Vale Satadru Sen (1969-2018)

It is with great sadness that I make note here of the sudden passing of my friend and CUNY colleague, Satadru Sen (of Queens College’s History department),  on October 8th, 2018–he would have turned fifty in January. The news of his death came as a shock; my family is united in grieving with his family, friends, students, and colleagues.

Satadru and I met because we had to: we taught at CUNY; we were Indian immigrants who moved to the US at similar ages (Satadru in high school, I moved after my first degree); we loved cricket (Satadru wrote a few guest posts on my old cricket blog, and reviewed my book Brave New Pitch); we had a taste for Indian military history (he reviewed my book on the air component of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan); we liked traveling in the American West (he went on long motorcycle rides across its vast expanses and came back with stunning photographs.) We exchanged notes on our backgrounds and inclinations; we cursed the descent into fascism of the US and India; we fretted and fumed at CUNY bureaucracy, at the stupidity and obduracy of many of its administrative decisions; we were perplexed and enthralled by our students; as we became fathers, we discussed the trials and tribulations of parenting. (Our wives were in law school when we first met, and soon, we were the fathers of young girls–thus allowing for points of resonance between our families.)

Satadru was a genuine scholar and intellectual. As his department made note:

His scholarship was his passion; through it he sought to expose the inequities and hypocrisies wrought by colonial regimes in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean World.  His research ranged from the institutionalization of discipline and punishment to the global celebrity of a cricketer-turned-politician and its implications for understanding the experiences of subjects in imperial contexts.

Satadru’s five single-authored monographs include Disciplining Punishment: Colonialism and Convict Society in the Andaman Islands(Oxford University Press, 2000), Migrant Races: Empire, Identity, and K.S. Ranjitsinhji (Manchester University Press, 2005), Colonial Childhoods: The Juvenile Periphery of India, 1860-1945 (Anthem Press, 2005), Savagery and Colonialism in the Indian Ocean: Power, Pleasure and the Andaman Islanders (Routledge, 2010), and Restoring the Nation to the World: Benoy Kumar Sarkar and Modern India (Routledge, 2015).  In addition to these are two collections of essays and one co-edited volume.

That publication list is one component of the claim I made above; far more germane was the quality of his writing and scholarship. His writing had flair and passion–visible quite clearly too, in his blog essays, marvelous long-form ventures of analysis and observation. (I reviewed his book on Ranjitsinhji for ESPN-cricinfo; in retrospect it might have been the best academic book on cricket I’ve ever read.)

Satadru and I met infrequently, but we exchanged mails and messages often; sometimes we met for drinks or coffee in our neighborhood; after we became fathers, we met with our families for teas and play-dates. On each occasion, we found time to retire to a  corner to trade our mordant little notes on academia, cricket, history, and the like. His observations were sharp and informed; I trust he enjoyed his interactions with me as well.

I’ll miss him; so will his family and friends and all those who learned from him and were enriched by his scholarship and companionship.

Reunions And Changing Persons

A couple of weeks ago, in a reunion of sorts, I had lunch with some folks I to went high school with; six of us attended. Out of the attendees, I was meeting three after a gap of thirty-four years. This is the longest interval of time in my life between two meetings with the ‘same person.’ The reason for those quotes should be evident to all of those who have undergone such encounters: very often, our intuitions about the identity of those we meet after such a long time are shaken by the differences between the two stages of their ‘growth’ or ‘evolution’ that we have encountered.  Moreover, in these encounters, we experience something of the puzzling nature of time and memory: Where have all those years gone? Is the past a place? Why do those past events seem so ephemeral? How can the memories of events so distant in time be so much fresher than the memory of yesterday’s events? The chilling thought crosses our mind that perhaps we will experience a similar sensation on our deathbeds, if we are fortunate enough to be lucid to experience them as such–will we experience then, just as now, the curious sensation of two points in time, seemingly separated by an insuperable gap, folding as it were to make contact with each other? Will all that came before seem like a ‘mere dream’?

That afternoon in Palo Alto, as I sat in a backyard patio, enjoying pizza and salad in the company of my high school friends, I was struck by variants of these thoughts. Across the table from me sat my five-year old daughter, on my left sat a classmate from thirty-four years ago. My daughter perplexes me consistently with her ever changing self; she is not the girl she was a year ago; she is not the tantrum throwing toddler from three years ago; she is not the babbling language learner from four years ago; she is not the infant of five years ago; soon, her present self will change, ever so imperceptibly, into its next ‘stage.’ My friend looked a lot like she used to but she sounded different; her accent was modulated, she spoke of college-age daughters. At another end of the table sat another friend; his turban was gone, his hair was a silvery white–his appearance was so radically dissimilar that I put the older self I knew out of mind and concentrated on the one present at the moment. In the case of yet another one of my friends, we had realized that we had hardly known each other in school, hardly ever conversed; yet, here, now that we had met, our new selves liked each other well enough to fall almost instantly into a pattern of behavior that approximated that of old friends; our old selves were the anchoring memory that allowed us to so easily trade in a kind of otherwise inaccessible familiarity.

