Ramachandra Guha – History’s Footman


Ramachandra_GuhaThe man across the room clasped his thigh with his right hand and stretched his body forward; he is seated in a chair, nevertheless there is about him an almost wrestler-like stance. It is dusk and the power is off. An emergency light burns and the heat inside that room with a wooden ceiling is overwhelming. Two cups of very milky tea and wedges of green halwa on a melamine plate stand on a little table. I stop studying my feet and meet his gaze. His eyes drop. And I think: this round is mine.

Then it hits me that this must be akin to the theatre of the absurd. Here I am in a little Muslim settlement in the southern tip of Tamilnadu and instead of asking this man, one of the pillars of this community and possibly one of its more articulate members, about the strange history of this place that is stuck in a time warp [7th century AD to be precise], we are debating on Ramachandra Guha and what business was it of his to write the essay Arun Shourie of the Left.

The gentleman is a die-hard Arundhati Roy fan. He claims to be a discerning reader though by his own admission until Arundhati Roy arrived like a ‘ rare jewel in the horizon’, he read the likes of Austen and Dickens. Now his literary views entail parroting whatever it is he has read in the magazines. The Hindu Sunday Magazine and Outlook to be precise. Since this is the battleground where Roy and Guha meet, and since he has no divided loyalties, he lets loose a virulent and vicious diatribe on Ramachandra Guha. And this is an unprompted attack. I’ve heard this sequence before: once Arundhati Roy is mentioned, the next phrase is the booker prize and then it is either the Narmada dam or Ramachandra Guha.

I suppress my irritation and my words, and let him speak. After all I am a guest, albeit unwillingly, in the man’s house and it is his wife, sisters, daughters, and nieces that I am waiting to meet. But only if I get past him…It must be the heat or sheer cussedness or the thought of having to be polite and drink that milky tea or merely that I can’t sit and listen to someone spout nonsense, I suddenly decide to be reckless and say, “Actually I think Dr[I stress on the doctor] Guha knows what he is writing about.”

The man peers at me with distaste as if I was skin that had formed over his tea. “He is a cricket writer. What does he know of literature? Or of dams or nuclear power or globalisation? He is a wordsmith and he is clever enough to make her look as if she doesn’t know what she is saying.”

“No, not really. He is a social historian,” I sigh and then I decide to turn on aggression and say, ” Also he is an environmentalist! He wrote about the Chipko movement.” [I’m sure Ram will forgive me for that ‘environmentalist’ bit but I am determined to not leave the room till I have made my point.]

“Are you his friend?” he asks.

I deflect the question and say, “We live in the same city and we know each other.”

“Then you are biased.”

I am saved from further acrimony by the phone. The women who wait behind the door, waiting for a pause in the argument seize the moment. They beckon me into the inner rooms and I leave, eager to get away from this man who wouldn’t know the meaning of ‘discerning’ if it hit him gob smack on his face….

Later in the train back to Bangalore, I ponder on the conversation. And of how I had been meaning to profile Ramachandra Guha for many months now and couldn’t because the words wouldn’t come and then suddenly I had my opening paragraph.

I first met Ramachandra Guha on a bookshelf in his house. Sujata Kesavan is a very elegant and talented designer and she and I have a mutual friend. One day, more than a year ago, several of us piled into a car and went for an art preview where another friend, artist Antonio E Costa had his work up. Later suffused with art and schmoozing, we went to Sujata’s home to recover with a vodka and orange juice where in the bookshelf I spotted Ramachandra Guha. I had in the meantime read enough of Guha’s pieces in The Hindu and read notices of his Elwin book and was curious about this high-brow writer. He wasn’t conventional book shelf material and so I think I asked Sujata, “Who reads Ramachandra Guha here?”

And Vicki, the mutual friend, snickered and said, “Sweetie, he is her husband!”

The next time I met the man for real and this was at a dinner party. In my mind I had envisioned a stern faced, multi-syllable word propounding don; someone you discussed issues with rather than make conversation. Guha with his genial looks and wide smile was the antithesis of the forbidding academic-intimidating intellectual type. I fell naturally into conversation and as the evening wore on, my curiosity grew. Maybe it was merely the Malayali preoccupation of wanting to know place of origin, family lineage etc but I gathered enough courage to ask, ” Where are you from? You don’t look Bengali enough. So how come the Guha?”

Perhaps it was the one-millionth time he had been asked this. I could almost see him take a deep mental breath before he said, ” Well, my great-grandfather moved from a village in Kumbakonam to Bangalore. My father whose full name is Subramaniam Rama Das Guha was named for the hunter chieftain who ferries Rama and Sita across the river. I should have been G. Ramachandra, but, growing up in the North, ‘Guha’ became a surname.”

