Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shraddhanjali: Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta

This is a written tribute for my teacher, Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta, because we both love words.

Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta passed away yesterday. I read the news on Twitter. Since then, I have mentally drafted this blog post a dozen times. But now as I sit here, all those drafts elude me.

I look at this photograph that I took the last day I worked with him. It quickly brings back the two most decisive years of my professional life.

But I should begin this story from the beginning, shouldn't I? I know I have narrated it several times, but today I will place it in the public domain, on the record.


I was in Bird Library, Syracuse, working on what was to be my MA thesis. There was a slim book on the shelves, "India's Nuclear Options?" which recorded the proceedings of a seminar at a place called Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. It was edited by a Bhabani Sen Gupta. I loved the book, loved that it brought a wide range of opinions together and I cited it extensively in my thesis.


I moved back to India, decided to sit for the Civil Services Exams, made it to the Viva in my second attempt. I stayed on a few days in Delhi after the Viva, and I remember sitting in my aunt's Som Vihar living room, drapes drawn against the Delhi afternoon sun, looking for a 'Bhabani Sen Gupta' in the phone directory. I called and asked for an appointment. Dr. Sen Gupta was going to be at the India International Centre at 11, I could meet him before his meeting. Off I went.

It was only my second visit to the IIC and I sat on the porch facing the driveway and waited for this famous person whose face I would not recognize. I watched people, wondering who they were. I looked at the beautiful plants around me. And then, Dr. Sen Gupta came. I sat with him in the lobby area in front of the library/ auditorium, and he asked me about my studies and my thesis. He listened attentively, smiled benignly and asked me to send him the thesis and any other papers I had written. I was over the moon. No one had ever asked me such things before. I did, promptly, by registered post. And that was that.


I had got on the Civil Services merit list and been offered the Defence Estates Service. I wanted to quit right there. Relatives called and said, "Veettukku vandha Lakshmiyai vittudadhai." (Lakshmi has come home, don't turn her away.) I really had no interest in cantonment fittings, so I went back to Delhi in March 1989 to negotiate an "extension on joining time." Many trips to Army Bhavan, waiting for this one or that, and I had time to kill in between.

With the Bombayite's confidence, I simply found my way to Dharma Marg, and asked to meet Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta. I went up to his office. He looked up from his work and spoke the words I will never forget, the words that changed the direction of my life: "Why have you come today? The Director is not there and can't interview you."

I clarified, "Sir, you are mistaken, I did not come for an interview. I just came to say hello to you. I met you last year.."

"Yes, yes, but I wanted the Director to interview you. I need a research assistant."

I was then convinced he was mistaken. I remember informing him that I had no real education, I did not know how to do research and then, "I don't even know how to type!" He dismissed my efforts to make him see the light, and said, "Look, I have lost your writing samples. Go back and send them to me again. And can you come back to Delhi? Come back for an interview."

Alright! As young as I was, I knew better than to protest. I came back to Bombay, sent a second set of copies to Dr. Sen Gupta and then forgot about it. But within a few days this time, I got a telegram asking me to come to Delhi for an interview. I ran across to get my train ticket, went right back to Delhi.

In the many dark, hopeless moments that have occurred since 1989, the memory of my interview reminded me that someone out there thought I had something to offer the world. I cannot visit the CPR Director's office ever without remembering that interview.

Dr. Pai used to have a proper sofa set in the room. A long sofa against the outer wall, and then two single armchairs. I sat on the long sofa, and Dr. Pai and Dr. Sen Gupta on the single armchairs.

Dr. Sen Gupta told Dr. Pai he thought I would be a good research assistant. Dr. Pai was sceptical and asked me a few questions. He said to Dr. Sen Gupta, "She doesn't even want to be in academics. What will she do with this opportunity?" I agreed with him wholeheartedly. I said so. In spite of my good-girl upbringing which prohibits butting into a conversation between older people, I tried to add my reasons for thinking myself unsuitable. I really did. It was not modesty, believe me.

