Posts Tagged ‘Ramachandra Guha’

Why is India the most interesting country in the world?

July 13, 2008

From the point of view of a historian, at least — Ram Guha in a recent piece in EPW explains (pdf file with access for a limited time; link via Venkatesan at Law and other things):

I have refered to independent India as the most interesting country in the world. This is the impartial judgement of a historian, not the partisan claim of a citizen.


There were, and are, four revolutions occuring simultaneoulsy in India; the urban revolution, the industrial revolution, the national revolution, and the democratic revolution. The key word here is simultanelously.


The size of its territory plus the diversity of its people plus the simultaneity of these four great social revolutions — that is what makes India the most interesting country in the world.

There is also some advice as to how a historian can approach the process of writing a comtemporary history of some aspect of Indian life:

Two maxims might be useful here. The first is from F. W. Maitland; “What is now in the past was once in the future”. The second is from George Orwell: “The writer musty not be a loyal member of a political party”. Maitland’s maxim warns us against using the privilege of hindsight. Orwell’s warns us against imposing the political preferences today on our renditions of the past.

A nice piece; Take a look!

A digression: Guha’s seventh footnote of the article reads as follows:

My use of the conventional “he” to denote “he” or “she” should not be taken as a manifenstation of male bias. It is just that I find the alternatives– “s/he” or “he or she” –clumsy and cumbersome.

I am not very happy with Guha’s choice or solution; I have noticed lot of work arounds that people have come up with; Guha’s is neither original nor satisfactory; I find the suggestion offered by Mary Claire vanLeunen to be the best–for every such sentence, toss a coin and choose he or she. In fact, it might be helpful to come up with an add-on for the usual word processing programs which would automate this process.

Ram Guha on influences, historical narrative, and Udupi mutt lunch!

February 28, 2008

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.

From this interview at The Middle Stage (Hat tip to Abi for sharing the link).

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!) .

A critique of Guha’s India after Gandhi 

November 25, 2007

Venkatesan at Law and other things has a couple of blogposts summarising the arguments of Sanjay Kak, critiquing Guha’s book; unfortunately, the original piece of Kak does not seem to be freely available online (a reading of which would have helped me make up my mind about the piece myself). However, from whatever I read of the summary, I do not think the review is that devastating really (and, some of the points looked more like nit-picking), though, Venkatesan himself seems to agree with Kak at some level:

Having read the book, I was struck by the simple and lucid style with which he dealt with the history of modern India since Independence, trying to touch all dimensions of India’s democratic experiment in one book. The book, I thought, has been able to get rave reviews, thanks to the author’s transparent and candid style of historical writing which instantly built bridges with the reader. However, I must add that I had the lurking feeling that if one were looking for a history of the peoples of India, (as distinct from its milestones and institutions) then it is not the right book, and such a book (in a comprehensive style using the same approach adopted by Guha) is yet to be written. When I read film maker Sanjay Kak’s review in the scholarly book review journal Biblio (July-Aug 2007), my feelings only got reinforced.

The only substantial piece of criticism (which others make too) is that  Guha’s optimism about Indian democracy (towards the end of the book) is misplaced. In any case, take a look!

Nirad Babu and his legacy

October 13, 2007

The remarks about Nirad Chaudhuri by Naipaul (in his recent book of essays) and by Walter Crocker (in his diaries), sets Ram Guha to the task of weighing-in his legacy:

Walter Crocker is merely the sutradhar to the documents quoted here. Their main interest lies in what they tell us about that crabby, sour, insecure, boastful, yet also very brave and single-minded writer — Nirad C. Chaudhuri. It is noteworthy, though, that another writer cut from the same cloth also figures here — V.S. Naipaul. In my view, Chaudhuri’s struggle was harder and longer than Naipaul’s (although the latter would never admit it). On the other hand, Naipaul is by some distance the greater writer (although not all Bengalis will admit it). I too think that only two works of Chaudhuri’s stand the test of time — the volumes of autobiography. His scholarship was mere pedantry, but he did have “mind and honesty”. For the first 50 years of his life Chaudhuri worked away, reading and writing in quiet obscurity. Emerging into the world with the publication of Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, he was now set upon by bigots and jingoists for being ‘anti-Indian’. It is thus nice to know that he was pleased, even flattered, by the attention he was receiving in the Sixties — he deserved it.

Take a look!

A book that recurs

October 4, 2007

I have written quite a few posts about the response that Ram Guha’s India after Gandhi had received as well as my own thoughts on reading the book (and, most of them are positive). The latest to join the Guha reading club is Amardeep, who has an interesting proposal:

What I propose is this: we’ll look at a chapter or so a week, and go in sequence. In each case, I’ll try and present some of the main ideas in each chapter in a blog post, so readers can participate in the discussion even if they haven’t read that chapter of the book. The idea is to do a survey of post-independence Indian history with emphasis on the conflicts that have occurred in various states.

The first such post on Chapter 3 is already in place, and, I can see that this is going to be lots of fun. Take a look!

So long to India after Gandhi 

September 30, 2007

I have finished Guha’s India after Gandhi and enjoyed every bit of it. Some aspects of Indian history after independence were probably known to the people who lived through those times; but, for me, they certainly were not known; one such unknown fact, is the Indian equivalent of McCarthyism (which, in fact, predates McCarthyism), for example:

Were the records of the government of India for those years ever to be thrown open, one might find such loyalty oath, extracted under pressure by senior officials, were very nearly ubiquitous.

As I noted in this blog, I did find a factual error and at least one inconsistency in the book–but those are minor quibbles, which will probably be corrected in the next edition, any way. Thus, India after Gandhi, for me at least would always remain a constant source of reference.

Having said that, to write the sixty years of history of India within 750 pages or so is an impossible task. So, I have a feeling that each chapter, and each section of Guha’s book can probably be expanded into a monograph. For example, I knew that Gen. A  S Vaidya was involved in Operation Bluestar, since he was assassinated by Khalistan separatists after his retirement; but, there is no mention of him in Guha’s book. So, I believe that the book is sketchy than detailed.  But, like the sketches of R K Laxman, it is a sketch that does  more justice to the subject than even a photograph.

I can do no better than to end this post by quoting a few lines towards the end of the book:

So long as the constitution is not amended beyond recognition, so long as elections are held regularly and fairly and the ethos of secularism broadly prevails, so long as citizens can speak and write in the language of their choosing, so long as there is an integrated market and moderately efficient civil service and army, and — lest I forget — so long as Hindi films are watched and their songs or sung, India will survive.

With that, I will say my “So long” to the book that brought so much of joy and excitement to me in the past few weeks.