Remembering Professor Allison Busch's Academic Brilliance and Spirited Immersion

Her scholarly understanding of medieval Indian history and medieval Hindi literature inspired many.

That morning, Patna was drenched in an autumnal drizzle. I was in a delightful mood and on my way to an event named ‘Do Din Kavita Ke’ – jointly organised by Arthshila, Patna and Raza Foundation, Delhi. One of the reasons for my mood was that I was about to meet Sanjeev, a friend for 20 years, after a long hiatus.

I was also glad to be in Patna, where our association had started and remains safely guarded. I sat in a tempo and by habit, I pulled out my phone immediately to open Facebook.

A post by my dear friend Dalpat Rajpurohit stared straight back at me. What he had written would translate into this:

“Today is a day of deep grief. A serious scholar of Hindi literature and Mughal India, Allison Busch, is no longer with us. Like me, a lot of us who have had the opportunity to work with her, will forever remember Allison not only for her intellectual vigour but also her genuine warmth and affectionate care for friends, students and colleagues. For the field of Hindi scholarship, this is an irreparable loss, but Allison will continue to live and inspire us through her work.”

How I felt – and still feel – after reading this is beyond description. Just recently, I had sent a string of emails to Allison. For nearly seven years, we had conversed over email. But, of late, there had been no reply. A little defeated, I finally wrote to her husband and acclaimed Sanskritist, professor Sheldon Pollock. He informed me that Allison had taken seriously ill and that she would get back to me once she recovers.

What had my association with Allison Busch been like? The two of us have never met, but we kept charting plans to do so. When her significant book Poetry of Kings was published, she sent me a copy with great love and affection. The first page said: “For Yogesh. With best wishes. Allison.”

In this book, Professor Busch questioned the popular imagination around ‘reeti-kavya’ with rich archival evidence to support her claim and then went on to unearth Keshavdas’ poetry. I had a discussion about her book with my teacher and acclaimed critic, professor Tarun Kumar who hailed it as “pioneering work”.

That was around the time Busch and Pollock were both visiting India. I spoke to them on the phone when they were here. I told Professor Busch that my teacher had read her book and was astonished by the breadth of her work. Allison responded with a giggle and her habitual warmth: “Much gratitude, Yogesh. What can be better for me than for my work to be praised by an Indian professor!” That giggle still rings in my ears – effused with love, excitement, enthusiasm and spirited immersion.

Also read: Swadeshi Indology and the Destruction of Sanskrit

In November 2017, the highly regarded academic Francesca Orsini collaborated with professor Apoorvanand to organise a seminar on multilingualism in New Delhi. I had to prepare a presentation on the beginnings of Hindi literary history for this seminar. I am again reminded of the intellectual generosity of Orsini here. She had not only translated my paper into English of her own volition, but also made some powerpoint slides by sieving out the argument of my submission.

Imagine the amount of labour that she had invested for someone as newly initiated as me, who was still learning to roll the pen between his fingers before committing it to paper. My senses were so clouded with emotion and gratitude that words escaped me. Even today, I only have my muteness for acknowledgement. What can one even say about this? Except for accepting this magnanimity with distant reverence.

Later, in trying to report on this seminar, I emailed Allison Busch. She wrote back with a rare shine of wonder and excitement.

I once wrote an essay on ‘reeti-kavya’ and emailed it to her for feedback. After quite a few days, I received a reply from Allison Busch. It went thus: “Dear Yogesh. I have read your piece. You shall find my comments attached here.” As I opened the word file and started reading it, I could not but bow in earnestness and respect. She had read my essay with tremendous caution and paid the deepest attention to every minute turn of argument.

At places, she even registered her slight disapproval at the impatience in my style. But, in the end, she urged me: Keep writing. Whatever seems fit for the moment and the task. What was my association with Professor Allison Busch? Can anyone say how much of her stays on with me even now? The tears in my eyes and the wrenching pain that tugs at my mind are but a flash of that permanence.

In September 2018, the then external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj conferred the World Hindi Honor upon Professor Busch in New York. Photo: indiainnewyork/Facebook

At one point in my career, I wanted to work on Gaha Sattasai. I immediately emailed Allison and asked her for sources and archives that I might mobilise. She forwarded that email to professor Sheldon Pollock, and introduced me thus: “Here is a Hindi scholar. Wants to work on Gatha Saptashati.” Being called a ‘Hindi scholar’ by Allison Busch made me feel very grateful.

Not only did Pollock go on to suggest names of books, but also forwarded my solicitation to many other scholars who work on Prakrit poetry like Andrew Ollett. What association did I have with professor Pollock? Shamsher Bahadur Singh, in one of his poems on Nirala, gasped – if only he could understand Nirala as much as he loved him! Borrowing Singh’s sentiment, if I were to sieve through the slightest bit of Pollock’s work and internalise it, I could have achieved much more.

Also read: What the Petition against the Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock Is Really About

His recently compiled reader on ‘rasa’ is rewardingly deep and nuanced. A person of such intellectual breadth and measure reached out to a novice like me, and so very wholly. He cued me to invaluable books and introduced me to experts in allied fields of inquiry. My mind keeps asking: but, what association do I have with professor Sheldon Pollock and professor Allison Busch? And then I hear it answer: yes, I have a relationship with their academic brilliance, their academic integrity. It is this integrity that makes Francesca translate my work and Allison comment on it with conscientious attention.

The famous English literary critic, F.R. Leavis, saw a morally enabling function within criticism. Human life is indeed structured around this evaluative practice of criticism. But, the essence of the academic lifeworld rests on this function and it is precisely this essence that ties me inseparably to professor Allison Busch. It is this that will survive her passing away, and I will hold fast on to.

Hazariprasad Dwivedi had remarked once that greatness belongs to her, in meeting whom one’s self-worth is elevated. The love, generosity, academic rigour and integrity that Allison Busch unflinchingly carried with her has inspired me to do something worthwhile. Through her, I have come to believe that relationships can still be forged in the mind. I have come to realise that the truth of humanity is in its borderlessness. And, so is the truth of knowledge in its unfencing. Knowledge, if it has to survive, must earn its rights to citizenship within an order of democracy.

I still cannot believe that professor Allison Busch is no more. For a moment, I tugged at my heart and wanted to wring out its grief in an email to professor Sheldon Pollock. But then, it felt utterly strange. What will I say to him? To him, whose reading of Sanskrit literature spans across my world and others’, what words of condolence might I have to offer him? That would be plain overreach.

Whenever I spoke to professor Allison Busch, the two of us planned to meet the next time she visited India. But, meet we could not. But, can one really say that we never met? Are we not still in conversation, within my world of thought and through her body of work? My words here are draped in respect, love and gratitude. Professor Allison Busch will forever resonate across the depths of medieval Indian history and medieval Hindi literature.

Translated from the Hindi original by Debaditya Bhattacharya.

Yogesh Pratap Shekhar teaches Hindi at South Bihar Central University.