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LUNCH WITH BS: Ramachandra Guha

Serial historian

Bhupesh Bhandari  |  New Delhi 

Twenty books under his belt, the discusses the high and low points of post-Independence India, the subject of his latest epic project.

Ramachandra Guha doesn't mind being called a serial historian, having written extensively on subjects like cricket, environment, tribes and now the post-Independence national history. His first book, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, was published in 1989. The latest, India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, has just come out. In between, there were another 18 books that he either edited or wrote. And he has another four or five book ideas in his mind, writes Bhupesh Bhandari.

Guha considers five of these 20 works of true scholarship, though all his books have won critical acclaim. At least in his case, William Dalrymple's charge that Indian's are lazy historians doesn't stick. Guha dismisses Dalrymple's observation as nothing more than a pre-launch gimmick for his book, The Last Mughal. "What is more important is that historians should not let their political affiliations impact their work," he says. About his own political leanings, Guha says he is a "liberal constitutionalist," though he admits being a little "left of centre".

We are sitting in The Big Chill restaurant at Khan Market in south Delhi. The sun outside is scorching. Guha has ordered a pineapple and pomegranate juice for himself and I am on orange juice. It is an unlikely place to meet a historian. The Italian eatery is immensely popular with the young crowd, the music is loud and the space a little cramped. But Guha was very clear when I had called him for this meeting: "The place I would like to meet you is The Big Chill."

Guha is a trained sociologist, having studied the discipline at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. His book on early cricket in India, A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport, brings out vividly all the confrontations that were played out in the country before Independence: between the British rulers and their Indian subjects, the different religious groups and castes of India. The central character of the book is Baloo Palwankar, a prodigious spinner of the ball, who could never captain the Indian side because he was a Dalit, though he was the most popular Indian cricketer of his time.

Later, when reformist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi came to the forefront of the national movement, his younger brother, Vithal, did get to lead the team. "The Palwankars were the first Dalit family of cricket. Strangely, there has been no Dalit representation in the national team after them," says Guha.

Guha says he decided to write the book (he depended largely on old newspapers for information) after he learnt that Palwankar played a key role in the Poona Pact between Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar. In his early days, Ambedkar had idolised Palwankar for his achievements on the cricket field. But the two had divergent political views. Led by the Mahatma, Palwankar thought the caste system could be reformed from within by appealing to the piety and good sense of the higher castes. Ambedkar's views on it were far more radical. In fact, the Congress had put up Palwankar against Ambedkar during the 1937 elections but he lost to the rising Dalit leader.

Guha chose to focus on Palwankar because he has a soft corner for spinners""he was a spinner himself in his younger days. "Normally, it is the batsmen who walk away with all the glory," he says. In the current crop, his favourite is Stuart McGill. "He could have done a lot more had Shane Warne not been there," he adds.

Though A Corner of a Foreign Field got excellent reviews from all around, Guha expects his latest book to sell more. "There isn't much of a readership for cricket books in the country," he says. With India After Gandhi, Guha has moved from "niche" history to the broader stream.

In India After Gandhi, Guha says the biggest achievement of modern India has been the reorganisation of the states on a linguistic basis. "Otherwise, there would have been Balkanisation. Look at what happened to Pakistan (when Bengali-speaking East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971) or what is happening in Sri Lanka."

Guha says that for Nehru and the other leaders of that time, the idea of a state was similar to that of Europe""one nation, one language.

But there were violent protests in several states against the idea. At the end, this is what saved the country from regional conflicts and strife, he adds.

For the record, Guha himself is a Tamil from Bangalore. The Bengali sounding surname he got while in school at Dehradun. As his father's name was Subramaniam Ramdas Guha, he should have been Subramaniam Ramachandra. But his teachers were not familiar with Tamil name-keeping norms and that is how he came to be called Ramachandra Guha. He lives in Bangalore with his wife, Sujatha Keshavan of the design firm Ray+Keshavan, and two children. "I have no inputs for her work, though sometimes I run my drafts through her," he says.

Guha orders a tomato garlic risotto for lunch. I settle for Ceasar Salad and pasta with tuna. The riveting conversation with Guha has drowned the music and the chatter at the other tables.

"Has democracy strengthened or weakened in India during the last 57 years," I ask him. Guha says that in three aspects, democracy has gained strength: the representation of Dalits in ministries, high voter participation amongst women and the backward castes and the growing role of civil society. But what worries is him is the growing nexus between bureaucrats and politicians, which has undermined the independence of the executive, and the conversion of political parties into family firms.

"It wasn't Nehru but Indira Gandhi who started the dynastic rule in the Congress. In Nehru's time, he couldn't appoint the chief minister of a state. There were proper elections at the state level to decide the leader. It was only after Indira Gandhi came to head the Congress that there were no elections in the party," he says, adding: "Except for the two extremes, the Left parties and the BJP, we now see dynastic rule in all parties like the DMK, the Shiv Sena, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party."

Guha likes to call India an unnatural state and an unlikely democracy on account of its linguistic and cultural differences. I remind him of Amartya Sen's argument that the age-old Indian tradition of arguing makes India fertile territory for democracy to flourish. "I don't agree. Indians were not always argumentative. This is not a tradition that goes back to the days of Ashoka and Akbar. It was only during the freedom struggle that nationalist leaders started debating on what do with the social issues that faced the country. In a sense, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the first argumentative Indian."

Talking of differences, I remind Guha of his spat with Arundhati Roy that played out in 2000 and 2001. Guha had faulted her passionate appeal to scrap the Sardar Sarovar project and had advised her to stick to writing fiction. He had, in fact, called her the Arun Shourie of the Left. Not to be left behind, Roy had let out a broadside, calling Guha a cricket statistician. Guha says he has moved on but adds: "Writers shouldn't allow themselves to be blackmailed by activists who appeal to your middle-class consciousness."

The meal is over. Guha does not want dessert and asks for pomegranate juice. On our way out, down a staircase full of people waiting for a table, I ask Guha what made him choose this restaurant. "The food is good and the place is run by Tibetans from Dehradun," he says. We shake hands and go our separate ways.

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First Published: Tue, May 08 2007. 00:00 IST