Remembering Papiya Ghosh

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Five years have passed by after the senseless and tragic loss of my sister, Papiya.  Over this time I have had to accept that I will not be able to see her or get a bear hug (as she used to call her hugs) from her. Yet it is difficult for me to think of Papiya in the past tense.

She used to live alone in our parental house after the passing of our mother. Malti Devi who had been a domestic help in our house since 1964 was also tragically murdered at the same time as Papiya. I used to worry about the possibility of robbery in the house. However, I had never imagined that Papiya and Malta’s lives would be extinguished in such a violent manner. Our hometown has not witnessed a crime of this nature as far as recalled by octogenarians who have lived at Patna almost all their lives. Yet there has been hardly any consistent expression of quest for investigations for this outrageous crime in the local civil society or in the local media.

Papiya’s physical body suffered much in the hands of the criminals who took her life. I often dream of her valiantly and single handedly fighting the criminals. Ultimately she succumbed to the physical assaults from the criminals. However, her spirit will live on amongst all of lives were touched by her. Papiya was seven years younger than me. I treated as one of my kids in some ways. I used to be reminded by her that she is not a "kid".  I feel blessed to have Papiya as my sister. She was also my friend, philosopher, spiritual advisor, counselor for dealing with life’s adversities and much more…

We were also partners in finding humor in the trials and tribulations of everyday lives. Her hearty laughter still rings in my ears. Our mother used to say that Papiya is the epitome for an old Sanskrit adage that roughly translates to “embracing all citizens of the world as relatives (Basudhaiv kutumbakam).”

Papiya touched the lives of the large circle of friends, acquaintances and professional colleagues in an extraordinary manner.  She had worked very hard to maintain the friendships with persons living in different cities in India and in the far flung corners of the globe. She never failed to wish anyone for the significant days in their lives; their birthdays or anniversaries and even their children’s birthdays.

Over the years we were used to receiving calls from Papiya to wish us before anyone else did. I have heard that the ability to listen to others stems from their ability to love others.  Papiya was extremely generous to anyone who needed to open their hearts no matter. From this perspective she gave her love unconditionally. Anyone who had got an embrace (or rather a bear hug Papiya would fondly refer to these hugs) can recall them being long, warm and full of genuine affection. Underneath her tough exterior lay a very kind, gentle and totally compassionate heart. She had a tremendous love for music (of a diverse genre), poetry, arts, theater, films good books travel and all things cultural. She was indeed a true bibliophile. Additionally, she went through many different newspapers and magazines-much more than any one I have ever known.

Papiya 1956Papiya 1956Papiya did not like school when she was very young. I am quite sure this had to do with almost rigid personality of her teachers in the first year of school. She used to send notes to our mother through Sitab Gope (he used to bring the afternoon lunch for my sisters to their school). The notes had a common theme: something to the effect of “please come and get me out of school”. Little did we know that Papiya would become an internationally renowned scholar historian and academician.

After the tragic loss of our father in 1957, our mother started to teach in Bankipur Girls School at Patna. We used to take turns falling sick throughout the school year. Ma had limited number of “casual leave days” off from her work. Ma asked one of our family friends, Mrs. Pratima Baksi, to come by to our house and watch Papiya when she was convalescing because Ma was running low on the number of days available for casual leave. Baksi Aunty read stories to Bumble, feed her and be with her all day till Ma came back from work. We soon realized that Baksi Aunty started calling Papiya “Dost” and insisted that Papiya should call her “Dost”. Baksi Aunty was a wonderful person. She herself went through a number of trials and tribulations in her personal life. For many years she never failed to send card to her “Dost” for her birthday. The spirit of true “Dosti” grew on Papiya.

Papiya’s nick name was Guddu.  Our father happened to be away on tour to Godda subdivision of Santhal Parganas, shortly before her birth. This nickname perhaps had something to do with our father’s tour to Godda shortly before her birth.  Our Mother also used to call her “Gora”. I cannot recall exactly we had started calling her Bumble. This is how the sisters addressed her. There was some connection with Bumble bee and the Bee got dropped from her growing list of nick names (a tradition in our family)!

Papiya’s kindness to the domestic helpers in our house was evident at a very young age. Our dhobi, Doman Lal, was always giving us grief by losing clothes or bed linen. Of course this made our mother upset. However, Papiya was sympathetic to Doman Lal and his large family. She used to ask him all kinds of questions to make him to feel at ease. Doman Lal confessed only Guddu Baba talks to him. He told her that he was a dhobi in the Indian Army and had been to Singapore. We had no way to check the authenticity of what Doman Lal was saying to Bumble.

