How do I memorialize Usha, how do I list all of her qualities and what she means to me in writing? I have known now for several years, ever since the cancer returned, that this task will fall upon me sooner rather than later. But I have always felt unprepared for it; it is daunting not just because of the emotional closure required but also because I don’t know which Usha I should prioritize.
Usha was a friend, colleague and confidante for over 30 years. She was a journalist, feminist, poet, filmmaker, activist, academic and scholar. She was my most important interlocutor – we talked endlessly and about everything mundane and trivial – first as journalists, later as students, academics, and activists. Those conversations sustained me because Usha always brought to them her astute critical perspective leavened with humor. That amazing laughter drew people to her and ensured a circle of friends around the world. Usha was a brilliant scholar, litterateur, activist, poet, artist and teacher. She had a way with words which allowed her to remain jargon free; she remained an ardent leftist and even during the most exhausting chemo sessions she found the energy to critique Obama’s policies. Her published work is testament to her passions and commitments; her students continue to sing her praise and colleagues like I miss the companionship and friendship she so generously offered.
Let me begin first with her achievements in her first formal career, a journalist, since it is the aspect most easily forgotten. Usha joined the Times of India group in November 1983 in a prestigious paid internship program. In her first assignment she was sent to the newspaper library and research section and asked to prepare three obituaries. Usha wrote the obituaries for Arafat, Castro and Mandela. The memorials she wrote for these revolutionary figures were brilliant and when Arafat and Mandela died the Times needed to only add some minor updates. Her uncanny ability to avoid the obvious and the conventional and to hone in on the revolutionary was repeated time and time again in her career as a journalist. Almost every outlet in the Times of India Group, such as the Illustrated Weekly of India, coveted her skills. Usha however remained faithful to her political instincts and opted for a permanent position at the daily news desk. With her unerring capacity for succinct, alliterative, punchy headlines and her instinct for the news within a year’s time she was in charge of shifts and soon completing the final edition of the newspaper. Putting these words down seems to diminish the enormity of this achievement. Other editors at the news desk had acquired at least a decade of experience before taking on this responsibility, most were avuncular old men who thought they were tolerating a young girl only to find that she had outdone them. Usha, the editor, was remarkable; everyone in the newspaper could identify her headlines and the editions she had produced.
Even as Usha gained praise and responsibility as a desk editor she chafed at the bit to be a reporter, write investigative hard-hitting pieces. She bided her time though; being a desk editor provided her flexible work hours which meant she could serve as an active member of the Bombay Union of Journalists (BUJ), help organize the Women in Media Committee, work with the Bombay PUCL, and write for activist magazines. As a member of the BUJ she actively worked to secure the rights of several journalists, just as the Indian newspaper industry was rapidly shifting gears to become more of a corporate enterprise. Usha led some glorious battles with the newspaper owners, contesting their priorities of profit-making. More importantly she vocally opposed several editorial decisions to tone down or ignore politically problematic topics, such as the Times of India’s refusal to identify Muslims as the primary victims of the 1984 Bhiwandi riots.
What sustained Usha through these tumultuous times was her unswerving passion for justice and her capacity to seek out joy. When Usha was at the press club, either at lunch or the dinner, hers was always the busiest table, with colleagues from rival newspapers and magazines sharing anecdotes and joking. Laughter was her close companion and her charismatic personality drew a wide circle of friends. I also recall the day Indira Gandhi was killed, we were both at the desk early in the day. Because of the curfew that was imposed Usha and I ended up working all day and night. Although by night’s end we were exhausted we had not processed the import of the events we had just covered. Defying the curfew orders we walked through the desolate streets of South Bombay trying to make sense of the murder, discussing passionately the wrongs of Operation Blue Star, the Akali Dal and so on. 25 years later we started to analyze mainstream media’s coverage of those events, especially the glossing over of the Sikh massacre, and our role in it. But that project remains incomplete.
Usha participated in several strikes at the Times of India; she was one of the leading figures in labor-media politics of the 1980s and 90s. She also tapped into the numerous cultural resources of Bombay. She worked with Muzaffar Ali on a script and was a leading member of several film societies. How can one forget the nights spent over gin and tonics, discussing movies, plays, poetry and politics? Who did not appreciate Usha’s generosity and zany energy? There was always delicious food and drink at her apartment to sustain the animated conversations.Once Usha moved to the US, our friendship shifted gears only marginally. Although we were always in different cities, the hour-long daily conversations sustained me. Her brilliance as a scholar became evident really early in this new career. As a doctoral student she won the venerable Wenner-Gren Foundation fellowship to conduct field research in India. Bringing to bear her Marxist, feminist, postcolonial and phenomenology training she managed to draw into sharp relief the responses of the Balmikis to the televised serial Ramayana. She was among the first scholars to offer a critical assessment of the year-long Doordarshan serial (just as the BJP became an ascendant political party). More significantly though, unlike other scholars who focused on the hegemonic ideologies represented by the serial, Usha managed to give voice to a subaltern group’s responses. This early academic work was prescient and helped clarify the contours of emergent cultural formations in India, ie the rise of Hindu nationalism not just as a political movement but as forging a community of sentiment.
