I still remember that day. I first saw it in the brick and mortar bookstore, a chain of the Odyssey book stores, in the first storey of a tiny mall in my small town – my hometown. I took upon in my hands the mighty beast of this book which ran for more than seven hundred pages, and I began reading a few pages of it (Read as the first eight pages). I still remember the amusing look which my dad gave me, for he was both puzzled and delighted that his daughter is holding a history book, and that book is making her smile. That book I held then was Ramachandra Guha’s “India After Gandhi“. I was only sixteen then – a good age to fall in love – and we bought the book home. When I was in my teens, we had no internet connection in our home and I would wait for Guha’s columns published often in The Hindu. The name would always bring me certain happiness as if I saw a friend who has come home for a play. When we got Internet, I began following and reading him regularly and extensively.
I grew up reading Ramachandra Guha and in a great way my outlook on India, its politics and culture is greatly affected and molded by his writings. Looking back now, after nearly nine years since I began reading him, I wonder what really made me to fall in love with this man’s writings, then. Also, it still astonishes me that his words brings the same cheerfulness I had felt when I read him for the first time. Years have run by; I have grown from my teens to mid-twenties, boyfriend and crushes have come and gone, there are authors whom I have once swooned only to find them repelling as I grew and finally abandoned, Sachin no longer plays, Modi has become India’s PM, Salem has got its own Dominoes outlets, and I have grown good enough to read and understand Samuel Beckett. Still, his writings give me the same infectious smile I had when I read him for the first time in that brick and mortar store of that small town.
History was always a subject which was reserved for the below-average scoring students in my school. If a student was unable to do maths or not good at science, she would invariably be stamped as dull and be told to take up the third group as an option to appear for the board exams and which consist of Commerce, Economics, and History. Perhaps, growing up in such an environment must have pushed me to absorb without questioning that History is the subject that deals with the realm of past and has no future for its admirers. Then again, one cannot blame my teachers alone. Whenever I read a book on history in my teens, especially which deals with India, it would grow so boring that it I would rush to throw it aside. The break from this labyrinth of boredom which history would throw at me came with two books – Glimpses of the World History and India After Gandhi. It was like a fresh air which one could breathe as one stand beside a waterfall. A cool breeze on a sunny day in the Madras summer. The sudden eye contact of your crush. The much needed four in the last ball to win a match. For the first time, I saw the history blooming with a prose and style that matches that of a good novelist or poetry. The narration which flows with sophisticated language yet unburdened with the heavy technicalities or jargons. To put the long story short, for the first time I read a history which is interesting.
It is said that We, Indians, never wrote any extensive history on ourselves. There is a great vacuum in the history we recorded. Indians didn’t write much on their arts, culture, social tradition, people and their lifestyle for ages. The same vice continues till today added with another complaint that we also don’t read much history. As I already said, the blame is not to be rested on the readers alone. Most of the history books in India is heavily loaded with the burden of ideology, technicalities and the pedantic language of an academician. Sometimes, reading them makes one to feel nearer to reading a hermetic language of codes which would fly over one’s head. It seems that there is a general assumption that if any scholarly work written by an academician goes beyond the grasp of a non-historical reader, then the reader is a philistine and lack good taste. Boredom is construed to be the mark of anything good and worthy. Fun is considered to be the quality of less intellectual character. For instance, if an educated, non-academic, non-historical, not-preparing-for-competitive-exams Indian wants to read the political history of Modern India, where should she turn to? India after Independence by the trio Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, and Aditya Mukherjee is a good work but completely smeared with Marxist ideology that would test your temper to dodge it aside; one can turn to Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea Of India, which is an excellent book, except for the theme that greatly revolves around Jawaharlal Nehru. The other sources which remain are the Travelogues of Naipaul, or the dare-to-read-me novel of Vikram Seth, or the magical yet historically inadequate Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ (Can’t blame, for the last two are novels). To an ordinary educated non-historical reader of India who would love to know her past, the history offered by our own historians is like a combination of Nutella and Mor-khuzhambu* or like Pineapple Paneer Pizza. It combines the odd ingredients to the subject at hand rendering it beyond simple comprehension and hence serves it unpalatable. This is where Guha’s role comes in.
