Would you like to talk a bit about the works of history that have most influenced your understanding of the art and craft of narrative history? I know that the historian Marc Bloch was an early influence on you…
Apart from Bloch, his great Annales School colleague Lucien Febvre was also an early influence, as was the British social historian EP Thompson. I have also learnt a great deal from Indian writers, particularly the sociologists André Béteille and MN Srinivas—the two scholars who, in my view, have written most insightfully on society and politics in modern India.
A historian must read capaciously, and eclectically. He must read writers Indian and foreign, theorists as well as biographers, sociologists and essayists apart from formally trained historians. But in the end he must use the narrative style that works best with the theme that he has chosen and the material that he has gathered. In this sense, no other historian or book can serve as a model or exemplar. If you compare India after Gandhi with some of my other books, you will see that it is more sociological and argumentative than Savaging the Civilized, my biography of Verrier Elwin (which had to follow a person’s life and emotions closely); yet less sociological than A Corner of a Foreign Field, my social history of cricket, whose organizing categories are race, caste, religion, and nation.
By the way, there is more in the interview than the quote above suggests; for example, he talks about two recent music books, Kumar Mukherjee’s The lost world of Hindustani music, and Namita Devidayal’s Music room, as well as about a lunch at Udupi mutt (and, having eaten such a lunch at least five or six times, I can vouch for Guha’s comments on the food, though, I never had the pleasure of such company as he had during the meal):
The Madhava Brahmins love their food, and this particular meal consisted of forty-two separate items, each listed on a printed card. Udupi is on the crest of the Western Ghats, so to add to the various varieties of cultivated cereals, legumes, and vegetables came a whole array of items picked from the forest—among them wild mango, jackfruit curry, and bamboo shoot pickle.
The meal was made more memorable by the company. We ate sitting cross-legged on the floor. On my left was the Sikh sociologist J PS Uberoi, on my right the Christian anarchist Claude Alvares—both accustomed by culture and upbringing to deprecate vegetarian food as simply ‘ghaas’. Opposite me was the veteran Gandhian Dharampal—not allowed by his upbringing to eat meat, but not allowed either to be exposed to such subtle varieties of taste and essence. As we ate, Anantha Murty walked up and down, explaining the origins and significance of each of those forty-two dishes.
When I was young, I used to say, at the conclusion of every concert by Mallikarjun Mansur that I was privileged to attend: ‘Please, God, allow me to hear this man once more in the flesh before he dies’. Now, from time to time I ask the fellow above that I may be allowed one more meal at the Admaru Mutt before I die.
By the way, during one such lunch, one of our co-eaters told us of a proverb in that region which goes as “Thengina marada maelae utaa andhare, kattu janivaarakke lota”, which, roughly translates to “If somebody says food on top of the coconut tree, tie the tumblers to your sacred thread”, and for such a food, I too would be willing to climb a coconut tree with a tumbler tied to my sacred thread (which also tells you why it is a good idea to have the sacred thread handy!) .