Monday, January 07, 2008

The Books Interview: Ramachandra Guha

The publication of Ramachandra Guha’s thrilling history of India from 1947 to the present day India After Gandhi was one of the highlights of Indian literature in 2007. Guha, whose other books include a biography of the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, the awardwinning social history of Indian cricket A Corner of a Foreign Field, the marvellous anecdotal history The States of Indian Cricket, a history of the Indian environmental movement (with Madhav Gadgil) and the book of essays An Anthropologist among the Marxists, kindly agreed to answer a host of questions about India After Gandhi and also about the nature of the historian's craft, favourite books and bookshops, Indian newspapers, and food.

Six decades after independence, democracy is now quite deeply rooted in our psyche and in our language: we are at home with democracy, or at least with the rhetoric of democracy. But as you demonstrate, the decision in 1947 to move straight to a system of adult universal suffrage was "the biggest gamble in history". Could you reprise just why this move was so radical?
In the West, the franchise had been granted in stages; first only men of property were allowed to vote; then men of education were added on to the list. The male working class had to struggle long and hard to be deemed worthy of the privilege. Women had to struggle even longer; in a supposedly “advanced” country like Switzerland, women were not permitted to vote until 1971! This is what makes the Indian experiment so radical. So soon after Independence, a poor and largely illiterate citizenry was allowed to freely choose its own leaders. All Indians above the age of 21, regardless of gender or class or education, were granted the franchise. There was, as I show in India after Gandhi, widespread scepticism about this experiment; many Indians, and most foreigners, thought it would never work. But it did.

Although India After Gandhi is 900 pages long, its scope is so vast that you must have left out at least as much as you left in. Did you find that work on this book was an especially demanding instance of that problem which all narrative historians must grapple with: the selection of detail?
I did leave out quite a lot, though certainly not as much as I left in! I cut 40,000 words from my final draft, these mostly original quotes from primary sources. Even so, the book runs, as you say, to 900 pages. My publishers, my agent, my closest friends, had all warned me that a history book about India would not sell if it were more than 500 pages long. In the end, my American and British editors, together, recommended very few cuts–perhaps 5,000 words to add to the 40,000 I had myself deleted. No reader has (yet) complained about the length; although many readers (beginning with my wife) have complained that the book is too bulky to read in bed.
As I explain in the prologue, historians of India have taken 1947 as a lakshman rekha they cannot cross. My real hope for this book is that it will encourage younger historians to write books of their own on the history of independent India, which is without question the most interesting country in the world. Each of my chapters should be a book. Several of my sections could be developed into books. There are themes I have treated only fleetingly (for example, the history of Indian architecture since 1947) that could be made the subject of whole books. And many of the characters who figure in the pages of India after Gandhi­—for instance, Sheikh Abdullah, AZ Phizo, JB Kripalani, and NT Rama Rao—deserve full-length biographies.

The decades immediately before and after Indian independence also seem to have been a golden age of political leadership. Your chapters on this period are among other things a chronicle of the contributions of our own Founding Fathers - Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar and a host of others. None of these men except Nehru had a family background in politics, yet they were all drawn to politics, and as you show they were all in some way above politics. Is this just a historical curiosity? Must a democratic citizenry be reconciled to not expecting greatness in its statesmen?
A I think that it was, alas, a historical curiosity, or more accurately, coincidence. Rarely in any country’s history have so many men and women of intelligence and integrity taken—at more or less the same time—to the political life. We Indians are insufficiently aware of (and certainly insufficiently grateful to) the country’s Founding Fathers and Mothers. We owe them much more than we realize. Now, intelligence and integrity have mostly left the sphere of politics—although they are visibly present in the realms of social work and social activism, entrepreneurship, and in professions such as medicine and the law.

Your book synthesizes an impressive amount of scholarship. Among the concepts you take up, I was struck by W.H. Morris-Jones's idea of the three idioms of Indian politics: the modern, the traditional, and the saintly. Would you like to elaborate on this idea, and perhaps explain it in terms of a contemporary Indian debate?
I suppose Dr Manmohan Singh represents the modern idiom, and someone like Medha Patkar the saintly idiom. However, most important or successful leaders nowadays practice one or other version of identity politics—and thus would qualify as ‘traditional’ in the terms of Morris-Jones. Caste, region, religion—these continue to shape and define how politicians win elections and how they run their administrations.

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.

