Fourteen years ago, Sunil Kumar held a copy of his first big book in his hands: The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, 1192-1286 (Permanent Black, 2007). He had not bothered trying to publish it with any of the big American or British university presses, though they had all have taken it like a shot. It had been very long since anything substantially new and eye-opening had been written on the Delhi Sultanate, and Sunil, reckoned a dilatory perfectionist whose motto was much too fervently “better never than now”, was known to have been writing it for more than a decade. He could have had his pick of the publisher.
Some years later, he emailed saying he had had enough of being a Reader at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He could have been in London forever or moved on from there to the redder-leaved pastures of the Ivy League. By this time his book had brought him recognition as a scholar and his teaching a repute for devotion to students in an area of specialisation which had very few of his calibre. He knew Persian and Urdu and could have had his pick of university departments in the West.
Looking back, I think there were several reasons for his decision to be with Permanent Black as his publisher and to the city of his Sultanate as a teacher, and they suggest what he was like as a person. He was, first, part of our pre-Facebook generation in a real sense – in that he did not want to draw daily attention to himself. I do not know how much he used social media, but I see him as the kind of old-world person who uses it only in the larger interest of furthering knowledge and keeping students abreast of new information.
Second, I think Permanent Black was his choice because even the tenuous bonds of an old friendship meant more to him than international fame: he and I were in the same batch of the same school in Lucknow in the early 1960s. His father, a policeman, was posted there off and on. I recall Sunil – he was not known as Saddie until his college days – joining and rejoining our class, depending on when his father happened to be posted in Lucknow.
His appearances and disappearances struck me when editing his book as not dissimilar to those he ascribes to the Delhi Sultanate – one of his arguments in the book is that the Sultanate was less a solid political entity than a fluid formation which could fade into the landscape before resurfacing (perhaps an inspiration of sorts to the Congress Party now).
Later we were college batchmates, and though we did not move in the same circles our passing dining-room exchanges were always affectionate. The reason I saw quite little of him over our college days was that he had acquired a terrific and enviable reputation in two fields: basketball and romance. It was difficult to tell over our three years of living within five minutes of each other (1972 to 1975) whether Saddie was more devoted to holding a basketball or his tiny college girlfriend Anjali, over whom he, 6 feet-plus, towered.
He was usually spotted carrying her around on his shoulders near a basketball court. By this time Sunil was universally called Saddie, after the comic-strip character Sad Sack, on account of his habitual expression of melancholy. The melancholy may have been caused by the difficulty of smuggling his girl into his hostel room; or else because, with one hand forever holding a basketball, he was finding himself handicapped also having to attend to her; or else because he had tried throwing her through the net and missed, and she had made it known his future was either her or basketball.
We emailed each other fairly often over books that he needed for review in the Indian Economic and Social History Review. Everyone knew he was the journal’s mainstay, the other editors having all found professorships abroad. He swore he was working on other books and would send them all to me to be published. I thought that was very generous of him: his book had been so meticulously written that I had editorially contributed not a word to it.
Or perhaps because, as he told me on a visit to Ranikhet with Anjali, because I had in fact contributed just one word to his book: the word “Sweetie”. Almost everyone who has read Saddie’s book has remarked on the first sentence of the book’s Conclusion. Here is the sentence:
An impatient reader of this book might justifiably ask with exasperation at this moment: “So, Sweetie, when did the Delhi Sultanate emerge?”
This unacademic sentence, he said, was the consequence of one of my exasperated questions to him while editing, and he had wanted it worded exactly so in the book. It lightened the mood of a heavy monograph, he said.
Subsequently, during one of our chance meetings, he said the sentence had once flabbergasted even the mighty of Aligarh: during his professorship interview at Delhi University, one of them had opened his book on that page and asked him how he could have allowed such a sentence to pass.
Saddie said he had smiled sweetly back at the interviewing Sweetie and told her it was the result of a conversation with his editor – the fellow had called him Sweetie when asking him the question, and this had made him decide to retain it in the same form on account of their old friendship.
When Saddie told me this I felt as elated as his basketball, thrown cleanly and happily through the high net for which he always aimed. My unhappiness at his early departure runs much deeper. Despite our physical distance from each other, we were instinctively close. In fact, I have seldom been as instinctively fond of an academic friend because Saddie, I felt, was the ideal academic: quietly scholarly, forthright in his opinions, selflessly caring with students, full of warmth for those he liked, and politically sane in an ethos within which so many have succumbed to the vileness of people in power.
Sunil was a great friend, a perfect gentleman. Whenever I would be in Delhi, he would insist on having a long and relaxed meeting with me to talk about my work and Chicago teaching experience. He would listen attentively to the problems I faced with the limited resources of my areas of interest, to my desperate effort to make some sense out of them, and to whatever I would think of relating to my work. In response, he would come up with a beaming smile with the suggestion that I should prepare a draft early and send him for discussion and consideration for publication.
He knew that I am slow, even lazy and that I would not act on his advice so efficiently. He would still be very kind and generous and interpret my failure and slowness in terms of my being a perfectionist. Then I would have my turn, feel encouraged to remind him of his long-time promise of finishing an excellent piece he had on Tughlaqabad.
I read it decades back in the 1990s when I was in Jawaharlal Nehru University and incorporated it in my classes on medieval India. Even then it read like a nearly full monograph, well researched and well-argued on this historical ruins of pre-Mughal Delhi.
Sunil was very helpful to our younger friends, students, and colleagues too, who had recently written excellent dissertations on the social and cultural history of South Asia. He encouraged them to send him their papers for publication in IESHR.
He did indeed publish several good articles, and thus gave, together with Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a new direction to IESHR. One of the last conversations he had with my friend Rajeev Kinra was about his Mughal Indian sulh-i-kull article, and wished that Rajeev had sent it to him to IESHR. Another friend, Manan Ahmed Asif, writes that he was “ a model of an ethical historian who stood tall against majoritarian politics. He was a meticulous scholar and kind mentor”.
Sunil was first described to me as the tall basketballer “Saddie” who had a girlfriend half his size. Anjali was her name and he had to lean across to put his arm around her. They soon married and had two children. By that time, or even before this, Sunil disappeared to study for his PhD and it was only when he returned that I met him formally for the first time.
I was studying for my PhD at the History Department of the University of Delhi that he had newly joined. Considering that the department was then made up of a lot of middle-aged fogies, much like us today, his youthful persona and his American way of speaking was a wonderful change.
I would later join the department and we became colleagues, remaining so till 2015. In the early years, we used to sit in on an M Phil seminar on works of history that we felt were worth chewing upon and it was because of him that I read and loved Georges Duby’s The Three Orders and Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints. I also remember the enthusiasm with which he would take history students, his own and those from other institutions, to visit medieval sites in Delhi. On many occasions, I heard vivid descriptions of how much they enjoyed being with him at Tughalakabad and the Qut’b complex.
What I remember most about Sunil was that he expressed his opinions freely about the discipline, about history books, and about colleagues. Around 2007-2009, when many talented historians had been appointed in the department, he was on leave. However, when the new course for the Master’s Program was sent to him, he wrote to say that “the infusion of talent” had made “such a difference to the academic environment of the institution”, “I can smell the change and vitality in the air and cannot wait to be back”, he added.
In the same email, he simultaneously objected to the names of some college teachers who he described as forming “dal mein cockroach” and pleaded that patronage positions which had earlier been created for such teachers do not linger on.
Sunil was much loved and respected by students and scholars but above all, it is this – his proclivity to shoot from the hip – that I will always remember.
This article first appeared on the Permanent Black blog.