My uncle has always had somewhat legendary status in my nuclear family. He’s the reason my father came west.
When our family in India needed some financial assistance, my uncle took a job with a mining company and used every spare penny to send my father to Scotland so my father could get a western degree. That’s how my father met and married my mother and we eventually ended up in the United States.
My uncle, in my memory, was always a fairly stoic man, and incredibly smart (my father half-jokes that he was the least smart of his three siblings and marvels that he was the one who ended up traveling abroad and getting so much education). You didn’t sit and banter or chew the fat with him. By the time I was an adult and visiting his home as an adult, it felt more like you got audiences with him: if he wandered by, he would share some reflection or observation from his vast treasure trove of knowledge, which spanned all of world history and geography and biology and politics. He was also relatively circumspect in my interactions with him — he would offer information about political corruption, but he wouldn’t rail against one particular party over another.
My uncle would have been in his late teens when India got its independence (an exhilarating but also terrifying time since my family lived not all that far from the border with what was then east Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and Hindu/Muslim/Sikh flight and violence across borders wrought chaos in countless lives). He grew up in a half Muslim half Hindu village where people of both faiths honored and respected each other. He lived through Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and her assassination. He lived through the Naxalite rebellions. He lived through communist control of West Bengal. And although he never left India (and I’m not sure he ever left West Bengal), his world always included everywhere from the Antarctic to Zambia.
When my family visited our family in Malda in 1996, my first visit in over a decade, I remember him walking past me one morning as I ate breakfast, placing a hand on my head and saying, “this is your home. Because this is my home, this is your home.” For a family where mixed marriage had never even been considered ano option until my father did it, there was no guarantee that our family would ever reach a place where he would someday say that to me, but as you can tell from the picture where he is holding a one-year-old me, my whole family was quickly embraced by him and everyone in India.
When I visited on my own in 2003, having spent much of the summer practicing Bengali in Kolkata, he showed up again at the breakfast table with a handwritten list of produce names in English and in transliterated Bengali. I had actually learned most of those words in childhood (because even when I didn’t speak the language, I had learned the names for all the important things, those things being food), but I held onto that list for years anyhow. It was his way of saying, even though my Bengali was and is pretty horrible, he appreciated me making the effort to learn my father tongue.
Sushil Kumar Jha passed away yesterday at the nursing facility across from our family compound yesterday, leaving behind 2 daughters and 3 sons and numerous grandchildren. As he was being wheeled to the nursing facility, he told his younger daughter he had a sense this was the end for him, so he was able to go having done whatever spiritual preparation he needed to. My parents are going to visit Malda in November and are fairly heartbroken that they did not get to say goodbye. My father expressed his appreciation on every call, and my uncle offered his blessing, so I know my uncle died knowing their relationship was totally in order.
To a man who was a good husband and father, to a phenomenal brother and uncle, I want to say I will miss you. আপনার কথা আমার মনে পড়বে।