When I met Ramachandra Guha next, it was the middle of last year. This time he was releasing my novel Ladies Coupe in Bangalore. The friend who was organizing the event said that she would ask Guha to do the honours. And then she added for good measure: “He is not just a name one pulls out of a list to validate an event. He will release the book only if he has read it and liked it.”

For hadn’t he after all at that point already written of Roy’s essay: ‘As a piece of literary craftsmanship it was self-indulgent and hyperbolic…Altogether, this was an essay written with passion but without care. In her stream-of-consciousness style, the arguments were served up in a jumble of images and exclamations with the odd number thrown in.’

During the course of that evening I had yet another revelation. Ramachandra Guha’s speaking voice is soft and mellow but put him on a podium and he could be trusted to bring to life the lost art of orating. His speaking style like the scope of his mind is expansive and he declaims in a manner Demosthenes would have approved of. And then there were the little slips of paper on which were points jotted down – historical trivia, lesser-known quotes. With these and the force of his enthusiasm for the subject, he would make connections between subjects that otherwise would be hard to connect. Sometimes the speed of his thoughts outran his words and Guha would pause, to still the energy, to pause for breath…and he would begin again, stentorian voice in full throttle.

And as I sat there listening to Guha connect trains, Winston Churchill, the saint Thiruvalluvar, eggs and writing styles, I thought perhaps it was in the clutter of his past lay the makings of this man’s intellect.

As much as I enjoyed Ramachandra Guha’s cricket writing, what I really wanted to read was his biography of Verrier Elwin ‘Savaging the Civilized’. The book was out of stock in bookshops and so I borrowed a copy from Guha himself. When I had finished with it, I started on his collection of essays ‘An Anthropologist Among the Marxists’ and as I read, I realized that here was a man of many parts. Someone I ought to try and profile, if not fathom.

[That his Picador Book of Cricket was on the bestseller list at that point made it all so topical, I told myself.]

We fixed up to meet and I had my questions ready.

Fiction writers are constantly being questioned whom they write for; whether they have pre-fab juries and audiences in mind. Besides there is the business of readability. Over the years there has come to be a notion that a readable book isn’t literary enough. Biographers have their own set of bugbears to contend with. As Ramachandra Guha hadn’t chosen to write about a popular figure – a Gandhi or an Indira or a Jinnah or a Nehru or any one of those demi-gods that this nation worships or denigrates, and had instead chosen a man called Verrier Elwin, there were varied reactions. Scholars and students asked: Why on earth are you doing this? And the non-academics said: What an interesting idea.

Then there was the readership. Within a niche category, Guha’s subject was even more select. Who was this biography of Verrier Elwin meant for? I asked.

“When you write a biography, you are writing for several audiences at the same time. So how much can you spoon-feed a reader?” Ramachandra Guha asks back. “Savaging the Civilized was written for anyone interested in 20th century India and Adivasis. For anyone who is interested in Nehru and Gandhi. In celibacy. In the history of Christianity in India.”

I have always thought that fiction writers make good biographers. There are fewer crossreferences and the reader doesn’t have to shoulder the weight of academia. In fact, one of the best biographers I have read is Victoria Glendinning. Her biographies of Rebecca West and Edith Sitwell are quite outstanding. Savaging the Civilized doesn’t have many footnotes but its numerous dates and events demand exacting attention and could tax an average memory. When I mentioned this to Ramachandra Guha, he nodded in agreement. An insecure writer/biographer would see that as a personal slur. I will enjoy writing this profile, I told myself.

But as I left, I decided to caution him about my vagrant tendencies. Last year I interviewed M.T. Vasudevan Nair the Jnanpith award winner writer from Kerala but eventually never wrote the piece. When it came to the point of sitting down and actually portraying the man and the writer on paper, the words wouldn’t come. “When it doesn’t happen, I don’t push it,” I said. Ramachandra Guha smiled. One less interview was not going to rock Ramachandra Guha’s world. He knew that as well as I did.

Months later, the piece remained unwritten. The editor who first suggested that I write about Ramachandra Guha threw up his arms literally [and figuratively, I’m sure] and sneered, “He’s probably written another book; married again for all you know.”

I sniffed apologetically and said nothing. Editors don’t buy arguments like: When it doesn’t happen, I don’t push it.

“I will,” I said. “I am just waiting for the right moment.”

Every time I saw Ramachandra Guha thereafter, I told him the same. And he would smile. Perhaps it was just me. But I could see a glimmer of disbelief in his eyes as I could hear it in the editor’s voice.

