Dr David Washbrook, 1948-2021

A tribute by Professor Joya Chatterji, former Director of the Centre of South Asian Studies

David Washbrook came up in 1966 to read History at Trinity. He grew up in a less-privileged part of South London, but his outstanding ability took him to a school, and then a college, where he shone. He had some connections with India: his mother, who brought him up as her only child after his father’s premature death, was born there, and his father served there during the War.

But it was at Trinity that this gifted scholar ‘found’ India as his subject for life. Jack Gallagher, temporarily ‘in exile’ (as he put it) at Oxford, and Anil Seal, were then opening up a new approach, and bringing new sources, to the study of modern Indian history. Together they influenced a generation of brilliant students, encouraging them to investigate parts of the subcontinent in the detail they merited. Sometimes tagged ‘the Cambridge School’, their differences of style and subject were to grow larger than their intellectual unities, although common bonds of friendship forged during those early years bound them together for much of their lives.

David’s ‘region’ of choice was the Madras Presidency, which – while dotted with princely states – sprawled across much of the southern peninsula.  Madras remained, from first to last, his intellectual focus, although he ranged so  far and wide in his ideas that, later he was recognised as the global historian he had become.

From his earliest days as an undergraduate, graduate and then Fellow, it was clear to all those who got to know David well that he was very special, whether as a scholar and or as a human being.

In a good-humoured and understated way, he was always a force for good. He inspired his peers, the many students he later taught and also countless colleagues, young and old, to whom he gave unstintingly of his time and friendship.

Among a host of stellar scholars in the field the world over,  David – although he would never have made such a claim for himself – was a towering figure. Yet he had no airs. Kind, warm, gentle, deep, self-effacing, but mordant when needed, and often funny, he was a cynosure as a colleague and  friend.

David Washbrooks’ monograph, The Emergence of Provincial Politics: The Madras Presidency 1870-1920, was a sophisticated, hard-hitting analysis of the high politics of Madras. It threw particular light on the dominance of Tamil Brahmins and the challenge to them by  the ‘non-Brahmin’ movement, recurring themes which would become a force that shaped India before and after independence and its influential diaspora the world over.

But David constantly crossed frontiers in ways that marked him out as a distinctive scholar. Working in collaboration with Christopher Baker (a contemporary at Queens’, but associated with Trinity), they co-authored a pioneering work (South India: Political Institutions and Political Change 1880-1940), which remains relevant to this day. He then executed a sharp pivot back in time, to the eighteenth century, then a much-misunderstood period in India’s history.

It was at this time and in this work that David also found his metier as an essayist.  Asked why he did not develop his game-changing ideas into books, he’d say, ‘well, I felt that once I had cracked the problem that had been bothering me, I didn’t have the heart to bang on and on about it.’ (Many others melded these ideas into books, some of them great books.)

David’s stature as a stylist also grew – there was ever more silver (and touches of gold too) flowing from his nib. We have testimony of how enduring his essays remained from the statistics generated by the journal Modern Asian Studies, which I edited after returning to Trinity at much the same time as David. During the fifteen years I was at the helm of the journal, among the top in the field, David remained  ‘most-cited author’ year after year, with his articles generating great impact decades after they were written.  No doubt they will hold their place for a long time to come.

In his odyssey through academia, from Junior Research Fellow at Trinity to Warwick and Oxford, with a break at Harvard, before returning to a prestigious Senior Research Fellowship at Trinity, which he always regarded as home, David’s interests began noticeably to change, focussing more on issues close to the ground – to economic inequality and caste conflict in the countryside. He considered, long before it became fashionable so to do, the impact of the environment on society. Paradoxically (for some), he also grew more interested in the wider processes undergirding global modernity and India’s place in it.  He asked why British law produced unfree labour in rural India when it was intended to have the opposite effect, teasing out the complex interplay between ‘Law, State and Society’, one of his many ground-breaking articles.  He helped to provide answers to the biggest question of them all, Why Europe grew Rich and Asia grew Poor (Parthasarathi – another of his students from his days at Harvard).  David’s questing intellect and breadth of vision led him to consider such questions on a global scale, while never forgetting the ‘untouchable’ pariah in rural Tamilnad.

A gentle man, David could be pugilistic in intellectual debate. As a research student, he delivered a (surprising but perhaps deserved) ‘knock-out’ punch to the work of another Cambridge student’s first book (that review is still read, even taught.)  Every university in the world with a good History department and India on its curriculum teaches the hugely significant debate in which David engaged (alongside Rosalind O’Hanlon, with whom he worked closely) with the ‘Subaltern Studies’ collective. Their arguments about what History does, can do, what its goals ought to be, and how it ought to be done, are a ‘must-read’; and  Polly, (as David and her friends call Rosalind), will surely continue to follow up these issues vital to the subject.

This balance of intellectual robustness and Buddha-like serenity epitomised David’s contributions as a colleague, examiner and friend.  Compassionate to a fault, humorous, and wise, he was razor-sharp when it came to critique. Often his demeanour was so amicable and his comments so moderate in tone that seminar presenters or examinees would not realise for hours, days and sometimes much longer, that their central arguments had been skewered.

But when he gave encouragement and praise, it was deserved and did good.

David’s contribution to universities where he taught, but particularly to Cambridge and its Centre of South Asian Studies, was great.  Generations of students of the Centre’s MPhil programme were awestruck by his virtuosity. His twenty-minute expositions on a variety of subjects from the state to informal economies, astounded cohort of students (and co-teachers, myself included.)

Yet all students had easy access to this most big-hearted of men. He attended every seminar at the Centre, always enriching the discussion with his ‘doosra’ questions. He chatted with students at ‘wine-time’ afterwards. He supported its directors from the day the MPhil was established over a decade ago, in teaching, examining, supervising dissertations and course revision, in delivering them an exciting and stimulating experience.

David  did all this even though he had no obligation so to do, (since his prestigious Trinity fellowship came with no duties but research).  He did it selflessly to support the subject that he loved, and with which his fascination never dimmed.

He will be sorely missed by his family. A devoted husband to Angela, a doting father and grandfather, he spent weekends at the family home in Oxford, but betweentimes he enlivened our lives with  his voluminous knowledge of world affairs and with his abundance of anecdotes, always delivered in a deadpan manner and mostly designed to illustrate the absurdity of academics.  His friends at Trinity will miss him.

But we – the Centre’s staff, past and present students, and David’s colleagues at ‘CSAS’, will feel his loss everyday. The Centre’s staff will miss David, and his ‘can do’ approach towards all labours asked of him.  His sudden loss is a blow to the Centre’s broader community, which extends world-wide.

We will, no doubt, keep expecting to bump into him there when the world opens up.

Our thoughts are with the Washbrook family, with David’s students – to whom he meant so much – and with the many friends whose lives he brightened with his kindness and wit.

Joya Chatterji.