Uma Chakravarti reminisces about the historian and feminist scholar Dr Meera Kosambi who carved her own distinctive space within a legendary family
Many years ago, before Meera Kosambi began to write on women in 19th Century Western India, a region that I wrote on in my work on Pandita Ramabai, the only Kosambi on my intellectual horizon was D.D. Kosambi, her father, who towered over the history writing scene.
So it was not surprising that when I first met her sometime in the 1990s, a lot of our conversation was about her father and also about her grandfather Dharmanand Kosambi because of my interest in Buddhism. Belonging to such an illustrious family it would have been difficult to carve a distinctive space for herself as Meera Kosambi certainly did.
Meera began as an urban studies scholar with a fine urban geography of Bombay city (1986- Bombay in Transition : The Growth and Social Ecology of a Colonial City, 1880-1980, Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell International). But it was her persistent work on 19th century women’s history that actually drew attention to her as a serious scholar.
Today her work on history, based on the written archive has been pioneering and her persistence with her chosen field of work—women’s history has also resulted in some important translations of the entire Marathi corpus of Pandita Ramabai’s writings into English so that it can be read by a wider community of feminist scholars. Her stint as Director of the RCWS at SNDT women’s University was in all probably a significant shaper of these intellectual moves that Meera Kosambi made.
In recent years, Meera Kosambi also contributed to the compilation of D.D. Kosambi’s writings so that we now have a really good collection of his papers. These had been published in a wide array of journals, some of which were difficult to access.
The last book she worked on and published was a completely fascinating account her grandfather Dharmanand Kosambi, based on the papers and oral accounts that she must have accessed. For me this has been the most interesting book that she authored. His travels to Nepal and Sri Lanka in search of Buddhist manuscripts, travelling with great difficulty, finding financial assistance from wherever he could was an amazing story. The account of how he went in and out of grihastha status moving from householder to half monkhood over the decades. was equally fascinating.
She must have had a feel for Buddhism, as her father too had, because she advised me once to return to Buddhist studies and not meander here and there. I have tried to do both—stay with Buddhist studies and meander here and there, but I am not sure she would totally approve. In the last few years I never met her for a serious conversation but I read everything that she published and so should others.
Hers was a most serious engagement with Maharashtra once she returned to it and what she did gave her an independent stature. Even though two generations of larger than life Kosambis hung over her all her life and could have dwarfed her completely, she did not let that happen.
Meera Kosambi’s other books
• 1994 Women’s Oppression in the Public Gaze: an Analysis of Newspaper Coverage, State Action and Activist Response (edited), Bombay: Research Centre for Women’s Studies, S.N.D.T. Women’s University
• 1994 Urbanization and Urban Development in India, New Delhi: Indian Council of Social Science Research
• 1995 Pandita Ramabai’s Feminist and Christian Conversions : Focus on Stree Dharma-neeti, Bombay: Research Centre for Women’s Studies, S.N.D.T. Women’s University
• 1996 Women in Decision-Making in the Private Sector in India (with Divya Pandey and Veena Poonacha), Mumbai: Research Centre for Women’s Studies, S.N.D.T. Women’s University
• 2000 Intersections : Socio-Cultural Trends in Maharashtra (edited), New Delhi: Orient Longman, New Delhi
• 2000 Pandita Ramabai Through Her Own Words: Selected Works (translated, edited and compiled) New Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press
• 2003 Pandita Ramabai’s American Encounter : The Peoples of the United States (1889) (translated and edited), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
• 2007 Crossing Thresholds: Feminist Essays in Social History, Ranikhet: Permanent Black
2008 ‘D D Kosambi: The Scholar and the Man’ Economic and Political Weekly, Kosambi Special Issue vol. XLIII no 30 July.