Bumble seemed to able to get extract information from Doman Lal. Later Bumble had come up with the name “Neanderthal Man” for Doman Lal. Doman Lal would have been fired from his job had it not been Bumble’s persuasion with Ma to have his family employed for the bulk washing jobs in our household for many years. After Doman Lal passed away, one of his sons (Ramesh) continued to provide Dhobi Service to our household.

Bumble had named our cook, Jetha Hansda (a native of Santhal Parganas) “Bok”. I do not recall exactly how this nomenclature came about. Bok was from her birthplace, Dumka. There was a special rapport between Bumble and Bok. Bumble used to engage Bok all kinds of interesting conversations about his village and his family back in Santhal Parganas.

Our Ayah, Ramdi, was very fond of Guddu and Tuktuk. She used to wait with Keya, Papiya and Tuktuk for the School Bus. She also waited for the school bus to drop them off. She was very protective of all of us. Malti Devi started working for our household in the summer of 1964. She had three young kids in the village and had recently lost her husband. Malti used to be the quite a worker in the initial years in our household. After ayahji’s departure in the early 70’s, Malti took on more responsibilities in running our mother’s household. After our Mother’s passing in 1997 Malti stayed on with Papiya.

Malti and PapiyaShortly after our mother passed away, Malti had a severe heart attack. Papiya took excellent care of her. From this point Malti’s health declined. Papiya was always there for her every time she ran into a health problem. Malti received much loving care and nursing from Bumble. She made sure Malti received the best possible medical care whenever she was not well. Malti’s grandsons often were negligent towards her ill health. But Papiya stood by her. She used to call Malti every day whenever she was out of town. 
 
In later years in her school she had an outstanding teacher, Mrs. Marie Pereira. Under Mrs. Pereira’s guidance Papiya’s academic talents really blossomed. Also, she started to participate in debates and school plays. Additionally she was selected as the Head Girl for her class in the final year of her school. I had been to see of plays and debates in which Papiya participated. I felt very proud to watch her talents being nurtured at school.

Mrs. Pereira had taken her neighbor, Vaishali, and Papiya to Bombay for about ten days during one summer vacation. None of her siblings had been to any metro cities other than Kolkata. After Papiya’s return from this trip she narrated the details of her trip in great detail. I was pleasantly surprised at her capacity to absorb the smallest of details and the ability to express her experience in an articulate manner.


I recall two incidents about Bumble’s fondness for movies. During one of our visits to Kolkata we were planning to go to see the movie “Summer Holiday” with one of our cousins (Anjalidi). Bumble found out our plans not to include the little sisters in this outing. She made sure we took her along to see the movie. She liked the songs from this movie. She used to love the theme music from the movie ‘Come September”. There was not much chance to watch English movies at Patna. Either you could catch them at a10 AM show on Sundays or rarely they would be shown during the evening shows months after they had been shown in the major metros.
 
Once again Keya and I were planning to go see this movie by ourselves. But we could not go without including Bumble.  She came with us and thoroughly enjoyed the movie and the music. Bumble had begun developing her own lingo by the time she was in her teen years. This lingo was included words from Hindi, Bengali, English and Magahi and Bhojpuri. She was developing knack of coming up with unique nicknames for many persons.

By the time Bumble got to the upper school her circle of friends was pretty big. She also developed a small circle of close friends with whom she remained in touch constantly.  She did very well in her ISC exams. She had six months of free time before the start of College. She decided to take a teaching job in Notre Dame Academy, Patna. She also took typing lessons and took Sitar Lessons. I still recall her sitting on the bed and practicing sitar in the morning hours on holidays. She became very good at playing the Sitar. Ma had asked Bumble to buy something for herself when she started earning salary from the teaching job at Notre dame. She did not buy anything for herself. She took care of the lamination of the dinner table. She was only sixteen years at the time. But her sense of responsibility towards to the family was already deeply rooted and this was very much very much on her mind. She was the epitome of the adage of “simple living and high thinking” from a very early age.


Papiya 1969Papiya 1969She joined Patna Women’s College in 1970. In addition to being excelling in studies, she also took part in organizing programs for the student body in the college. Our father was a student of History. Keya was studying History Honors at Patna College. Papiya also loved History as a subject and decided to pursue the honors program in History for her Bachelor’s degree. She did very well in her studies. She was an excellent organizer of events for the student body at the College. She was elected the College Premier for her third year in the college.


Either in 1969 or 1970 Bumble and Tuktuk started to write letters to the “Kookie Kol” featured in   the Junior Statesman, an English periodical that was popular among younger generation living mostly in the major metro cities and too some extent in the provincial towns. I must admit I did not always understand the message conveyed in these letters. Nevertheless I was very proud of my sisters who were submitting letters that were being read all over India. I used to have fun introducing myself as the older sister of Papiya and Tuktuk. They were cultural icon of sorts in the print media popular with some sections of the India youth!
 