Dr. Sen Gupta was adamant. "I have a good instinct. This will work out very well." Against his better judgment, Dr. Pai gave in and agreed that I should come to work at CPR. I did not understand Dr. Sen Gupta's instinct, but knew this would be an amazing opportunity.

It was. It changed my life. Or rather, it opened up new possibilities in my life. And I type this, in tears, because all the sadness I felt yesterday is finally melting into tears... a few in grief, but mostly tears of profound gratitude. And most of all, it's gratitude for the faith Dr. Sen Gupta placed in me that day, and continued to place in me after that.

July 1989-December 1990

As agreed, I joined CPR on July 1, 1989. Dr. Sen Gupta asked me to sit in the library and read every book on democracy and government that I could find. There began my still-continuing relationship with the CPR library. I did that diligently, and found last year, on a return visit, that my name is still on the cards inserted in all those books!

At the end of a month or so, elections were about to happen, so he asked me to track election and campaign news. I did this with great enthusiasm. A series of small projects--actually research tasks at my end--followed. Law of the Sea (to brief the Foreign Minister!). Bhutan, for which I remember reading weeks and weeks of Kuensel back editions at the beautiful Bhutan embassy. Some IPKF-related work. I suppose it was the donkey-work of a research project but I loved it. I still love the join-the-dots, treasure-hunt, jigsaw puzzle parts of the research process greatly, and I owe that to the way in which Dr. Sen Gupta let me learn.

He would define a task broadly, give me some idea of its end-use or end-user. And then leave me to find my way.

This is how I did the first field research of my life. It was a Monday. Dr. Sen Gupta called me to his room and said, "Prepare a set of questions on inner-party democracy. I want you to interview Congress Party leaders from tomorrow."

Again I said, "I don't know how to do that. I don't know what to ask. How will I be able to talk to them?"

He pretty much shoved me into the deep end of the pool, dismissively saying, "You can do it, now do it."

For anyone who knows me as an academic or a teacher, I want to tell you I had no clue what to do. Why would anyone give me the time of day? What would I ask? It was not even the age of 24/7 TV when I could try and imitate an Arnab Goswami or Sagarika Ghose. I was scared out of my mind.

But I went to interview Balram Jakhar the next morning, because I had been told that I should do this and so I must. You know, it really wasn't scary. I came back and copied out my hand-written notes and wrote a little companion essay on what I saw and what I thought.

If you haven't met or worked with Bhabani Sen Gupta, then I want to tell you that one of the things that made him an amazing teacher is that he valued every kind of creativity. This is one of the things that I now treasure in my own life and try to encourage others to find place for in theirs. I think as the interviews went on, he enjoyed the profiles as much as the main interview notes were useful. He encouraged me to write.

To be precise, he encouraged me to type. As I took copious notes, painstakingly by hand, finicky about which pen, what kind of paper, he would urge me to type. It was faster, he said. I protested that my handwriting was good. Our compromise: I would take notes from books by hand--something I still like to do--but I would type up my interview notes and other random background materials I prepared.

I type this and think, "I should show the same faith in young people that I work with, that he had in me." After all, it turned out I wasn't as incompetent as I suspected! But I know why I am as I am.

I spent months at Akbar Road and then a long time at the BJP office. I came to Bombay for a fortnight and spent part of it working on the Shiv Sena. I interviewed people in the TDP and AGP. In the short span of six-seven months, if you wrung me out, I would have dripped party constitutions and ideologies.

I learnt many things about myself in this work. I loved this work. I loved the exploration and the learning. I loved struggling till the Eureka moment arrived. I loved meeting completely different people. The biggest surprise: People seemed happy to talk to me. As I gained confidence, my interviews were longer, took different directions. People seemed to take pleasure in telling me stories and teaching me things I didn't know (or they thought I didn't know). And... I really wanted to do this work all my life. I got an extension on my contract till December 1990.

