Photography Sharad Shrivastav
We spoke to the modest author-historian who thinks his own personal history is irrelevant—we think otherwise. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us about your journey from boyhood to becoming Ramachandra Guha, the authority.
INITIAL YEARS: I was born in the city of Dehradun. My father was a scientist at The Forest Research Institute and my mother was a high school teacher. Dehradun then was unspoiled. It was wonderfully rich, had diverse flora, litchi orchards, and fresh flowing streams from the mountains, it was 2,000 acres of woodlands, an absolute idyllic setting… There was not a better place to grow up. Multiple things, multiple influences have made me, but having a happy childhood in a beautiful place is something that will stay with me all my life. My father was a scientist with a doctorate himself, so learning was important. It was important for us that you read widely and did well in studies, but my boyhood passion was always cricket.
CRICKET: From very early on I wanted to play cricket for India. I joined University of Delhi [St Stephen’s College] essentially to play cricket. I played for my college team that produced two future cricketers such as Arun Lal and Kirti Azad. My encounter with the sport was partly a product of my own love for cricket which continues, and partly also because I had an uncle, my mother’s brother who had one deformed arm and played as a Ranji Trophy reserve. He is now 75. He has no children, so I was very close to him. And when I was a little boy, he saw some talent in me and decided he would make me a test cricketer. I became an object of his unfulfilled ambition. So cricket was what motivated me for very long, from 11 to 21 years of age. In retrospect, sometimes I wonder, did I waste all those years. But at the same time I think any passion is good, whether its art, photography or classical music, as long as you thoroughly engage with it. Cricket teaches you the discipline of hard work, and writing works of history is bloody hard work. You have to sit for hours in archives in Ahmedabad, spend four days there, looking at all the files you can… Also, a sport teaches you the strength to take defeat, because you often lose. Life is all about ups and downs. I am grateful for those years.
NO ASPIRATIONS OF THE PEN: I did some writing, too, for school magazines and college magazines but I had no intention of becoming a writer whatsoever. I wanted to play. Many writers will tell you that at 11 they read Hemingway, at 14 they read Orwell, or at 15 they read Dickens and so on. However, in my case, my boyhood ambition was cricket. One part of me also wanted to do public service because I come from a family of public servants… And in between all of that I also considered becoming an IAS officer. I was an idealist. As I grew through student-hood, from my graduation in Economics to post graduation in the same subject, I decided that Economics was not for me. It was too analytical, too quantitative. I never wanted to join the corporate sector. The career options that I was considering were public service, scholarship, and I even considered journalism.
NON-FICTION AS AN ACCIDENT: It was only through chain of accidents that I read the works of an English anthropologist called Verrier Elwin, who worked with adivasis in India. He had a wonderful diary, called Leaves from the Jungle. Here was an Oxford educated Englishmen, who comes to India, starts working with adivasis, and writes a diary of his experience. That was the first non-fiction book that affected me. Later, I also wrote a biography on him. After I finished my Masters and moved away from economics, I took a year off. I applied to two programs, one was a doctorate program in sociology at IIM Calcutta and other was Institute of Rural Management Anand in Gujarat, which had just started. Had I joined IRMA I would have been its first batch. Amul and the whole cooperative movement inspired the institute. Prior to this, around 1976, Shyam Benegal’s film Manthan had released, which was this wonderful movie about cooperatives, starring Smita Patil and Girish Karnad et al. So, I thought this was the way I would contribute to my country; I will build cooperatives. So I had to choose between joining IRMA and becoming an activist for cooperative movement, and doing a PhD and leading a life of scholarship.
THE BEST THINGS COME SITUATIONALLY: At this time, my wife who was then my girlfriend was studying at NID, Ahmedabad, and asked me to go for the PhD because if I were to take the cooperative route we would have to live in the countryside, where she would not be able to pursue a career. She wanted me to do a PhD so that I could get some academic job in a city. So it was really that which decided my career course. Within a week of joining Delhi University, and studying Economics, I knew it was not for me. Within a week of joining IIM for my doctorate, I knew Anthropology and Sociology had a human element… it resonated with what I wanted to do. With my first readings, first assignments, I immediately jumped into the course. I thought I had found an ability that complimented my interest. Because of my personal situation, I went ahead with my doctorate in sociology, moved into history and started writing books.
What role describes you best, an academician or a writer?
I am not a full-time teacher, every few years I go to teach. It is wonderful to engage with young minds. I wish I could do more of it but it would take away from my writing. I see myself as a scholar and a writer. My books are based on many years of research. My newspaper articles are a ‘quickish’ form of writing on what is going on. But the books I write are based on serious research. I believe history is a branch of scholarship in which it is possible to communicate the fruits of your research to a larger audience. If you are a physicist you have to dumb down to write for a large audience. Physics is complex, you need to know mathematics, equations, but history is somewhere in between science and literature. So while I am also a scholar I like to present my research in elegant accessible prose, because one is writing about human beings, about societies in transition. You are not writing about gravitational force, the galaxy and the discovery of new stars. So you have to humanise your story and make it.
Your vision of history is quaint.
I have often written about losers, about forgotten people. My first book was about the peasant movement in Himalayas against commercial forestry. It started as a PhD thesis. It was a book on Chipko movement. I found that there are movements like these dating back to the nineteenth century. Many of my books are often about forgotten people, one of my book, A Corner of A Foreign Field, is about a great Dalit cricketer, first great Indian spin bowler who surged to fame during India’s inaugural tour of England. He was an icon to Dalit even before Ambedkar. Now I am writing my second volume on Gandhi. There are his European friends that people don’t know about. For instance, he had a Jewish woman secretary called Sonia Schlesin who was critical to his success. She would go on a cycle from jail to jail carrying food for him.