In September 1971 I left for Canada to pursue a Ph.D. degree. This was the time when we relied almost exclusively on the exchange of letters to stay in touch. Letters took anywhere between ten to fourteen days to make their trip between India and Canada. There was no satellite driven phone calls. I used to yearn to hear the voices of my mother and sisters. Phone calls were too expensive and it took days to get through an operator assisted call. I used to receive daily mail from my mother and sisters during most of stay this time. None of my fellow students from India received as many letters as I used to receive from home.


I regret having missed out on seeing my younger sisters go through college. As fate would have the two older sisters left home within a span of one and half months. Keya was married in mid October, 1971.

 

There was much unrest in Bihar starting in 1973. This was the movement led by Late JP Narayan. This movement engaged the attention of college and university students all over Bihar and especially at Patna. Academic calendars were disrupted for indefinite closure of colleges. Given the uncertain academic environment in Patna, Papiya went to Delhi University to pursue the Master’s degree in History. I was able to see my family only in September 1975 after I finished the Ph.D. degree. By this time I had married Om Bansal whom I had met at McMaster University, Canada.


Bumble was already in Delhi. Om and I visited her in Delhi November 1975 after we  visited Keya, Manas and Saurav in Bangalore.  She had made a remarkable adjustment in to life in the Post Graduate domain of Delhi University (both academically and in living in the PG Women’s Hostel). Everyone seemed to know Bumble in the hostel. She took us to the spots she used to like to visit-the Tibet Mon, Nirula’s, Wenger’s and Bankura restaurant in the Old Cottage Industries Emporium location in the short time we spent with her.


Bumble really liked the book of English translation of the Japanese Haiku poems I had brought for her. She was interested to know about our experience of the Canadian university we had attended. It was clear that she had already embarked on a life long journey of learning – not just the subject of her study in its narrow context but to know things beyond the chronological narration of events. The academic environment at Delhi was definitely more conducive to the learning process than the one at Patna.


I had spent some more time with Bumble in April 1976 just before her MA Final papers. I was in Delhi chasing papers needed for the visa for my return to Canada.  This was a huge distraction from her studies because I was in the hostel room with her. But Bumble never let me feel this. I also noticed that she was being sought out by many of the students for pouring out their hearts. Bumble dealt with them with much patience and understanding of their personal predicaments.


I feel that these students felt comfortable with Bumble and were able to get a big picture analysis of whatever it was that was bothering them.


Bumble worked very hard and earned three degrees from Delhi University (MA, M.Phil and PhD) over the ensuing years. She also started teaching History at Hindu College (Delhi) after her MA degree. She was doing very well in teaching. She could have stayed in Delhi or sought out assignments abroad but she decided to return to Patna in 1979 to be with her mother and Kaku who were advancing in age. She joined her alma mater, Patna Women’s College, as a lecturer in History. She taught at Patna Women’s College for eleven years before being transferred to the Post Graduate Dept of History, Patna University after a promotion. She was an avid reader of books, magazines, journals and as well as many newspapers. She was always aware of current developments in many fields. Over the years she had built up a huge collection of books on a wide variety of topics.


Papiya GhoshPapiya was a very dedicated teacher. She prepared for hours for lecturers. Her lectures on the same topic were not recycled. She always introduced current materials into her lectures. She often used her own money to make photocopies of materials for her students. The academic environment at Patna was fraught with lack of leadership at the university level, exploitation of unrest among students and teachers by elements outside the university. Papiya was determined to carry on her research in the history of Bihar. Very few of her colleagues appreciated her enthusiasm for improving teaching standards at Patna. Nor did they appreciate her research interests in the history of Bihar or its people. Teaching did not leave much time for research. But she managed to collect a lot of research materials from the Archives of Bihar Government. She went though many hurdles to get access to the papers that were related to her research subjects.


She had spent three months with us in the US in the summer of 1986.We all have very precious and fond memories of her stay with us. We traveled to Niagara Falls, Toronto, Montreal, Boston and New York with her. She loved the Niagara Falls. She loved the Boston Tea party site. We walked around the Harvard Campus with her. She loved the Broadway theater district and the Times Square.  She had also traveled to the San Francisco area to spend some time with her childhood friend, Reshma Nigam. Our children had an opportunity to spend some time with Bumble. Bumble was not just a Masi for them but also their friend. She could relate to them in a special way.


