Historian, columnist, biographer, environmentalist, Ramachandra Guha continues to have a monumental impact on India’s publishing world. It’s evident he is at the forefront of writers telling India’s story, in its various social-economic-political manifestations, always maintaining a deep focus on India’s overall human condition. With his clear, concise writing ability and his genuinely unbiased perspective, the readers are always given a refreshing panorama of the largest, perhaps most diverse, democracy in the world.
In “Makers of Modern India”, Ramachandra Guha has compiled a list of 19 crucial personalities who have played defining roles in India’s evolution into modernity; profiling and discussing their pertinence on a nation in its development stage. He has anthologized priceless, rare writings and speeches in context of the times they were written, providing the reader with in-depth analysis on the relevance of their unique, yet timeless dogmas. There are also active descriptions of how these personalities challenged each other in principle, how they worked on consensus, how they shared a common goal in developing India into a country that matched global standards.
From Gandhi’s yearning for a united India through passive resistance, to Ambedkar’s call for equality and abolishment of the caste system, to Tagore stressing the importance of truth in its various forms, to Nehru urging for Hindu-Muslim harmony and disdain for communal organizations – Guha has profiled the Indian luminaries we have come to hold up with high esteem and has presented their ideologies in their own words, ensuring everything is in context. He has also added, discussed and anthologized, those you could perhaps consider the forgotten heroes of India’s past, such as Rammohan Roy, one of India’s first modernists, who championed the rights of women and emphasized the importance of education as the pillar of social reform.
With “Makers of Modern India” you’re taken on a journey through the nation’s advancement, with comprehensive commentary by eminent leaders who have shaped this country, of course, with premiere historian, Ramachandra Guha, guiding you through it all. The book works in a funny way, what you read has been presented objectively, yet the affect it will have on you is subjective – many of you will relate with Gandhi, Ambedkar and Tagore, some will relate with Nehru, some even with Jinnah. Through your own unique insight into the diverse ideologies presented in this, you will realize how thought provoking and decisive these personalities were. More than anything else, you will realize how truly complex and rich India is as a nation.
In an exclusive interview with Flipkart, Ramachandra Guha talks about his latest book “Makers of Modern India”, his criteria for choosing the personalities in “Makers of Modern India”, his childhood ambition of becoming a cricketer, advice to young writers on earning success, why he refuses to write fiction and much more!
Who is Ramachandra Guha and what makes him tick?
I do a job like anyone else. Just as a software engineer writes code, a doctor examines patients, a lawyer takes briefs, a teacher lectures students – I’m a scholar who does research and writes books. Mine is a vocation like any other; more in the public eye but probably of less public consequence than the vocation of a doctor, teacher, lawyer, or entrepreneur.
Would you say your childhood was integral in shaping you as a writer?
Not really. I became a writer by accident. I had a very happy childhood and grew up in a very beautiful part of India and studied in a well-wooded campus.
I became a writer much later in life. Nothing prepared me for this. In fact my childhood ambition was to play cricket for India. I played for my school and college elevens, but in my early twenties I realized that I wasn’t good enough even to play for a Ranji Trophy team. So I took the scholarly route and did a PhD. Unlike many other writers, it was quite late in my life I realized this would be my calling.
Who and what were your inspirations to become a writer?
Well, I did a PhD, which meant I had to train to do rigorous, deep and thorough research. My thesis took me four and a half years and was on the social history of the relations between peasants and forests in the Himalaya, from the 19th century right up to the Chipko movement. I enjoyed the rigour of research. I enjoyed battling with complex ideas and studying patterns of social change in all their variety and diversity.
Slowly I realized that the kinds of things I was working on needed to be communicated to a wider audience, so I started writing more accessible prose, and also began contributing to newspapers. Becoming a full-time writer was a gradual process. It wasn’t a eureka moment where I read a wonderful book and said, “I’ve read this book by George Orwell, I must also become a writer!” It happened slowly, over a period of time.
What is it about history that fascinates you?
Well, I think it’s this country that fascinates me, the modern history of this country. I argue in “Makers of Modern India” and also my last book “India After Gandhi”, that we’re living in an extraordinary, interesting time in Indian history. This is a country, which is very large, very diverse, very divided, and undergoing these five simultaneous revolutions: the national, democratic, urban, industrial and social. This churning has produced social conflict, social emancipation, great leaders, corrupt leaders. Some parts of India are marked by peace, prosperity, and tranquility, while other parts of India are marked by poverty, disparity, and violence.
