Academics / Historians / The Sunday Times / Writers

Prof. Ramachandra Guha: A Student of Modern India

The New York Times dubbed Prof. Ramachandra Guha ‘perhaps the best among India’s non-fiction writers’; Time Magazine called him ‘Indian democracy’s pre-eminent chronicler’; In 2008, the Prospect (UK) and Foreign Policy (US) magazines listed him among the world’s 100 most influential intellectuals. But had it not been for an eccentric Englishman who died in 1964, this eloquent, erudite Indian historian may have remained an economist.

Verrier Elwin would inspire Prof. Guha to abandon numbers for sociology. An Oxford scholar and one time evangelist, Elwin is remembered as the unlikely champion of India’s indigenous tribes, immortalized as much for his two controversial marriages to tribal women as for his role as an advisor to the Nehru government on tribal policy.

Prof. Ramachandra Guha

Reading Verrier’s extensive writings on tribal customs and culture years later, Guha found himself drawn to the field. “I was playing cricket and studying economics, and I thought it dull and drab and I wasn’t very good at it,” confesses Prof. Guha. “Elwin played a very important role in my own personal trajectory, away from economics and into sociology and history.” (His book on Elwin – ‘Savaging the Uncivilised’ (1999) – he said was ‘written for anyone interested in 20th century India and Adivasis. For anyone who is interested in Nehru and Gandhi. In celibacy. In the history of Christianity in India.’)

With that move, Prof. Guha had found something he was indisputably very good at. He has since authored over 20 books of non-fiction and many more essays and columns. He has written about the social history of cricket and the environment, about Indian tribes and the forests they inhabit, about sub-continental political thought and the Mahatma, about South Indian vegetarian food, Hindustani classical music and Arundhati Roy. Still, if one were to go by the titles alone it could easily be assumed that Prof. Guha’s work was primarily scholarly in nature, intended for a niche audience.

A deal signed with Penguin in 2009 (the same year he was awarded the Padma Bushan by the Indian Government) offers a spectacular challenge to that notion – the publishing company offered him nearly1 crore (10,000,000 INR) for 7 books. The deal is reflective of Prof. Guha’s significant successes in publishing: 2007’s ‘India after Gandhi’ for instance, was chosen as a ‘Book of the Year’ by the Economist, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, Time Out and Outlook; and as a ‘Book of the Decade’ in the Times of India, the Times of London, and The Hindu.

Prof. Guha sees it as a triumph for non-fiction in India, the first time an Indian publisher recognized the importance of the category. “In India it used to be fiction, fiction, fiction, even though there were so many essential stories that could not be told through the medium. I think in a modest way I have helped shift the focus,” he says.

As part of the 7 book deal, Prof. Guha intends to write a three volume biography of Gandhi. For someone who sees himself primarily as a “student of modern India,” it’s unsurprising that for him the Mahatma is something of an obsession. Prof. Guha plans to dedicate the next 10 to 15 years to writing a richly textured, multi-layered biography of the man. “Through Gandhi’s life, the entire history of an epoch unfolds, and that is what I would like to do, use his life as an entry point to paint this historical canvas,” says Prof. Guha.

He imagines other ‘minor characters’ will find strong voices in his rendition – such as the Jewish lawyer Henry Pollak who was one of Gandhi’s closest associates or the Tamil radical Thambi Naidu from Mauritius who stood by Gandhi when his other supporters faltered. Tapping into archives on three continents and using multiple other sources, Prof. Guha intends to unravel their motives. “When you tell the story of a large character like Gandhi, all these other, so called minor characters emerge as human beings in their own right, with their own interesting trajectories and biographies.”

It’s a technique he’s relied on before. In ‘A Corner of a Foreign Field – An Indian history of a British sport’ (2001), Prof. Guha resurrected the reputation of a cricketer named Palwankar Baloo. (It’s telling that Baloo’s Wikipedia entry consists almost exclusively of information from the book). Baloo was India’s first cricketer who was a Dalit, an ‘unthouchable’. A left-arm spinner, Prof. Guha lauded Baloo as the ‘the first great Indian cricketer,’ shamefully neglected by history; this despite him being the only Indian bowler to take 100 first class wickets on a 1911 tour to England – a record that remained unbeaten for decades. Though he was allowed his victories on the field, off it Baloo was at first segregated from the Europeans and the higher caste Hindus. While his team-mates dined off fine china inside the pavilion, he ate alone outside, served on disposable clay crockery.

Prof. Guha first realised how extraordinary Baloo must have been when he saw an old newspaper report which featured the captain of the Hindu Team (the’ Quadrangular’ tournament was then organized along religious lines, pitching Hindus, Parsis, Muslims and Christians against each other.) In it, the man said he believed the honour of the captaincy should have been Mr. Baloo’s, for the latter was a better player. “It was an exceptional statement… you won’t hear Ricky Ponting saying Shane Warne should be captain.” Digging further, Prof. Guha was astonished by what he found. “I knew this man’s name but I didn’t know what an extraordinary public role he had, how he was a symbol of hope and inspiration for countless people.”

The author believes stories like these “humanize” the otherwise ponderous narration of history. “You can take a character like Baloo and capture the entire agony and horror of the caste system and the attempts by reformers and social movements to challenge those social hierarchies…I didn’t start like this but over a period of time I got more and more interested in characters and using them to illuminate larger social and historical themes and so I call myself historian and biographer, because in a sense I am both.”

That he can inhabit both roles and others besides, Prof. Guha believes is a credit to the diversity India itself offers – he frequently describes it as “the most interesting country in the world,” a claim he defends as being factual rather than jingoistic. A Tamil from Bangalore in South India, Prof. Guha grew up in Dehradun and studied in Calcutta and Delhi. It’s evident when he speaks – his accent doesn’t carry overtones of Oxford, unlike many of the Indian elite. He is nevertheless much admired abroad – a glowing editorial in The Guardian this March welcomed his appointment to the Philippe Roman chair at the London School of Economics.

That’s where you’ll find him for what remains of the year. However, he made a brief visit to Sri Lanka to deliver the 12th Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture. He spoke that evening of Sir Patrick Geddes, a Scottish town planner who worked in Sri Lanka and India from 1914 to 1924. Geddes made over 60 city plans, one of which was for Colombo. The choice of theme is vintage Guha, existing as it does at the juncture of his various interests – environmental, historical, political and social issues interested Geddes’ as well. And in Geddes’ stated priorities, such as a respect for nature, democracy and national heritage, Prof. Guha knows he has found a kindred spirit.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on August 7, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel.

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