It was the 18th of January 2001 and after three failed attempts, I finally managed to conjure enough courage to travel back to Oxford to start my D Phil. Yes, in each of three previous occasions I had returned home from the airport unable to travel. I was depressed and scared. I had lost my father on October 1, 2000, and had come back to India after a brief 12-hour stint in Oxford and thereafter it was rather difficult to muster the courage to travel again.
In all these three months, I was on email with my supervisor and mentor Dr David Washbrook. I had read his work and looked up to him but had never met him before. David still had an aura, very natural in a supervisor-PhD student relationship. In each of his emails, David was supportive. He asked if I wanted a year off if things at home were stable enough for me to undertake the journey and most importantly, if I was in the mental frame to do so. I had started to develop a bond with David, something that went beyond the teacher-student mould. He was affectionate in a very English kind of way and while a tad awkward at times, did his best to make me feel comfortable in every interaction that we had. I guess he too did not know what to do with me.
I had topped the University in Kolkata and wanted to work on the history of cricket, something that had never been done before in Oxford. First things first, had it not been for David, a PhD in cricket history wouldn’t be deemed serious in what was still a very conservative university. Add to the already strange choice of topic, I had lost my father the day I landed in Oxford. I guess it was tough on David as well.
Dr David Washbrook (Photo: Twitter/ @syedurahman)
And finally when I managed to reach his office on January 18, 2001, scared and apprehensive, unsure of what I was supposed to do or say, David did all that was possible to address the uneasiness. We even walked up and down Bedford Road a couple of times and walked to St Antony’s buttery to get us some coffee and cookies. And that’s when David finally asked me what I had in mind.
He was kind enough to give me the option. He wanted to know if I was ready to start a term late or would it be better for me to take a year off and resume in October 2001. That’s when I remember telling him I dreaded going back to India. It was hard and David just walked up to me and said whatever I chose to do, he was there to support me. That started it all. Not much was said and to be honest, not much was needed. In a couple of sentences, he had made me feel better. Feel confident in a strange sort of way. And I was about to start with my long-delayed D Phil.
But as with everything else in my life, things have never been smooth. Within two months of starting out, I was involved in an acrimonious exchange with Ram Guha. And to make matters worse, a senior Kolkata academic, who had no business in getting involved, jumped into the fray in defence of his friend. It was classic bullying. And yet again, David and the Rhodes Trust stood by me like a rock and the Trust even sent a formal letter to the men concerned, if I remember right. The crisis had passed without even me knowing the real details of what had gone on and my comfort level with David had increased a few notches. Thereafter, the D Phil happened in a couple of years and the viva went like a dream. It was time to celebrate our three tumultuous years together.
Yet again, the setting was the St Antony’s College buttery. We were having coffee when David mentioned that the Chinese government had made online four million pages of digitised historical material. He also said how much it would help researchers and teachers working on Chinese history. And that’s when I asked him if we should try and do something similar in India. David laughed and said to me that D Phil was enough excitement and I should just try and settle down first. But just as I was about to leave, he said that if such an archive did happen in South Asian studies, it would help thousands of students in the future.
The seed of what we now know as the South Asia Archive was sown. Colleagues from across the world joined in the next few months and Sharmistha Gooptu soon took over as lead researcher and Editor of the project. Projit Mukharji, Nalin Mehta and Monjita Mukharji helped and here we were, on our way to creating a five-million-page archive. David was always a presence encouraging us.
To say that the next few years were tumultuous would be an understatement. The Depression happened and our funding was stopped. We were halfway there and there was no way we could pull back. Yet again, David was there. We decided to launch a journal to keep us going and requested David to be the Editor. South Asian History and Culture, arguably one of the best journals in the field, was launched to tide over a crisis. Soon, however, Taylor and Francis led by David Green, who is now one of my closest friends in Oxford, decided to take the risk and back the project and the archive was back on track. It was only fitting that when the archive was finally ready, it was David Washbrook and Rosalynd O Hanlon who launched it for us at the Nehru Centre in London in 2013.
In each of the last 15 years, we met each other in Oxford or when David had come down to India. A coffee or the customary sandwich at Morton's was the norm and we even watched a couple of cricket matches together at Lord’s. David, more a radio commentary man, was intrigued to see how television worked and said to me during one of India’s games that maybe it was time to think of a book on Sport and Public Culture together. For the record, he did write the Foreword to our A Social History of Indian Football: Striving to Score, a book that Kausik Bandyopadhyay and I are still very proud to have written.
It isn’t as if David and I spoke to each other every day. In fact, we did not for months. But between 2001 and 2021, we knew that we were always there for each other. He was my mentor and also a dear friend. And the best part was David even pulled the pram for my daughter when she was one, in trying to give me some respite on a rainy morning in Oxford. As I said, he was way more than a supervisor and mentor, and it is perhaps just to say he was a part of my life in ways I can never forget. He helped me become who I am and I would like to think that it gave him the joy to see the South Asia Archive turn into a reality. As we mourn him, I’d conclude saying that while the world has lost a great historian and scholar, I have actually lost a part of my life. To David: wherever you are, I will always be thankful to you for being there when it mattered the most.