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.

Vale Jonathan E. Adler (1949-2012)

On Saturday, along with many others, I attended a simple–yet intensely emotionally moving–memorial service for Jonathan Adler, formerly Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. Jon and I had been colleagues in the Philosophy Department at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center; before that Jon had served on two of my graduate committees: first, for my oral exam and then, for my dissertation defense.

During the summer and fall of 1997, I had struggled to schedule my oral exam and to constitute its committee; Jon helped on both counts and ensured my reading list was both comprehensive and reasonably sized. I soon learned that Jon–while genial in his personal interactions–could be a formidable examiner; he would not tolerate any sloppiness or philosophical clumsiness in responses to his questions. When the oral exam began, he asked the first question–on Dorothy Edgington’s “Conditionals’; I thought I had hit it out of the park; only when Jon asked his follow-up did I realize I hadn’t. (Earning a passing grade with distinction on the orals meant a great deal with Jon on the examining committee!)

Later, while serving on my dissertation committee, Jon ensured that my thesis, which was ostensibly a work in mathematical logic, paid its dues to the normative and prescriptive epistemology that lay at its core. He read the entire work carefully, and despite disagreeing with me at many points–‘I’m not sure what you are calling beliefs are in fact, beliefs to begin with’–offered many useful critical comments that helped me sharpen its arguments.

Jon did philosophy the right way. He read a lot, wrote a lot, thought a great deal about what he read and wrote about, talked with his students and colleagues, and remained unfailingly courteous throughout. He attended many philosophy colloquia, and his mannerisms in asking his invariably-acute questions became familiar: he would remove his glasses, before carefully phrasing his query. He was never rude or abrasive, thankfully disdaining the philosophy-as-contact-sport model so beloved of too many in its academic community. When I worked on a knowledge attribution analysis for my work on the legal theory of autonomous artificial agents, I made sure I ran it by him, trusting that if there were fatal errors in its framing, Jon would be sure to point them out to me. Knowing that Jon was sympathetic to the intuitions expressed in the analysis was critical to my confidence that it would work as intended.

The memorial service on Saturday concluded with a beautiful slideshow that showed us a set of wonderful photographs from Jon’s life, accompanied by Van Morrison’s Philosopher’s Stone. As I watched the photos flash by, set to Morrison’s distinctive voice, encapsulating in their frames Jon’s powerful and vivid personality, I realized again what we lose in a friend’s passing: a very particular world come to an end, taking with it all its experiences. Jon inhabited the world he lived in in his own unique way, bringing a little bit of himself into each life he came into contact with, enriching its world by his wisdom and humanity.