The Mag This Week

Screen Shot 2012-12-02 at 9.02.41 PMLove was in the air this week on the Books page, by which I mean all of us liked most things about the books we read.

I have to say, it’s a bit odd to open up the inbox and see in the list of senders one “Ramachandra”. (The surname didn’t show, for whatever reason.) It made me wonder whether anyone from the BJP has got emails from Guha and if they have, how their pulse must have leapt for a couple of seconds.

Interview: Ramachandra Guha

DP: Penguin has described Patriots and Partisans as “provocative”. Do you think it’s provocative? 

RG: Provocative, yes (since it will offend ideologues of all stripes), but I hope informative and entertaining too (since it draws on some thirty years of research and travel and tries to convey what I found in an accessible way).

DP: You’d said in an earlier interview (around 2003) that you want to focus on writing books because there are about 6 books that you want to write. Have the number and topics changed over the years?

RG: I am now deep into the study of Gandhi’s life, times, and legacies,  a project that will result certainly in three books and possibly in four or five. Then I want to write an intellectual history of environmentalism, a book on rebels against the Raj (a follow-up to my biography of Verrier Elwin), a cricketing memoir, and one or two other books whose themes it is premature even to mention now. Of course I will not be fit and able to do all of this—and I might die of cardiac arrest tomorrow. A writer is permitted his dreams—and fantasies.

DP: Do you find research more rewarding than writing?

RG: In some ways, yes, since you don’t know what you will find in the archives. The thrill of discovering a new letter in an old file is something which still moves me thirty years on.  Every time I approach the Manuscripts Section of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library or the Reading Room of the British Library, I am brought back to my boyhood, when my step would quicken and my heart beat faster as I entered the stadium on the morning of a Test match. I can’t understand historians who outsource their archival research  to research assistants—but then they must get their thrills elsewhere.

DP: Most of the essays in Patriots and Partisans have been published (in shorter form) before. Why did you choose these particular pieces for the book? 

RG: For several reasons. First, they seemed to cohere around two broad themes—democracy and intellectual life. Second, they were each of substantial length, allowing me to make an argument and illustrate or defend it. I should add that even the pieces published before have been extensively revised and rewritten for the book.

DP: Have the themes or subjects that you particularly enjoy writing about changed over the years? 

RG: I started as an environmental historian, and then moved into social and political history. Along the way I got diverted into the social history of sport. When I began I had a more sociological perspective on history; now, a more biographical approach.  But underlying all of this has been a consistent, common preoccupation (or obsession)—understanding the encounter of an ancient, rural-based and hierarchy-obsessed society with the impulses and institutions of the modern world. I am a historian of India’s troubled and fascinating, emancipatory and painful, encounter with modernity, who has focused on different aspects of this encounter at different periods of his professional life.

DP: When you’re writing something, do you have a reader in mind? Does the question of whether a reader will enjoy what you’re writing concern you when you’re writing a book or an article?

RG: Yes and no.  A historian writes to please as well as  instruct, so must convey the depth of his research in lucid and (if he is skilled enough) elegant prose. But he must never doctor his ideas or his narrative to the needs (real or imagined) of a particular reader or group of readers.

DP: What is the most difficult part of writing about India? 

RG: Having merely not one life, not many. It is a privilege to be a historian  (or a novelist, or playwright, or film-maker) in India, in this large, diverse, complex country simultaneously undergoing a social, political, economic and cultural revolution.

DP: You’ve written about the angry responses that you get from both the left and right wing. We’ve seen a fair degree of self-censorship in recent times because there’s anxiety about reactions from the right wing in particular. Have the responses you’ve received ever impacted how or what you write? Do you feel self-censorship is justified in the current climate?

RG: No. But a writer must always be careful in what he says and how he says it. He must support his ideas with solid research. He must convey his ideas in as clear and logical a manner as is possible within his own limitations. I revise the manuscript of a book five or six times before I allow a publisher to publish it. I print out a draft of every newspaper column and edit and rewrite it closely. I am not on Twitter or Facebook because those can so easily become the vehicle of careless, ill-considered, remarks.

DP: Do you hope to convince those who don’t agree with your point of view with your writing? It seems you have some regular dissenters. Does it bother you that they haven’t “seen the light”?

RG: Not at all. But truth be told, I have converted quite a few! For example, very many people have written to me saying a reading of ‘India after Gandhi’ made them see some merit in the much-maligned Nehru.

DP: Reading Patriots and Partisans, I couldn’t help but feel that debate in the past — particularly in the realm of politics — was a more educated affair than what we have now.

RG: The decline of Parliament has much to do with this. When screaming and chair-throwing replaces reasoned debate among the leaders we send to the Lok Sabha, other Indians will be inspired to likewise replace argument with abuse.

DP: Despite all the problems that you write about in Patriots and Partisans, there’s a sense of hope in the book.

RG: I am glad you noticed the sense of hope amidst all the sharp and sometimes savage criticism of some Indians and some Indian institutions. I love this country and would like to see it a less discontented place.

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