My Teacher, Sunil Kumar

In his seminal essay ‘Hermes Dilemma’ (1986), Vincent Crapanzano likens the role of the anthropologist to the Greek god Hermes. Hermes was the mediator between the world of the gods and of the mortals, the messenger of the gods, as also the tutelary god of writing and speech. He would perform each of these roles as an interpreter by not simply delivering or reproducing a message or story but creating his own version of it. For Crapanzano, the dilemma facing the anthropologist is how to translate the unfamiliar and yet retain its unique cultural framing. Can the anthropologist extract herself from people, places and experiences she translates? Crapanzano’s essay can be read to posit the role of researchers, writers, historians, anthropologists and other chroniclers of the city as storytellers who negotiate this dilemma and, in the process, become the city’s seers, its jesters and its voice, rising in and out from its streets and its academies. This piece, by Somok Roy, is the first in a series of reflections on and conversations with interpreters who have embedded themselves in the city they translate to others. Their imageries and imaginations provide ways of seeing the past and present of the city as also forms of caring about the city to future generations of interpreters.

—Samprati Pani and Sarover Zaidi

In August 2019, as a master’s student at the University of Delhi, I enrolled for a course on the Central Islamic Lands taught by Professor Sunil Kumar. This was our first graduate semester, and most of us came to the department without any experience in reading primary sources. Eager to learn from a stellar faculty, we often turned ourselves into scribes, trying hard to inscribe wisdom in our notebooks for posterity. Unlike the notes from other courses, the ones taken in Professor Kumar’s classes are fragmented, punctuated with arrows and crowded with words sliced into different parts. These were mostly words of Arabic origin, like majlis, jama’a and dawla, flanked by their roots and cognates. As I turn the pages of my notebook, I hear these words in his voice, urging his students to understand historical cultures in their terms. This was great fun because he unpacked each word for us, thus historicizing language itself. Ever attentive to details in his meticulous research and writing, he taught his students to read texts in a certain way, critically and intimately. He encouraged his students to engage with the ‘sources’ rigorously, ask questions and speak without inhibitions, in an informed way. It is perhaps this encouragement that allows me to write about a towering historian and teacher, whose life is being reminisced by his accomplished friends, colleagues and students. Writing is perhaps one way of staying in touch with the man and his ideas. And remembrance is indeed an inadequate metaphor for this need. 

Not surprisingly, I experience this loss in his voice, in the vocabularies of the Persian litterateurs he read so closely. In one of our last classes conducted online, he warned us that life will get difficult, but as khwajatash, we must speak to and help each other. With his characteristic wit, he evoked the fourteenth-century Delhi historian Zia al-Din Barani’s idea of khwajatashgi—the sense of corporate bonding that emanates from being slaves of the same master and, by extension, students of the same teacher. A fellow student informed me about his death, and I called up another to convey the news. It is this shared sense of loss that makes me think of his playful yet serious deployment of khwajatashgi, more than ever. 

The only time death figured prominently in our discussions was while I was writing a term paper on Aliganj, a Shi’i Sayyid complex in Delhi. He encouraged me to visit Aliganj in the month of Muharram, to observe the acts of mourning and be in that milieu. Along with a fellow student, I witnessed the collective mourning of a grief older than a millennium, reconfigured and relived every Muharram. But that wasn’t enough; one had to historicize the location of grief. ‘Why Aliganj of all places?’ In the maze of his questions, death did not disappear. It seemed to have a recursive function in the making of Aliganj. He pushed me to think more seriously about funerary sites in and around Aliganj. I was asked to read Bashir al-Din Ahmad’s early twentieth-century history of the city and its monuments, magnificently titled Waqi’at-i Dar-al Hukumat Dihli. ‘Look at the beautiful maps, the water streams,’ he said. I complained that it was in Urdu and untranslated, and that I had barely picked up some elementary Persian. Hence Bashir al-Din was beyond me. I was told that one could learn languages at night if there was too much to do through the day, and an utter dependence on translations was an unmistakable mark of a lazy historian. In about a week, I found myself struggling to read Urdu news on an online portal. His challenges sustained us; his questions kept us on our toes. 

I am also reminded of his legendary walks in Tughlaqabad. He carefully unpacked the ruined city like a text, building on but going far beyond the site studies by Mehrdad and Natalie H. Shokoohy. In explaining a range of resemblances meticulously gleaned from Persian sources, he could tell you about the fabled mountain Koh-i Qaf or the Mongol cult of ancestral spirits in the Altai ranges, while standing atop the citadel in Tughlaqabad, and make you marvel at the historian’s craft. And all of these remote references were part of the sense of ‘order’ that Ghiyas al-Din Tughlaq’s city was meant to represent. There are far too many sultanate historians who know Persian very well, but seldom do they read texts like Sunil Kumar did. Despite being jahil, as he would endearingly call us at times, we could sense the painstaking, meditative research he did and inspired others to do. He was always there—to suggest readings, read (at times horribly written) drafts, listen patiently, scan books, cross-check translations, detect errors in citations and punctuate carefully. He was there to make us giggle in class, and simultaneously give the most genuine and critical feedback. Our universities have students from different social backgrounds, and language gets to be a problem for a considerable number when it comes to reading. Instead of intimidating his students and discouraging them from taking his courses, he would consciously switch to Hindustani from time to time. By the end of the course, his students would have engaged with the best scholarship in the field. 

