In Memoriam: Tapati Lahiri

Tapati Lahiri
Tapati Lahiri

Tapati Lahiri died peacefully at home, surrounded by her loving family, on April 2, 2021. A former educator in the South Kingstown School Department and a cherished member of the Bengali community of New England, she was 81 years old.

Tapati, also called Tia by her family, was born in Kolkata, India. She was the second of four children born to Uma Sanyal and the painter Phani Bhusan Sanyal. Tapati was raised in North Kolkata in a politically engaged extended family for whom art, music, and literature played a prominent part. She earned her B.A. at Vidyasagar College, an M.A. in Bengali literature at Calcutta University, and a post-graduate certificate at Visva Bharati University (Santiniketan), a renowned open-air center of learning located in West Bengal.

After university, Tapati taught at a girl’s school, worked as a private tutor, and was active in organizing cultural programs featuring theater, music, and recitation to celebrate the Bengali New Year and other occasions. Born with a beautiful voice, she studied singing, learning the repertoire of the Bengali poet and composer Rabindranath Tagore. She was cast in an important role in a public production of the play Siraj Daulah, and was considered by the director Satyajit Ray to act the part of Durga in his 1955 cinematic masterpiece Pather Panchali.

Tapati was married and emigrated in 1966, living first in London, where she trained to be a Montessori school teacher, before moving on to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1969, and finally settling in 1970 in the environs of Kingston, Rhode Island, where her husband worked as a Faculty Librarian at the University of Rhode Island. She was an early member of URI’s Indian community, hosting graduate students who lived far from home and regularly preparing samosas and other Bengali snacks for the International Coffee House on URI’s campus. She continued to maintain strong ties with the growing Bengali community of the greater Boston area, helping to organize cultural events that were fundamental in establishing solidarity and life-long, sustaining friendships for transplanted Bengalis in New England.

In the late 1980’s, she became the director of the YMCA After School Program at South Road Elementary school, and went on to become a teacher’s aide for special education students at South Road School and later, at West Kingston School. In 1999, she decided to return to University to earn an Early Childhood Education degree and Teacher Certification at URI. She completed her studies in 2009, and was inducted into the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society. Though she retired from the South Kingstown School Department soon afterward, she continued to work as a substitute teacher and helped to found the Gandhi Essay Contest, a state-wide education initiative to encourage Rhode Island youth to think critically and write about non-violent social change. In her career as an educator, she worked with hundreds of young children in South Kingstown. She was a proud member of the South Kingstown Coalition Against Racism, and with her husband, engaged in philanthropic work in West Bengal, India to provide support for the health and education of children living in poverty.

An ardent reader of Bengali literature, Tapati published poetry in numerous Bengali literary magazines and newspapers. Her Bengali translation of Dilip K. Dutta’s biographical commentary of the Assamese poet and song writer Bhupen Hazarika was published in 1991. In 2016, she was part of the cast of “Voices,” a story-telling production by the New England theater group Off-Kendrik, narrating true experiences about the South Asian immigrant experience.

Tapati was a gifted container gardener, a devotee of cinema and classical Indian music, a highly skilled knitter, a fierce Scrabble player, and a passionate cook who opened her home innumerable times to guests, treating them to her sumptuous Bengali cuisine. She will be remembered for her nurturing spirit, her dedication to principles of social justice and tolerance, her sense of humor, her curiosity, and the countless friendships and family relationships, spread across three continents, that she cultivated and held dear.

She is survived by her husband of 55 years, Amar Lahiri, by daughters Jhumpa and Simanti, and by two grandchildren, Octavio and Noor.

In lieu of flowers, please send donations in her name to UNICEF at unicef.org.