Your research for India After Gandhi must have thrown in your path many texts about Indian history, politics and culture that are now little read. Would you like to talk about some that can still be read for pleasure and profit?
I don’t know about ‘pleasure’, since very few Indian historians write with any sense of style. An exception must however be made for Sarvepalli Gopal, whose lives of Nehru and Radhakrishnan can indeed ‘still be read for pleasure and profit’. Among the other books that I found particularly valuable in terms of the depth of their research, or the spotlight they threw on important issues, were Prafulla Chakravarti’s Marginal Men (a study of Bengali refugees in Calcutta), and Sisir K. Gupta’s meticulous study of the first decade of the Kashmir dispute.

Must a historian read the newspapers closely? What newspapers do you read? And would you like to provide an account of your changing relationship to the newspaper over the course of your life?
A historian must certainly read, and closely, the newspapers of the period or region he is writing about. For both India after Gandhi and A Corner of a Foreign Field I spend many enjoyable hours looking at microfilms of old newspapers and magazines. The riches of India’s periodical press are an under-utilized resource, since many historians still tend to restrict themselves to official records.
The newspapers of the present day are another matter. Growing up, my favourite newspaper was The Statesman, which combined elegant English with a sturdily independent editorial stance. It was destroyed by a megalomaniac named CR Irani. Back in the 1970s, the Times of India was also a real newspaper; now, as we well know, it is a fashion supplement. If the TOI is too frivolous, then The Hindu is perhaps too solemn. Now, in 2008, my favourite Indian newspaper is The Telegraph of Kolkata, and I often also find things of interest in the Hindustan Times. On the whole, though, I feel that the quality of the English-language press in India has declined over the years. There is too little grassroots reporting; too much celebrity journalism. Editors and columnists are too closely allied to particular politicians or political parties.

In 2007 there was a boom in the publication of books on India both at home and in the west. Are there any books amongst these, whether for a scholarly or a lay audience, that have caught your eye?
The two books on India that I most enjoyed in 2007 were both on that most elevated of art forms, Indian classical music. I was very struck by a remark once made by Amitav Ghosh, to the effect that our classical musicians are the only Indians who strive for excellence and achieve it. Their art is richer and more subtle, and calls for far great discipline, than the game of cricket; and it brings the artist in touch with the Divine.
I mention cricket because it is a game we both love to distraction, and both of us write about. But give me M. S. Subbulakshmi over Sachin Tendulkar any day. Sadly, our shastriya sangeet has not really been written about (at least in English) with insight and imagination; there are no musical equivalents of Sujit Mukherjee or Mukul Kesavan. Or not until last year, when Kumar Mukherji published (posthumously) The Lost World of Hindustani Music, a wideranging anecdotal history of many musicians and many gharanas; and Namita Devidayal published The Music Room, her evocative memoir of singers from a single gharana.

Which is your favourite bookshop in the world?
I have many favourite bookshops: John Sandoe in London, the Strand in New York, Clarke’s in Cape Town, and the New and Secondhand Bookshop in Mumbai. But the one I love most is Premier Bookshop, off Church Street in Bangalore. Its owner, T. S. Shanbagh, is a man of much charm combined with a sly humour. His books are arranged in a most eccentric fashion, but he knows where each one is, and knows too which new arrival is likely to interest an old customer. I have written a tribute to Premier in an anthology of writings on Bangalore edited by Aditi De, which Penguin will publish later this year.

Let us say you were hosting a dinner party and had the liberty of inviting half a dozen personages from the entire sweep of Indian history. Who do you think you would want at your table and why? And what then might you talk about?
That is a tough one! To make matters easier, let me restrict myself to the recent past. I guess I must have the four modern Indians I admire above all others—Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Nehru. Then the great (or at least brilliant) Indian whose politics and personality is somewhat at odds with this quartet—namely, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. That will surely get the sparks flying. Finaly, the socialist-turned-social worker Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, not to fill in the gender quota, but because of the range of her experience and the independence of her mind, not to speak of her penchant for puncturing pomposity wherever it was to be found.
The conversation? Perhaps I might begin by asking Gandhi his opinion of his fellow Gujarati, Narendra Modi. Ambedkar might then offer his views on Mayawati, Nehru his views on Rahul Gandhi, Tagore his views on Amartya Sen (whom he named). I think we can trust them to take it from there!

