“Don’t ask about that”: Memory and Difficult Emotions in Oral History

L-R: R. Sowdhamini, Veronica Rodrigues, Indira Chowdhury, Jayant Udgaonkar, K. Vijayraghavan with P.K. Maitra, NCBS 2003. Photograph: Avinash Chinchure

I first met Professor Pabitra Kumar Maitra on 2 April 2003. I had just started my interviews with Obaid Siddiqi, the scientist who founded the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). But his institution had a longer history as Siddiqi started the Molecular Biology Group at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay in 1962. Maitra was the second scientist to be recruited to that Group in 1963. He had worked on glycolysis using yeast as his model organism and had been very successful in discovering the enzymes and their functions. He had retired, of course and for many years was living with his sister in Kolkata. I had decided that I would try and meet him when I visited the city next. Before meeting Maitra, I met several scientists who knew and admired him. I was curious about him – did he retire and leave Bombay, the city where he worked and made his path-breaking discoveries? No, many of told me, he had stayed on in Bombay after he retired and had even worked in Pune for a while. What made him move, I wondered. Well, this is not something you should talk to him about, but his wife, Zita died, and he left Bombay and he has been something of an exile since then. It has been hard for him, they told me. We are telling you, they said, so you are aware of what not to ask about.

Interviewing scientists was an intimidating task for me, but six months of regular conversations with scientists at NCBS and a few interview sessions with Obaid Siddiqi had put me at ease. Being told in no uncertain terms that there were personal areas that I should not wander into, made me uncomfortable. Not because I wanted to probe anything private but because ‘PKM’ as he was affectionately called, had done most of his scientific work with Zita Lobo, his research assistant, friend, and later, his wife. Was that the reason, I wondered, he stayed away from science.

My first meeting with PKM was at his sister’s home in Kolkata. I picked my way into the living room through the front veranda which had flooded because of a washing machine disaster. As I greeted him and settled down, PKM said by way of introduction, “You know, I was never the type to pay attention to gadgets that could help my sister. But Zita was the opposite – she bought this washing machine for my sister.” So even before I could begin my interview, Zita had entered our conversation. He continued telling me about Zita’s caring nature and how she always considered the needs of others before her own. The first interview which focussed on his early life and the science he was taught in school went smoothly. When we were done, he told me how he felt about being far away from science – “It is a bit like being in a desert – absolutely dry with no water in sight.” I am too cautious to probe further but the metaphor stays with me. After one more session at his sister’s house, I cautiously asked if he would like of visit the Institute his colleague, Obaid Siddiqi had founded in Bangalore. The idea seems to appeal to him.

I was at the time, a self-taught oral historian who had read books based on oral history and an extraordinary number of oral history transcriptions online. I had also read several books on oral history methodology but had very little by way of practical advice. It struck me that though PKM seemed willing to mention his wife to me, I still had no idea how I could ask him about her. The little experience I had told me that the fruits of patience were worth waiting for. So, I waited until my fourth interview to raise the question that I was told not to ask. By now he trusted me and since we were working with the Life Story approach, we had arrived at the point where he had joined work at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1963. Before we began recording that day, I asked if he would like to talk about the work he did with Zita. His response was immediate – “It is difficult to talk about my work without talking about her.” And I suddenly knew my approach to the question had to change and I asked:

“Prof. Maitra I was wondering, since we were talking about ’60s and ’70s is this the right place to remember Zita Lobo and the science she did with you. She joined you in ’65 as an Assistant. Can you tell us a little about that?”

In his answer he wanted to address several issues – Zita’s modest beginnings as an assistant, her progress into higher education and institutional constraints:

“Yes. The bulk of what she did was as a kind of student. She was not given special place by the institute. Some of it I had to exact out almost. I said if you do not take care of such a person, then whom are the rules for? Don’t be miserly with this. When she joined, she was just a matriculate ­- she was an assistant. She had to be told everything, she didn’t know anything. But she used to cook very well. And I don’t know whether it is related to this, but surely, given the right protocol she could bring out the best.”

Zita had started working early to support her family. She was an enumerator for the corporation of Bombay before she joined Maitra’s Lab as an assistant. She went on to work on his project on glycolytic pathways and published her first paper with Maitra even before she had a B.Sc. PKM spoke of her first publication and how he thought about it: “[I said] Zita surely should [be] given authorship. She had done the work almost equally, if not more.” And then added, “We had a lot of fun!” Later that afternoon, as we walk back from the canteen post-lunch, he asks, “You know that song – ‘I could have danced all night?’ – working with Zita felt a bit like that.”

By then we were completely at ease with each other, but we had not had the most difficult conversation of all – Zita’s unfortunate death from lung cancer. I was hesitant to ask the question but in hindsight it strikes me that when conversation flows during an oral history interview, what you want to know presents itself naturally – growing organically out of the conversation. While we dwelled on Zita’s academic success – she completed her B.Sc., her M.Sc. (both by research) and her Ph.D. while working at Maitra’s lab – I asked if she became faculty finally. She never did. She became a reader and then, PKM added, speaking quickly – “I think that’s the highest point she reached. And then she died.” He elaborated that she died within a month of being diagnosed with lung cancer. We pause. That’s when I find myself saying, “So you were married for a very short time.” He admits that it was very short and how she had been his student and he had become emotionally involved much later. Yet, when he had asked her to marry him, she had declined at first saying things between them were going well and she did not see marriage as a necessary end. Even after all these years, he is surprised and even shocked by the boldness of her thinking. Most of all he admired her for her straightforward honesty. “She was a person with no knots…I was lucky. Not so lucky in the end because she left.”