The third UPSC attempt was not successful, and perhaps it was largely because my heart had already left the quest. The morning that the results came out, I was in my office early as usual, and when Dr. Sen Gupta came in around 11, he came straight to my room, opened the door and said, "What happened?" I told him. He said, "You know, I have never in my life regretted what did not happen."

I did not understand the wisdom of those words then. I must have nodded or made some other vague response. In all the years that followed, in all the many things that did not happen, I have remembered them. I understand them. And now I repeat them to people as well.

A good teacher teaches you to learn. And a great teacher teaches you about life.

The other life-lesson, one that could have only come from Dr. Sen Gupta, was delivered in the context of my tentatively asking for a day's leave to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Dr. Sen Gupta was delighted. Was I going with my boyfriend? No, with my cousins. Not a satisfactory answer. But then he said, "Why are you telling me this? You should just go. A little truancy is good for the soul."

I know that life-lessons are supposed to be serious and ponderous and about life and death, but if you know me at all, you know I need to be told that truancy is good for my soul. I have hugged this gem like a lifeline through the hard years of graduate school, when we were only supposed to think about positivism and IR theory, but I sneaked time out to read and paint and catch performances at the Krannert Center as well. I have quoted this to myself to justify watching Cary Grant instead of worrying to death about my H1-B visa and applying for my next temp job. I now use it when Prajnya work gets unbearably overwhelming and I want to just run away for a while. A little truancy is indeed, good for the soul. But it has to be a "little" truancy.

Mr. Kumar, from the CPR library, always described Dr. Sen Gupta as "bahut mehnati insaan." And that too, I saw and learnt. Age, experience, learning and influence still don't exempt you from reading extensively and learning new things. A long and impressive list of publications does not mean not revising your work. If he still worked that hard, then I must work that much harder. So I got to CPR at 9, stayed till 6, worked on Sundays--either at home or at CPR. Always at the back of my mind, was the thought that I must not let Dr. Sen Gupta down.

In 1989-90, CPR was like the shadow cabinet for VP Singh's government. There was a very close interaction between the two, and CPR's Monday morning seminars were often attended by VIPs. I would watch people come and go, and I was really curious. I also really saw it as a wasted learning opportunity for us younger people because we were explicitly not allowed to attend. I can understand that somewhat now, now that I am older. I expressed this view to Dr. Sen Gupta who did not disagree but suggested I put forward my case to Dr. Pai. I tell you, you grow up in Bombay, and you know neither hierarchy nor fear of authority. I made an appointment and said to him that I thought it was a wasted opportunity not to sit and listen to the best minds in the country. Dr. Pai listened and said, "Okay, you can come on occasion, but you must not speak and you must not write notes." I could listen and learn and that's all I cared about at that point. In my last few months, I would occasionally be invited to sit in the back and listen. And I learned so much from what I saw and what I heard, that I continue to be grateful to both of them for giving me this chance.

I could go on and on, and I suppose I have.

My time at CPR ended on December 31, 1990, but I continue to feel connected to this institution, its people and its ethos. It is a part of how I now imagine and find solutions for Prajnya. It is how I measure the quality of my own work. And if it hadn't been for Dr. Sen Gupta's faith in me, this would not have happened.

I left CPR an academic. I had come in as an IAS-IFS aspirant, thinking that was the way to contribute to India and make a difference. I left as a student who wanted to be a scholar, because at CPR, I had seen good scholarship make a difference.

I said earlier that a good teacher teaches you to learn and a great teacher teaches you about life but the rarest of teachers allows you to set your own curriculum, define your own interests. I have had two of those guide me. In addition to the work he assigned, Dr. Sen Gupta encouraged me to follow my own puzzles, suggested reading, urged me to go talk to others... and I have stacks of notes for dream projects that some day I will return to. (Stay tuned to learn about them!)

