Ramachandra Guha was in town for the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2010. The
magazine, Foreign Policy, has named Guha as one of the 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world. Born in 1958, and educated in US Delhi and e has taught at the Universities of Oslo, Stanford, and Yale, and at the Indian Institute of Science. He is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (2007) and, most recently, Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and Calcutta, h (2009).His books cover a wide range of themes, and have been translated into more than twenty languages. The prizes they have won include the U.K. Cricket Society’s Literary Award and the Leopold-Hidy Prize of the American Society of Environmental History. India
I interviewed Ramachandra Guha by email prior to his HK visit. Below is the excerpt:
1. You have been described variously as an anthropolgist/sociologist/Marxist/historian/cricket-historian/environmentalist... Is there a particular label/s you ascribe to, and how would you choose to describe yourself?
A: I am a historian who was originally trained in sociology and anthropology, who has a long interest in the environment and in Marxism, and a longer (if now somewhat dormant) interest in cricket. For a shorter, more convenient, and not inaccurate label, just ‘historian’ will suffice.
2. You have written books that would on surface appear to be remarkably different from one another - Savaging the Civilized, A Corner of a Foreign Field, India after Gandhi. Is there a thread that runs through them, in terms of your scholarship and your areas of interest, or do the books goalpost your evolution as a writer and your writerly concerns thereof?
A: Despite their different themes and approaches, these books—as well as my first book, The Unquiet Woods—are all united by their extensive use of primary archival sources, by their attempt to combine accessible prose with analytical rigour, and by their desire to open up new historical fields in South Asia: namely, environmental history, the social history of sport, the biography of ‘middle range’ figures, and the history of Indian democracy.
3. India after Gandhi, your book detailing the history of India from 1947 to present day is 900 pages long. It has been well-received by the public. Did you have apprehensions about the appeal of the book - both in terms of subject matter and the length - to the readers in India today? My experience (both during research and readings) with my own novel, The Long Walk Home, that uses the 20th-century history of Punjab as backdrop, was that the younger readers are not too interested in history. Understandably, their concerns are contemporary but I felt a disconnect with the past. Do you feel the same? And what can be done to encourage more active engagement with our historical past?
A: I was advised by all the people whose judgement I generally trust to keep India after Gandhi to less than 500 pages. However, the material I found in the archives was so rich and compelling that the book ended up at almost twice the length. The story of how, despite its size, diversity, and poverty, India became somewhat united and has stayed somewhat democratic, was of such historical significance that it could not be contained by a self-imposed word or page limit. 900 pages was the natural length, and it has been justified. In the short term, perhaps many buyers were put off by its size—but once word got around that it was readable and contained much new material, these reservations were overcome. It continues to sell well in its original English edition (which is now in its seventh printing); and translations into half-a-dozen Indian languages are in progress. That said, I hope never again to write such a fat book!
4. The announcement of your 7-book-1-crore deal with Penguin India generated a fair bit of media frenzy. What do you think of the state of Indian writing - fiction and non-fiction. At present it is difficult for a person in India to pursue a career out of writing - do you see this changing in the near future (with the advent of more western publishing houses, emergence of literary agents etc)? How has it changed for you?
A: I am not qualified to comment on fiction. However, there are some very gifted young Indian historians and non fiction writers around—among them Srinath Raghavan (author of the superb and pioneering War and Peace in Modern India), Sadanand Dhume (author of a first-rate book on Indonesian Islam) and Samanth Subramanian (author of an entertaining and insightful book, out later this year, on the culture of fish production and consumption in India). Indian and Western publishers pay better advances, and now there are even literary agents active in India. But it remains difficult to make a living by writing books alone—one must either have a regular job in the academy or media, or (as I do) write regular columns to supplement book royalties.
5. In the China v/s India debate for supremacy in the 21st century, where do you place the two countries in 2050, along economic and social indicators. What role would the US be playing at that time with respect to the two Asian nations of Inch/Chindia?
A: Alas, I am a historian and not an astrologer. I am also just about to make my first trip to China. So I cannot comment on that nation, but with regard to India, I think it will merely muddle along in the middle. There remain deep divisions between the rich and the poor, serious conflicts in the heart of India and in the borderlands, and rampant environmental degradation. The superpower dream of some Indian politicians, businessmen and editors is pure fantasy.
6. Which writers / historians / personalities have most influenced your work? Who is your one favourite historical character?
A: In two collections of essays, An Anthropologist among the Marxists and The Last Liberal, I have paid tribute to the men and women who have inspired me. These include great leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, and Rajagopalachari; gifted writers of national renown such as Shivarama Karanth and Samar Sen; pioneering environmentalists such as Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Anil Agarwal; and people who taught me personally, such as the historian Dharma Kumar, the civil servant C. S. Venkatachar, and the literary scholars Sujit Mukherjee and T. G. Vaidyanathan. The historians I have been most influenced by are Marc Bloch and E. P. Thompson.
7. If you had one wish for India, what would it be?
A: That the Congress party rid itself of the control of a single family, which might initiate a deeper democratization of the democratic process.
8. You are a South-Indian who grew up in North and has lived abroad for a long stretch of time. What is/are your favourite dish/es? And where would you recommend eating those?
A: I dislike travelling abroad nowadays, for the reason that I miss Indian vegetarian food, which is the most sophisticated and varied cuisine known to humankind. I miss the Andhra pesarattu, the sanas of the West Coast, the appam of Kerala, the dosai of Mysore, the puliyodarai of Tamil Nadu, with all the spices and condiments and curries that go with them. But I am not a Southern chauvinist—I enjoy a Gujarati thali, and can appreciate the subtleties of Bengali vegetarian fare (originally developed for and by widows).
9. Do you watch Indian cinema - Hindi/regional? A favourite film and a favourite film star?
A I do not watch many films, so apart from food my chief desi love is Hindustani classical music. I listen to an hour or two of music every evening when I am at home. Again, my tastes are catholic—I like instrumental and vocal music, and artists dead and alive. Among my favourites are Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Bannerjee, Bismillah Khan, N. Rajam, Malikarjun Mansur, Rasoolan Bai, Ulhas Kashalkar, and Malini Rajurkar.