Usha culled some of the most salient aspects of her research for publication in prestigious, international media and anthropology journals. “Trial By Fire” offered a feminist reading of the nationalism engendered by the Ramayana. Re-reading this essay, which was published in Social Text and has been extensively cited, I was struck by the astute reading she offers of the nation as a patriarchal imagined community. As with so many things associated with Usha, humor and playful readings of canonical texts are central to the essay. Equally importantly, this essay displays Usha’s ability to conduct close-readings of over-looked passages in key texts and to highlight through them the patriarchal ideologies central to the project of nation-building as well as Benedict Anderson’s theories.
In an equally important essay, “The Smile of Mona Lisa” Usha focused on Indian advertisements from the late 1980s and early 1990s. She offers a very provocative and persuasive reading of the conservative gender and class politics that were facilitated by Doordarshan’s commercial turn. These two pivotal essays were succeeded by a number of critically acclaimed publications. Usha’s success as a scholar resulted in the editors of Feminist Media Studies inviting her to be an editor of their reviews and criticism section. Similarly, Usha was elected to leadership positions in the feminist divisions of the most important communications associations. She traveled around the world attending various conferences and presenting her research findings. Later in India she received several prestigious grants that others can speak about with greater authority. One of the most noteworthy aspects of her writings and scholarship is Usha’s ability to bring the international and the global into the fairly parochial fields of media and communications. Remarkably, Usha managed to remain focused on the local without fetishizing or Orientalizing India for western eyes.
Throughout out her academic career, Usha managed to keep her activist spirit alive. She was an active member of numerous left, feminist South Asian groups. Her passionate politics led to an appearance WBAI, a New York City radio station, renowned for its espousal of progressive politics. Usha deftly merged her activism with her scholarship. Thus, even as she actively participated in the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate and the Forum of Indian Leftists, her published essays took insights from the field to offer trenchant critiques of media practices and the Indian diaspora in the US.
Even through the worst after-effects of cancer treatment, Usha never lost her sense of humor. Her love for nature, music, film and poetry remained unabated. She listened to Carnatic music and film songs with the same enthusiasm she displayed for activism. Whether it is her writing, scholarship, poetry, food or film, Usha dazzled in everything she undertook. She has left us a rich trove of materials for us the living; each time I read her works I am reminded that her spirit endures. Farewell dear friend!!!!
Sujata Moorty is Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Middlebury College.
Usha was my friend. I still miss her very much, and I rail pointlessly against the unfairness of the illness that took her away while she still had many projects to do, ideas to argue, laughs to share, and paths to explore. I am grateful to the organizers of her memorial and website. We live in a world that still has great need for Usha’s brilliant insights, trenchant humour, and deep humanity.
Last week, India sent a craft to Mars, and Modi filled Madison Square Gardens. These are the kind of moments at which Usha and I would have picked up the phone to call each other. We would have shared feelings of outrage and frustration that were not fit for print; then we might, as we did after the 2004 tsunami, embark on a joint project to write a response to media representations of the event. Usha was the one who reminded me of the other possibilities in the history of technology: technology and communications were not always tied to domination and capitalism, she reminded me, as we despaired about the political distance between internationalism and globalization. She showed me how global communications policy might have gone a different way in the 1970s, had non-alignment and de-linking have developed teeth in technology policy. A historian of science and technology myself, I was always learning from Usha’s incisive view of Indian history and politics. Her commitment to politics had grown out of her years as a journalist, and continued through her academic career. We first knew each other through FOIL (the Forum of Indian Leftists) and her work in its newsletter, Ghadar. She poured countless hours of work into writing and coordinating activist writing. Usha’s deep commitment to a left polemics came from a love of justice, which was never over-earnest, and always had room for a droll appreciation of the contradictory aspects of our everyday lives on the left, filled as often they are with sexism, casteism, classism, and other unacknowledged prejudices.
Usha never exploited others; she never exchanged her love of people for the rewards of professional fame. Her sense of humour broke up even the most depressing situations. Usha’s friends will always feel her absence; a vital part of our lives has been extinguished. I hope we can keep her spirit alive by finding a spirit of solidarity when often we are encouraged to compete with each other; by finding a love of humanity when often we are encouraged to have contempt for others’ failings and envy for others’ success; by finding joy in a sense of the absurd when often we are surrounded by a sense of despair.
Kavita Philip is Associate Professor at Department of History, University of California