Saturday, October 8, 2011

Total Recall with Dr Malati Shendge

Did this story for the Sunday supplement


For Dr Malati Shendge, life has been an ongoing intellectual exploration. For almost five decades now, research has been an integral part of this scholar’s life. The city-based Indologist, who has been associated with various academic institutes in India and abroad, is a Ph.D in Buddist Tantrism and now claims to have deciphered the Harappan script.

Campus calling

“I was sitting in the B J Wadia Library of Fergusson College, poring over my notes, when suddenly the thought came from nowhere. ‘I should do research’!” No wonder the place is special to her. “I did my BA in English Literature in Fergusson College from 1951-55. I had no clue what research meant and how one was supposed to conduct it. I then approached my mentor, Dr Rangdatta Vadekar, Head of Sanskrit Department, for guidance. He suggested that I should conduct research in the Harappan civilisation,” she recalls.
Overwhelmed by the advice, she however chose to follow her insclination. “I told him that I would do research in Buddhist Tantrism instead. Although, I was a student of English Literature, I was curious about this subject and I decided to do my MA in it from Pune University,” says Shendge.
Being a research scholar meant that Shendge was neck deep into books, but she did occasionally glance up to appreciate the world around her. She remembers, “ There was a canal passing through the college. It was considered to be the romantic spot of the campus. Now, the canal has been filled up.”
Shendge also recalls an old Banyan tree, which towered over the library. “We used to walk under that tree. I think it was struck down by lightning,” she adds.
As Shendge got deeper into her research, she lost touch with her peers. “In the ’50s, there were not too many women students. Most of them left the course mid-way. I had a friend, Usha Parasnis, who was with me till Inter-BA. We drifted apart and it took some 50 years for us to meet again! We met in 2001 at the lecture series held in memory of Dr Vadekar,” she says.

Vestiges of varsity

“I remember our bus stop was before, now what is called as the Main Building. I kept on thinking about food, while waiting for the bus. There was no canteen in the campus those days,” she remembers her days at the Pune university, where she did her post-graduation in Buddhist Tantrism.
It was followed by a Ph.D in the same subject from the Department of Buddhist Studies, Delhi University. “Thereafter, I won a scholarship to go to Tokyo to study esoteric Buddhism. There again I was the only lady student. In fact then Congress minister Dr Karan Singh, who had come on a visit to the city, was surprised to meet me.” Shendge says.
After returning to India, Shendge spent three years in International Institute of Advanced Studies in Simla. She then came back to Pune with no job in hand. In Pune, while she was studying Buddhist Tantrism, she realised that mythic figures like Asuras, Yakshas, Pisach, Gandharva and Rakshasas were not mythic figures. They were human beings - a fact mentioned in Rigveda. This in turn led her to study the Indus Valley Civilisation.
“Call it coincidence, but I had to study the Harappan and Mohenjo Daro. Just like Dr Vadekar had said,” says Shendge.

In Vadekar’s memory

Shendge is also closely associated with Dr Rangdatta Vadekar’s Centre for the Study of Indian Tradition, which she runs from home. The centre, founded in 1990 by his former students, was formed to dispel the thought that culture is equivalent to singing and dancing. It has organised various lectures on Buddhism, scientific aspects of Indian tradition, state of the culture under Shivaji’s rule etc. so far. Life, for Shendge, has surely come a full circle.

Postcard from Arunachal Pradesh

I came across this story which I did long back for the kids supplement.
Contrast these images.
Crowded Pune, big hoardings, cars, bikes zooming past, cell phones buzzing, malls teeming with life...with a village consisting of just 50 houses, narrow paths winding through jungles and no transportation. Even to visit an ailing relative in another village, one has to walk for one whole day!
In this particular instance, the village, we are talking about, is Punyabhumi in Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s north-eastern state.
YB had an opportunity to meet 15-year-old Birurani Chakma, a student from Arunachal Pradesh, who is in Pune and get to know what life is like in that farflung state.
Comparing her village to Pune, 15-year-old Birurani Chakma says, “There is not even 1 per cent of Pune’s traffic in my village. It’s very quiet there. Roads are kaccha and we have to find our way through jungles. The sun sets very early and by 5.30 pm in the evening it’s completely dark,” she speaks to us in Hindi.
Birurani, who has scored 91.11% in her Std VII exam, is now on a visit to Pune with her host family. Birurani studied till Std IV in her village school. She along with her friend were the only girl students in a class of 11.
“In our village, girls have to do most of the work. We have to learn how to weave and do household work. That doesn’t leave us with much time for studying. Most girls fail and then they drop out of school,” continues Birurani.
Birurani, however, was lucky. Blessed with sharp brain, her parents sent her to Vishwa Bharati’s Chhatravas, in Haflong, Assam to study. It was a big leap for this girl from the Chakma tribe.
When she first arrived at Chhatravas, Birurani was at sea. There were so many girls belonging to different tribes - Jemi Naga, Dimasa - from the Seven Sisters (Seven North-Eastern states); their dialects were different. How was one supposed to communicate?
“It was very difficult initially,” Birurani laughs “I used to gesture wildly before I picked up Hindi.” Now, she is comfortable speaking both in Hindi and the dialect of Jemi Nagas.
Birurani wants to become a doctor when she grows up.
“Medical facilities are very poor in my village. There are very few doctors and they charge big fees. Most of the villagers can’t pay fees and hence they die without getting treatment. They mostly die of malaria.”
It is unthinkable to hear that Birurani has not met her parents and five other siblings for the last one and half year. “I have not gone home and neither has my family come to meet me. Its very far and they can’t spend so much on travel,” she says. “Sometimes my parents send me message through a villager who is coming to Haflong. I don’t write to them because they can’t read. My village doesn’t have a phone connection,” she adds. Her family and several other families staying in the far flung regions of the country earn Rs 1,000-1,500 in a complete year.
Birurani may belong to the so-called ‘primitive’ world, but she is completely at ease in an urban setting in Pune. She has yet not met many youngsters here, but is keen to know about our life.
Brought up on a stable non-vegetarian diet of pork, Birurani relished pithla-bhakri during her visit to Sinhagad Fort. While hills and jungles are not new to her, she saw the sea for the first time when she visited Juhu beach in Mumbai. She also treasured her memory to Nehru Science Centre.