My Peers at SNU


This photograph - with two of my former SNU colleagues - was taken in October 2018.

It was a random photo, but it came out very well, with us looking a little too happy for our comfort. Methought the ladies smiled too much! That was definitely not their reality. They just happened to celebrate an accidental colour-coordination in their clothes. Papiya (on the left) and I actually often had this co-incidence - unknowingly wearing black and red, bright yellow, or green on the same days. All of which she took quick selfies of, and all of which I refused to post. This, too, I had denied... but it had another random coincidence, which is why I dignified it with a post in my blog. (It’s a different matter that I am sharing the post a year later....!)

We three had/have a major common factor in our lives: we were/are all working mothers. Among us, from a logistic point of view, Debjani (on the right) had the hardest time – having as she did the smallest baby (2 years), commuting long distance, constantly taking updates from home (but unable to do anything if any problem cropped up for the better part of the day), even as she slogged to build a department (BioTech) with a lab.

Papiya and I had/have slightly grown up kids – Papiya’s son and daughter, Neel and Pia, were 12 and 8 last year; and Srishti was 6 – but then... when did life ever get easy for a parent? Growing children have different developmental issues at different ages, and the challenges somehow always remain new! There was only one old challenge in this whole scenario: that very old one of balancing home and work, but increasingly in the absence of reliable domestic help and almost zero day care facilities in the city.

In our case, the situation got pricklier because we were working in a new private University. SNU - Sister Nivedita University - happens to be the newest University in New Town. And in that very first Semester (Fall 2018), the regular Faculty comprised of a small team of highly talented professionals who headed the various programs. They included, among others, a veteran Techno Indian, a dyed-in-the-wool IIT-an, a dynamic media professional turned teacher, and ace researchers – like Papiya and Debjani. (We also had someone engaged in stem cell research, who, between his Ph.D at CNRS and his post-doc at Stanford, was at SNU for a few months to help set up its BioTech department). Steering fledgling departments in a fledgling institution was a tough call - but this team really tried its level best to meet that challenge. Aided in no small measure by several young men and women at the start of their careers, and a few retired academics who worked as part-time faculty.

Similarly different trajectories

I got on well with all my colleagues at SNU. But I bonded with Papiya and Debjani in a very special way - not just for being working mothers, but also (and perhaps more) because of our trajectories.

All of us are from Kolkata and had had our undergraduate education in the city (in institutions affiliated to Calcutta University – Presidency College, Rajabajar Science College); and at the time we met at SNU, we had all returned to Kolkata after a long period of living and studying/working abroad. Papiya had returned from the US, Debjani from Germany, and me from the Netherlands. Co-incidentally, both Papiya and Debjani were engaged in cancer research when they returned.

Debjani had been a Humboldt Fellow in Germany and had done research on prostrate and pancreatic cancer at Freiburg University & the Karlsruher Institute for Technology.

Papiya had done her Ph.D in Organic Chemistry (on DNA damage by nitrosation) in the US from the University of Missourie Columbia. It was then that she became more interested in cancer research, and subsequently, did her post-doc in Biochemistry from the University of California-SanDiego. After returning to India, too, she had initially worked as a cancer researcher at the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology. She was part of a team whose target was to inhibit (through drugs) an enzyme (called DNA topoisomerase) - which is very important in our cells & which enables cancer cells to multiply vigorously. If drugs can successfully target and inhibit this enzyme, then cancer cells die. [I really hope I’ve summarized your note right, Papiya!!]

My research path had been different. I had done my Ph.D in Kolkata and had left a tenured position to join my husband in the Netherlands. At that point, a post-doc was actually the last thing I wanted to do, right after years of battling with my Ph.D (for all kinds of reasons). Ironically, though, I discovered the scholar in me only then – as a postdoctoral fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden. My Ph.D on Partition literature in English, though undertaken with great interest and supported by 2 UGC Fellowships (JRF & FIP), was primarily driven by the promise of career advancement in India; but IIAS broadened my mental horizon and enabled me to see myself and my work as part of a much bigger world than I had known before, both in the field of Asian Studies and at large. The two books I authored during this time also deepened my love for and boosted my confidence in writing – not just academic writing, but writing in general. So, for all of us three - Papiya, Debjani and me - one thing holds true: though our educational foundation was in Kolkata, the research that defined who we are as scholars happened abroad - in Europe and the US.

But then we all left our adopted homes and returned to the city of our parents in our native land. We returned for similar reasons: different versions of family concerns to do with aging/ailing/widowed parents and in-laws. (Also, health issues, in the case of Papiya). In the process, our careers were severely compromised – because, while looking for jobs in Kolkata (& Kolkata only), we were all compelled to start right from scratch in teaching positions that took no cognizance of our prior experience, either in teaching or research - owing to the time lag in between, i.e. the time spent "outside India".

We are now mothers of both small children and very old parents – with a ‘only Kolkata’ tag while job hunting. That restricts our options in life to an extent that is often difficult to accept. But if we consider only the professional side of our situation, we are actually part of a pan-Indian trend. And definitely a major one in our city.

Private universities are mushrooming everywhere in India - that’s common knowledge. If one looks up the Faculty pages of these Universities, then increasingly, ours is the kind of profile one will see: people trained abroad, now back home, looking for a renewed place in the sun in the motherland.

Getting jobs in public Universities is tough - especially for those with slightly different trajectories. On the other hand, the new private Universities need people. Hence supply and demand (seem to) meet. It is, however, a very unholy union. Because a private University is a different universe altogether -- it maintains office hours and has a corporate work ethic which people coming from research-based institutions find hard to cope with.

There are exceptions to this model, of course – but those exceptions exist outside of Kolkata. Doesn’t really help people like Papiya, Debjani and me. But we’ve helped each other - through our solidarity - sharing our pasts, voicing our present sorrows & very real fears about the future, indulging in random light moments of trivial joy.

Starting with Presidency, I have taught in 3 institutions in my 2+ years after returning to Kolkata & have had the opportunity to work with many colleagues, old and young. But few have been my “peers” in the way Papiya and Debjani were – albeit for a very short time. Here’s raising a toast to the memory of that time together...!