In February 2020, during the communal pogrom in North-East Delhi, some of us came together to raise funds for the affected people and register our protest against majoritarian politics. We received immense support from our teachers at the Department of History. Sunil Sir was the Department Chair at that time, and despite his (maddeningly) hectic schedule, he called us for a chat and asked us to think beyond a mere fundraising drive and demonstration. It was important for us to visit the affected areas, not once, but over a period of time, work with the people and learn from them. As a young teacher in 1984, he had visited the despoiled settlements with his students in the aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots, like many others in the university. Additionally, while assisting the survivors, he had also learnt from them. ‘Knowing’ and ‘caring’ were not antagonistic processes for him, unlike what is conveyed in some crude readings of ‘power-knowledge.’ He never spelt it out self-righteously, but his emphasis on fieldwork entailed a sense of care, of belongingness. 

His way of doing fieldwork can be gleaned from his collection of essays on his beloved city, The Present in Delhi’s Past (2010).[1] He loved tracing the streams that crisscrossed the Delhi plains, admired the veteran scholar Simon Digby for his fieldwork and taught a course on the city in the longue durée—as a site of entanglements, as a symbol. This was one of the most exciting courses that made you think about the city from different vantage points. And though his qalb (heart) rests in his city, Hazrat-i Dihli, his fields of interest were as vast as the haft iqlim (the seven climes). While discussing the political culture of the Buyids, a medieval Daylamite dynasty, his eyes shone as he passionately told us about the mountainous region of Daylam in present-day Iran and the delicious caviar sourced from the Caspian Sea. Daylam was but one of the many places that he piqued our interest in. Perhaps it was his engagement with the seven climes that allowed him to research medieval Delhi in a novel way. As he writes in the preface to his magnum opus, The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate (2007): ‘It was fortunate, therefore, that I was firmly led away from the Delhi Sultanate and spent years studying Islam, the early evolution of the Muslim community, and the history of Iran, Europe, and modern India. The historiography in these fields had its own set of problems with anachronism, teleology, and reification, but the mere fact that scholars recognized them as legitimate historiographical concerns was a major learning step for a student raised on a diet of consensual opinions on what happened in India’s Middle Ages.’[2] He ensured that his students were not raised on such unsavoury staples of consensual opinion, and as a result, we ended up acquiring a wider palate of tastes. It is this tarbiyat o’ parwarish that many of us jahils will miss out on. The kind of relentless care and mentoring that many of us had not even dreamt of. 

Both in his writings and classroom teaching, he explained how Delhi emerged as a city of refuge, especially after the Chingissid invasions in the Central Islamic Lands. Delhi’s literati, most notably the thirteenth-century historian Minhaj al-Din Siraj Juzjani, crafted the idea of the city as a sanctuary. Juzjani called Delhi the Qubbat al-Islam, deploying the architectural metaphor of the qubba (dome) to convey a sense of security and shelter. On the morning of 17 January 2021, for many of Sunil Kumar’s students, their qubba disappeared into the ether. Consumed partly by the city’s merciless pollution and partly by his unflinching commitment to work.    

—Somok Roy

Somok Roy is a master’s student in Medieval and Early Modern History at the Department of History, University of Delhi. He is interested in the histories of the Muslim community in early modern South Asia and their discursive practices in the making of settlements. His broader interests include notions of ‘temporal’ authority in the pre-modern Islamic world. He is presently learning Persian and loves listening to Hindustani classical music. 

Cover image: Sunil Kumar with a group of students in Tughlaqabad, September 2019. Photograph by Somok Roy.


[1] Kumar, Sunil. 2010. The Present in Delhi’s Past, Second Edition. New Delhi: Three Essay’s Collective.

[2] Kumar, Sunil. 2007. The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192–1286. Ranikhet: Permanent Black.

1 thought on “My Teacher, Sunil Kumar”

  1. Wonderfully written. I’m not an academic but I’ve read and admired Sunil Sahab’s books.

    Regarding Aliganj, I wonder if you’ve come across Khaliq Anjum’s Urdu work ‘ Dilli Ki Dargaah Shaah-e Mardaan’, which describes the monuments of that area in some detail.

    Like

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