Here, new relationships were possible, indeed, they were necessary. The older lives offered material for reminiscing; our new selves and lives possibilities for new friendships configured on different grounds.

Acknowledging Prayers Offered On Our Behalf

On 30th July, I hiked up to Corbet High Camp–operated by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides–in Wyoming’s Teton range in the Grand Teton National Park–to begin an attempt to scale the Grand Teton on August 1st. There, at high camp, my climbing partner and I met another pair of climbers, young lads from Louisiana, headed up the Grand the very next morning; we would be sharing camp with them for the afternoon and evening. We chatted and exchanged pleasantries; many notes of excited and nervous anticipation made the rounds; we each confessed to the peculiar state of excitement and apprehension that seemed to possess us. Later, as time for dinner approached, the older of the two lads asked us if we would mind if he offered a ‘mountain blessing’ before mealtime. We said we had no problem with him doing so.

And so our new friend took off his hat and bent his knee in prayer. He asked his Lord and God for protection on this mountain; to aid him with good luck as he attempted to climb the mountain with his cousin; to bless all those he had met today and made friends with and who would also be climbing the mountain; to lay his protective hand over all of them alike. As he spoke, we laid down our spoons and forks and waited; when he had finished speaking, we all thanked him. (I cannot, in this text, recapture my friend’s distinctive Louisiana accent, but it was present, and it added a little touch of the South to the Western alpine setting.)

I’m an atheist; I do not pray. But I was unambiguously grateful for the prayer that had been offered on my behalf; my thanks were sincere. They were so not because I expected benedictions to now flow my way but rather, because I was deeply appreciative of the gesture of kindness that had just been directed at me. I did not doubt the sincerity of the faith of that young man from Louisiana; he believed all right. And if he did, and had the relationship to his faith that I thought he did, then his asking for blessings to be sent my way which would protect me on the mountain and return me safely to my family were an expression of genuine concern and friendship on his part. Up there on that mountainous perch, the majestic Middle Teton and its enormous snowfields clearly visible, I was conscious of my own insignificance in the face of nature’s grandeur and might; my friend’s blessing was a fortification of my humanity in the face of such natural power, it was a reminder that when we climb mountains we always seek to return to those who love and care for us, that friendships and companionship are ever more important on the mountains, that I would need the help of the others to get up and down safely. Acknowledging the sincerity and warmth and these diverse messages of that blessing, the gesture it made, was the only right thing to do. Even for a non-believer.

Middle-Aged Laments: Changing, Disappearing, Friendships

I feel old friendships changing, some diminishing in affection and interest, some fading in that crucial dimension of the interest we show in each others’ lives, and thus, threatening to vanish into insignificance. Some because of lack of attention, of the tender loving care that is needed to nurture relationships; some we have tried and tried and strained to keep alive, only to find them sputtering out, impervious to our ostensibly tender affections; some because, somehow, in some mysterious way, my friends and I have come to divine that we are changing, growing apart, irrevocably–and have withdrawn from each other, to set out on other paths, cutting our costs as we do so. We have been exposed to the–possibly clichéd–wisdom that friendships, like other relationships, take us from one station in life to another, and we sense the destination station is at hand. And then there are physical barriers of time and space; sometimes thousands of miles and multiple time-zones, sometimes even with the same city or country or state; I have lived in three countries, my reach extends, bringing me the joy of contact with the far flung, but also the melancholy of separation. I am growing older; I am a parent; at home, a human demands nurturing and rearing; an involvement that makes unprecedented demands on my commitments in time and energy. I willingly acquiesce. This sucks up the oxygen from other quarters; I do not seem to mind. There are new relationships now, ones demanding their own special species of nurturance.

This is a familiar, middle-aged lament. I’ve heard variants of it before; now, it’s my turn to join the chorus. This is not a wholly unfamiliar place to be; I’ve experienced variants of it before, at my life’s previous ‘stages.’ If there is a novelty to the precinct I have now entered, it is because my current melancholia–and I suspect that of others who make observations similar to mine–is infected with intimations of mortality. There might be no time for ‘reconciliation,’ for ‘rebuilding’; perhaps the changes we have observed in our relationships are irrevocable. It was a pleasant fantasy of years gone by that mistakes and catastrophes could always be put right somehow, that there was time and energy aplenty at hand. That illusion is no longer sustainable; our bodies have sent many intimations informing us of their lack of fidelity to our avowed goals; time has speeded up alarmingly; we now know that many of the farewells we will bid others will be final ones. (I suspect some of the notes I strike here might be a little overwrought; I am, after all, not confined to a retirement home or a hospice. Still.)

