‘I am interested in subjects as diverse as the country I live in' says historian and writer Ramachandra Guha as he talks about his latest book, Makers of Modern India.
For most of the day I kept thinking of the evening to follow. I was to meet the chronicler of Indian democracy, Ramachandra Guha, whose latest book Makers of Modern India was launched recently. Guha is the much acclaimed author of India after Gandhi, which was chosen as the book of the year by the Economist, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, Time Out and Outlook. His research interests include environmental, social, political and cricket history. Notable among his works are The Unquiet Woods, A Corner of a Foreign Field, Savaging the Civilised: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals and India and An Anthropologist Among the Marxists And Other Essays.
That evening, my worries were: Would I get enough time with this multi-disciplinary scholar? What if he thought the conversation was repetitive? But all such fears vanished the moment the man entered the room with a wide smile and almost inaudible monosyllables. A few minutes into the conversation, he was totally transformed. Excerpts from an interview:
Economist, environmental and social activist, biographer, historian… What makes Dr. Guha so prolific?
Nothing really. I am interested in subjects as diverse as the country I live in. I love all subjects; that's the basic reason I keep exploring one after another.
Don't you feel tired at times?
No, not really. I started as an environmentalist, and then went over to history and biography. Now I am working on political history. Next I will be writing on the viability of Gandhi; a multi-volume work.
History always seems top-heavy; dynasty after dynasty. Why are subaltern views neglected?
On the contrary, I think there is a rich tradition of subaltern history. I have written books on the history of peasants, The Unquiet Woods. There is a biography of Verrier Elwin, which is basically about tribals. Unfortunately there is not much awareness about such works.
Why are Indians desperate to reduce men of international stature into regional and sectarian leaders?
That is unfortunate; we should overcome it. If you are interested in Dalits, then Gandhi and Ambedkar are both relevant and important. Similarly for the history of democracy, Nehru, Lohia and Rajagopalachari are all important. One of the aims of my book is to get beyond parochial limitations.
Many thinker-activists played key roles in making India a Republic. Do you agree that it flourished only due to its disparate and diverse construction?
Yes! We have been able to retain our ‘unity is diversity’. We have democracy despite many disparities. This term is more suitable to India than any other place in the world. The closest may be Indonesia but that also is not as diverse as India. India is a multi-religious, multi-lingual experiment without a parallel; that is what makes it so interesting and absorbing. It is an experiment still in the process of unfolding. There are many fault-lines, many darker sides but that is all part of the story.
In Makers of Modern India, you have spoken much about Syed Ahmad Khan. How far he was from the realities of Muslim society?
Syed Ahmed Khan took on Muslim orthodoxy as Rammohan Roy took on Brahminical one. He was right in rejecting the debacle of 1857. The greatness of Syed, Roy, Gandhi, Tagore and other reformers was that, instead of demonising the British, they gave a wake-up call to their societies. They could look critically at what other cultures could give to them.
Rammohan Roy was cleansing Hinduism from within. Are right-wing politicians correct in claiming to follow his legacy?
No, no. They can't. They don't look at Roy. They only look at Savarkar and Hedgewar. They can't accommodate Rammohan as their leader because he was a thorough modernist and outward looking thinker-activist. At best, they can only distort his views to achieve their ulterior motives. Roy is simply beyond them.
Pakistan was created as an Islamic state. Yet Jinnah was a man who ate pork, drank wine... Are Pakistanis justified in calling him ‘The father of the nation'?
There is a debate in Pakistan on his western attire because people there can only accept him in sherwani and cap. He never offered prayers. But Jinnah organised the Muslim electorate as a consolidated political rock by successfully convincing Muslim intelligentsia that the Congress was a Hindu party. He was a master political technician. His private actions were overshadowed by his political acumen. I disagree with some other scholars because I think Jinnah was a Muslim separatist who wanted a Muslim political block. He was the other side of the coin called Savarkar.
Saina Nehwal is World No. 2 in badminton and that's just a cone-column story. But Dhoni's private life is splashed across page one. Is the cricket craze in India due to the colonial hangover?
Though I love cricket; here, I am on your side. I would say even Vishwanathan Anand is a world class player but we hardly care for him. See the kind of treatment this truly world class player gets in India!
Do you follow a particular routine for writing?
Yes. I devote mornings for writing, roughly 4-5 hours. Then I have lunch and relax. No late nights or meeting people in late evenings. No checking e-mails at night.
Tell me one thing about Ramachandra Guha that the world does not know about!
(Laughs) I am not an important person but outside my work and research, one thing that interests and absorbs me, which people are not aware of, is my passion for Hindustani Classical music. The best way to unwind every evening is to lie down and put on Bhimsen Joshi, Ali Akbar Khan or Bismillah Khan. What interests me is their love, devotion, riyaz, and their love for the divine.
Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, was packed well before the scheduled time. The occasion was The Penguin Annual Lecture on ‘The Indian Political Tradition... and those who made it'. The speaker was Ramachandra Guha, whom The New York Times referred to as ‘perhaps the best among India's non-fiction writers' while Time magazine called him ‘Indian democracy's pre-eminent chronicler'. His latest book Makers of Modern India covers a variety of subjects like religion, caste, language, gender, regionalism, colonialism, secularism, economy and of course democracy.
He described India as the "world's most unnatural nation" because it incorporated so many complex and conflicting diverse elements. He also pointed out that India had introduced universal franchise with no distinctions made on the basis of caste, creed or even gender well before many countries in the West
Lamenting that no politician, social activist or reformer today thinks the way his 19 ‘thinker-activists' of the last two centuries thought, he said "What should worry us is not that we don't have thinker politicians but the leaders of today are so ignorant of the lineages they claim to represent."
Calling the Indian political tradition a "remarkable political experiment in history", Guha said that the multiple legacy of its thinker- activist makers was still available to fulfil and redeem unhonoured and unfulfilled ideals.