Half my life

I am 46 now. I was 24 when I first went to meet Dr. Sen Gupta. For half my life, whether I met him daily or not, whether I managed to visit or not, even after I stopped writing letters regularly to him, he has been a teacher whose counsel is part of my daily checklist of how to do this or how to look at that.

Soon after I left CPR, both Dr. Sen Gupta and I were in Chennai. He had come for the 40 years of Fulbright conference. His flight was delayed and I had the privilege of reading his paper. When he came here, I went with him to all his meetings. He came home for lunch and met my father. Today, I treasure that. In those days, my father was trying to run a newspaper and make it work commercially. Because I asked, Dr. Sen Gupta wrote a column for the paper for a long time. He understood what my father was tackling much better than any of us did, I think. I treasure the memory of their warm conversation around our dining-table. Today, neither of them is around.

I decided to return to graduate school after the CPR experience, and when I got a fellowship at the University of Illinois, I called Dr. Sen Gupta to ask him for advice. He told me, "Steve Cohen is a very good person. Go!" I did, and got yet another wonderful, very similar teacher in the bargain. And another teacher in the same mould, I would like to say!

Dr. Sen Gupta was a terrific teacher and mentor; but I would like to say that I was also a very obedient student. He thought I should be in journalism. I didn't. I still don't. He asked me to write 800 words a week for my father's paper. I obediently did. When I went to Bombay, he said I should go meet the TOI editor and ask to freelance. I hated the idea, but I obediently did. It was disastrous. But his instance that I should write never left me, no matter how hard journalistic writing is for me. I take to heart his constant instance that scholarship should be communicated and shared in simple language (also something Dr. Cohen believes, by the way!).

When I returned to India, others would ask, why don't you write, and at that point, my answer was, because I don't have the time and energy to beg an editor to publish my work. That shifted, people asked me, I wrote a few times for the Deccan Herald, the New Indian Express, for InfoChange... I never got around to telling him that or sharing the articles with him. (Dr. Sen Gupta would ask me to type, not write. I now type all day and my handwriting has deteriorated lamentably.)

I sent Dr. Sen Gupta a copy of my book. When I visited him right after my return to India, he was so happy to see me. He took me to his office, made me sit in his chair, told me he'd read my book, it was a good book but too academic. But for me it was enough that he read it. It was a blessing for all the things I wanted to do. There were still so many things he wanted me to do: to work at the grassroots, to write so that people could understand...

I was in Delhi on his birthday a couple of years later and stopped by to greet him on my way to the airport, and I gave him a copy of "Women, Security, South Asia." I never met him after that. Dr. Sen Gupta, that book is not so pedantic, I hope you liked it.

I have been to Delhi a few times, but somehow, I haven't gone back to see Dr. Sen Gupta. I feel a little sad about this today, but I also know that this is life. This is the way it unfolds. There is not a day when I don't think of him with gratitude and affection, and there won't be. This life, and the things I do, I do because he had faith in me that day. And I know Dr. Sen Gupta would rejoice in the things I do, would chuckle over some of my complaints and share my delight when things go right. I know he knows that his teaching will not leave me.

So many smaller memories: Being reminded to drink water before stepping into the Delhi sun for an interview. Him calling to ask about me after I had viral fever. Little homilies on love and life and work. Being taught to say I work 'with' someone and not 'under', which was the usage I had heard growing up.

The newspaper obituaries are describing Dr. Sen Gupta as political scientist, commentator and international expert, but he has been so much more: creative person, person of letters, friend, mentor to many, track-two pioneer, generous teacher, wonderful parent... In how many ways will we remember you, Dr. Sen Gupta, and in how many contexts, will we miss you?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bhogi Bogey

Today is Bhogi, the first day of the four-day Pongal festival in Tamil Nadu. Growing up in South Bombay, a completely urban creature, I can only tell you that I hear people make a bonfire of old, broken things--and agricultural waste, I presume--on this day. I have no idea.