If there is a consolation in this state of affairs, it is the joy of new friendships; they do not replace the older ones, but fill my life in other ways. They address my changing person; they inform me of what I am becoming. And what I’m leaving behind.

A Memento Of Fellow Travelers, Long Since Moved On

I have in my possession, one photograph of the only graduation (‘commencement’) ceremony I have ever attended–that for my first graduate degree, in ‘computer and information science.’ (I did not want to attend the ceremony, expecting it to be tedious in the extreme–it was–but I did want to send a keepsake back to my mother in India, to let her know that her saving and scrimping had paid off, that I had not, as I had once feared, completely lost the plot and crashed and burned out of this new venture.)

In it, I am flanked by two young men, both undergraduates, and yet, among my closest, if not closest, friends then.One of them, ‘M’ is grinning broadly at the camera, positively beaming, still clasping his textbooks tightly, holding them close to his chest–he had come to campus that day to attend classes, and then, on realizing it was my graduation, had decided to join me in my celebrations. The other, ‘J,’ is also smiling, but with a difference; he is impatient, he wants the photographer to hurry up and get on with it. It is freezing cold, and J’s usual skimpy leather jacket, good for showing wimps how real men dressed for the East Coast winter, is simply not up to the task of keeping him warm through repeated poses for a shot.

‘J’ and ‘M’ were both engineering students; the former studied civil engineering, the latter, computer engineering. They were both good students, serious about their work, driven and ambitious; they both looked ahead to life after school. We all worked as peer counselors, and we spent many of our non-working hours together in the school pub, diligently working through one pitcher of beer after another, a combination of activities which led to raised eyebrows and some snickers. (Our conversations had a political flavor to them; ‘M’ was a black radical; ‘J’ a patriotic anti-commie, I was still finding my political feet, finding many of my older political certainties rudely disturbed after arrival in the US.)

‘M’ was Haitian-American, ‘J’ is Cuban-American; we were black, brown, and white. We all spoke second languages; we all had anchors of one kind or the other in lands outside the US. We were an odd trio; some called us ‘The Three Musketeers,’  others ‘The Terrible Trio,’ some just called us Black-Brown-n-White. They were, along with another Cuban friend of mine, the first serious friends I made in America. Through them, I experienced a slice of life which would have been denied me if I had confined myself to the usual graduate student life: meals with roommates, seminars, working on campus labs etc. My grades suffered, I’m sure, thanks to these escapades, but I wouldn’t do things differently if I had to. They elevated what could have been a life confined to the daily, the mundane, the weekday, into something far more variegated; they helped me look under, over, and around the fairly conventional surface of an international graduate student’s life on my campus. (Which was, at the best of times, obsessed with merely getting through the day, the week, the semester; at its worst, you struggled against the persistent racism on campus.) They were a crucial component my introduction to life in America; my ‘American imagination,’ such as it is, was formed in conjunction and co-operation with them.

It would be the last photograph of the three of us together. No one died; but we all moved away and on. All of us, I think, have mementos and markers like this, reminding us of times and peoples gone by, stations and co-riders on this journey we are still undertaking.

A Small Remembrance

Over the weekend, I lost a friend to cancer. It was a rare, aggressive varietal, one that claimed her life all too soon. She was diagnosed in November last year, underwent surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy, but the onward march of the malignant tumors within her could not be halted, and so finally, this past Sunday, in the company of her loved ones, she breathed her last.  A few days before, I had understood that she had, to use the language which is so dreaded in cancer treatment, ‘gone terminal’ but I still expected her to be around for a few months at least. But on that fateful morning, when I awoke from a disturbed sleep, made some coffee and sat down at my computer to check my mail, I read the dreaded news: matters had taken a fatal turn, and she was no more.

I had come to know about her illness in January, and after spending a few weeks trying to set up a Skype meeting–the fifteen hour time difference with Australia considerably complicated matters–we finally spoke in March.  She looked well; there was no hair loss, even though she had lost some weight. Her spirits were high; though her cancer was a deadly one, certain features of her particular case had given her doctor and her hope. My wife tried to join the conversation but our toddler daughter was insistent and demanding and distracting, so she dropped in, said ‘hi’ and promised to write an email to say more. (She did.) We bade each other farewell, with a promise that we’d try to talk again sometime soon.  That never came to be.

