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Don vivant

Tapan Raychaudhuri dominated South Asian studies at Oxford. Swapan Dasgupta reviews his memoir, which reveals the history behind the historian

Swapan Dasgupta 

To understand history, E H Carr had advised in his celebrated Trevelyan lectures in 1961, it helps to also understand the historian.

Over the past five years or so, the publishing world has witnessed a relatively new phenomenon: historians writing about themselves, and biographies of historians. There is Hugh Trevor-Roper’s celebrated Letters from Oxford, his wartime diaries and the enthralling biography of him by Adam Sisman; at least three readable accounts of the colourful life of the contrarian A J P Taylor; a collection of Richard Cobb’s indiscreet letters to sundry dons; the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s erudite autobiography Interesting Times; and, of course, the late Tony Judt’s memoirs that have secured rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

Apart from providing interesting glimpses into the cloistered and often petty world of the High Table and Senior Common Room, the historians’ literature has helped demolish a stereotype. The caricature of the grumpy medievalist poring tirelessly over forgotten manuscripts and waging purposeless departmental wars against equally obscure colleagues has been replaced by the figure of the glamorous, cosmopolitan, bon vivant historian, at ease in the city of dreaming spires, in business class lounges and in TV studios. As the soaring careers of, say, Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and even our very own White Moghul suggest, historians can be every bit as interesting as their bestselling narrative histories.

India, as usual, has been slow to cotton on to the trend. There is very little information, except stray anecdotes that rarely travel beyond rarefied circles, about the lives, predilections and preferences of the old masters. Apart from their published works, do we know anything significant about the loyalism of Sir Jadunath Sarkar or the strong political views of R C Majumdar? Why does intellectual history not embrace the lives and experiences of India’s historians? Is it connected with the overall Hindu disdain of history and the bored bewilderment with the strange animal that goes by the name of “scientific history”?

For some three decades, Tapan Raychaudhuri was the presiding deity of Indian (or should we say South Asian) history studies in Oxford. Erudite, intellectually alert, easygoing and, most importantly in the context of the old university, clubbable, he guided many generations of students through their gobbets, the final year special paper and their DPhils. His intellectual horizon was vast, and he was as much at home discussing abstruse clauses of the Sunset Laws as he was with French cooking. Blessed with social skills — without which Oxford can either be a nightmare or a very lonely existence — he could negotiate his way through departmental committees and supercilious colleagues. Along with his wife Hashi-di, whose cooking skills were legendary, Tapan-da was the father figure of the Indian community in Oxford.

Yet, and curiously, it is not the accounts of his long stint in Oxford first as a research student at Balliol and subsequently as a don at St Antony’s College that makes his memoirs a must-read. There is an underlying sense of disappointment and bitterness with a community of otherwise enlightened scholars that refuses to acknowledge that empires by definition personify evil. What distinguishes Raychaudhuri’s story of his life from similar accounts by more famous historians is the narration of a childhood spent in the district town of Barisal (now in Bangladesh).

Comparable in many ways to Nirad Chaudhuri’s description of the Hindu bhadralok way of life in the small town of Kishorganj in the early decades of the 20th century, Raychaudhuri’s paints a vivid and sensitive picture of a zamindari class in decline. From descriptions of a joint family where indolence and fractiousness was combined with active intellectual pursuits and pen portraits of old family retainers, to accounts of the lavish but homely Durga Puja celebrations at the old ancestral house, Raychaudhuri captures the ambience of the lesser zamindars of East Bengal.

What makes the section compelling is that Raychaudhuri brings his historian’s perspective into the narrative. This enables him to move from simple nostalgia — important as that may be — to a clinical analysis of the untenable facets of noblesse oblige. The point he drives home repeatedly is that a system based on the collection of rents and cesses was insufficient to justify a lifestyle centred on pretentiousness.

At the same time, he is careful in indicating that a life based on fractured rentier income and weighed down by litigation wasn’t necessarily decadent but intellectually invigorating. Economic stagnation and decline did co-exist with the larger Bengal Renaissance. And, alongside a desire to usher an independent India into existence was a corresponding fascination with Western civilisation. Raychaudhuri brings out the many-faceted complexities of a people that loved England and hated the Raj.

Equally revealing is the account of the nationalist movement as experienced in Barisal. The sense of composite nationalism and adherence to the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi was, in East Bengal, a Hindu bhadralok phenomenon. The failings of the movement lay in the disconnect from a Muslim peasantry which had begun harbouring very different ideas of the shape of post-Raj Bengal.

However, it is in the treatment of the underlying communal tension between Hindus and Muslims that Raychaudhuri takes evasive action. The reader gets a sense of the looming tensions in the outside world and a sense of the pain and despondency that engulfed the family as it left Barisal for the journey to an inhospitable Calcutta. For most Hindu migrants from East Bengal, it was the final departure that was most traumatic. What triggered the final decision to move in Raychaudhuri’s household? How did they cope in the final days? These are questions that arise in the minds of the reader. Unfortunately, Raychaudhuri deals with the subject perfunctorily, as if he is unable to relive the pain.

The denial of the human tragedy of Partition is a feature of the “progressive” Bengali intellectual. It is sad that Raychaudhuri, no doctrinaire Marxist, has succumbed to the same evasion, perhaps in the fear that explicit accounts of experiences and true feelings are fraught with dangerous consequences. In his Forgotten Land, on the monuments and memories of the Germans expelled from East Prussia, Max Egremont notes a similar sense of denial. As a historian, Raychaudhuri should have transcended the base considerations of contemporary politics. His Oxford friend Nirad Chaudhuri did. Which is why, as even Raychaudhuri concedes, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian will always remain a classic.

This book came perilously close to complementing Nirad Babu’s work. If only Tapan-da had not been so guarded and diplomatic. Writing memoirs is implicitly hazardous: it invariably involves offending some people.

A Memoir
Author: Tapan Raychaudhuri

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 364
Price: Rs 399

First Published: Sat, March 10 2012. 00:27 IST