I never thought I would write about my friend Saddy, Professor Sunil Kumar of Delhi University, in the past tense.

A big, loose-limbed athlete, who played basketball not only for his college, but for years afterwards with kids much younger than him in the playgrounds of Saket in South Delhi, I always thought he would outlive me and most of our contemporaries by many years. But now we get the shocking news that he has passed away in the early morning of January 17 in New Delhi, just a few months short of retiring from his position as Professor of History at the University of Delhi at the age of 65.

In the past months, he had been complaining periodically of feeling unwell, a situation compounded by his having to take on the incredibly stressful and thankless job of chairing the Department of History in the last some years. That was always going to be a hard task, but it was made far worse by a combination of the ambient political circumstances, and the very difficult context of the pandemic, which has had an impact on everything from teaching to examinations to admissions.

When he finally finished his stint as chair just a few months ago, all of his close friends breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that at last he would be able to turn a page from the extremely stressful existence he had been leading. We all looked forward to his spending long stints in his second home in Goa, turning back to his projects on urbanism in Tughlaqabad, and related subjects. Alas, how wrong we were!

A Hindi film meeting

I first met Sunil Kumar in the mid-1980s in circumstances that, as he often jokingly said, resembled those of a Hindi film. We were both taking the 501 bus from “Bus Adda” (or more formally the Inter-State Bus Terminal) towards South Delhi, and seated in the same row, when he casually pulled out a cigarette and lit it. I at once objected because we were in a “Non-Smoking” section of the bus. After a sharp exchange of words, he apologised (somewhat reluctantly, I might say) and added that he had seen me somewhere, such as the Delhi School of Economics café. We introduced ourselves, and the next thing we knew, we had become good friends.

I learnt that he was a lecturer in history in St Stephen’s College, and that not long before he had returned from the United States, where he had been in Connecticut and Chicago. He had wanted to pursue a PhD in Indo-Islamic medieval history but found little support for the project at the time (except from the Iranian and Central Asian historian at Chicago, John Woods). Soon after, he joined the main Department of History in the University of Delhi as a lecturer, and we began discussing the prospects of his resuming his PhD plans.

He eventually decided that his best bet was to contact the specialist of Mughal history John Richards at Duke University, and to his great relief Richards happily accepted him as a student. Kumar finished his dissertation in 1992 and built close ties with his advisor. He was undoubtedly an unusual student. For one, he was 31 when he began his PhD anew, already married for a decade, and had two children. John Richards once laughingly remarked to me that when he taught a graduate seminar with Sunil Kumar in it, it was as if they were jointly running the seminar.

He then returned to Delhi, where he taught throughout the rest of his career, as Reader from 1994 to 2005, and as Professor from 2005 on, except for a brief stint in the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, from 2008 to 2010.

Sunil Kumar’s principal passion in terms of his research was the history of the Delhi Sultanate. That was what his dissertation was about, and it became his big book, The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286, published by Permanent Black in 2007. Certainly, he knew a lot about the Mughals and their history and whenever he had the opportunity he taught those subjects. Yet he remained steadfast in his loyalty to pre-Mughal history, and especially the history of northern India in that period.

He had realised early on that the subject was one that required definite rereading and reinterpretation, beyond what had been provided by Muhammad Habib and his disciples (including his celebrated son, Irfan Habib).

Of course, the history of the Sultanate had not been entirely neglected in the 1980s and 1990s, either in India or outside it, by scholars such as Peter Jackson. But much of what was being written was pretty traditional in its orientation as political or religious history.

On the other hand, Kumar understood very quickly that new directions could be developed, especially if – as he was – one was alert to developments in the larger field of Islamic history in the “Abbasid” and immediate post-“Abbasid” period. His reading was always voracious and covering a wide horizon, from medieval Europe to medieval China at the very least. He put books and articles on reading lists in the University of Delhi that I am quite sure had never been there before.

In the process, I am pretty certain he irritated some of his colleagues, who would surely have preferred a standard history, dynasty by dynasty, of the Sultanate between the Ghurids and the Lodis. What a pity that he never polished his work on the morphology and ideological interpretation of the layout of Tughlaqabad to his own satisfaction!

A fascinating palimpsest

Sunil Kumar’s other passion was in reading Delhi’s past from its present. He was an indefatigable and brilliant guide to various sites in the city, as his students as well as many colleagues and visitors will testify. When, on his return from the US in the early 1980s, he settled in Saket (where his wife Anjali and her family had their home), he began closely exploring the area, with its nearby sites such as Jahanpanah and Khirki.

He discovered a fascinating palimpsest, which he realised was constantly being read and reread by a variety of contemporary actors with conflicting motives and understandings. This led him to write his 2002 volume, The Present in Delhi’s Pasts, which I consider an indispensable guide not only to Delhi but to the layered past of practically any South Asian urban centre. I would have loved to visit some of those sites as the proverbial fly on the wall with Kumar and his friends Simon Digby and Muzaffar Alam, each with his own reading and interpretation of every building and inscription.

But Kumar also had quite another dimension to his academic personality. From the mid-1980s, I had been associated with the Indian Economic and Social History Review, edited by the formidable economic historian Dharma Kumar. In the latter half of the 1990s, Sunil Kumar joined the editorial board of the journal at a time when Dharma Kumar’s health began to deteriorate. His diplomatic and administrative capabilities then proved indispensable. He was able, with the help of the other editors, to discreetly manage the difficult transition of the journal over the next years, and eventually took over as its joint managing editor when Dharma Kumar passed away in October 2001.

In the ensuing two decades, Sunil Kumar was the beating heart of the IESHR. Two other editors –myself and G Balachandran – have officially manned the tiller with him, but both of us will freely admit that Kumar was the one who really bore the brunt of the work. As always with him, he threw himself heart and soul into the work of the journal. When we decided to launch the IESHR Lecture series, he provided all the infrastructural work necessary, while always insisting that he did not want to appear at the forefront. I don’t doubt that there are quite a few scholars in India and abroad who have dealt with Sunil Kumar as a journal editor, and who will have their own stories to recount.

As his work with the journal brought out, Kumar’s great character trait was his lively generosity. His nickname from youth was “Saddy”, because he allegedly had a sad face, but his personality was anything but sad. You could always count on him to read an essay or a book manuscript and give you pertinent comments. In his own personal life, it was always Kumar who was there to manage family crises, rushing off to Lucknow, Benares, or Bihar or wherever he was needed. He was always available, always there when you needed him, as an advisor, as a colleague, as an editor, and indeed as a friend.

I sometimes even think that this great strength was his weakness. Why did he throw himself into the administration of a department which expressed little or no appreciation for his efforts, and where no effort was made to relieve him of his duties when he was clearly suffering and in bad health? I will also confess to my own sentiments of guilt. Should I not have paid more attention to the signs of his failing health? The fact is that we had all become so used to Sunil Kumar caring for us, that we probably failed to care enough for him. That is and will forever remain our loss.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam is Distinguished Professor of History and Irving & Jean Stone Chair in Social Sciences at UCLA.

This article first appeared on Chapati Mystery.