The eminent UK-based scholar of Parsi and Zoroastrian studies, John R. Hinnells, passed away at the age of 76 on May 3, 2018. He was a wonderful mentor to me , and a model of what scholarly generosity should look like. It has taken me a while to write this post because I have struggled to figure out the best way to do John’s memory justice. Let me try to sum up how knowing John made a difference in my life.
I first met John Hinnells in 2003, when I was a graduate student. I was doing a PhD in History in the US, but was spending a year in the UK and India figuring out what my dissertation should be about. I circled around the theme of Parsi legal history. Someone told me I should meet John Hinnells, a professor emeritus of comparative religions. For medical reasons, he was mostly confined to his home in the village of Histon, outside of Cambridge, England. John Hinnells replied to my note, and I went for a visit.
Over the years, the route to John’s place became familiar: I took the train from London to Cambridge and then the local bus to Histon, followed by a walk where I’d take the left fork at the local pub. We never met for less than two or three hours. My head was always spinning after those conversations in John’s living room. I would try to absorb like a sponge every little thing he said. I’d type up my notes later, a task that usually took me another few hours. Before my first research trip to Mumbai, John gave me critical and specific advice, names and numbers of Parsi contacts in India, and tips on finding housing. I was struck by his respect for the privacy and religious sensitivity of others. Interspersed with our shop talk were John’s wonderful stories about research trips to India earlier in his life. I also loved hearing about how he had planned to become a (Christian) monk, but then met his future wife, Marianne (“Anne”) Bushell, when she visited a relative at John’s monastery. John lost his wife early to cancer, and his unwavering love for her was unmistakable in our conversations.
Now, I tell PhD students that being a grad student can be lonely, especially during archive trips, and that it is essential to reach out to scholarly contacts around the world. Scholarly communications and correspondence are not optional, I tell them: they are a crucial part of one’s job as a scholar. My archive trips as a grad student were often lonely. In addition to cemetery visits on Sundays (less depressing than they sound), I spent a lot of time writing letters (paper ones, on fancy stationary) and e-mails (often from hole-in-the-wall internet cafes) to scholars and descendants whom I hoped to meet. I sometimes got no answer even after multiple attempts. But other times, I found mentors and later friends in the most unlikely of places. Finding John in Histon and then staying in touch over the years were highlights of the reaching-out efforts of my desperate grad-student self. I thanked him in my dissertation for adopting me informally as his student, and for sharing so generously his knowledge of Parsi history and his contacts in the Parsi community. It was because of John Hinnells that I came into contact with many of my most important sources, both living and textual. A tip from John–that no one had properly researched the 1925 Rangoon case of Saklat v. Bella (the Rangoon Navjote case)–ended up leading me to my dissertation topic, which in turn became the basis for my book. He also gave me useful comments on my book manuscript, and he wrote one of the blurbs on my book’s back cover.
In 2017, Almut Hintze and Alan Williams co-edited a Festschrift for John, presented to him on his 75th birthday. Although I could not attend the celebration, I was thrilled to contribute a chapter to the book. I am especially glad that John was alive to see the book published (edited volumes can take a long time to come out). There are wonderful obituaries for John in the Times of London and Parsiana. Equally, though, John Hinnells lives on through his writings and through those of us who were shaped by him as scholars.
Thank you for everything, John, and may you rest in peace.