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Urmila Subbarao |
April 07, 2004 14:14 IST
My husband Subba called from his office at the World Bank.
"Did you see my email?" he asked. "Sumantra Ghoshal passed away this morning in London." The impact could not have been more violent if he had punched me in the face. It is taking me time to absorb the news.
My mind went back to the spring of 1983 when we had, for the short period of one month, shared an apartment in Boston. Sumantra and Subba were Hubert Humphrey Fellows that year, attached to the SPURS Programme at MIT. I was the visiting spouse who had joined Subba, with our two-year-old son, for the last month of his stay in Boston.
I always recall that period as one of stress and strain -- try looking after an active two-year-old in an apartment with a wooden floor in Boston! The couple in the apartment below made no attempt to hide the fact that they did not enjoy the presence of a toddler knocking on their ceiling whenever Mallik got too playful and active. I had no choice but to pack up the day's feeds, picnic meal and beverages and vacate the apartment for the duration of their presence in the building. This became the pattern of our daily existence. Mallik and I left for the Boston Common -- a more hospitable environment -- as soon as the two Fellows left for school.
We returned only in the evening when Mallik had tired himself out and was happy to play quietly. Once Sumantra and Subba were back from school, they spent their evenings in spirited discussions about global events, particularly speculation about the current Indian political scene that was limping back to normalcy after the shattering period of the Emergency in the mid-seventies. They would argue about the possible power equations, the rising and setting of political suns (pun intended) and India's future as they perceived it!
Sumantra always made it a point to draw me into their conversation, but I was too busy with my household duties. The weekends, however, were memorable. They would start with a bang on Friday evenings when we organised our own 'Happy Hour.' The two men would return home with beer and drumsticks and we would settle down to the serious business of cooking. Sumantra was in charge of marinating and getting the chicken legs done to a fine turn in the oven, while Subba made the masala sauce with the onions, chillies and tomatoes chopped by yours truly. The Tuborg beer washed away the stress of the past week as the apartment resounded to the sounds of a family going about the business of housekeeping. Thanks to Sumantra's homeliness and adjusting nature, the fact that we were sharing a two bedroom, single bathroom apartment was never a matter of embarrassment or friction.
It was time for the formal farewell function marking the close of the Humphrey Fellowship Year. I received a phone call from the organising staff inviting me to the sit-down dinner that was being arranged on the occasion. I explained that I would be unable to attend because of Mallik. He spoke and understood only Telugu in those days and would certainly not stay with a babysitter. An exception was made and he was also invited to the dinner as well!
Subba and Mallik wore Western formals for the evening. I decided to wear a sari while Sumantra dressed in the traditional Bengali dhoti and kurta, with the formal cotton drape thrown casually over the left shoulder. He looked a take-off on Satyajit Ray, with the planes of his clean-cut features looking as if hewn out of rock -- and I told him so. The two of us decided to brave the lingering cold of the Boston winter so as to show off our Indian finery, eschewing closed shoes for open chappals that matched our Indian ensemble. We left out warm clothes altogether!
After the dinner, when the group started making the rounds of the Boston bars, two-year-old in tow, the cold no longer mattered.
Looking back now to that one month, I realise what I never realised while living through it -- we were as free then as we would ever be from the humdrum existence of lives hemmed in by demanding jobs.
Sumantra was already planning simultaneous PhDs from MIT and Harvard and kept trying to persuade Subba to quit the civil service, if necessary, and opt for further academic pursuits. But that was not to be. After our return to India, the two friends kept in touch through the occasional letter or email. And we watched with pride from afar as his star rose on the horizon and shed light across the international stage.
Almost 10 years later, I was at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, as a Humphrey Fellow. I came across Sumantra's address in an issue of the HHH newsletter and wrote to him on a sudden impulse. I reminded him of the speech delivered by Professor Rodwin, president of the SPURS Programme in 1982-83, at the valedictory function. He had prefaced his remarks on that occasion with the words, 'Dear Humphrey Fellows and future Humphrey Fellows…' directing himself at Mallik as he sat in his little high chair, oblivious to his moment of glory. And here was I instead, participating in the Fellowship Programme nearly 10 years later.
Sumantra replied from INSEAD, where he was at the time. His letter was as gracious and affectionate as the person I had come to know during that summer of 1983. We never met again, but the absence and distance in time and space have only made the memories more vivid. We shall miss him deeply.
Photograph: Courtesy Urmila Subbarao
Image: Rahil Shaikh