At no other time in human history have social conflicts been so richly articulated and expressed. So for anyone dealing with words or images it is a privilege to be in India. Why are Indian films so robust and diverse? Why is Indian fiction so vigorous and creative? India is a difficult country to be a citizen, but if you’re a historian, a playwright, a novelist, a filmmaker, a journalist, then India is the place to be.
On Makers of Modern India
“Makers of Modern India” is different to “India After Gandhi”, could you describe the format of the book?
It’s an anthology. I’ve done other anthologies in the past, of writings on cricket and the environment, but this one is more important. It’s an orchestra of 19 brilliant individuals and I’m the conductor; putting their thoughts in a particular order, setting one idea or thinker against another, exploring their tensions and arguments.
This book evolved over a period of time. It could not have been done by a younger person. I’ve been reading people like Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and Ambedkar for 15-20 years. As I worked on “India after Gandhi” and various other projects, I realized there was a very rich and robust tradition of political debate and argument in modern India, starting with Rammohan Roy and continuing on with the Marathi social reformers, through Gandhi and Nehru and their critics right up to the 1970s. I first thought I’d write a book about it in my own words, selectively quoting from these people, as a sort of history of debates on democracy.
Yet, as I started working on the project, I realized the writings themselves were so powerful, so vivid, so evocative, that they should be presented in their own words, with this kind of orchestration placing them in some sort of context for the reader. Especially younger readers, who might not know some of these individuals, so they get a sense of who they were, where they were coming from, what they were trying to say, what they were trying to do, and hence this book emerged.
What kind of research went behind this book and how long did you take to complete it?
It may have been about five years ago when I decided to edit, introduce and compile this book. In 2005-6 I had a debate with Amartya Sen on intellectual traditions in India and this book is in a sense an outcome of that debate. But as I said, somewhere subconsciously it’s been evolving in me for a very long time. Had I not been grappling with these thinkers and their legacies for so long, I could not have done this.
What are the common traits of the personalities featured in the book, was there a specific criteria you employed when you were choosing who to profile?
The criteria I employed were, the people who featured in this book had to be both thinkers and activists. Not pure intellectuals. Radhakrishnan, for example, was a very important figure in the middle decades of the 20th century, but he was an academic philosopher, not a political activist. Of course he was later President of India but that was more a symbolic, ceremonial role.
So they had to be thinkers and activists. On the other hand where you have intellectuals like Radhakrishnan who are not actors, you have actors like Subhas Chandra Bose, Indira Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, who are very important in shaping the history of our nation – but they did not leave behind a corpus of written work. They were out and out doers, they were not thinker-activists in the way in which Gandhi and Ambedkar and the others in this book were.
The second criteria was that their writing had to be of a certain quality and relevance. They had to be speaking of important social and political issues. Not inward, psychological, spiritual writings, but reflections on caste and gender inequality, on religion and politics, on India’s attitude to the world.
The third criteria for inclusion was that the prose had to travel across the generations. You read Rammohan Roy writing in 1820 and he’s still fresh and alive today! Whereas some other thinkers, who I won’t name, wrote a very stiff, formal and archaic prose. There are some 19th century political activists whose prose is incomprehensible to the younger reader.
These were the three defining criteria. They had to be thinkers and activists. They had to be writing about important social and political issues. And their writings had to be clear, accessible and timeless with the ability to communicate across generations.
Can you comment on the timelessness of the ideas presented in the book?
This book reflects the sheer size, diversity and unique nature of the Indian political experiment. We’re trying to create a united country out of so many diverse parts that we’re trying to run democratically. This social churning has thrown up some very interesting and original thinkers.
These writers speak about freedom of the press, the plight of the farmers, the position of women, about the need for Hindu-Muslim harmony. However, this book is not a manifesto or work of advocacy. I’m not telling the reader what to make of its contents. I’m presenting this extraordinary richness and diversity of our political tradition through 19 representative figures. I’m telling the reader of today that if you’ll acquaint yourself with the history of India of the last 150 years through reading this book, you’ll get a sense of the sophistication of thought, of argument, of the real personality of these people. Now what is fresh about them, what is relevant about them, I’ll leave for each reader to decide.
