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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 18, New Delhi, April 23, 2016

Charusita Chakravarty: A Scientist and Multifaceted Scholar

Monday 25 April 2016, by S.K. Pande



On March 29, 2016, Professor Charusita Chakravarty, one of the leading women scientists of India, was no more. She was not even 52 when she died in Delhi. Her life was snatched after her brave fight against cancer for around four years, taking classes, when she could, braving pain with a smile and finally succumbing after so many determined recoveries. She leaves behind an academic husband, Professor Ram Ramaswamy, a young bright daughter Krithi and a dazed mother Lalita Chakravarty, economist, wife of late Professor Sukhamoy Chakravarty who some feel, lost the Nobel Prize by a whisker—even though he was not aware of it. And the Professor too died way back in 1990 at the young age of 56 following a massive heart attack. As a student of the Professor put it, he was a genius of many parts perambulating between Nehruism, Leftism, and his own middle course in which he believed both in the best of times and in the worst of times.

For someone, knowing all four, and having attended the memorial services of both the father and the daughter, one cannot but marvel at the all-round genius of the rotundish father with his child-like smile and penchant for debate and discussion, not only on economics but on any subject perhaps other than the weather, be it economics, philosophy, art, culture, music, poetry, anthropology and sociology or just human rights or even ordinary people.

Getting the shocking news that our Mouri is no more while 300 km away from Delhi, we rushed straight to the crematorium for a last glimpse.

And finally to the memorial service at the IIT. Can you think of a truly touching memorial service? Yes, as a humble scribe I can vouch for two—which I can say, with pride that I attended both in a somewhat shaken condition. The first one was for the father, Economist Sukhamoy Chakravarty, who was like a brother and family friend, and the other who was also like a daughter, Charusita, his daughter. Both befitted the personalities concerned. Both died young and both were lost to the country before their full potential could come out and both were geniuses in their own right with that certain special youthful smile.

One proceeded to the memorial service with too many thoughts and with a lump in my throat still somewhat dazed. Before me was the first information by Ram and Krithi, the newspaper announcement all in poetry. The first few lines:

“Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” —Sarah Williams

A flashback: the father’s memorial at 7, University Road, Delhi University. Professors, students, family friends, some bureaucrats huddled together in a sea of books, an old music system, Rabindra Sangeet, Rilke, Brecht, moments and memories, a few breakdowns, a touching family affair of poetry, song and stray thoughts.

At the IIT, Dogra Hall to remember Mouri or Charusita again a common atmosphere. Short and sweet memories but with so many young students and so involved.

The words of Margaret Mead have a special ring:

To the living, I am gone.
To the sorrowful, I will never return.
To the angry, I was cheated,
But to the happy, I am at peace,
And to the faithful, I have never left.
I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.
So as you stand upon a shore, gazing at a beautiful sea—remember me.
As you look in awe at a mighty forest and its grand majesty—remember me.
As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity—remember me.
Remember me in your heart, your thoughts, your memories of the times we loved,
the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.
For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.’
And thinking I was.

My thoughts were with Ram and daughter Krithi not so well-known to me as Lalitadi and Sukhamoyda. In different ways, different lines, each ring a bell.

All friends can vouch for it as her husband Ram Ramaswamy says in his tribute “a life unfinished” after bravely losing the war against cancer. In his own words, “In early 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the triple-negative subtype. She won many battles against this form of the cancer, but in the end, we lost the war.” Indeed so many times since 2013 did I hear of the recovery and the setbacks, the optimism in me convinced me that we would meet the entire family in happy times soon. A hope belied

FLASHBACK: August, 1990, So it is the father’s remembrance at 7, University Road, Delhi University, touched me to write a tribute, the daughter’s remembrance compels me to try again. From the father to the daughter, what a thought!

What adhered Mouri or Charusita to many were her clear principles and commitment to science and scientific temper. For Charusita was a scientist who relinquished her naturalised US citizenship to work in India and continued to work in India till her death as the controversy on nationalism and patriotism carries on. Despite feelers galore she never even thought of US citizenship.

She also prodded women colleagues to believe in her conviction on gender discrimination in science and the academic world. This is what she said of women scientists and is known to have egged several women colleagues to ponder about gender discrimination in science. She said women make matrimonial decisions in their late twenties and early thirties. But during this same period, they have to establish themselves as independent researchers, just like their male colleagues, she points out. It may be mentioned here that speaking of Indian women in science there are many universal tales of women’s struggles to attain parity in the world of scientific research. As had been pointed out, women are universally underrepresented in science and technology. India, viewed as a potential powerhouse of innovations, is no technology. True, the subcontinent’s institutes of scientific learning are open to all its citizens, but potential female researchers still hesitate at the thresholds of laboratories. Is this because they have seen few role models of their gender in such establishments? Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India, edited by Rohini Godbole and Ram Ramaswamy, is one inspiring anthology published by the Indian Academy of Sciences in a bid to remedy that visibility problem. This was a common theme at her memorial too.

Her memorial service at the IIT was truly befitting. It brought her life’s broad compass to the fore. And indeed her extended family was there besides the family. It was an evening to remember her, plus the life she loved, interspersed with poetry and Rabindra Sangeet, Kabir’s songs, T.S. Elliot and of course Walt Whitman. A poignant reminder it was in her father’s memorial that one heard Rilke, Pablo Neruda read by professors too.

A flashback. Our family spent just around a year at their 7, University Road flat when they were abroad and their daughter Mouri used to visit her house to so-called guardians ie. my wife and myself from her PG hostel. One of her precious birthday gifts to me was a somewhat worn-out version of Letters from my Windmill by Alphonse Daudet, first published in 1869. Perhaps it was to goad me to write more. They had a house full of books from Economics, to Sociology to poetry and music and of course History and Political Science and classics by the hundreds. A few of them remain with the family, a few part of a memorial in the Delhi School of Economics. Then there is the Trust with a memorial lecture annually to remember Sukhamoyda. What will be the fate of these projects? But that is for the future to see.

Goodbye Mouri—we shall always miss you.

A senior journalist, the author is the General Secretary of the Delhi Union of Journalists.

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