These interviews always end with a question about food. As you have travelled widely around the country, and lived for considerable periods of time in the south, the north, and the east, you must have left your footprints on thousands of eating-houses. What is your favourite memory of a meal?
The older I get, the more I relish Indian vegetarian food. Gujarati cuisine is a favourite, of course, but so is Bengali vegetarian food (I grew up in Dehradun in close proximity to a home in which lived a Bengali widow, for whose delectation—since she had little else to look forward to—this cuisine was first fashioned). But my most memorable meal was had in the Admaru Mutt, adjoining the famous Krishna temple in Udupi. I had been at a conference in the neighbouring town of Manipal, whose presiding deity was the Kannada writer UR Anantha Murty. On the last day of the conference we were taken to the Mutt for lunch by Anantha Murty. 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.

And some previous books interviews: Altaf Tyrewala, Samrat Upadhyay and Christopher Kremmer.


Space Bar said...

More than any part of these interviews - and this one is wonderful! - I love the answers to the last question.

Chandrahas said...

Space Bar - Thanks very much for your kind comment, with which I couldn't agree more. In fact, the structure of the questions in these interviews is designed to replicate that of the writer's working day, which begins with the agitation of Very Serious reflections about Deep Matters and subsides after two or three hours into thoughts of lunch.

Swar said...

"In the West, the franchise had been granted in stages; first only men of property were allowed to vote; then men of education were added on to the list. The male working class had to struggle long and hard to be deemed worthy of the privilege. Women had to struggle even longer; in a supposedly “advanced” country like Switzerland, women were not permitted to vote until 1971!"

- I have heard Mr. Guha expressed these exact sentiments at a talk in IISc, Bangalore. His statements help simplify history, neatly pare events and serve our facile age. I find it hard to believe that he is still swinging the Swiss schtick. Is that his official tagline now?

Does Mr.Guha explain in the book WHY the introduction of women's suffrage in Switzerland took a long time? The history behind it is a lesson for the present Indian democracy. Switzerland is one of the world's oldest republics. It has never been invaded in its modern history. It has enjoyed a neutral luxury. Majority of the population had been comfortably used to certain reliable rules and stuck to them. In such an insulated environment of rules and paperwork, reforms like women's suffrage took an extended struggle.

A mass revolution overthrowing a regime makes it easier to implement radical social changes as against reforms in an old democratic tradition. India got independence in the middle of 20th century. By the time we achieved Independence, universal suffrage had been enacted in many Western countries. The West had already experimented with suffrage gradation and reached the conclusion of universal suffrage. Our (western-educated) leaders cleverly implemented only the Western conclusion, not their process. Wouldn't it have been political suicide for Gandhi and Nehru to grade suffrage beneficiaries?

A very short timeline:

Czar Nicholas II abdicated in February of 1917 - Women's suffrage enacted in the then Soviet Union in 1917

The defeat of the Central Powers in 1918 resulted in the disintegration of Austria-Hungary. Emperor Karl of Austria, who had ruled since 1916, went into exile. - women's suffrage enacted in the then German Austria in 1918.

After Germany's defeat in WWI, monarchy was abolished and in 1919, the Weimar Republic was established - women's suffrage enacted in Germany in 1919.

Did Mr. Guha seriously say 'the biggest gamble in history'? I disagree with his assertion but if that is his case, what history are we talking about here? Modern history? Mediaeval History? Ancient History? Political history? Economic history? Human history?

"...Most interesting country in the world...
...Rarely in any country’s history have so many men and women of intelligence and integrity taken—at more or less the same time—to the political life"

I would love to contest these statements but if they are true, I must be living in a very dull world with only INDIA SHINING.

And a little bit of 1792 - The Principality of Liege gave the vote to all men and women over 18. But then, history can always be contested and I have biased opinions.

Uncertain said...

Thanks for this interview. It made an interesting read .. and I can't help but envy you a little for having come in contact with an intellectual of such stature.

Out of curiosity, do you know why poor C R Irani was posthumously dealt a ringing slap by Dr. Guha? Coming from a scholar who allegedly believes in measured speech, the statement about Irani was very strong and very unqualified. Maybe this topic came up in other informal conversations..?

Sonia Faleiro said...

What a gorgeous post Hash! You do these book interviews so very well.

Chandrahas said...

Sonja - Thank you for your generous words. But in truth the credit for these pieces is only fractionally mine, and their owe their success almost entirely to the intelligence and the zest of the respondents: Mr.Guha here, and Mr.Tyrewala, Mr.Upadhyay and Mr.Kremmer in past instances.

As proof of this, I can let you know that I once tried doing a Books Interview with myself, and the answers were so dreadful that I just couldn't put it up, and had to junk the entire thing...lost two whole working days there.

Chandrahas said...

Swar - You do well in arguing with some of the points raised in this interview, but even so I find your tone a bit too dour. Whether the beginnings of Indian democracy represent the greatest gamble in history or simply a great gamble is of course arguable. But there are a range of issues discussed in this piece, some of which I hope you found to be of value.