It seems peculiar that you’ve included Jinnah as a “Maker of Modern India”.
Jinnah is a controversial inclusion, but I had to include him because he shaped the history of our country – for good or for bad. Through the two-nation theory, the politics of the 20s and 30s evolved in a particular direction. Because Pakistan was created the politics of the 50s and 60s evolved in a certain way. You could say he is a negative influence but he is an influence all the same.
Nehru would not have so vigorously promoted Hindu-Muslim harmony had it not been for Jinnah. He certainly shaped the history of our country in a very profound way and his writings are very eloquent and direct. The case of Pakistan is made with such clarity and force; you have to contend with it. Including Jinnah (or even Golwalkar), doesn’t mean I endorse what they did or what they stand for. It’s simply that as a historian I’ve recognized the profound impact they had on the history of our country.
On contemporary politicians versus The Makers of Modern India
We should not expect contemporary politicians to be thinkers because there are very few original thinkers amongst politicians anywhere in the world. Sarkozy is not a well read or articulate man. David Cameron gets someone else to write his speeches for him. The only thinking politician of today is probably Obama.
What we should be worried about is that politicians of today are so ignorant of the legacies they claim to represent. Mayawati hasn’t read Ambedkar’s speeches to the Constituent Assembly, Rahul Gandhi does not appear to know about Nehru’s letters to Chief Ministers. That’s what we should be worried about. Even someone like George W Bush, who is as anti-intellectual as any President can get, would know the legacy of the founders of his country – he would know what Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln stood for. You don’t expect Rahul Gandhi to have the original ideas of a Nehru, but he should be more aware of his tradition and legacy.
Politicians who are also original thinkers are not common in any country or time period. A Nehru comes once in a generation, an Ambedkar comes once in a century, a Gandhi appears perhaps once in millennia – we were just fortunate they came together in 20th century India.
As an avid cricket fan who has written a few books on the subject, what are your predictions for the upcoming World Cup?
I don’t normally predict and I should also say I’ve more or less stopped writing on cricket after Twenty20. I’m not a fan of Twenty20 at all. It’s a vulgar debasement of the game. ODIs are slightly better but Test cricket is the real cricket for me. Two months ago when India played Australia in a Test match in Bangalore, I was there for all five days. In that sense, I’m a purist, a romantic, an old-fashioned guy who likes Test cricket.
The other thing about me which is slightly peculiar, is that I’m not a cricketing jingoist. I like good cricket, I’m not really desperate for India to win. I appreciate good cricketers and I grew up admiring the West Indians. I’ve admired the Australians, the Pakistanis – Wasim Akram is one of my all time favourite cricketers. I want to see good cricket. Of course, I’d like India to win, but it’s not a top priority for me, it’s not something I’m obsessed about.
You’ve been a teacher who has taught all over the world, what has the experience been like?
I enjoy teaching. I enjoy working with young people. Teaching is very important. For someone like me it’s a constant source of nourishment and creativity to be in contact with young people. It’s hugely enjoyable.
A historian who thrives on and embraces archives of information on politics, what are your views on the WikiLeaks saga?
I have not thought it through seriously. Obviously at one level there are some shocking revelations that were uncovered. Yet on another level, diplomacy can only succeed if it’s done in private. I don’t think diplomacy can be conducted against the full glare of public opinion. You’ve had a tradition in most governments where only after 30 years are the documents of the period made open to the public and to scholars.
I don’t think you should be leaking all this and damaging relationships between countries. These are private communications. At a suitable time, say after 30 years, when the present controversies have died out, historians should have access to them so that they can assess why the issues arose in the first place. On balance I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage this kind of rampant leaking of diplomatic information. At the same time I think the persecution of the WikiLeaks founder is unfortunate.
Advice to young writers who would like to start pursuing it as a career?
It’s very hard work. The first piece of advice is, reject the idea that you have to be inspired to write – that today I’m not in a mood to write but then tomorrow suddenly the creative juices flow! That’s rubbish. Writing is hard work. It’s like a factory worker at his lathe from 10-6. You have to go to your desk and write. If you are a historian or biographer, you have to go to the archives and look at dozens of files a day to find new or relevant material. If you’re a traveler or someone who bases his writing on real life experience – then go out into the countryside, go to different parts of India, talk to people from different backgrounds, if need be live in difficult circumstances. Consistency and hard work are most important. Creativity and imagination are secondary. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is you must read very widely. Don’t get stereotyped, don’t just read one kind of writer. Don’t read only one political tendency. If you’re a left-wing kind of person, read as much right-wing literature as possible. You must know what the other side thinks. In fact read more right-wing literature than left-wing literature, because then you can hone and refine your arguments and ideas.
