Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I’m not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunshine on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
And when you awaken to that
I am that swift, enlightening rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I’m not there. I did not die.11 A poem by Mary Frye that has me thinking of Sanjoy.
It was a long time ago. Memories have faded, and many reading this article would be too young to know him as more than just one of the ‘names’ that the IRMA community throws around to motivate people towards a certain career path. So let me begin with a short biography.
A Short Biography: Sanjoy Ghose came from a privileged background—the Cathedral School and then Elphinstone College in Mumbai, a family full of judges and civil servants, the works. He joined IRMA as part of its first batch (deciding against IIM-A to come here, I read later, though he never spoke about that), and then took up a job with the Tribhuvandas Foundation (TF) in Anand. The URMUL Dairy, Rajasthan wanted to replicate TF in Bikaner district in Rajasthan and recruited Sanjoy to set up the URMUL Trust in 1986. I joined the URMUL Trust in 1991, by which time it was headquartered in Lunkaransar, with fledgling operations in Phalodi and Bajju, and was financially independent of the Dairy. Along the way, Sanjoy married Sumita, his classmate from Elphinstone, and they had two children (Joyita, now a final-year sociology student at LSR in Delhi, and Anindo, a student in Mumbai and a budding investment banker, his mother tells me). He pursued further education at Oxford in the UK and at Johns Hopkins in the USA.
In the 1990s, Sanjoy began making noises about ‘going some place where his work was really needed’. He worked on this with his typical rigour and single-mindedness, ensuring that the URMUL Trust would continue without him (which it has), identifying a place, a mode of operation, and preparing his family and colleagues for the move. The place was the North-east, with a base in Jorhat in Assam and field operations in Majuli Island. The mode of operation was engaging in networking and advocacy across the region. He joined AVARD (Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development) as its general secretary and set up a branch, AVARD-NE, through with to work. He moved to Jorhat in 1996. He was picked up by ULFA in July 1997 and murdered. No body has been found until date.
Why is he a ‘name’? Sanjoy was not like you and me. He was brilliant, extremely hardworking, and ruthless—the alpha plus combination that gets you to the top in whatever field you choose. He combined this with deep commitment, a love for the nitty-gritty, genuine charm, a sense of humour, a magnetic personality, and fearlessness. In the six years that we worked together, I saw all these facets of his personality (and have been at the receiving end, not always in a nice way, of them as well) and can confidently say that he was a one-off. He was as comfortable in the plush Delhi offices of multilaterals discussing policy with the wonks as he was sitting on the floor of a poor household in a remote village discussing basic health care. The other ‘names’ don’t compare. Sanjoy would never have allowed himself to get comfortable, would never have lived off past achievements, would have always put the needs of the worstoff as central to what he did.
What if ? In that one year in the Northeast, he had a dormant NGO sector humming with activity across the seven states. A genuine non-governmental space between the religious charities and the insurgents was being developed that would have been a force to reckon with today had it not died a premature death with him. He would have been a genuine role model for individuals in the Indian development sector, a critical need today when the sector is competing for talent in a playing field that is not level. And there would have been a role model for NGOs as well, and a better quality of public debate on the space for peaceful nongovernmental action in a polarising social and economic environment.
To conclude: I am now going to indulge in a little sentimentality. For some years after his death, I would sort of expect Sanjoy to burst into the room at any time and fill it with his presence. It is only recently that this feeling has abated. I still try to avoid getting into discussions about him unless it is with close colleagues from those days like Madhavan and Sunil Kaul. What has stayed on with me along with the memory of his commitment and his passion is his sense of fun and his habit of eating only once a day. He could ferret out food from the unlikeliest of places at the unlikeliest of times. I remember how we arrived at Pasighat late one evening, hungry and tired, with everything closed, and how he managed to charm a shopkeeper into preparing hot food by speaking Marwari and enquiring into his lineage.
Today, ten years later, one feels a certain sense of déjà vu hearing the news from Assam of Mr Ram of the FCI (Food Corporation of India), the is-he-deadis- he-not game still continuing, the playing with the sentiments of a family in deep distress. I quote Sumita Ghose from a recent article in the Telegraph, saying that ULFA are ‘a bunch of ageing dickheads (this word is mine—she uses ‘men’, but being a member of the tribe I revolt at the association) who still believe that lies, guns, extortion, force, and other such cowardly means will bring about a positive and lasting change.’ She exhorts Mr Ram’s family against believing a word ULFA says. I second that.