PK Maitra and Zita Lobo had married around the time he retired in 1997. Soon after he had taken up work at the Agarkar Institute in Pune. He commuted while Zita continued to work at TIFR in Bombay until she passed away in 2000. Maitra found it hard to continue working in Pune – without Zita he felt completely alone. What followed was a kind of self-reflection that enriched our dialogue: “But this is what makes a man, after all, I am an individual with my own past. So, I couldn’t stay anywhere without Zita, except with my own family. So, I went back to Calcutta.”

Suddenly, a space opened up for me to ask if that was the reason why he stopped doing science. And PKM’s answer still rings in my ears:

“I decided not to do any more science, because it was very painful for me. Zita and I were so closely knit in our science, it is very difficult to know who did what. So it was very difficult for me. So, I decided that enough was enough.”

Scientist friends who had advised me not to ask about Zita had not understood that Maitra’s exile from science was not rooted in the realm of the personal and the emotional. In course of my interview with Maitra, I discovered that it was unnecessary and meaningless to compartmentalise his private life and his scientific one. Zita, his wife and companion, was very much entwined with his scientific life. Therefore, when Maitra spoke about his scientific life, he felt free to talk about her and what her loss meant to him. The discomfort and unease we often feel in the presence of interviewees who had suffered deep loss comes from a self-imposed censorship. Remembrance, I found brings consolation and even a sense of relief to the narrator. In fact, it brings more – most interviewees look for ways in which to affirm what they cherished and want to talk about the loss of what had been so precious to them. Therefore, the interview demands from us patience and fearlessness. It demands that we listen, even when it makes us feel ill at ease. My interviewee, PKM was never once uncomfortable while speaking about Zita – indeed, little details of their life together flowed out, joyfully at times. He spoke willingly, almost as if he was waiting to be asked. P.K. Maitra passed away on 5 September 2007, seven years after Zita.

I am reminded of my interview with PKM soon after the untimely passing of my friend, Rinku. I am initially too stunned to really talk to her husband or son. In the past, whenever we would meet, Rinku and I would almost immediately dive into conversations as if they had been left unfinished from last time. In our chats there was that casual and fierce intimacy of our teenage years, as if we were still in college where no one else mattered. In all these conversations we rarely included the rest of the family. I had had conversations with her husband, Uday but even though these were warm and friendly, we rarely touched on the personal. With Rinku gone, I worried about the deeply private nature of my first conversation with him. And now after more than one and a half decades, the learnings from PKM’s interview resurfaced bringing with it not the obvious lessons of patience and fearlessness but a heightened awareness of the meaning of grief and consolation. I find that the only way I can start this difficult conversation is by connecting with my own sense of loss. This is what I share with him and with Utsav, their son. Our shared grief generates a language in which we can talk about our dearly loved friend. Suddenly, we are recollecting her quirks, her laughter, her kindness and, also the pain and suffering she went through. Sometimes, as we talk, it feels as if she is there with us, part of all our talk. Uday tells me that ours is an “inherited friendship” and I treasure that sense of legacy. But most of all, I cherish the insight into memory and loss that the moment brings: I realise that the lessons of oral history are not just about history and orality. Rather, they are about abiding with uncomfortable questions and the difficult emotions that arise in the course of an interview and absorbing their lessons. For unbeknownst to us, these learnings re-emerge at challenging moments in our own lives enabling us to find solace in the very act of remembering.

Indira Chowdhury

Acknowledgement: The complete interview of Professor P.K. Maitra (1932-2007) is housed at the TIFR Archives. I thank TIFR Archives and am grateful to NCBS for giving me the opportunity to interview PKM in 2003. This post is dedicated to Rinku a.k.a. Sharmila Mukherjee who we lost in January 2019.

Published by Indira Chowdhury

I am a writer, researcher, teacher and oral historian. I have a PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. My first book "The Frail Hero and Virile History: Gender and the Politics of Culture in Colonial Bengal" (OUP: 1998) was awarded the Tagore Prize in 2000. I translated Ashapurna Devi's path-breaking novel, "The First Promise" (Orient Longman: 2003). My latest book "Growing the Tree of Science: Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research" (OUP: 2016) was supported by a New India Fellowship. I have set up archives and oral history archives for several institutions in India, including the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, Economic and Political Weekly, Naandi Foundation, Sasha, Dr Reddy's and Cipla. I work at the Centre for Public History, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

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1 Comment

  1. Though very personal in nature this narrative and the interview brings out that niche quality which a sensitive interviewer should have. You have so brilliantly edged him on to speak of his very personal self. The comfort level was just right. I think that’s what an oral historian tries to do and in the process bring out nuggets which add to the history of the day. Congratulations Indira. Waiting for more.

    Liked by 1 person

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