It was August, 2006. Or, perhaps, September, 2006.
Not too many days had passed since I reached the University of Sussex for a Masters in Environment, Development and Policy. Classes had just started. It was almost certainly the first week. One afternoon, wanting a cup of tea, walking to one of the many cafeterias in the campus, I saw a door to my right. Centre of World Environmental History, it said.
Getting into the MA programme had been the realisation of a long-cherished dream — after long months and years of doubt and more doubt. And so, in those early weeks at Sussex, I was a bit like a kid in a candy store. I had gone to the main library and ‘tested’ it: searching for the most obscure books by my favourite authors and grinning a little wider each time as the database software showed multiple copies of each. In no time, I had amassed a small tower of library books in my room — all selected on the grounds that I knew nothing about their subject. I was, very much, a person favoured with an improbable chance to expand my tiny, dot-like, understanding of the world.
It was in that mood that I saw this little plaque — was the door blue and the plaque golden? — saying Centre of World Environmental History. That looks interesting, went the brain (which had read about environment and environmentalism but not yet encountered the discipline of environmental history). And so. I knock on the door. Hear a ‘Come In’ (Or something like that. My brain is hazy on all the minor details). I open the door. Step inside and that is when I meet Vinita Damodaran.
I have forgotten most details of that chat. All I remember is Vinita being very nice. And her saying there is a lecture by Mark Elvin on the environmental history of China that Friday and that I should try and attend. Ooooh, I thought. China! Showed up that Friday and came out reeling. Why reeling? Because Elvin, drawing on sources like old Chinese poems and court documents, had crafted nothing less than an environmental history spanning 3,000 years of the middle kingdom’s history. That was my first glimpse — in a life that had, till then, featured a forgettable academic record and eight years of business journalism — of what was possible with a life of the mind.
Richard was there for that talk. A large man, carelessly dressed in loose, baggy trousers, a hastily tucked shirt and a jacket. I didn’t speak to him then. But, in the weeks that followed, as I began dropping into the Centre whenever I could, I ended up spending more time with Vinita and him. A neophyte, I mostly listened, asked for reading suggestions, and received a set of recommendations that slowly reset my mental horizons — like Richard saying no one should consider doing a PhD unless they have read 10,000 books. It doesn’t matter what they are, he had said. But you need to know something about the world.
And then, towards the end of 2006, Richard’s car crash in Australia. Vinita — they were married – flying over there ( When Richard came back to the UK a year later, he was almost entirely incapacitated, needing bed-rest and care). Around that time, Vinita asked me to arrange his books in their house in the then-gentrifying fishing village of Newhaven. That weekend and perhaps another, both equally drizzly, was spent in that house pulling down books, categorising and rearranging them –and seeing once more the thinness of what I knew about this world.
That is also when I saw Richard’s biodata. It ran to 22 pages. Fifty-one years old at the time, he had published nine books; four more were on the way; 43 peer-reviewed articles; not to mention the students he had taught, the PhDs he had supervised, and the workshops where he had presented. Among these books was ‘Green Imperialism‘ — which turned the discipline of environmental history on its head, tracing the origins of environmentalism not to Europe but farther out towards the periphery, where colonialism interacted with indigenous communities. It was a tale of plantations being established on island colonies; administrators seeing those islands wither under the assault; and slowly realising that the earth is vulnerable to the depredations of man; and seeking ways to insulate it better.
Others — environmental historians of note — have commented on his immense contributions to the academy. Here, for instance, are Richard Drayton and Mahesh Rangarajan. I won’t go there. My elegy runs along more personal lines. I did not work with Richard. I did not study under him. And yet, he is one of the most formative figures in my life. Why? It goes back to what I said above. He was my introduction to what a life of the mind can accomplish. There were other things to pick up from him. His disregard for tact; how he looked out for struggling peers, collaborating with them and more till they found their feet; his activism, drawing people opposing extractive industries into his orbit at the Centre; his egalitarianism. What was evident too was his abundance of time for questions he found interesting coupled with total disregard for anything he considered inconsequential. That he made his way through academia was, a respected professor told Vinita on email, was because the “sheer force of his intelligence outweighed his uninstitutionalised temperament… His work is widely appreciated because he was so often right, with no regard for current fashion.”
I liked him for those qualities back then. But, standing where I did in 2006-07, the main thing I learnt from him was that a life that adds to the sum of human understanding is a life well-lived. I don’t think I thought like that before Sussex.
And so, this obit. To say I wish things had worked out differently. I wish I had the chance to study under Richard. What madly good fun that would have been.
Rest in peace, Richard. And thank you.
PS: One more obit, by academic Simon Pooley. That is also where the snap of Richard is from.
PS: And here is another obit, on the Sussex Uni website, by Rohan D’Souza.