The smoke in the air this morning got me thinking of 'Bonfire of Vanities,' a movie I haven't seen. I wondered, what if we made a bonfire of our negativities today? Would such a bonfire, made with mine, consume the universe in mythical mode?

Almost as if summoned, I could feel them all rise within me, from the corners to which they had been expelled in the last three relatively restful weeks. Acquisitiveness. Anger. Pride. Delusion. Envy. Fear. Ego. A poornaahuti on this day.

That's probably what it's meant to be. But can I do it? I don't know. Or am I too attached to my negativities to part with them so easily? Tough question.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Who would you cite? Southasian women writing international relations & security

This morning, I found this interesting, short (and yes, old) exchange between Daniel Drezner and Laura Sjoberg on how to write about women and international relations:,,

Then a little later I found Stephen Walt's and Foreign Affairs' reading lists on the same subject.
Stephen Walt's top 10 picks: Books by women on IR.  Also, see the comments for books he left out, notably those by Cynthia Enloe.
This is Foreign Affairs' list of what to read on women and IR.

It got me thinking about a similar Southasian list. Whose work/ which work would I place on that list? (And I should say that I am thinking of a feminist IR list and not a women scholars list.)

Rita Manchanda, ed., Women, War and Peace in South Asia, Sage, 2001.
Farah Faizal and Swarna Rajagopalan, eds., Women, Security, South Asia: A Clearing in the Thicket, Sage 2006.
Paula Banerjee, ed., Women in Peace Politics, Sage, 2008.

They're all Sage books, and they're all anthologies. Interesting, isn't it?

There are lots of other books that I would consider interesting, useful and must-reads but in this area, feminist scholarship/ scholarship by feminist writers is rare. WISCOMP has had an active research programme and has commissioned some very good work but their publications are not easily accessed in the public domain.

Related read:
Ammu Joseph and Kalpana Sharma, eds., Counter-Terrorism: Women Speak Out, Zed, 2003.

Well, who would you cite? I really would like to know.

PS: Paula Bannerjee reminded me of Anuradha Mitra Chenoy's work on gender and militarism. I should have remembered! But 4-5 works? That's it?


Last week, my niece arrived in Chennai seeking a visa-on-arrival for her two week visit. All her papers were in order and she got the visa, but it took her hours to get out of the airport. Why?

Immigration officials insisted she pay the visa fee in rupees. She had earlier been informed that she could pay in USD and she came prepared, but when she arrived, she was told the visa had to be paid for in INR.

First of all, most visitors are unlikely to have rupees in their possession when they arrive, because few foreign exchange dealers abroad deal in rupees.Second, if this is the rule, then there should have been a currency exchange counter at Immigration. Of course, there isn't. So the poor child had to wait to be escorted by Immigration officials to an ATM... OUTSIDE the arrival area.

Does this make any sense?

Contrast it to my recent Sri Lanka experience, when I landed, walked up to and out of Immigration in less than five minutes with a visa-on-arrival. And fee? What fee? I paid no fee. I am sure the costs of processing and monitoring my entry were built into something, but you know what, I don't really mind because entry itself was painless and pleasant. I felt welcome.

It's just as well my niece has a lot of equanimity or the day would have been ruined for her. It would have for me. I would have fretted, fumed and got really tired.

But what does it say about us? On the one hand, a visa-on-arrival is intended to promote tourism. On the other, this sort of regulation makes it a very unpleasant arrival and entry into India. Are we saying to people, "Please come to my house," or "Ya, whatever, don't care as long as I can 'vasool' your money?" Conflicting messages, humid weather on arrival and discomfiting arrival procedures can make a tired tourist turn tail and go right back!

There's outrage and beyond that outrage, we really have to ask what purpose is served by this policy and its silly attendant regulations. This is something that MEA, the tourism department and the Finance Ministry need to think about seriously.