Announcing and Illustrating a Bequest of a Chair in Bengal Studies in Religion and Literature to the DSR

August 14, 2018 by Diana Kuprel

Legacies — together and separate — and the Heidelberg connection

Story by Diana Kuprel

In 1952, Dipak Mazumdar was having coffee with a friend in the refectory of the London School of Economics.

“She was reading his hand,” Pauline Mazumdar reminisces, “and said, ‘I see your lifeline has a break in it right here.’ That was when I walked in.”

And that’s how an up-and-coming World Bank economist from Calcutta met an aspiring young medical doctor from the English village of Wark. It was the start of a romance that has lasted over six decades — a romance that has now produced a dual gift to the University of Toronto: the Pauline M.H. Mazumdar Chair in the History of Medicine, endowed in 2005-06; and a new bequest intention to establish the Dipak and Pauline Mazumdar Chair in Bengal Studies.

“My mom was thrilled with our engagement,” says Pauline. “She went round Wark and said, ‘My daughter is marrying an Indian. And you know what? He got 97 in economics!’ When we visited, everyone knew who he was and greeted him. We went round to the water mill, and the miller said, ‘Hello, Dipak, I hear you got 97 percent in economics.’ We were totally famous in this village of 400.”

Dipak’s parents were likewise delighted with the union. His father had been in the Indian Civil Service under the British Raj and, like all other recruits, was sent to the University of Cambridge for an education. That meant that when Dipak applied, he was accepted immediately. “They had a preference for the children of their alumni,” he explains. His mother had been the Chief Guide and Scout of India and sat on many international committees. “She used to come to England all the time. So marrying outside the community was not an issue for her,” Dipak says.

The Mazumdars wed in 1958. Thirty-six years later, in 1994, after Dipak retired from the World Bank, he joined Pauline in Toronto, where she was now a medical historian, a professor at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Dipak — who had focused his life’s work on inequality as a global problem and who believed that government intervention was required to solve it—became an adjunct professor, and published several books on development economics.

With their latest planned gift, the Mazumdars will both have a legacy at the University of Toronto that is close to their hearts. The chair in the History of Medicine honours the area of scholarship to which Pauline has devoted her life’s work. The chair in Bengal Studies, Dipak’s deep connection to his cultural heritage.

“We’re really keen on what this chair will do and what it will mean for the Bengali diaspora,” says Pauline. The chair, which will be a joint appointment between the Department for the Study of Religion and the Department of English, will examine the social, cultural, historical and political dimensions of Bengali life—and not, as Pauline puts it, “just getting the declensions and conjugations right.”

For Dipak, who also translated the late poems of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, musician and Nobel Prize Laureate, its significance is closely tied to his personal history and sense of community: “There is a whole generation of Bangladeshi immigrants who would love their children to be able to read and write in Bengali. If there are young scholars and they are encouraged to do PhDs, then the immigrants will feel more confident that they are not ‘nobodies who just got off the boat.’ (They’ll know) something serious is going on here, and it is based on their tradition.”

Building such capacity at the university has never been more urgent. When Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the seat of Indian government, says Dipak, everyone was keen on Bengali — it was important that administrators learned the language. But when the capital was moved to Delhi in 1911, Hindi became the dominant language of India, and Bengali quietly started to fade from prominence.

The Mazumdars credit the arrival of Professor Christoph Emmrich, a multidisciplinary scholar of South Asian religions who had done his PhD at the University of Heidelberg, to galvanize the effort to get Bengali courses up and running at the University of Toronto. “He came and said, ‘Heidelberg is behind us,’” recalls Pauline, whose own grandfather had studied in Heidelberg and had considered it to be the intellectual centre of the world.

“We haven’t any children — that’s a feature of the legacy — so why not leave our money to our intellectual posterity?” says Pauline.

“Now we both have a legacy here,” affirms Dipak, “separately and together.”


This interview was conducted at the Mazumdars’ home in Cabbagetown a few weeks before Dipak passed away, on June 16, 2018.