AN INTERACTION WITH RAMACHANDRA GUHA
Azim Premji University organized an interaction of Ramachandra Guha with the students on October 15, 2015. At 10am, the scheduled hour of start, the Seminar Hall on the 10th Floor was choc-a-block with students, faculty and staff of the University. Though the session was primarily targeted at the undergrads, a good number of postgraduate students too had made it for the talk. There was excitement in the air and the anticipation of something special.
One of India’s most eminent historians and public intellectuals, Guha has written on a wide variety of subjects. His books include a pioneering environmental history ‘The Unquiet Woods’ and an award-winning social history of cricket ‘A Corner of a Foreign Field’. He has also authored ‘India after Gandhi’, and ‘Gandhi Before India’, both of which were chosen as notable books of the year by leading international newspapers. Guha has taught at the Universities of Yale, Stanford, Berkeley and Oslo. He writes a widely read syndicated column, and his work has been translated into more than twenty languages. The New York Times has referred to him as ‘perhaps the best among India’s non-fiction writers’, while Time has called him one of ‘Indian democracy’s pre-eminent chroniclers’. Guha has received several prestigious awards, including the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour.
Guha started the session with a short talk on his work and its influences. He mentioned the five accidents or incidents that had shaped his life and his work. The first such accident was his uncle who wanted him to be a test cricketer. This entailed his choosing the humanities rather than science which won’t have given him time to practice his cricket. That is how he ended up doing his Masters in Economics at St Stephens. Since his heart was not in Economics and by now he realized he did not have it in him to be a test cricketer, he moved towards sociology and anthropology which had begun to interest him. He had the choice to join the Institute of Rural Management in Anand or a doctoral programme in Sociology in IIM Calcutta. The second accident happened in the form of his then girlfriend to whom he got married eventually. She was doing a course in design at NID and she knew she would get work only in big metro cities. That ruled out his doing a course in rural management. While at IIM Calcutta he met Jayant Mukhopadhyay who was the next turning point in his life as he veered him towards doing a study of the history of the Chipko Movement. While doing fieldwork for this study he met a peasant who told him that Chipko Movement in some form or the other has been around the Garhwal forests since the nineteenth century. This was the fourth significant incident to have shaped his work, since this led him to archival research. The fifth such accident was the Peter Straus , the head of the publishing house Picador taking note of his long essay on ‘ Cricket and Politics in Colonial India’ in the journal ‘Past and Present’ and asking him to write a history of post-independence India. Straus made Guha realize that there was virtually no historical account of India after independence and he could fill the gap. Guha was inspired and this led to the book ‘India After Gandhi’. One could as well add: The rest was history.
After this brief talk he took questions from students on various issues ranging from Nehru’s neglect of primary education and Gandhi’s role in shaping of Indian democracy to the nature of politics then and now, the possibility of writing history objectively and the need for bi-linguicism in intellectual discourse in India. He underlined all his answers with two important diktats: One, judge anyone’s statement based on its content without attributing any personal motives, and two, you can judge the action of a historical person only in the context of the prevailing conditions and available knowledge then.
Though the session lasted for more than two hours the students wished there was more since it was so enlightening and stimulating.
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