Hari Vasudevan

A scholar and a gentleman

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Hari Vasudevan. Photo: By special arrangement

The Kolkata-based historian of Russian studies Hari Vasudevan (1952-2020) was a guru who gave his students the greatest of all gifts, the gift of intellectual independence.

In 2011 I lost my father, in 2012 I lost my mother, and in May 2020, I lost my guru, Dr Hari Vasudevan. This litany of loss is not unusual for a woman of my age and I don’t claim any particular distinction in my grief and sorrow. That will be mine alone to bear and contend with for the rest of my days, and I know that it will be tempered by the strength and wisdom that comes from shared experiences with and memories of these extraordinary people. Many are mourning Hari around the world: his family members foremost, Dr Tapati Guha-Thakurta, formerly the Director and Professor in History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta, and his daughter Mrinalini, assistant editor at Marg; but also his students, fellow scholars, friends, and acquaintances, on whom Hari made such an indelible impression.

When I first learned that Hari was hospitalised, I was incredulous and more than confident that he would soon shake off what appeared to me then as a temporary affliction. But Hari did not come home as we all expected him to and even now, I wonder how could death defeat Hari, Hari the indestructible. In my mind, Hari is still alive in his adopted city of Kolkata, enlivening the salons and seminars in the city with his ready wit, self-effacing erudition, and wisdom. In my mind, I will always be able to send Hari poorly written drafts of articles and chapters and receive his acerbic and bracing commentary in return. We will always meet for coffee during my yearly visits to Kolkata and catch up on the scholarship and the politics of the field of Russian Studies.

In 34 years of a shared timeline, I had never known Hari to be ill, tired, exhausted, cross, negative, or even out of sorts. Even as Hari greyed visibly, he never seemed to age. His endless good humour and energetic spirit, that had captivated me at our very first meeting in the History Department at Calcutta University on Hazra Road in 1986, seemed untouched by the passage of time. My first graduate tutorial with Hari was more than intimidating, based as it was on the weighty topic of the First Industrial Revolution in pre-revolutionary Russia and Western Europe. I had been trained all my life to master and regurgitate the wisdom of other scholars, and here was Hari with his clipped accent, asking me my opinion about the scholarship of Alexander Gerschenkron!

It had never occurred to me until that point in my life that I was capable of having an intellectual opinion on any historical topic, least of all on the Russian industrial revolution. Nor had I known that the history of the industrial revolution when read through the layers of historiographical controversy could be a fascinating intellectual adventure. Instead of lecturing from closely guarded and yellowing notes, Hari encouraged me to go to the National Library in Alipore and read the dense volumes of The Cambridge Economic History of Europe for myself. Hari lent me many, many volumes from his private library, and thanks to his searching questions during our weekly tutorials, I learned to read deeply and critically. At Hari’s urging, I read through 44 volumes of Lenin’s writings, searching for references to the Russian peasantry for a research essay. Hari was the guru who gave his students the greatest of all gifts, the gift of intellectual independence.

While Hari instilled a lifelong thirst for knowledge among his students, he also modelled a refreshing irreverence towards pundits, punditry, pontification, and portentous preaching based on very few facts. Hari never took himself very seriously, despite his impressive body of published works on fields ranging from the history of the peasantry in pre-revolutionary Russia to Indo-Russian relations. His scholarship was based on a close consideration of primary sources, and a reasonable weighing of many categories of historical evidence.

Rereading Hari’s article on the travels of the 15th-century Russian merchant, Afanasii Nikitin, from Russia to India via the Caucasus, Turkey, and Iran, I was struck by his uncanny ability to see an extraordinary range of nuances and possibilities in every historical situation. In a couple of clearly written introductory paragraphs, Hari surveys the huge field of postcolonial studies on travel literature but adds a new and interesting perspective on the political applications of this body of work. In this cameo, you see the hand of a master at work. Hari along with Dr Purabi Roy and Dr Sobhanlal Datta Gupta played a seminal role in uncovering a huge cache of important documents pertaining to Indo-Russian relations in the 20th century. Working with recently unclassified documents after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s in the archives in Moscow, the team was able to find a trove of historical materials some of which they subsequently edited and translated. This herculean and decades long task was further compounded by state-level politics.

An argumentative Indian

While the field of Russian Studies, like many others, is configured by dogma and ideological affiliations, Hari was the rare scholar who could see the merits of every side of the debate. He also had the intellectual capacity to argue from both sides of the aisle. He was the quintessential argumentative Indian that Amartya Sen has immortalised, and his arguments were based on the deep rules of logic, evidence- based thinking, and a critical attitude towards every kind of ideology.

Hari was never paralysed by political affiliations or weighed down by institutional responsibilities, of which he had many. His agile and inquiring mind offered a refreshing contrast to those who find their theses even before they engage in the process of research and those who champion their causes with the zealous fervour of new converts. As a student of Soviet history, Hari knew well the processes through which knowledge is created, used, applied, and even destroyed. And as such he refused to monumentalise either the scholar or the scholarship, treating these sources of authoritarian politics with the dispassionate objectivity that they deserved.

If Hari was an argumentative Indian, he was also a deeply patriotic one. He belonged to a class of educated Indians born shortly after India’s independence, who believed that it was their duty to build a more self-reliant India, a more just India. Hari was one of [Salman Rushdie’s] Midnight’s Children endowed with special powers, but he belonged to an affluent English-speaking social order that had to hide its class origins in order to fit into the post-British Indian landscape. After receiving his undergraduate and graduate degree at Cambridge University, Hari could have easily found an academic appointment at any major university in either Europe or the United States. Instead, he chose to come home. As Hari told me, his father expected him to come back to India and serve the country: to build the institutions that would sustain modern India.

In this world of globalisation and transnationalism, it is easy enough to deconstruct the “home” and the “nation”, and mock the supposedly outdated concepts of patriotism and belonging. But emotionally we want to belong to a community of our choice, that is not always the community of our origin. The word home can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but the range of definitions that it inspires does not invalidate the concept in and of itself. Hari had a capacious and civilisational view of Indian history and identity that was based on many sources including Tagorean cosmopolitanism and Soviet internationalism. Hari was the best kind of Indian intellectual: one who was at ease with himself and one who was at home in the world.

Choi Chatterjee is Professor of History at California State University, Los Angeles.

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