Chandrahas said...

Uncertain - Why is CR Irani posthumously dealt a ringing slap by Dr. Guha, whose tone is otherwise so moderate? That is an intriguing question, but the answer to it lies with Dr. Guha, who has now taken his leave of the Middle Stage after being detained by its questions for so long.

In his absence we can only indulge in speculation. Perhaps, contrary to what you think, CR Irani freely accepted he was a megalomaniac, and so Dr. Guha is doing nothing more than quoting from a primary source, as it were?

I must thank you also for your thoughtful comment on my previous post, which requires a no less thoughtful and considered response from me, which is the reason I haven't yet done so.

Mark Thwaite said...

Excellent interview Chandrahas -- after this, I'll be sure to chase down Guha's book ... Good work!

words are lost on me said...

I feel this has been easily one of the best interviews I have read. I especially like the bit of The Premier Bookshop, as it took me back to the days that I would wake up early while in Banglore and go and read Calvin and Hobbes with Shanbagh.
I was just out of college and in Bangalore on my internship. When I first visited the stopre, I thought of him as a man who would be totally lazy to keep his books in order under the bracketed shelfs with labels like "crime" or "fiction" or even "comics". But when I started looking for Calvin, I recall him taking me to the exact corner and pulling the exact cover from underneath a stack which I thought was much of a task. Since then I started repeating those visits. He would not mind me reading most of the book in the shop without buying it, and sometimes also show me the new arrivals. Eventually as my term ended, I left for Bombay, but not before spending some quality time with the only old man I know who enjoys his Calvin even as he handles sometimes weird and also once a shy couple who wanted to buy Kamasutra- the complete edition with Pictures, which they wanted wrapped in a newspaper. Shanbagh simply said, "take it, read it. If not satisfied, money back."

Chandrahas said...

Mark - Thanks very much for taking the trouble to write. Always a pleasure to hear from you, and hope to meet later in the year.

Words Are Lost On Me - Serendipity is actually one of the great pleasures of book browsing, and for this reason I always prefer the smaller owner-run bookshops to the bigger chain bookstores (which in any case often organise books bizarrely, and often have staff who can't point you to anything except the direction of the washrooms).

Uncertain said...

Chandrahas, after being detained by Middle Stage for so long, Dr. Guha was to have taken its leave .. not you :)

Chandrahas said...

Uncertain - Good to see that you're keeping a close watch on patterns of sloth and movement here on this site. Unfortunately, much as I'd like to put something up every week, it's hard for me to write a weekly book review for a newspaper, keep up work on my book, and keep things going on this site. But I have something new every week up at this link:

Chandra said...

Chandrahas, Wonderful interview. I saw Dr.Guha's talk while promoting his book in NYC (on cspan) and the interaction with audience was mediocre compared to this. (Of course Dr. Guha's book itself is great) Thanks for doing it...

(I read you book reviews in Pragati - Nitin's publication. Finally made it to your site...)

TheQuark said...

India After Gandhi as a line of thought is brilliant. The point made by author that history stopped at the stroke of midnight of 14th-15th Aug 1947 is a brilliant one but I find Mr. Guha biased towards Nehru (and his clan too).

The book leaves one more thirsty than ever before for vast amount of untold name and unseen faces who have shaped post-Raj India.

Such a book was direly needed is a fact I realized when I was talking of formation of states on linguistic basis with a group of friends and few knew about this! I mean not even a hint that such a thing happened, let alone nitty-gritties of the event

I am interested to read his biography of Verrier Elwin and 'A Corner of a Foreign Field'

One thing missing was the spat with Arundhati Roy :)

Chandrahas said...

Chandra - Glad you liked the interview. Hope you'll keep returning to this site now.

The Quark - Couldn't agree with you more. I must confess that I myself didn't know anything about the linguistic reorganization of states after indepedence until fairly recently. One reason for this problem of course is that our history texts in school are too narrowly triumphalist, and present a narrative in which the high point is the attainment of independence. In my view that is not the way to produce a mature citizenry.

Anonymous said...

While we can accept that the late CR Irani was a megalomaniac who perhaps played a part in destroying the Statesman , why do we turn a blind eye to N Ram who's doing the same to The Hindu .. or is it Mr Guha's Tambrahm upbringing ?

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - You might want to take a look at this:

ayan majumdar said...

Absolutely wonderful! The book as is as good as the author. Fantastic interview! Please keep this up!!