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Lunch with BS: Ramachandra Guha

People`s historian

Subir Roy  |  Bangalore 

The popular historian who created history with his Penguin deal hopes it will encourage young writers to work on a whole range of exciting and interesting topics.

Ramachandra Guha, the popular historian who almost relishes controversy, is rooted in Bangalore but has at times looked askance at the way it has recently developed, writes Subir Roy. So I start him off on that. “On balance, Bangalore has changed for the better in terms of economic growth, social opportunity and more chances for the young.” But where it has kind of missed out is that “we could have all this in terms of energy, dynamism, entrepreneurship and retained some aesthetic values.”

Ramakrishna Hedge, as chief minister, had the foresight to set up an arts commission in the eighties but didn’t give it legislative teeth, so the buildings, lakes, green areas were not listed. “Even now it may not be too late” to rescue things. Bangalore is the knowledge capital of India but does not have a single decent library. “I have to make do with my own books. I have a library at home which is so large that it threatens to destabilise my marriage, with books everywhere.”

We interrupt the flow of words that has started instantly to order. The i-t.ALIA, the speciality Italian restaurant at the Park bears every sign of the IT recession that has blighted Bangalore. It is virtually deserted and makes it unnecessary for us to seek out a quiet corner. Guha, who is a vegetarian, orders a melon salad with rocket leaves and crumbled goat cheese. I go for chicken salad with orange, scallions and olives. For the main course, Guha orders a red pepper and basil tart and I opt for stuffed chicken with Brianza cheese.

On books, does he see a new age dawning for non-fiction writing, when you could survive on it? Guha has recently hit the headlines with a seven-book contract with Penguin which has reportedly fetched him a crore. His emphatic response is, “I hope so, I hope so. I think there are lots of talented young Indian writers who have gone into writing fiction because they felt that’s the true mark of literary success, not just financial success.” This is a pity as “India is a large diverse complex society undergoing some profound transformation. There are so many interesting and exciting topics — biographical, historical, political — that we could write about. I hope that younger writers are now encouraged to move into this field.”

Is he actually saying that both the appreciation for non-fiction and also being able to earn a decent living from penning it are happening and progressing? Yes he is: “I think maybe, slowly. There is a change.” Look at the reception for not just his book but Nandan Nilekani’s, for the works of other writers like Shashi Tharoor and Pavan Varma. These are doing 10,000-plus, some of them 20,000-plus. Guha’s India After Gandhi will have sold 40,000-plus.

As Guha loves a good fight, I refer to the point made by William Dalrymple about the paucity of good historical research in India. Guha jumps to the bait. “That’s rubbish, that’s not true at all. Lots of very good research is being done in India. That’s a totally spurious claim. We have a very rich body of first rate empirical historical research being done by Indians based on outstanding archival work. That is just a marketing gimmick with no empirical substance.”

However, the problem with our history writing is two-fold. The first problem is, there is an overwhelming emphasis on the colonial period. The British were meticulous record keepers, so their records are available. “There is also a kind of epic quality to the whole narrative. A group of white men come and construct an empire. Then a little brown man in a loin cloth starts a movement against that. Whether you are writing about the British or the opposition, there is a kind of romanticism and charm about it.”

If you look at the works of scholars like Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, Partha Chatterjee, Sanjay Subramanyam, there is lots of first-rate work on the colonial period based on very good high-quality empirical research. But it is often written in a kind of inaccessible prose, in technical academic language. Maybe not enough attempt has been made to make historical writing accessible to a wider audience. “That would be a fair criticism.”

Guha’s academic interests cover a broad spectrum and some of it overlaps with matters of high current high concern like the environment and the condition of forest peoples. He says “it happened by accident. I grew up in Dehradun, went to do a PhD in Kolkata. One of my teachers suggested I choose a topic close to the region I knew best. This is 1980 and the Chipko movement had just started. So I got interested in it and when I started field work in the Garhwal I got interested in the older history of forests.”

Then he got interested in environmental history generally, how the environment is a context for all human endeavour. “Our economy, society and culture are profoundly shaped by the natural environment. The British historians ignored the environment completely and our historians have not looked at it either. I learnt to appreciate the importance of the natural environment by studying French historians.”

When he was doing his MA at the Delhi School of Economics, he found he was not very good in economics. Then he “stumbled upon the works of Verrier Elwin who was a maverick Englishman who lived with tribal people and became an anthropologist and spokesman for their rights. Reading his works I realised that sociology and anthropology were temperamentally more suited to me than economics.”

Elwin in that sense was definitive in Guha’s career. “I read more and more of Elwin and many years later decided to do a biography of Elwin. I could see that in some ways the main victim of British forest policies were the tribal people. They were really the people who had lost out from the takeover of forests. Over the years, I have maintained an interest in Adivasis. More recently, I have been studying the whole growth of Naxalism.” It struck him that if you look at social indicators like education and health, the Adivasis are the worst off section in India. But they don’t have a political constituency. Dalits and Muslims have been able to create a lobby for themselves and have managed to get something.

The Adivasis are concentrated in the central Indian belt and that is where Naxalism is spreading, in part because of the focused ideology of its practioners but also because Adivasis have been treated so badly by the Indian state. They have not only been denied the minimum services like health and education, they have also been dispossessed by the dams and mines. “The link between tribal deprivation and Naxalism is very clear and should be a wake up call to our policymakers.” It would be very foolish to see Naxalism as simply a law and order problem. It is a problem of mal-development or distorted development. “But the tragedy is that Naxalites can’t provide the Adivasis a long-term solution. It may be too a romantic but if the Naxalites were to follow the Nepali Maoists and enter the democratic process, if they were to lay down guns and fight elections, that would really bring about concrete change in those areas.”

As we finish with gelati for Guha and some cheese for myself and then top it up with cappuccino, there is a feeling of a rich repast having been savoured, not just in gastronomy but also in words. Guha’s willingness to engage, take on the current and hold forth with eloquence makes it a movable feast.  

First Published: Tue, April 21 2009. 00:44 IST