Home > 2019 > Scholar Accessible: Rabindra Ray (1948-2019)

Mainstream, VOL LVII No 15 New Delhi March 30, 2019

Scholar Accessible: Rabindra Ray (1948-2019)

Sunday 31 March 2019


by Swatahsiddha Sarkar

Least did I expect the person who kept on grilling me around a single point during my Ph.D entrance interview at the Delhi School of Economics (D’School hereafter) to become my supervisor and then a lot more. His persistent point of query during the interview—“are the Gorkhas a community?”—not only allowed me to think and argue with him there at the interview board but also made me realise during my lengthy Ph.D period that I was trying to find an answer to this fundamental question throughout. My thesis on the Gorkhas is but a convincing reply to his poser raised on the very first occasion that communities evolve out of the negotiations between the material and cultural and are transposed in the way they are thought to be, spurious or genuine, constructed or primordial, let alone instrumental in the process or focus. This is what found a form amidst innumerable dialogues and discussions with this ‘accessible scholar’, my teacher Dr Rabindra Ray, who breathed his last on January 15, 2019 in Mathura Bhaban, C.R. Das Road, Darjeeling where he lived taking care of his ailing mother who is in her mid-90s.

My acquaintance and intimacy with Dr Ray grew out of difference (the notion he used to celebrate throughout his life and work) and when a unity of opposite defines a relationship one can presume that the dialectics of that relationship would drive into making a repository of qualitative changes—be it in personality, ideas or even at the level of career accomplishments. My life in D’School began in December 2001. Within a few months I housed myself at the Doctor’s Court of Gwyer Hall where I came across fresh faces whose ambitions were different from mine and kept our ways separate. However, an intense curiosity about my supervisor steered them towards me; their observations and comments about him leaving me in anxiety and perplexed—what am I to expect of him? And then came the words of solace from someone I looked up to as my supervisor initially. He assured me that I was in the company of a genius, someone whose humanities and social science background would never be a hindrance in delivering a sensible speech on something as incongruous as cosmic ray where someone else would not be able to stand the ground for even a bare two minutes. Hence ‘Lalloo’, as he was addressed by most, was a challenge to outwit, convince and sub-merge oneself into to inculcate the lifetime habit of practising the art of thinking.

With each passing day at D’School I realised why Rabi Ray was the unconventional one— a man full of stories, not gossips—as his ventures, scholarly or otherwise, were all accomplished and undertaken in broad daylight under every scrutinising eye. He was a man of no compromise and could be worst (or may be his best) when teased academically. Once he resigned from the position of Chairman of the Board of Research Studies (BRS) when one of his colleagues requested him to simplify the language of the resolutions of one BRS meeting drafted by him. These could be considered symptomatic of the very fact that a scholar like Rabi Ray had to retire as an Associate Professor, and could never be promoted as a Professor within the academic system prevalent in our country. All this despite the fact that the Oxford University Press thought it significant to honour his scholarship by publishing the third edition of his magnum opus, The Naxalites and their Ideology (1988), with a new After word in 2011. I just can’t resist myself from quoting the narration of his D’School days from his Personal Concerns (2009:176): “Perhaps I have reached my destined place. Arrived—in an internal sense. At any rate arrived at my destined vocation. The feeling is strong. Despite the discomfort in the company of all those with whom I have to do, and will have to continue to have to do if I am to continue as I am. To which I see no alternative. Feel for no other alternative.”

The teacher Rabi Ray could never be found inside the confinement of his chamber. Some-times in the lawns of D’School, sometimes in front of Singhji’s photocopy shop, and mostly on the steps of RTL (Ratan Tata Library), Rabi Ray was always teaching beyond the boundaries of the class room. Initially I was a bit uncom-fortable as I did not really anticipate a Visva-Bharati out of D’School but later I realised that Ray was actually trying to create a little Oxford within D’School, that Oxford where he spent his days doing a Ph.D after spending some glorious days as a Naxalite revolutionary in his own country and was disenchanted consequently. In fact, his OUP book is a treatise of that disenchantment. And he wanted to bring Oxford within D’School. The D’School premise for him, as for his students, was a space where he was accessible to anybody and everybody to indulge in a guff, his mode of nurturing the dialectics between free thinking and debate in an ingenious manner.