And as if to rub in the fact that I was dithering, it seemed to me that Ramachandra Guha was omnipresent. We were co-panelists at a writers’ festival where Guha spoke on the art of Biography writing. Later a young journalist-in the-making told me, “I’d love to interview him but I feel much too scared to approach him. What if he thinks my questions are stupid?”

Guha would be truly astonished if he knew his intellect overwhelmed and intimidated.

I saw him at David Davidar’s book launch in Bangalore where he released the book. When someone from the audience posed an awkward question and Davidar did his best to answer it without being rude, Ram Guha leapt up to Davidar and the book’s defence. “I’d like to answer this question if I may,” he said and quelled the disbeliever.

I read his thumping-with-energy- and-good will essay on the bowler Srinath [who is a great favourite of mine]. At a biologist friend’s home in New Delhi, I saw a book of essays edited by Ramachandra Guha. Later his wife talked of bumping into Ramachandra Guha…And still the words wouldn’t come.

But all of a sudden as I sat in the train, I am ready. And then I realized that it was pointless to try and do a conventional profile. You did that with movie stars and writers; jockeys and business tycoons, whose career chart have well defined bar graphs and fathomable lines that explain their success and what makes them who they are. An academic in contrast seems untouched by the vicissitudes of life or time.

Then there is the matter of stray comments one gathers without meaning to. I remembered reading somewhere that a contemporary of Guha was once supposed to have remarked, ‘You have to die before Guha will write about you’.

Someone else who had met Guha had remarked, ” It is hard to figure out what he is thinking.”

Since I wasn’t going to either glorify or debunk Guha, I wouldn’t even try to figure out what he was thinking, I thought. Besides it would cross over to the realm of fiction writing.

If magazine articles ever get dedicated, this one is for the ‘discerning reader’ of Kayalpatnam. If it weren’t for him and this great need I felt to stick up for Ramachandra Guha at the peril of losing a roof over my head for the night, this piece would never have been written.

The next day in my home, I browse through one of Ramachandra Guha’s books. I begin by trying to slot him and the author blurb adds to the confusion. He could either be a fickle eccentric or simply someone who is not afraid of meeting change head on. And I realize that it isn’t going to be easy trying to understand what makes Ramachandra Guha Ramachandra Guha. To begin with, there are the labels. Apart from the academic title attached to his name, there are other ist-descriptors that are puzzling. Economist. Marxist. Anthropologist. Activist….

To understand this, one needs to patch pieces of Guha’s student years and even they seem wreathed in mystery. Take his degrees, for instance. Ramachandra Guha has two degrees is Economics and yet it is with almost a childish glee he admits to being a failed economist. He turned his back on Economics and switched to Sociology and then went on to do his Ph. D on the social history of forests. Then there is his love affair with Marxism. After years of believing in the cause, Ramachandra Guha is no longer of the faith. Along with his failed economist title, he acquired yet another one. That of a lapsed Marxist. And strangely enough, today Ramachandra Guha is best known as a historian-biographer or a cricket writer, for neither of which he has any formal training.

In fact, the subjects that he sought formal training in has added to his list of de-funct descriptors. For at times Ramachandra Guha is also known as an environmentalist and/or an activist. And even if he has done nothing to make it seem so, there is to Guha the sanctified air of a do-gooder in the ‘larger cause of humanity’ category. And not surprisingly again Guha refutes the dubious distinction of these titles, “I am not an ‘activist’, and nor do I want to be called an ‘environmentalist’. I write about topics and themes which I consider important and relevant to my society, and try to write accessibly and for a general audience as well as for scholars. I have, over the past twenty years, also kept in contact with groups working on environmental and in particular forest issues in different parts of India. Perhaps that makes me a ‘public intellectual’, but I would never claim to be an activist.”

As far back as the early nineties, before labels like environmentalist and activist became fashionable, Ramachandra Guha had authored two books. The Unquiet Woods; Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalayas and This Fissured Land; An Ecological History of India. But it is his choice of an epigraph for one of his books, a poem by Cherabandaraju, an Andhra naxalite translated by Guha’s friend C.V.Subbarao that best explains Guha’s approach to the business of balancing ecology with social demands in India:

I will not stop cutting down trees
Though there is life in them
I will not stop plucking leaves
Though they will make nature beautiful
I will not stop hacking off branches
Though they are the arms of a tree
– I need a hut.

A view that is further strengthened when I read his essay ‘A taste for tigers – Is deep ecology a politics designed for well-heeled nature lovers?’

