Personal memoir as social history

Tapan Raychaudhuri unfolds social life in a zamindari estate of East Bengal, where he was born

November 05, 2012 11:04 pm | Updated November 06, 2012 10:57 am IST

The World in Our Time: a Memoir. Author: Tapan Raychaudhuri.

The World in Our Time: a Memoir. Author: Tapan Raychaudhuri.

This is a memoir par excellence. It recaptures the life-experience of one of India’s leading historians, who experienced the mutation of India’s rural society under colonialism and then witnessed his country’s birth as an independent nation, associated as it was, with some of the most painful facets of human experience. But each turning point in the author’s life is presented with a historical hindsight, which also makes the memoir a history of his time. If memory is history recorded in the brain, this memoir reveals such a record with a historian’s skill, making it a source-material for reconstructing Bengal’s transition from colonialism to post-colonialism.

Remembering his childhood, Raychaudhuri unfolds social life in a zamindari estate of the then East Bengal where he was born — the exploitative relationship between landlord and peasant, family squabbles, rituals and the world of ethics. Drawing upon his local experience he questions the thesis of perennial adversarial Hindu-Muslim relations. But he underlines the contemptuous attitude of middle and upper class Hindus towards the underprivileged Muslims — a process which ultimately contributed to intercommunity tensions in colonial Bengal.

Pains of exile

Raychaudhuri was tormented by ‘pains of Exile’ when he moved to Calcutta for schooling. His recapturing of college days in Scottish Church and Presidency takes us back to the Calcutta student life of the 1940s. The memoir makes an interesting contrast between Presidency College and the Calcutta University, which Raychaudhuri joined for his post-graduate degree. While the former excelled in teaching, the latter shone in scholarship. I hope the exercise to make Presidency, now a university, a centre for excellence does not compromise its tradition of brilliance in undergraduate teaching. We also learn from Raychaudhuri that Presidency students were relatively indifferent to national politics, although they spent hours on brilliant theoretical discussions, while a large section of Calcutta University students was highly politicised.

The author is at his best in recalling the ‘cataclysmic’ prelude to the Partition. His vivid recapturing of scenes of erstwhile householders turned ‘starving pavement dwellers’, of “a baby, all skin and bones, ... trying desperately to suck at his (dead) mother’s breast”, of “walking past dead bodies, holding our noses to block out the stench”, of officials’ apathy to human misery — drive home the dehumanising impact of the 1943 man-made famine on Calcutta life. But Raychaudhuri was surprised by the average British ignorance about the Bengal famine which took three million lives.

Raychaudhuri’s family — especially his father — was drawn by Gandhian nationalism. He himself got involved in the 1942 movement, mostly through fund-raising activities, but was imprisoned for ‘wire cutting and theft’. The memoir unravels the unbearable conditions in the jail and police atrocities on prisoners, even on juveniles. Police barbarity during Calcutta’s outbursts in November 1945 and February 1946 against the infamous INA trials put Raychaudhuri’s ‘Gandhian faith on trial’. He also depicts the brutalisation of human consciousness that characterised the 1946 Calcutta communal carnage. Calcutta, however, observed unprecedented communal fraternisation as it celebrated the country’s independence, and Raychaudhuri wonders who “were the unknown men and women responsible for this short-lived miracle”. This was perhaps another example of unstructured spontaneous happenings in human history. The Raychaudhuris were one of those for whom independence meant losing their ancestral home. The memoir naturally cannot ignore the social pangs of Partition. It also records the author’s ‘epiphanic moment’ when he met Gandhiji in Delhi just before the Partition.

The memoir’s second half begins with Raychaudhuri’s Oxford days between 1953 and 1957 when he did his second D.Phil. At Oxford he developed acquaintance with leading leftist intellectuals, which had been watched by the British Secret Service and which ultimately deprived him of promotion from the post of Deputy Director to that of Director of National Archives of India. Joint British-Indian surveillance of Indian students in Britain was evident even when I was at Oxford during the 1980s. The India House in London thus politely warned me when I joined the support group for the Arthur Scargill-led Coal Miners’ strike since I was on an Indian Government Scholarship. Nothing can be truer when Raychaudhuri suggests “stupidity instead of intelligence as the generic name of the world’s secret services”.

The author’s stint in the National Archives of India exposed him to nepotism and corruption within post-colonial Indian bureaucracy. But what distinguished the first generation of Indian ministers was their magnanimity. For instance, when the country’s first Education Minister Maulana Azad learnt that his introduction to Surendranath Sen’s volume on the 1857 Revolt had been severely criticised in a review for the official journal of the National Archives, he unhesitatingly asked Raychaudhuri to publish it without any alteration. Such a spirit of toleration is becoming scarce among India’s public personalities.

Raychaudhuri records the ‘intensely intellectual’ atmosphere in Delhi School of Economics, and his frustration with the ‘firmly entrenched group’ and ‘pointless’ cliques within Delhi University’s history faculty. In January 1973 Raychaudhuri happily joined Oxford as Reader in South Asian History. But academic factionalism is not unique to Indian universities. Raychaudhuri himself admits how Oxford denied the Indologist Richard Gombrich the Spalding Chair because he opposed awarding an honorary degree to Zulfiqar Bhutto on grounds of his complicity with the Bangladesh massacre.


Despite his academic success in Oxford, Raychaudhri was pained by inherent English racism. Offensiveness of white waiters in the ship he took when first going to Oxford as a student, denials for accommodation from English house-owners in London, harassment at Heathrow’s immigration desk when he and his family arrived to take up the Oxford job, racist insults experienced by his daughter at an Oxford public school, offensive behaviour in shops and railway stations, racist comments the esteemed Indian philosopher Bimal Matilal faced for his ‘diffident personality’ and ‘un-English accent’ — all these depressed Raychaudhuri. He felt dejected when Oxford dons reflected on the benefits of British rule for India, demonstrating ‘total bluntness of sensibilities’ to colonial exploitation. Underlying a contradiction in Oxford life, Raychaudhuri remarks: “Oxford is a very civilized place, but the university ... inevitably has among its members and guests, its quota of fools and barbarians”. In an inimitable humorous style he also highlights basic dichotomies between British and Indian perceptions.

Almost eleven years after Raychaudhuri joined St. Antony’s College as a don, I went to the same College to pursue a D.Phil. as his student. Luckily, my experience was a little different from my guru’s . Certainly times had changed. At Heathrow I crossed the immigration barrier greeted by a smiling officer; employees in the college lodge were exceedingly helpful; English friends introduced me to the pleasures of English life, helped me to absorb the culture shock and stood by my side till I received the degree. On the other hand, I was shaken by the racism of Indian students towards Africans. Raychaudhuri developed ‘profound aversion’ for college governing body meetings. But as a student representative in the same body, and a member of the Overseas Students’ Committee of Oxford University Students’ Union, I learnt the art of negotiation. As an academic administrator I find this experience an asset.

Besides, I am uneasy at the author’s fleeting reference to his wife, popularly known as Hashidi, merely as ‘a fine cook’. Some of Raychaudhuri’s students like me were certainly enriched by her eclectic cultural, social and political perceptions. Besides, without Hashidi’s singular dedication to the household, Tapan Raychaudhuri could never have evolved as he did. Surely, she deserved a more appropriate space in the memoir.

THE WORLD IN OUR TIME — A Memoir: Tapan Raychaudhuri

HarparCollins Publishers India, A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301.

Rs. 399.

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