She took a leave of absence from Patna University to do some work at the Nehru Memorial Library (New Delhi) in 1992-93.  She wrote several articles based on her research work. These works were published in reputed journals. She received two fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation - one for three months in 1994 (University of Chicago) and in 1996-97 (South Asia Consortium, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC). She used this time to research on the Post Partition South Asian Diaspora. She also received a fellowship to work in her research topics at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla (1993-94) and again in 1998. She was planning to publish a trilogy of books to summarize her research on the Diaspora. The first one was published posthumously a few weeks after her tragic loss of life.


Papiya took on all of the responsibilities of running ma’s house after Ma’s passing on in 1997. She did not have any reliable help in running the establishment. She had to attend to many maintenance issues related to the sprawling establishment at Patna. She did not have much time for research work after taking care of the household chores and after spending time in commuting to the university. Yet I never found her complaining about the fact that she was left alone to take care of the entire establishment by herself. The atmosphere at the university was hardly of an academic establishment. Her professional colleagues did not appreciate her suggestions to bring the curriculum on par with other academic centers in India. Nor were they appreciative of the research she was doing. She was basically to navigate through this difficult path totally on her own. Only some of the students appreciated her efforts. Between 1998 and 2004 she had some major surgeries and had other health issues. None of this could detract her from her dedication to teaching and research. Her sense of humor was absolutely “buland” through all of the trials and tribulations.


We had a chance to spend some time with Papiya during the early part of 2002. She was here to present a paper at a conference at the University of Pennsylvania and to chair a session at a conference in Washington DC. We took Bumble to see the Cherry Blossom Festival at Washington DC’s tidal basin area. This is one of my most memorable times spent with Papiya.  


I was not able to spend as much time as I would have liked to spend with Papiya Bumble during my trips to India in Early 2000s. But during these short stays we talked endlessly, sort of caught up, learnt yoga positions, shared a lot of laughter about many things (including the computer conundrums) - things that could not be done either through her daily e-mails or our phone conversations. She used to make so many arrangements for all of us whenever we went to Patna. Just like Ma, she used to make sure our favorite dishes were cooked at home. She took us around for temple-hopping (in her parlance) and drove us around to wherever we wanted to go despite being so overworked. Bumble loved new gadgets but almost had a phenomenal fear of all things technological. We used to tease her about this.


Papiya at home.Papiya at home.After the year 2000, lawlessness in Patna was rampant. I used to worry about her and Malti being alone. I brought up the topic of considering a night guard during one of my later trips. She was a courageous person and turned down the idea of keeping a guard.


Papiya was a spiritual person. She was inspired by the ideas presented in Sufism. She also very disciplined person in every sense. She planned for things ahead of time and always punctual. She did not like to waste time. She was an inspiring figure in our lives and the focal point of our family. She derived pleasure out of the small and simple things in life. She picked up unique gifts for all of us and for her friends wherever she went. She was honest at core - a rare trait in today’s time. Papiya gave us unconditional love and did not expect anything in return.


She wanted us very much to visit India in the summer of 2006. I regret not being able to do so due to some reasons beyond my control.


The last time I saw Papiya was in August 2005. I had spent five days with her in Patna. Before leaving for the US, I had a chance to see her over three days in Delhi. She was there for a conference. She wanted me to join for walks through the Lodi Gardens early every morning. I was not able to rise up in time to join her. Little had I realized that I will never get this opportunity again. One of these days Bumble and I had lunch at the Hotel Imperial on Janpath. We had heard that our father used to like this hotel. We went to the Parliament’s press gallery to view the proceedings and went to visit our youngest sister Tutuk in her office in the Parliament. At that time she was serving as the Principal Secretary to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. We felt very proud of our sister and exchanged meaningful glances while we were in her office.


Bumble had treated me to breakfast before I took the S. I had promised that I will visit her soon most likely in 2006. But that did not happen to materialize.


I am borrowing a poem (by Constance Parker Graham) to convey my feelings about Bumble:


Special People

Some people
Have a special gift
Of giving other hearts a lift,
Roses, rainbows, a sunny smile
Whatever makes a day worthwhile
They give warmth
And understand,
The art of lending a friendly hand
They always know
What help you need
They are very special people indeed,
Who somehow
always seem to guess
Just to bring you happiness.

 


Yes indeed Papiya is a very special person. Her loss is irreparable for our family. Now we are left only with her memories of her laughter, voice, gestures and her whole being. There are many things that remind me of her every day. Her life was extinguished in a matter of hours.

 

What is most regrettable is that this heinous crime was carried out at a location that is about 100 meters from the nearest police station and is on a major intersection of roads.  Papiya was possibly overpowered by the criminals and she never had a chance to use her cell phone to call or just shout for help. 

 

We had hoped that justice would be delivered. However, time will tell us whether that happens or not. Our family will carry forward Papiya’s legacy and honor her memory in as many ways we possibly can.

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