My friend was an academic, an accomplished psychologist, who wrote acutely and sensitively on–among other things–emotions, narcissism, and psychoanalytic theory; she was a polymath who could talk comfortably about art, literature, and poetry; she practiced yoga well enough to be a teacher; she made ceramic pieces which bore the imprint of her distinctive style; she was a connoisseur of good food and wine; she was a loving partner and mother.  She lived far away from me, but when we met it always was as if the years would roll away. She gave good hugs, she was interested in what I had to say, and she was unfailingly kind and encouraging. She was, to drag out that dreaded cliché, one of those that prove the bitter truth that only the good die young. There was nothing she could have done to prevent the cancer; it is rare, not hereditary, and has no known causes or indications in physical predispositions. She was, in a word that expresses our ignorance of this terrible world’s secret workings the most acutely, unlucky. As were all of those who loved her and cared for her.

All the verbal consolations I send to her partner and her daughter are of scant comfort; their grief is immense, their loss irreplaceable, and I can only offer bromides from a distance. Her death makes this world into a colder and crueller place. But she lived a good life, and she made those she met and worked with and made a home with happier. Those are not insignificant blessings. May her spirit live on.

An Epistolary Relationship For The Ages

Shortly after I finished high-school I bade goodbye to a good friend. He was headed to the United Kingdom, to join his father–he had taken up a job with a civil engineering firm. My friend would, so to speak, ‘repeat’ high school; he would take his A-levels and then seek university admission. I was sad to see him go; he had been a constant companion, providing a nerdy interlocutor for conversations about cricket, music, science, and of course, girls. We had cut school and harassed teachers together; we had fretted about life after school together.

But all was not lost; we could write to each other. We resolved to do so. I was not lacking in confidence in my letter writing abilities; I had, after all, spent two years in boarding school and built up a diligent correspondence with my mother, and over the years I had often exchanged letters with my grandfather. I had some facility in the art of writing a letter.

And so it came to be. For five years, from 1984 to 1989, as my friend finished his university education, we corresponded regularly. We wrote letters by hand, sometimes on plain sheets of paper, which were then folded and stuffed into vintage airmail envelopes–the ones with those colorful, seemingly serrated, blue and red borders–and sometimes, more conveniently, but less thrillingly, we wrote on Indian postal service aerogrammes.

My friend wrote to me about his school, the friends he made, the music he listened to–the kinds of things boys and young men in the making talk about. We discussed the Indian cricket team’s fortunes; we lamented sporting failures; we crowed over sporting glory. We ‘talked’ about the movies we had seen, and sometimes, in a nod to our growing maturity, we offered each other commentary on the world’s geopolitical state.

I looked forward to his letters; I presumed he did the same on his end. The sight of that aerogramme, the airmail envelope, marked with the distinct impress of her Her Majesty’s Postal Service and my friend’s stylish, busy handwriting, never failed to produce a little thrill. I would tear open the flaps, making sure not to destroy the missive visible within, and then, eagerly read through its contents.

I left India in 1987, but our correspondence continued. My address, my zipcode, changed; my friend’s did not. Now I typed up my letters using the fancy word processors whose use I had recently mastered; I used laser printers to produce gleaming printouts on fancy white paper; my letters sped across the Atlantic, powered now by the US Postal Service. Besides his letters, my friend sent me newspaper cuttings with cricket scores, commiserating with the sad deprivation I was now subjected to in the Land Without Cricket.

Early in 1989, we both switched to email. Later that year, my friend moved to California to begin his graduate studies. We continued to write but the frequency of our correspondence began to trail off. We met each other on our trips to the East Coast and West Coast; we spoke on the phone.  Later, after finishing business school in Boston, he moved to New York City and began work, first with a management consulting firm, and then later, with an internet startup. He got married; he had two children. Our lives steadily grew apart; I was a graduate student and an academic; he was a businessman. He once suggested my failure to respond adequately to a message from him indicated we had grown too far apart; I said I did not think so, and shortly thereafter we met again for a drink. All seemed well.

Last year, after my daughter was born, he wrote me an angry email, asking why he had not been sent a birth announcement, why I had not visited him in India on my last trip there. I wrote back, pointing out the only announcement I had made had been on Facebook, that I had not informed anyone on an individual basis, that my trip to India had been consumed by familial commitments and even some legal hassles. My explanation did not seem adequate to him; he did not write back. I have not heard from him since.

But I have not forgotten his postal address from those five years of sustained correspondence: 102 Wandle Road, Morden, Surrey, SM4 6AE UK.