursue a PhD in Indo-Islamic medieval history but found little support for the project at the time (except from the Iranian and Central Asian historian at Chicago, John Woods). Soon after, he joined the main Department of History in the University of Delhi as a lecturer, and we began discussing the prospects of his resuming his PhD plans. He eventually decided that his best bet was to contact the specialist of Mughal history John Richards at Duke University, and to his great relief John happily accepted him as a student. Sunil finished his dissertation in 1992 and built close ties with his advisor. He was undoubtedly an unusual student. For one, he was thirty-one when he began his PhD anew, already married for a decade, and had two children. John Richards once laughingly remarked to me that when he taught a graduate seminar with Sunil in it, it was as if they were jointly running the seminar. He then returned to Delhi, where he taught throughout the rest of his career, as Reader from 1994 to 2005, and as Professor from 2005 on, except for a brief stint in the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, from 2008 to 2010.
Sunil’s principal passion in terms of his research was the history of the Delhi Sultanate. That was what his dissertation was about, and it became his big book, The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286, published by Permanent Black in 2007. Of course, he knew a lot about the Mughals and their history and taught those subjects whenever he had the opportunity. But he remained steadfast in his loyalty to pre-Mughal history, and especially the history of northern India in that period. He had realized early on that the subject was one that required definite rereading and reinterpretation, beyond what had been provided by Muhammad Habib and his disciples (including his celebrated son, Irfan Habib). Of course, the history of the Sultanate had not been entirely neglected in the 1980s and 1990s, either in India or outside it, by scholars such as Peter Jackson. But much of what was being written was pretty traditional in its orientation as political or religious history. On the other hand, Sunil understood very quickly that new directions could be developed, especially if – as he was – one was alert to developments in the larger field of Islamic history in the ‘Abbasid and immediate post-‘Abbasid period. Sunil’s reading was always voracious and covering a wide horizon, from medieval Europe to medieval China at the very least. He put books and articles on reading lists in the University of Delhi that I am quite sure had never been there before. In the process, I am pretty certain he irritated some of his colleagues, who would surely have preferred a standard history, dynasty by dynasty, of the Sultanate between the Ghurids and the Lodis. What a pity that he never polished his work on the morphology and ideological interpretation of the layout of Tughlaqabad to his own satisfaction!
Sunil’s other passion was in reading Delhi’s past from its present. He was an indefatigable and brilliant guide to various sites in the city, as his students as well as many colleagues and visitors will testify. When, on his return from the US in the early 1980s, he settled in the south Delhi area of Saket (where his wife Anjali and her family had their home), he began closely exploring the area, with its nearby sites such as Jahanpanah and Khirki. He discovered a fascinating palimpsest, which he realized was constantly being read and reread by a variety of contemporary actors with conflicting motives and understandings. This led him to write his 2002 volume, The Present in Delhi’s Pasts, which I consider an indispensable guide not only to Delhi but to the layered past of practically any South Asian urban center. I would have loved to visit some of those sites as the proverbial fly on the wall with Sunil and his friends Simon Digby and Muzaffar Alam, each with his own reading and interpretation of every building and inscription.
But Sunil also had quite another dimension to his academic personality. From the mid-1980s, I had been associated with the Indian Economic and Social History Review, edited by the formidable economic historian Dharma Kumar. In the latter half of the 1990s, Sunil joined the editorial board of the journal at a time when Dharma’s health began to deteriorate. His diplomatic and administrative capabilities then proved indispensable. He was able, with the help of the other editors, to discreetly manage the difficult transition of the journal over the next years, and eventually took over as its joint managing editor when Dharma passed away in October 2001. In the ensuing two decades, Sunil has been the beating heart of the IESHR. Two other editors – myself and G. Balachandran – have officially manned the tiller with him, but both of us will freely admit that Sunil was the one who really bore the brunt of the work. As always with him, he threw himself heart and soul into the work of the journal. When we decided to launch the IESHR Lecture series, he provided all the infrastructural work necessary, while always insisting that he did not want to appear at the forefront. I don’t doubt that there are quite a few scholars in India and abroad who have dealt with Sunil as a journal editor, and who will have their own stories to recount.
As his work with the journal brought out, Sunil Kumar’s great character trait was his lively generosity. His nickname from youth was “Saddy”, because he allegedly had a sad face, but his personality was anything but sad. You could always count on him to read an essay or a book manuscript and give you pertinent comments. In his own personal life, it was always Sunil who was there to manage family crises, rushing off to Lucknow, Benares, or Bihar, or wherever he was needed. He was always available, always there when you needed him, as an advisor, as a colleague, as an editor, and indeed as a friend. I sometimes even think that this great strength was his weakness. Why did he throw himself into the administration of a department which expressed little or no appreciation for his efforts, and where no effort was made to relieve him of his duties when he was clearly suffering and in bad health? I will also confess to my own sentiments of guilt. Should I not have paid more attention to the signs of his failing health? The fact is that we had all become so used to Sunil caring for us, that we probably failed to care enough for him. That is and will forever remain our loss.
Sunil was first described to me as the tall basketballer ‘Saddie’ who had a girlfriend half his size. Anjali was her name and he had to lean across to put his arm around her. They soon married and had two children. By that time, or even before this, Sunil disappeared to study for his Ph.D. and it was only when he returned that I met him formally for the first time.
I was studying for my Ph.D. at the History Department of the University of Delhi that he had newly joined. Considering that the Department was then made up of a lot of middle-aged fogies, much like us today, his youthful persona and his American way of speaking was a wonderful change. I would later join the Department and we became colleagues, remaining so till 2015. In the early years, we used to sit in on an M.Phil seminar on works of history that we felt were worth chewing upon and it was because of him that I read and loved Georges Duby’s The Three Orders and Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints. I also remember the enthusiasm with which he would take history students, his own and those from other institutions, to visit medieval sites in Delhi. On many occasions, I heard vivid descriptions of how much they enjoyed being with him at Tughalakabad and the Qut’b complex.
What I remember most about Sunil was that he expressed his opinions freely about the discipline, about history books, and about colleagues. Around 2007-2009, when many talented historians had been appointed in the department, he was on leave. However, when the new course for the Masters Program were sent to him, he wrote to say that ‘the infusion of talent’ had made ‘such a difference to the academic environment of the institution’, ‘I can smell the change and vitality in the air and can’t wait to be back’, he added. In the same email, he simultaneously objected to the names of some college teachers who he described as forming ‘dal mein cockroach’ and pleaded that patronage positions which had earlier been created for such teachers do not linger on.
Sunil was much loved and respected by students and scholars but above all, it is this – his proclivity to shoot from the hip – that I will always remember.
(The memorial by Sanjay Subrahmanyam was first published on Chapati Mystery)