Scholar Rabi was best known to the outside world through his thesis on the Naxalite ideology. However, among his students and admirers he was highly regarded more as a philosophical anthropologist—one who cele-brated difference and encouraged the search— anthropology by Ray’s standard—for the coherence of cultures in their own autonomous terms and through their differences, reciprocal influences and complexities pitted against the mundane, commonplace and taken-for-granted worldviews. Modernist Rabi was quite often misconstrued as ‘pomos’ in the face of his writings that blended the tints of Nietzschean style, Derridian esotericism, and Foucultian polemics—all at once.

Stephenian Rabi began his journey as a revolutionary activist in the CPI-ML in 1971 immediately after he completed his under-graduate (in English as major). The journey later continued as a passionate follower of the Leninvadi Sangathan and finally he moved away from Marxism in 1977 and opted for a ‘free- intellectual’ tag coming back to studies that fetched him a First Class First MA degree from Christ College, Kanpur University in 1979 and finally a D.Phil from Lincoln College, Oxford University in 1986. Soon after his return home he joined the G. B. Pant Institute of Social Sciences in 1986 as a Research Associate and continued there until he moved to D’School from where he finally retired in 2013. He was one among those very few fateful ‘others’ to have an entry in the D’School faculty without a formal training from the same institute and was successful in creating an aura of his own ever since he joined the D’School as a Sociology Lecturer in 1989.

Rabi Ray was instrumental in setting up the European Studies Programme in D’School (during 2009-2010) sponsored by the European Union. The study of Europe, of European modernity and its many manifestations as reflected in issues such as culture, consumption, religiosity, secularism, freedom, dissent, terrorism, disenchantment, syncreticism and limits of Western Science fell within the genre of Rabi’s scholarship. Besides J.P.S. Oberoi— whom Rabi revered most from among his colleagues at D’School—it was he who reflected on the European Shadow (2010) that has engulfed our life, ideas and institutions.

The personal concerns of Rabi as a painter and a poet were little known beyond his close circuit of friends, students and admirers. A hastily-made search at his Darjeeling residence (on January 17, 2019) by his disciples unearthed around fifty handwritten notebooks written in consistently beautiful ink pen graphics in italics of an unpublished series of poems, reflections, memoirs, and scholarly essays on critical sociology/ anthropology. His published collection of poems must have been drawn from some of these but the unpublished treasure house can still anticipate many such Highways and Byways (1991) for the sensitive mind. The poet Rabi could thus transcend his aloneness through words that ring as follows (probably the last one written by him on November 1, 2018):

Alone in a populated world teeming with life./The wealth of relations a richness to the tapestry of which destiny is woven./No one stands or falls by our action but our only self.

After his retirement from D’School Rabi chose the Darjeeling hills as his abode of peace and tranquility. He settled here with that one bond he cherished throughout his life—the bond with his mother. So with his ‘wealth of relations’ with which his ‘destiny was woven’, Rabi seemed to have found the fruitfulness of superannuation caring for his dear mother and also warming up to the cool climate of Darjeeling to work significantly and with mirth. His Visiting Faculty assignment with Tejpur University took him to Assam several times. Rabi incessantly motivated his students to pursue scholarship in a regional language—to write pieces for regional newspapers and if possible books in vernacular languages. It needs to be mentioned that his insistence on the need for scholarship based on a regional language was not a prima facie attempt to consolidate the Alatasian framework of indigeneity in social sciences. What he insisted is perhaps best expressed through his Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Lecture in Hindi on Darshan ki Shiksha aur uski Prayojanshilta (2014) and later the book that he published in Hindi Parampara aur Samakalin Sabhyata (2017). Ray’s take was that practising scholarship in a regional language does not necessarily mean regional scholarship per se. One should write in a vernacular language and can well do global sociology situating in a region and on the situatedness of a region. This question of situating and situatedness of scholarship was made crystal-clear by him. “We know European ideas better but not the European reality while we know Indian reality better but not Indian ideas. The need is to converge this taken-for-granted parallelism between ideas and spaces.” Experi-encing all these dynamics in his writings, thoughts and advices I once asked him—with the obvious hope of getting encouraged by his reply—during my Delhi days about how long he used to study each day. His instantaneous reply was, of course, mixed with a lot of humour: “I have read a lot during my Oxford days... now I write each day...so that others may read... Myself a Prakanda Vidwan you know!”And this prakanda vidwan allowed his unsurpassable knowledge to flow in all directions, thus inspiring a whole generation of scholars to think and do differently, while keeping the warmth for life intact.

Dr Sarkar is a Professor and Director, Centre for Himalayan Studies, University of North Bengal, Darjeeling (West Bengal). He can be contacted at e-mail: ss3soc[at]gmail.com

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