Snapshots of a historian

  • K. Natwar Singh
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GRAND OLD MAN OF THE LEFT:A file picture of Eric Hobsbawm in New Delhi. —PHOTO: ANU PUSHKARNA
GRAND OLD MAN OF THE LEFT:A file picture of Eric Hobsbawm in New Delhi. —PHOTO: ANU PUSHKARNA

On my copy of Interesting Times , historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) wrote, “For an Indian who knows about the world and literature and enjoys himself in interesting times. With the very best wishes of the author. 13.12.2004.”

He had come on a lecture tour. I invited him and his wife for lunch at the Imperial Hotel. During lunch I learnt that Eric Hobsbawm and his wife were flying economy class on Air India. I asked Air India to upgrade them to first class.

I discovered Eric Hobsbawm rather late in life. Only at the end of the 20th century did I read the “ Age of …..” volumes. They were minted with fresh ideas in which he offered his compelling critique of the capitalist west from 1789 to 1991. Here was concentrated historical writing of a very high order. Marx is not an easy read. Hobsbawm wrote extensively on Marx and Marxism in a style that made even rabid antagonists see the author of the Communist Manifesto with less hostility.

His autobiography was published in 2002. It is among the best written in our “age.” Hobsbawm was a Jew, born in Alexandria in 1917. He was an exceptionally precocious boy, who spoke several languages. That he was a genius few doubted. By the time Hobsbawm went up to Cambridge in 1936, he was a committed Marxist. He was elected a member of the very exclusive intellectual society called the Cambridge Apostles.

His Marxist Indian contemporaries in the U.K. were Mohan Kumaramangalam, (president of the Cambridge Union), Indrajit Gupta, Jyoti Basu, P.N. Haksar, Nikhil Chakravarti (Oxford) and Rajni Palme Dutt (Oxford). The first two became union ministers, the third was chief minister for 22 years, while the fourth became the most powerful civil servant of post-1947 India. Nikhil Chakravarti was to become a highly respected journalist in India.

Cambridge in the mid-1930s was a very Red place. It had Kim Philby, master Soviet spy at the heart of the British foreign policy establishment. The other three, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, were all Soviet spies working in high offices in London. Each came to a sorry end.

1956 was a very difficult year for the Communists. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin stunned all faithful, card carrying members. The suppression by the popular revolt against the Soviets was an even more traumatic event for those who had spent a lifetime espousing the Communist cause. To fully understand those upheavals one must read Hobsbawm’s book, “ How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism ,” in which he emphasised the relevance of Marx in today’s world.

My last meeting with him was in June 2010. He invited me to lunch at the Athenian club. He was in his 93rd year but his mind was still in top gear. We talked about common friends, E.M. Forster and Michael Foot (he was 95 at the time). Hobsbawm wrote with much warmth about Forster in his autobiography. He knew Forster for many decades.

On Gandhiji

I asked him if a new book on Gandhiji would still do well in Britain. He was too courteous to say “No.” He said something much more worthwhile. I do not recall the exact words but broadly speaking he said that Gandhiji’s non-violent, non-co-operation movement stirred not only India but the entire colonial world and that he, in some ways, changed the world.

(K. Natwar Singh is a former External Affairs Minister.)



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