With neither empty rhetoric nor chest-thumping zeal and instead with a no-nonsense approach, he argues, ‘concern about the protection of wilderness and national parks seems to have become the most influential strand – and one that elicits intense moral fervour. Over a period of time the thinkers involved have been developing a theory of ‘deep ecology’ which they claim is applicable not merely to the US but to the entire world. And it makes wilderness protection a priority.

This is all very well for a developed country like the US. But I think it has serious negative implications when transferred to India or Africa. If the protection of national parks, wilderness and biological diversity becomes a primary concern here then the other more basic environmental concerns, like the provision of fuel wood and clean drinking water or the control of pollution, will inevitably become marginal.’

In the introduction to his collection of essays An Anthropologist among Marxists, Guha writes: ‘Inside every thinking Indian, there is a Gandhian and a Marxist struggling for supremacy.’ Perhaps that was my beginning to what I think is an intrinsic part of trying to understand Ramachandra Guha. That in him ideology and reality find a perennial battleground. And while the gods of ideology might occasionally rule, it is mortal reality that prevails.

And it is, I think, the everyday mortal but tangible fibre of reality that makes Ramachandra Guha want to debunk or demystify hallowed incorporeal mores. By the time, Arundhati Roy wrote her essay on the Sardar Sarovar dam, she had transformed into a ‘holy cow’ of sorts. Young, beautiful, talented, spirited and celebrated world over, it would take a very brave man to question the depth of her understanding or the veracity of her prose. Writing that had after all sold millions of copies and won the Booker and what have you… Most of us either don’t have the courage to enter into a public debate or even if we do, don’t know enough to sustain an argument let alone a debate. When I first met Ramachandra Guha, I had wanted to know what made him write his essay Arun Shourie of the Left? Was it merely the social-historian in him setting the records straight?

But when the moment came, I swallowed my question. It seemed crass and insensitive. Earlier that day I had a read line in a book: ‘Journalists are born without a conscience, like certain car engines are constructed without a fan belt.’ And I wasn’t even a journalist in the real sense.

But as I sat piecing the jigsaw profile that is Guha, I knew there would be a gap until I managed to quell my distaste for the question. So I did the cowardly thing and called him up. “You don’t have to answer this,” I add to redeem myself more in my eyes rather than his.

There is an initial hesitation; there is a sudden reserve and there is even, I think, a frown [if there could be a frown in a voice] and naturally he doesn’t. The next day though I have an answer.

Ramachandra Guha sections his answer very carefully, “I guess my essay stemmed from three kinds of reservations. First, there was an aesthetic distaste for Arundhati Roy’s hyperbolic style. I prefer a classical, elegantly understated and subtly ironic style: the silver dagger rather than the blunt iron hammer. Second, there was the worry of someone long involved with the environmental debate that the simplifications and exaggerations of Roy would tend to polarize issues and make meaningful environnmental reform that much more difficult. Third, there was the judgement of the historian, who had through his work come across such remarkable and public-spirited Indians as Shivram Karanth, Verrier Elwin, Mahasweta Devi and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, in comparison with whom Arundhati Roy is vain, self-regarding, and, in terms of content, shallow.

I should also add that what I predicted in my original essay has been sadly vindicated. This is what I had written: ‘Celebrity endorsement of social movements is always fraught with hazard. In the beginning it may attract media attention… However, the media will soon abandon the cause for the star…’ Be it Outlook here or the Guardian there, the cause is forgotten — the questions of sustainable technology and the rights of the tribals of the Narmada valley — all they are interested now in is Arundhati Roy.”

Given his preference for the real rather than the utopian, for sinew and muscle bound solutions, one would assume that someone as grounded-in-reality as Guha would choose to write about the vigorous and power driven football ground rather than the elegant and traditional cricket pitch. But in cricketing terms, Ramachandra Guha bowls yet another ‘wrong un’. And it is with song of the willow, Ramachandra Guha acquired yet another of his avatars. That of the cricket writer.

Reading Ashis Nandy’s The Tao of Cricket, a solemn and scientific book…’about a playful human activity’ provoked Ramachandra Guha to write a book about cricket Wickets in the East that would, by contrast, be humorous as well as passionate.

What is it that appeals to you about cricket? I asked expecting a precise and functional reply. I should have been used to it by now for Ramachandra Guha ‘s answer leads me to yet another intriguing twist in the alleyways of his mind, ” Cricket has a great deal of folklore. That since it is an extended game, the personality of the player is revealed more. That cricket as a game has accumulated a fund of stories: which is human, and appealing.”

In an essay, Ramachandra Guha mentions how cricket writing liberated him. Of how ‘the sociologist who traced the evolution through time of abstract aggregates had now to speak directly of persons and personal achievement.’ He learnt to write about individuals and with that began a new twist in Guha’s career graph. That of the biographer.