When Guha writes about India, every sane reader would fall in love with the subject. His strict adherence to the facts does not cease him from pouring his feelings to the events he is relating and to the characters he portrays. The reader realizes through his passionately flamed words about how this country came into existence and all the struggles the founders of this great nation underwent. The heroes vividly grow before the reader’s mind, as if they lived only the day before yesterday. He never makes his heroes look macho men who do not fault. Rather, he portrays them with the human touch with their faults placed vividly beside their greatness for the discernment of the reader. Be it Jawaharlal Nehru, Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore, Dharma Kumar or the Cricketer Palwankar Baloo, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid Guha portrays them with their greatness without compromising on the fact that they are humans too, prone to their frailties and faults. He makes them accessible, understandable, and more, lovable.
Of course, there are dissenters. When Guha warned that the celebrity endorsement by Arundhati Roy for the cause of Narmada Bacho Andolan might undermine it because of her lack of expertise and attract wrong attention, Roy condescendingly quipped that Guha is a ‘Cricket historian who missed the boat’. It is not the first time the Conservatives and left-leaning intellectuals look down upon sports – any sports for that matter. And anything popular is scorned as lacking profundity. And, it is no wonder Ms. Roy brought this lame criticism on Guha. But history should not only be written about Kings, Queens, National Leaders, Statesman, Presidents and Prime Ministers alone. Rather, it should also talk about the people of a country; their food, dress, sport, language, lifestyle, customs; on what men drank during their holidays?, What women wore during their periods?, Which sport they played and why?. And I am glad Guha wrote upon this popular sport. He gives it an authenticity and gracefulness. Further, he turns this sport that had its origin elsewhere indigenous; to be precise, he makes it our own.
Another a usual criticism is that he loves Jawaharlal Nehru more. A detached look at his writings would say that he is one of the few intellectuals who has to be apologetic for admiring a great statesman. An attribute which is expected from the admirers of Stalin, Hitler or Mao (the latter two being leaders who are forsaken by their own countries), but here is a historian who admires – rightly – a Statesman who was progressive, democratic and greatly trusted by the people of new Independent India but made to explain again and again why his hero is worth admiring (A Constituent Assembly member once said that government was entrusted in the hands of those men – Nehru, Patel, Prasad, and Azad – ‘who were utterly in incapable of doing any wrong to the people’).
And, then there are the extreme right-wingers, nationalists, and Hindutva groups who just love to hate Guha. It explains that he does his job right. And, what would this fan say to them? It is this succinct statement from Guha’s essay titled ‘Hindutva Hate Mail’ from his book Patriots and Partisans, “A writer is known by the enemies he make”.
History makes us realize that in the vast expanse of time scale our presence is an insignificant one. Yet, on a closer look, it says that for the very progress of this mankind, every common man has contributed in one way or the other. It helps us to understand who we are, where do we come from and what makes us to be US. It expands the horizon of vision of an individual beyond his immediate family and makes him to include his community, society, country and the humanity at large. Today, when our politicians are nothing but a laughing stock; when the democracy greatly rests upon the strength of the civic consciousness and awareness; when the youngsters are curious to learn and eagerly want someone to look up, we cannot be waiting for a messiah to come and deliver us from our social ills and solve all our problems. A historian who lay bare the facts with passion; who brings heroes from the buried past and write fresh epitaphs; who can kindle hope by reminding people of their greatness, capacity, promise and also their faults which they are most inclined to commit, can play an important role. He can infuse a new hope for the changing world and can offer the right examples resurrected from the past to hold on to for guidance. He can provide what the past has to say for the present and the present for the future.
It is usually said that innovation happens at the intersection of two or more fields. Ramachandra Guha is not a historian by his academic qualification. He holds a post-graduate degree in Economics, fellowship in sociology and wanted to be a Cricketer. Perhaps, it is only because he is not an academic historian he is able to bring much liveliness to history by combining it with an amalgam of sociology, economics and subtle entertainment. I don’t know. I am neither a historian or an academician. But, as a consumer and an ardent lover of well-written history, I would say that we need more Guhas to come from our country only to save history from the pedantic, dodgy, boring academic stranglehold of our own historians.
(This is a short tribute I want to write on my favorite contemporary Indian writer/historian for his birthday celebrated on 29th of April. We have the crazy habit of praising someone who is dead as if death gives us the liberation to at last provide the man his dues he earned. It is the time we recognize the great and eminent men amongst us even when they are much alive. Happy Birthday, Ramachandra Guha, Sir! More power to you 🙂 )
*Mor-khuzambu is a south Indian gravy prepared using curd as the basic ingredient.