The best way to describe Dhirubhai L Sheth’s unique understanding of India is with an anecdote. On hearing of his passing away, on the morning of May 7, sociologist Chandan Gowda sent me this reminiscence. At the end of a hard-working day at the University of Chicago, Dhirubhai (who was visiting), cultural critic DR Nagaraj and Chandan Gowda sat down to talk. Someone raised the issue of the difficulty of understanding exactly when India became modern and, hoping for clarity, turned to Dhirubhai. Pat came his reply: “India began with the post-modern.”

Everyone burst into laughter but in that humourous remark was a profound truth.

That was Dhirubhai. He saw things that most of us missed. His observations on Indian politics or of India’s changing social relations revealed a mind that was untrapped by the ways of seeing offered by the presiding social theories of the day.

His was an original mind, desi in its insight but not nativist in its articulation. All the world was his stage, but India was his akhada. For more than half a century he interrogated the peoples of India, their lives and livelihoods, and from that questioning emerged some of the most creative readings of the changes taking place in India.

I remember at a workshop in Goa when we were discussing the tentative findings of our study on the State of Democracy in South Asia, Sheth observed that the question was not only what democracy was doing to India. That he agreed was important but was easy to see – changing hierarchies, changing gender relations, changing village power structures, changing discourse of rights and more – but also the obverse of what was India doing to democracy.

To the straightforward question “What is democracy doing to India?” he added the parallel but reverse question “What is India doing to democracy?”

A new front

In doing so, he opened a new front in democratic thinking that remains productive today. Does the concept need to be adapted to India to capture the dynamics of Indian politics? What happens to such a global concept when it travels to another place? Does modification compromise its integrity? Is there a core aspect which is common and a peripheral aspect that can vary, an umbra and a penumbra?

Sheth did this to us. He destabilised our comfortable ways of thinking. But while doing so he was also most supportive of what we were doing, encouraging us, appreciating our insights, urging us to make the argument sharper.

Sayantoni Datta, a young scholar he guided at Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, wrote this to me today. His was such a “selfless mentorship. So rare in academia today. He knew how to reset your restless mind into rewarding explorations”. Author Rajni Bakshi, also grieving, said to me this morning: “Hum unke ashirwad aur guidance se bade hooey.” We grew up with his guidance. I think the more accurate and more apt translation is we grew big through his mentorship.

I have been a great beneficiary of his kindness. From his suggestion when I published my first book to add the “s” to the word transition in the title making it Contemporay India: Transitions, and thereby giving it a whole new meaning and steering it clear of the problems of linear development that plagued modernisation theory, to his advising me democratise the running of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study by creating a regular Fellows meeting with the Director, to his arguments with me as I set about the task of editing his articles and producing his book At Home With Democracy: A Theory of Indian Politics.

We fought about the title. He did not want it to claim too much. I compromised by putting the claim in the title. He reluctantly agreed. This was Dhirubhai. Firm but self-effacing. Uncompromising in his politics but accommodative in his personal relations. He was most vulnerable when it came to decide on the dedication of the book. Surabhi, his dear wife, had just passed away. She had been most encouraging of the publication knowing how much it meant to him.

Hesitant, because as an Indian male he never displayed his feeling, he quietly agreed to “Surabhi, friend and companion”. Surabhibhen, his wife of more than half a century, was also his critic, his carer, his enabler his pandita. He turned to her for an explanation of a Sanskrit sloka or an interpretation of a Hindu ritual, or advice on investment in the stock market.

New initiatives

Sheth was many things at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies Founding member, Director, Senior Fellow, honorary Fellow. Together with Rajni Kothari, Ashis Nandy and many others, he carved out a new space to think about developing societies. With Kothari he initiated a conversation between activists and academics and called it Lokayan. They coined many terms such as non party political formation as an alternative to civil society. He was committed to civil liberties and democratic rights. He was hostile to puritanism believing that in such puritanism was a latent authoritarianism. A drink in the evening, he believed (and I agree) is no bad thing.

I deliberately titled this tribute to Sheth the “thoughter”. Grammarians will squirm at this. But it is the only way to describe his creative mind. He did thoughting. The term thinker is not applicable to him. Thoughters decentre. Thoughters provoke. Thoughters resist cooption by power or fashion. Dhirubhai was a thoughter through and through. Farewell Sirji. Uparwala be warned.

Peter Ronald deSouza is the DD Kosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University. He has recently edited with Rukmini Bhaya Nair a book titled Keywords for India, Bloomsbury, UK.