It's day after the cricket World Cup final and Ramachandra Guha has just returned the day before from London after a tiring book tour. But as he semi-sprawls on the sofa of his Lavelle Road living room in Bangalore, he seems anything but tired. “The moment Gilchrist scored his century, I switched off the TV and went to sleep.”
Piled up next to the wall farthest from where we’re sitting lies the reason why he was in London and I am in Bangalore. From the distance, they look like Gore Vidal novels — fat, heavy and in dull gold jackets. You look closer and the wide spine of each copy reads, India After Gandhi, his latest book and what he says without a shred of irony, “the most important book I’ve written and will ever write”.
Which is why I am surprised when Guha tells me that writing books — never mind history books — wasn’t part of his original plan. “In my early 20s, I was serious about playing cricket for India. That didn’t happen. I failed in cricket and
economics. So I studied sociology.” The possibility of Guha having played alongside fellow Bangalorean Roger Binny instead of being arguably India’s finest non-fiction writer, tickles the ‘What if ?’ weekend historian in me.
In 1980, Guha went to the village of Mandal in the Garhwals to study the Chipko movement. He met the village pradhan, who told him that this was not the first time that locals were protesting there against deforestation. In 1906, the pradhan told him, an Englishman by the name of Wyndham had come to the village representing the State. But the villagers drove him away after branding him with a cattle prong on his forehead. Guha later checked archival material but found nothing about any Wyndham in 1906. But he did find the same narrative in the archives — except there was no Englishman but an Indian officer being chased away much after 1906. “In a way, that pradhan got me into history. I realised that I didn’t like talking to people as much as I liked reading archives. But I couldn’t have written this book without my training in sociology.”
So I ask the Man of the Great Indoors how he got a ‘handle’ on something as mammoth and slippery as the history of post-Independence India. “I had written an essay, ‘Cricket and Politics in Colonial India’ for the November 1998 issue of the history journal, Past and Present. Out of the blue, I got a call from Picador India that Peter Strauss [then Picador publisher, now literary agent] wanted to meet me for breakfast at the Imperial [hotel in Delhi]. He had read the essay
and wanted me to do a history of India book. It was completely his idea.”
Eight years — and a lifetime’s work — later, there’s India After Gandhi. The book, despite its sweeping narrative, is filled with the voices of individuals. “It’s something that I learnt from my mentor, the historian E P Thompson. In his The Crime of Anonymity, he lets 18th century Englishmen simply speak for themselves through their letters. Thompson was a great believer of letting the primary text do the talking. So, as a historian, I’m really a moderator letting all these incredible voices speak. I had to cut 40,000 words from the book! They were all quotes.”
It is this importance given to individuals that sets Guha apart from many other historians who would rather use quotations as props in their grand narrative. For Guha, Nehru, Ambedkar, Patel, Rajagopalachari, Sheikh Abdullah, Master Tara Singh, Phizo, Shastri, Potti Sriramulu, JP, Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi have all become dramatis personae in a continuing epic called India.
“It was because of the founding fathers that an entity with different religions, cultures and languages somehow coalesced into a nation. We have been partly successful in our religious pluralism. But the greatest success story, unprecedented in the world, is our success with linguistic pluralism.”
The book is really an explanation and a riposte to all those Western naysayers who expected India to scatter after the initial Nehruvian years. The dangers to the existence of India, Guha points out, came from three alternate visions of India, “The Right-wing RSS vision of a ‘Hindu Pakistan’; the communist opposition to Independent India in 1948 when, if you remember, the CPI declared war against the government of India not accepting India’s independence; and the various secessionist movements.”
But didn’t the greatest danger to India as a democratic nation come from within, from yet another individual: the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi?
“Absolutely. Not only did she turn the astoundingly democratic machinery of the Congress Party into a feudal entity breeding nepotism, but she was also responsible for turning the Congress and political culture in this country into what it is now.”
Guha holds both Indira Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan responsible for the Emergency. “JP wanted to do away with the State, while Indira did away with democracy. Both were coming from extreme positions, both personally as well as politically.”
For Guha, the significant failure of India has been its inability to provide its citizens primary education and healthcare. He doesn’t spare his hero for this major lapse. “One can’t get away from the fact that Nehru, with his socialist ideals, failed here. He simply got his priorities wrong.”
The plethora of voices in India After Gandhi makes the book read like a novel. That sets Guha off. “Well, my friends have always told me to write a novel. I even thought up of a plot, but then gave up. My heroes, including Verrier Elvin, E P Thompson and C L R James, all wrote a novel. But they sank without a trace. So...” He lets out a laugh and then mentions that he gets little time for fiction, but reads Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk and Ian McEwan.
“You get a much better idea of Victorian England by reading a page of Dickens than by reading any history book,” he says with dead seriousness. As for the other arts? When it comes to the visual medium, he confesses being “a total ignoramus”. His only ‘vice’ is Indian classical music — although he does mention that his American publisher is also coming out with Rolling Stone Ron Wood’s autobiography in the next few months and that he used to listen to some early Stones.
Inside his study — “where I do all my writing” — I am surrounded by a cupboardful of green volumes of Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, a biography of English biologist J B Haldane peeking from behind another glass bookcase, piles of books and miscellaneous papers and a white Apple Mac notebook. I sense order within chaos. Not at all unlike the subject of his latest book.