Guha despite his many degrees is a self-trained historian. On his own he learnt to wield the tools of a historian ¾ How to use the archives, to ferret out different kinds of sources (letters, government records, manuscripts, periodicals, old newspapers, pamphlets, etc.), and to construct a historical narrative. In fact, Guha says, “I still do some kinds of sociological/anthropological writing, but see myself more and more as a historian.”

Again Guha’s incarnation as a biographer can be traced to his student years. He switched from Economics to Sociology after reading Elwin. While he did his Ph. D on the social history of forests, Elwin figured again, since he had written about the relationship between forests and Adivasis. And then around 1989-90, Guha decided to do a book on Elwin.

Almost twenty-two years in the making, perhaps almost half his life has been devoted to one man – Verrier Elwin. But Guha has his own reasoning. “A biographer is an ‘artist under oath’. You have to get the balance right at several levels: between the life and the work, and between the individual and society. You also have bring in all the minor characters. Besides it takes a certain amount of doggedness in chasing letters and manuscripts kept in different locations. Then there was the actual writing process. I usually never do more than two drafts but this one took five or six.

After the second draft, my editor Rukun Advani remarked – This is an intellectual biography.

Where is the man? After the third draft, he said- This is an intimate portrait of the man. But where is the scholar? It is a book I take great deal of pride in.”

One late afternoon in the middle of a week, I visit Guha in his house. He is sitting in his garden and there is a dog lolling on the grass. I tell my husband about the picture Guha made and he groans, “How is it you writers have such a good life?”

There are two kinds of writers. One who prefer to exhibit the anguish of angst. For whom writing is a demon that drove them to be demonic in all that they do. Every word, every chapter bears the stains of tantrums, drinking binges, hollow cheeks, blazing eyes, all manifestations of that possession. Then there are the others who live what must seem like a placid existence where despite the preoccupations of a family, books get miraculously written. Guha belongs to the latter. On the surface, it must seem idyllic. Lunch at Koshys. Book browsing at Premier. Tea on the lawns at 4o’clock. No clients to please. No bosses baying for your blood. Just the quiet content of past laurels. Except that this is an illusion.

Biographer. Cricket-writer. Essayist. Historian. Guha likes working in several genres. He likes being able to go back and forth between social history, full-length biography, and short portraits. But if there are gaunt cheeks and scorching eyes, they are confined within the walls of his home and more so now for Guha is currently working on two major projects: A social history of cricket in South Asia, called ‘A Corner of a Foreign Field’, to be published by Picador in July; and a history of modern India, to be called ‘A Functioning Anarchy’. The latter book will deal with the culture and the arts as well as with politics and economics. Guha doesn’t expect to finish it for a few years. And in next year or so, he hopes to bring out a companion volume to ‘An Anthropologist among the Marxists’, to be called ‘The Last Liberal and Other Essays’. This will contain tributes to writers, scholars and Gandhians, as well as some political commentary.

“Do you have a dream?” I asked Guha. ” Something that makes you wait for the dawn every evening…or is that too romantic a notion?”

” Not really,” he says. “Though I have plenty of nightmares, mostly about the destruction of the Gandhi-Nehru vision of India by the corrupt and communalist leaders of today.” My piecing together of Guha is almost complete when he does something so quixotic [in a lovely way that is] that makes me think that I’m back where I was when I set out to slot Guha.

Premier Bookshop has been in Bangalore for thirty years. Just about everyone whose reading habit stretches beyond Grisham, Sheldon and Danielle Steele would at one time or the other have found themselves in its dark and crowded [with books] premises. There are numerous customers, but only Ramachandra Guha and his wife Sujata Kesavan actually do something to commemorate this rather unusual bookshop and its taciturn but very nice owner Mr. Shanbagh’s rare ability to be a bookseller who knows his books.

They host a lunch; a vegetarian lunch [Ramachandra Guha once told me about a conversation with his colleague at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin, the Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam. Putnam said: ‘I have a student who is second generation vegetarian’, and Guha answered: “My wife is two hundredth generation vegetarian.” Putnam didn’t speak to Guha for the rest of the year.]

There are a few of Premier’s long time customers and a few well wishers. There are speeches, accolades, jokes….but no press, no fanfare…just a quiet afternoon around which the goodness of a gesture casts a shimmer.

More than anyone else it is most difficult to capture a biographer- historian based on what he does. Simply because it is in his line of duty to be an observer than a doer. And so it is only by observing, doing unto him as he does unto others, can one attempt to understand him. As I stood there forking dahi vada into my mouth, I thought here is how I will end my profile of Ramachandra Guha. With a deed rather than a thought.

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