Don’t be dogmatic in your approach, travel widely and work very hard. For the writer, there are no weekdays or weekends. Sachin Tendulkar is so good not just because of his natural gifts. At 37 he practices as hard in the nets as when he was 18. Hard work, discipline and rigour are the most important qualities.
Unless you are willing to be in it for the long haul and be patient, you can never really be a good writer.
Is there a particular reason you avoid writing fiction?
I have so much diversity in what I do; I write history, biographies, political commentary, cricket, different kinds of books, that confront different kinds of challenges. I’ve never had the desire to write fiction. Fiction has to come from within you.
Recently, at my book release in Bangalore, someone asked me, “You’ve written this big tome on history, but why don’t you now give us some saucy fiction?” I answered, with complete sincerity, “One of the reasons I don’t write fiction, is that there are various writers I’ve admired in the past, the British historian EP Thompson, the American cultural critic Lewis Mumford who wrote on ecology and town planning, the Caribbean writer CLR James who wrote the finest book on cricket, “Beyond a Boundary”, the Indian naturalist M. Krishnan, and I think, and what is common to these people? If I look at these people whom I admire, what’s common to them is that each of them wrote one novel and it was a bad novel.” So it’s a caution to me to never write a novel. I’m a historian, biographer and political commentator, that’s my calling.
Books that have changed your life?
That’s a complex question, but there are a few. Not changed my life, but the way I look at the world, there were books that changed my worldview. One book is George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”, which I had bought in a pavement in Dehradun. I was in my early 20s and very attracted by Marxism. While reading this book, which is a wonderful and moving account of how the communist party destroyed the Spanish democratic movement in the 1930s, I realized how callous, instrumental and brutal the communist ideology would be in practice. In theory it was all about equality and liberty for all, but in reality it was totalitarian, anti-human and barbaric.
Another book that changed the way I looked at the world was a wonderful book published by a Gandhian publisher in Ahmedabad. It was called “Truth Called Them Differently”. It’s a reproduction of the letters between Tagore and Gandhi over a period of time. It’s about many things: India’s place in the world, the role of the English language, whether Indians should live simply or live as they choose – the debate is very rich and very productive. It also shows you the quality of the men as they argue with each other and are willing to change their position. You learn a lot about the Indian national movement, Indian culture and political traditions, but you also learn about the ability to adapt and change, when circumstances compel you to change.
There were other books too for example, a work by the great French historian Marc Bloch entitled “French Rural History”. This is a combination of environmental, social, economic and political history – a total history as the French call it. I read this book when I was starting my career as a historian and it impressed me greatly.
What are you currently reading?
It’s normally a mix. I might have a novel, a book on Indian history, a book about some other part of the world.
I just finished Ian McEwan’s “Solar”, which is a novel about a once brilliant scientist gone to seed. It’s not McEwan’s best work, still, it’s an acute psychological portrait of intellectual and moral corruption.
I’m now reading a wonderful book on the history of Paris called “Parisians” by Graham Robb, who is a very distinguished British writer on French affairs. It’s slices of the history of Paris through individuals. He starts with Napoleon’s first visit to Paris as a 19-year-old lieutenant. It goes on to follow various people who lived in Paris, the great novelist Zola’s wife for example. Then Robb writes of Hitler’s only visit to Paris during the war. It’s a marvelous book.
I’m also reading a memoir of a Sindhi woman writer, who grew up in Karachi and Hyderabad before partition and then had to flee into India. The book is very revealing about the impact of Partition on Sindhi Hindus.
What’s next for Ramachandra Guha?
For the long term, I have been working on (for several years) a multi-volume project on Gandhi. Each book will be self contained; a book on Gandhi’s years in South Africa, a book on Gandhi’s years in India, a book on the global impact of Gandhi – there will be at least three volumes and possibly a fourth, a kind of multi-volume series on Gandhi, with standalone books that are part of a larger series. Before that, I might come out with a collection of my political essays.