A Life in three worlds

A Life in three worlds

Reminiscences by Sumitra Talukdar with David Ambrose……

At 400+ large format pages, Sumitra Talukdar’s autobiography is a hefty volume. Admittedly the text is interspersed with nearly 200 photos and maps (most of them in colour and many of them extraordinary), but this is still very definitely a long read.
There is so much to say about the book, this review will cover two columns, this week and next. Unusual, but there it is. As a friend of Sumitra and David’s since the late 1980s I find it odd to be referring to them below as Talukdar and Ambrose, but that’s how it is with a review.

Now resident in Ladybrand, South Africa, Talukdar will be remembered by hundreds of her former students as an inspirational professor of botany at the NUL, and Ambrose, whose academic field was Mathematics, as the country’s foremost bibliographer, and author / editor / publisher of dozens of books and booklets on everything to do with Lesotho. As he says in his Foreword, Ambrose assembled A Life when his wife’s “memory began to fade from about 2006.”
Apart from masses of material on Lesotho, the book “includes detail from a personal angle on the mid- and late 20th century history of India, as well as on apartheid in South Africa . . . including encounters with individuals, some well-known, and others with extraordinary personal stories.”

A Life opens with Talukdar’s family history, that of a distinguished Bengali family. There is a large amount of historical documentation here, beginning with the 34th generation of Talukdar’s ascendants. I kept thinking I would skip-read, but again and again was drawn back into the full text by one gem or another.
This, for example, on Talukdar’s father being commissioned to look into the conditions of migrant tea plantation workers in Assam, India: “his report was not published, because the tea planters, who represented powerful vested interests, managed to have it suppressed” (‘Twas ever thus, and under late corporate capitalism will grow ever more so).

Much of Talukdar’s early life was spent in Calcutta (now Kolkata). She covers cataclysmic events such as the 1943 Bengali famine, which killed 3 million people, and the partition between India and Pakistan. On a more positive note, Talukdar is not only a botanist, but also an accomplished linguist; as a child she developed, from her nanny, a working knowledge of Nepali, which she could use “when visiting Nepal or meeting Nepali speaking people, even in Lesotho!”
The blurb (back cover write-up) of A Life describes Talukdar’s sense of humour as “whimsical”, but it can be sharper than that; she would make a fine satirist. In places wit is combined with metaphorical insight: on the Bengali alphabet, for example, Talukdar writes “there were the compound consonants when two consonantal letters stood next to each other and, like chemical compounds, often looked very different from their component parts.”

On the other hand, sometimes the language is a little too refined. She refers, for example, to male colleagues at Roma who “had somehow escaped significant tuition in the culinary arts”; in other words, they couldn’t bloody cook.

There’s an account of a tiger hunt undertaken by Assamese women (“known for being emancipated”) riding elephants — an astounding photo gallery accompanies this. Come World War Two and Talukdar and her siblings play war games; “for some reason I was always Poland so that I got beaten with pillows by both sides.” When the war is under way, though, humour is displaced by the horrors of the famine, caused by bad weather, by food being diverted to the armed forces, and by the Japanese occupation of food-supplying Burma.

After the war, postgraduate studies in plant physiology took Talukdar to Oxford. A lovely story here is that of a don who was an expert on ancient Greek maps; but “in fact no maps were extant, so his expertise was on what they would have looked like if any had survived.”

In the late 1950s and 60s Talukdar is back in India and now an academic, teaching botany, her life’s work. These pages really thrum as lively social history, all the riches that are so easily lost if those like Talukdar don’t set them down (wake up, Lesotho! Why isn’t there a Bureau of Social History?)
1966 and a major milestone, Talukdar’s appointment to the (then) University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. This is where I shall take up the story next week.

To be continued next week

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