Ashwini Kulkarni remembers Prof. Ashok Kotwal

  • Blog Post Date 07 May, 2022
  • Perspectives
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Ashwini Kulkarni pens a heartfelt tribute to our founder Editor-in-Chief Prof. Ashok Kotwal.

Ashok has been the integral 'thought' of our organisation's journey. If some idea, or an argument came to my mind, my first action was to pen it down to share it with Ashok, and look forward to his questions. And without fail, there would be a call. He would start by saying, let me be the devil's advocate, which usually led to series of discussions. These discussions have made me who I am, and encouraged me to pursue my thoughts. There have been occasions when the discussions led to discarding an idea altogether, but not without enriching my understanding.

I always wondered why academics in the fields of social sciences like Economics, Sociology, or Political Science are not interested in having an active dialogue with people like us who closely work with the communities, with agents of change, and are most probably the first to witness change. This is why, I was pleasantly intrigued when I realised Ashok was looking into efforts of an organisation in Maharashtra – like ours – working on water for agriculture, and visiting their villages and meeting farmers to study it. At the same time, I was reading his articles in Marathi newspapers and magazines. This was in 1990s and he being in Canada, made him seem inaccessible. But he used to visit India and Maharashtra almost once a year. And so, we met, and he became an integral part of my life over last three decades.

For a long time, he was associated with the Canada India Village Aid – an association formed by a group of friends in Canada who were in some way associated with India. They had put together a fund to support organisations in India who were working on rural poverty. Our organisation has also been supported by this association. I had the opportunity to travel with him to organisations who they supported across India and saw him interacting – with genuine respect and complete curiosity to learn – from the organisation’s leaders and field workers. He did not respect them just as a bunch of ‘do-gooders’, but acknowledged their investment and contribution to knowledge generation and development policy. 

Ashok, in my experience, was an unusual academic – he had the ability to discuss economic theories by keeping it very simple and most importantly relevant to our work experience. He valued our experiences coming from the field and discussed the nitty-gritties of its processes. He was forthright in stating his opinion if he believed that an experiment an organisation was trying had no potential for scaling up by laying out the logic of why. He would admire, and also appraise, with honesty.

All of us have a tendency to be in the comforts of our fraternity, speak a particular language within the fraternity, but Ashok was always eager to cross boundaries, move into different disciplines, ask basic, first principle questions, and made us all think. His wandering made everyone richer. He created these spaces of cross learnings in his personal life, and we find its reflection in the ‘Perspectives’ section of Ideas for India.  

I used to tag along with him whenever he was in India which gave me the opportunity to meet and know his friends, and some of them are now my friends as well. Initially I felt intimidated by all the academic brilliance around him, but he always went out of way to make me feel comfortable. He gave me confidence to discuss with such brilliant minds, who I otherwise would not have got to cross paths with. Subsequently, I also got the opportunity to work with couple of them.

Ashok and Truus have been part of our family and we have stayed with each other several times. We have had day-long conversations on everything under the sun and shared lots of fun moments. He had an interest in Marathi novels, non-fiction writings, poems, theatre, etc. His anecdotes and his rendering of stories are highlights in my memories of him, his travelogues came with historical context of the places and remain a treasure.

Though we all knew about his illness, rationality has abandoned me, and emotions have clouded my mind for all of last week. This is a loss that I find incredibly difficult to deal with. I said to Truus that with Ashok, I think I am losing a part of me, to which she said: “No he lives in you”. I hope and wish to feel him being around me for rest of my life.     

P.S. I wrote this, and my first thought was to dash it off to Ashok and wait for his call…

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