In memoriam

Dharma Kumar 1928-2001

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CAN death come as a release to a mind that has never ceased to wander is a question that sprung to mind when I heard of Dharma’s death. While I thought of her as Dharma, I always addressed her as, for me much more genuflectory, ‘Maam’. That didn’t make her too happy but then that is what she was for me ever since I spotted that mane of unruly white hair in the classroom. That halo-like mop of white sat atop my favourite professor of economic history at the Delhi School of Economics. She was a thrill both to watch and to hear. Her mind leapt and her sari pallu pirouetted. And I believe the mind would have continued to, even till the last moment when her body chose to release itself from the hold of this earth.

Dharma cajoled intelligence out of every student. Each one of us was an unsuspecting victim to her guile. She guided many of those stuck in the mire of mindless mathematical matrices into figuring out that economics was about what happened to real people. This love for what real people did with economics was something only she could convert into an art form among students of her time. She cajoled money out of corporates, put students to work during summer holidays and in the process made scholars out of stragglers and economics out of life. These myriad people who made up Dharma’s view of economics could be out of history books, sometimes from the field studies she made a huge name on, and more often from the cacophony of people who she met and knew of. There could have been few professors in any hallowed institution as thoroughly dismissive of regulation as the tribe I had the privilege of being taught by in my years at school. Dharma led the pack – whether it was to the coffee house or the streets for a demonstration. She inspired, she led and most delightfully she also helped us all to conspire.

If there was one defining quality about Dharma that just does not bear being forgotten, it was her spirit of fun. Few people, especially serious academics, have that constant ability to seek out joy which Dharma displayed. She had fun because she enjoyed people who were fun. Sometimes they got up to more fun when she was around to stir things up. I remember fondly how she presided over Delhi School elections, tolerated my standing down and then ensured that the fun continued. Only she could do that effortlessly.

By a strange coincidence I was also privy to Dharma the home-maker when Lovraj, her husband, became my first ever boss. She taught me quickly enough that bosses like profs were simply human. Debate, argument and incessant curiosity were hallmarks of any dinner with Dharma. Visiting her after her illness one tried to talk to her in a manner that would attempt feebly to imitate those iconoclastic times. Yes, I like to believe that her eyes sparkled as I tried valiantly to chat by myself. But even that brief encounter was enough; proof indeed that the spirit is indomitable and that memories will always remain.


Dilip Cherian