An obituary for the author & historian Sharada Dwivedi. Please visit the article online by clicking here.
The first time I ever visited Mumbai I stayed at Sharada Dwivedi’s fifth floor flat in Churchgate. My family didn’t give me many personal details about the woman introduced only as “Sharada Auntie”, but the living space told her story: Every available space was swallowed by literature. Most (but not all) of the books were of a historical nature. Magazines like National Geographic lay in huge stacks, interspersed between dusty titles like City of Gold: The Biography of Bombay. The furniture was classical, as was the artwork, and the interior was anchored by a small wooden terrace that overlooked that strange juxtaposition between sun-soaked palms and old British architecture known to locals as South Bombay. That first evening in the city, I shared Earl Grey tea with a thin, intellectual woman who chain smoked Wills’ cigarettes. “Michael,” she asked me. “So what is it that you write?”
When any talented writer dies, it’s painful. But when that writer was a personal friend, the pain obviously hurts even more. Dwivedi played many roles to those who knew her: She was a mother, a wife, a sitar player, a research scholar, a mentor, and a friend. But in her trade and in her soul she was a writer, one who often worked from the moment she woke up to the moment she went to sleep. She had almost no ego about her craft. She treated me (for example) as an equal from our very first meeting, despite being more than double my age and level of experience. Her husband Bhagirath (known to his friends as “Bugs”) likes to recall times when Dwivedi watched Hindi soaps like Balika Vadhu in their flat (soaps were a notorious guilty pleasure of hers), gossiped on the phone with a friend, and somehow still managed to write whatever book she was working on—all at the same time. So, Dwivedi’s work was not so much a labour of love as it was some kind of unconscious physiological mechanism: It wasn’t just what she did, it was who she was.
That’s why it was funny to learn that writing found her, and not the other way around. A Bombay girl to her very core, Dwivedi was born and raised in Dadar. Her father was a member of the Indian Civil Service during the time of British rule, and went onto become Chief Secretary of Maharashtra after Independence. Her mother, who served as a constant source of inspiration, was an early advocate for Indian women’s rights and education. The young Dwivedi went to Queen Mary’s High School in Bombay, and then Sydenham College where she majored in commerce. But it wasn’t until she left for Paris to study Library Studies at the Sorbonne that her passion for literature fully began to take root.
By the early 1980s, Dwivedi was back in Bombay, when the Taj hotel contracted her to research a book on their history. British historian Charles Allen, the book’s would-be author, was quickly impressed with Dwivedi, and asked her if she would take on co-authorship. But when the Taj book got placed on the back burner, Allen stepped in with a second offer of research and co-authorship. This time the work surrounded the subject of Indian princes. Dwivedi’s first book with Allen, The Lives of Indian Princes, soon became well received both in England and at home, its success helping to launch the literary career for which she is known.
Still, it was a career launched just as much by a sheer force of will: Dwivedi occasionally worked for The Taj magazine, where she came in contact with the editor, Umaima Mullaferoze. Displeased with the low pay and the lack of respect writers were receiving, the pair joined forces with legendary Indian advertising mogul Bal Mundkur, and created the publishing company Eminence Design, which was to become the self-tailored home for the type of lush and rigorous historical work Dwivedi was ultimately interested in creating. After taking commissions to make diaries, calendars and post cards, the company finally gained enough stability to publish more serious work. Today, histories like Dwivedi’s Bombay: The Cities Within (1995) have gone onto become local treasures, and among the most respected works in their field.
There’s blatant irony in the fact that Dwivedi’s final literary triumph was also somehow her first. Less than two months ago, Taj at Apollo Bundar, the book that began her path as a writer, was released after more than 25 years of waiting and work. The book featured an additional chapter on the November 26 attacks of 2008, demonstrating in its pages not only Dwivedi’s passion for the historical life of the city she called home but its present life and also its future. Only a few weeks later, at a party for another Eminence Design title, Stories in Glass, the architect Charles Correa said of Dwivedi’s accomplishments, “[Mumbai] is lucky to have the greatest chronicler that any Indian city has ever had.”
It is, with great sadness, a boast that this city can no longer make. Dwivedi passed away yesterday morning of causes unknown. When I dropped by her flat to pass along my condolences, her body lay completely still—in that singular Churchgate interior up on the fifth floor, surrounded by books.
Michael Edison Hayden is an American journalist, playwright, and screenwriter currently living in Mumbai.