The Scholar Gypsy

Ghose made tough, tragic choices, but his life inspired change
By Sumita Ghose
Penguin Rs:250;Pages:257

I had heard about Sanjoy Ghose long before I met him. Sometime in the late '80s there began to appear in the Indian Express a column titled Village Voice. The voice in that column, datelined Lunkaransar, a small zone of life in the sandy wastes of Bikaner, was not that of an observer of Indian village life, but of a participant. Yet, it was not the tiresome holier-than-thou voice of activist ngos. Ghose had the born storyteller's ear for repeating conversations exactly, and the journalist's ironic detachment. Above all he had made common cause with the people of that barren soil-his crusade was theirs, and their life his own. Month by month, I read those brilliant dispatches with deep _admiration.

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I met him shortly afterwards. The World Bank asked me to report on some development projects in rural areas. I leapt at the opportunity, thinking first of Lunkaransar and "Joy" Ghose. A pencil scratch in an old notebook informs me that I took the night train to Bikaner on January 2, 1992, and landed at the Uttar Rajasthan Milk Union (Urmul) campus the following afternoon. I was profoundly impressed by what I saw. Joy had successfully replicated the Anand Milk Union Ltd (Amul) experiment in one of the poorest districts of the country but in seven years had progressed far beyond; setting up weaving cooperatives, introducing primary education and healthcare schemes. He was engaged, then as always, in pointing out the infernal paradoxes of development: fighting the ill-effects of waterlogging caused by the Indira Gandhi Canal in one of the most drought-prone regions of the country. An entry in my notebook after this trip reads: "In every village that this small, bearded figure with laughing eyes and a lucid command of the local dialect took me to... there were stories of how political pillage and rank bureaucratic or commercial interests conspire to keep 'backwardness' alive."

Joy Ghose and I would've gone our separate ways, but coincidences conspired to bind our lives together: his parents were our neighbours in Delhi and our daughters, who were of the same age and belonged to the same class, became inseparable.

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In the spring of 1996 Joy decided to move to Assam, to Majuli, the largest riverine island in the world in the Brahmaputra. He felt that his work at Urmul was done. He had established the systems; now the villagers were in command. "Lunkaransar and Urmul are in my blood," he wrote in a letter to friends, "and have given me a sense of roots (and rootedness), the lack of which has always disturbed me: backpacking development worker, transient between two cultures... But now it's time to move on again, before the roots become anchors."

Some of his family and friends felt queasy about his move to Jorhat. But behind that apparently shy, smiling exterior was a man of unshakeable resolve: Joy would not be parted from his family nor be deflected from his chosen path. On preparatory trips, he had focused on Majuli island, flooded for six month of the year, its transcendental beauty attended by the horrors of soil erosion, malaria and acute lack of drinking water. For a man with a mind as fine as Joy's-he'd read development economics at Oxford, followed by a degree in agriculture at Anand, then put his learning into practice in years of groundwork-the paradox was particularly challenging. Nor was he in any way innocent of Assam's pervasive politics of terror. The militants' guns had only exacerbated, not eased, the miseries of the people of Majuli. ulfa was both parallel government and voluntary agency.

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June 1997: the children are back from Jorhat for the summer holidays and over again-like old times. Joy breezes in one afternoon to collect them. We fix a date to meet. The scribble in my daybook for July 18, 1997, is as fresh as yesterday's. It reads: "Take Joy & kids to dinner".

I never saw him again. On July 4, 1997, Joy rode his bicycle to a meeting in Mekheli Gaon, apparently with the ulfa, and never returned. He was 37. Till date, there is no conclusive evidence of what happened. This book, edited by his wife Sumita Ghose, is partly an account of her search for Joy, partly about their work together and also contains some of his best writings.

Joy was my friend, my neighbour and a surrogate father to my daughter. But it's not for those reasons alone that I think this is an important book. It is a contemporary record of rural India on par with P. Sainath's award-winning Everybody Loves A Good Drought. For those of us who believe that the wounds of conflict that tire India and exhaust the Northeast cannot be healed without people like

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