At what point do you draw the line between thinking and overanalysing everything? It must have become a habit to delve deep.
You need to be driven by sources and what you find. History above all is an empirical discipline. My views don’t matter. There is always room for interpretations, speculations… these interpretations need to be understood in a cautious way, not a definitive way. You need to be guided by what you find and not what you think. When I write books, I base them on facts, I write like a historian. It is in the newspaper columns that the citizen comes out. At the same time there could also be things you know of, but you can’t write about them, there are things you don’t want to reveal.
How do you take the criticism directed at your scholarship?
As Dutch historian, Pieter Geyl famously said, ‘History is an argument without end’. Every book is a product of conversations in the past and would continue to converse in the present. There is a difference between history and mathematics. A mathematical equation holds for all time but in history there is always something incomplete. Whatever you do, there would be some aspect you haven’t fully explored, some interpretations that others might find problematic that they might either correct or contest. It’s an argument without end. At the same time it is not merely opinion. Perfect work of history is based on serious and vigorous research. It is not like how you now have on social media, people shooting all kinds of stuff without really knowing—about Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru. History is about divulging however scrupulously, interpreting your facts to recover a truth that will be a partial truth. It is not the perfect truth that you can recall from what happened sixty years ago but you must attempt to recover truth that is less partial than someone else’s.
What would your life look like without any history to it?
My personal history is irrelevant. I am a scholar and I write books. Otherwise I lead a very quiet life, I live in Bangalore, a city much nicer than Delhi for someone like me. In Delhi you are often in the public eye while I am a family-oriented person. I am consumed by my calling. When I am at my desk I don’t have my mobile phone with me, and I work till lunch, after which I go for walks in the parks, listen to classical music and go to sleep. For me, weekends don’t exist. I am working all the time. Research and writing is what consumes me, as long as I keep good health.
You are known to be a recluse.
I had a gregarious boyhood. Right through college I had hundreds of friends. However, over the years I have become a recluse. Writing is a very solitary occupation; you spend hours and hours at the desk. You can’t spend time partying at the cost of your work. I don’t lead a very social life. I don’t have any distractions; often I don’t read newspaper in the morning because disturbing news can disorient me for the rest of the day. I have friends; some are writers while some are not. When I am in Delhi I read the archives every day and meet friends for lunch or dinners. I stay out of parties. I am fairly attached to my family, two children, wife, my parents and a few friends. But I don’t hang out with the famous. My three closest friends outside of my family are remarkable people but they are not famous per se, one of them is a greatest educationist who runs an organisation called Pratham which works for disadvantaged people, another is an upright IAS officer who has recently retired and did fantastic work for disability… these are the people I look up to.
One living person you greatly admire.
One living person I greatly admire is again not someone in the public eye. He is one of the most respected social psychologists, Andre Beteille, at Delhi School of Economics. He is a half Bengali. His father was a French colonist in Chandar Nagar, Bengal. He is the greatest living sociologist. I often seek his advice. His contributions to teaching, institutional building and research has been immense.
Tell us something that India needs to know.
The first thing that Indians need to know is that Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhai Patel were colleagues and not rivals. Nehru and Patel worked together to build India, and it is totally mischievous and pernicious to posit them as rivals as the BJP would have us believe. We owe our survival as united and democratic nation to the partnership between these two, because after Gandhi was dead, had they not worked together we would have broken up into a million parts. Secondly, Nehru should not be confused and blamed for his descendants. The posthumous career of Nehru bears the sins of his successive generations. Nehru was a great patriot, a great democrat, and a great believer in pluralism. He had his faults, he made mistakes, but over all we should be grateful to have a Prime Minister like him. And if you have to gauge Nehru’s contribution to nation building compare Nehru’s India with the current state of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
What was that biggest challenge you've faced as a writer?
I have written more than a dozen books, and the book that was most difficult to write was India after Gandhi  because to talk about such a large country with all its complexity, from the tumultuous period of birth, the trauma of partition and refugees, to linguistic conflicts, caste conflicts, war with China, war with Pakistan, all these great leaders sometimes fighting with one another… I think the most difficult and intellectual challenge for me was researching, conceptualising the framework and then writing this book. A country so large, so diverse with such a complicated, rich history was nowhere written about. We only wrote about the National Movement and the Raj or the Mughals. The book came at the right time in my life. I was commissioned for this book when I was 40, and finished compiling it when I was 48-49. Fortunately, I already had 15 years of writing and research experience behind me. I had written three to four books. I knew where to get the material. So I was experienced enough to do this but not old enough to be jaded. When I look back at those eight years of continuous work, I realize that I was on an overdrive. Today I can’t do something like this. I won’t have the energy for something like India after Gandhi. I think it was the biggest challenge of my professional life and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to write the history of my own country that was till then largely untold.
Who is the Ramchandra Guha we don’t know?
Not many people know that I am very sentimental about people I admire, both living and dead. They may be great doctors who have invested themselves in public health or upright lawyers. On my desk I have Kota Shivaram Karanth, a Kannada writer I greatly admire. I greatly admire spiritual thinker Ramana Maharshi… these people guide me, they are my anchors. I believe that being around courageous and morally centered people makes you less flawed. As a writer you are selfish, you want to write a book, you want to become famous, you want to sell many copies, you want to appear on TV… but knowing and respecting people who are morally-anchored, who are more sure of themselves, who don’t need public acclaim to tell them of their worth, is I feel an exercise not in vain. And I have always looked out for such people. I often befriend them, admire them and latch on to them.
Our conversation with Ramachandra Guha was first published in our Literature Issue of 2015. This article is a part of Throwback Thursday series where we take you back in time with our substantial article archive.
Text Heena Khan