By Rudrani Gangopadhyay
The first time I visited Dr Jasodhara Bagchi’s Jodhpur Park residence was in July 2014. Her new book on Motherhood in India was “stuck”, she had said on the phone, and she needed a research assistant to help her out. When I turned up at her place, thoroughly intimidated by her stature as an academician and an activist, the first thing that struck me was what Dr Sajni Mukherji would later identify as Jasodhara-di’s “great hunger for people”. We spent the entirety of the first day talking about me, with her expressing almost a child-like curiosity about my work, my schooling, my parents, my interests. On my way back home that day, my bag full of the books she had given me upon learning of my interest in Partition Studies and my insides full of the food she insisted I eat, I realized that somewhere along the way my great respect for her has commingled with a great affection as well.
I had known the facts for a while. That Jasodhara-di was educated at Presidency College (now University), Oxford University and Cambridge University. Upon returning to India, she taught English briefly at Lady Brabourne College. 1964 onwards, she spent a major part of her life teaching English at Jadavpur University and went on to become the founder-Director of the School of Women’s Studies there. She was one of the people responsible for the English Department getting the UGC Special Assistance and was one of the Programme’s first coordinators. Though she retired in 1997, she continued to be an Emeritus Professor at the School of Women’s Studies and an active part of the English department. However, as I began spending afternoons at her place, pouring over books and essays, the stories behind these facts began to come alive for me. During our frequent cha breaks, she would talk to me about her life. It would begin with something else: something I had read or something she had read, something on the news, something about Jadavpur, something about music (she had discovered early on our shared love of Rabindrasangeet). But it would go on to be about her first sighting of the Indian soil when she returned from Cambridge: she had joyfully sung “Dhana dhanye pushpe bhora…” from the P&O boat arriving at the Bombay docks. As her vast repository of experience began to unfold, I went home every day with a renewed sense of admiration. And, of course, a newer set of books which she thought I should take a look at.
Amidst all the golpo and the food, we would work too. Her commitment to the book astounded me. Every week, she would want to incorporate something new to one of the chapters. We wrote the chapters afresh at times, at times we rearranged the chapters completely. What was amazing was her thirst to learn new things and try to incorporate her learnings into the book. I had very casually pointed out one day how the outline did not seem to incorporate working mothers anywhere. The next day, I arrived at her home to find her buried in a pile of essays about working mothers around the world and a 15 page write-up to be considered, “to begin with”. It was amazing to see her be so open to the ideas of others. She would almost instigate them out of me at times. I had initially held back on my criticism, perhaps out of a kind of blind reverence for her. But she would not have it. Every time a chapter was finished, she would encourage me to tell her what was wrong with it. “Go home, read it again, and find out what is missing”, she would say. She would be delighted if I came back with notes, and hand me another pile of books to go through in order to find a fix for what I had figured was missing.
Soon after I had begun working with her, Hok Kolorob began to take shape in J.U. Her active involvement with every aspect of the movement – micchils, meetings, the students – was a wonder to watch . Around this time, our cha breaks began to focus more and more on what is being done for Jadavpur and what else needs to be done. She was part of the five-member team of emeritus professors that met our Governor and University Chancellor Keshari Nath Tripathi and demanded a new Vice-Chancellor for Jadavpur. On the day when finally the now ex-VC stepped down, I think all of us who knew Jasodhara-di wished she had been there in person, but had known that her essence had been there in our celebrations anyway.
As the movement continued, our book too began to take shape. Sitting in her fourth floor apartment, we continued to talk about all things under the sun over cha and chire bhaja. She would ask me to talk about my coursework, about my research, and would ask me to show her what I have been writing lately. It was with her encouragement that I applied and received a fellowship. Her elation appeared almost greater than mine. Incidentally, it was when I was interviewing her for this fellowship that I found out even more about her life.
I learned of her time as the Chairperson of the West Bengal Commission for Women. Found out about how she was one of the founder-members of Sachetana, one of the earliest women’s rights organization in West Bengal, as well as of Maitree, an informal network of women’s rights organizations and individual activists. Her substantial body of research over the years required little introduction, but it was humbling to hear about it nonetheless. Her work on Partition Studies with Dr Subhoranjan Dasgupta proved to a great and powerful inspiration for my own work.
The aspect of Jasodharadi that came back over and over in everyone’s recollection of her was the infectious energy she brought to her work, her fierce passion for research, and her involvement with her students and associates. What I personally found very touching in her rather maternal being was how she treated everyone and everything with a great deal of affection, whether it be her books, or her writing, or her university, or her students. She inquired about the fasting students’ health with the same concern with which she forced me to eat homemade chowmein because I had gone over to her place after a long day at the university. It was also with this same tenderness that we sent out the finished manuscript in November, right before her hospitalization.
I do not suppose any one of us have been able to process Jasodhara-di’s passing. At her memorial lecture, I remember seeing a number of my juniors and batchmates in attendance. None of them have been taught by Jasodhara-di in person (I exempt myself from this because I consider myself to have learned much from her in our brief time together), and yet, they were there. As our professors shared anecdotes about Jasodhara-di, I think all of us who have not been fortunate enough to have her as our teacher were trying to claim a bit of her legacy as our own.
I suppose this is how Jasodhara-di will live on. Through her family, her students, colleagues, associates and everyone whose lives she touched and bettered simply by being a part of it.