Words of Wisdom: Find your calling, stay curious and live with passion to do justice, says historian Jagtar Singh Grewal
To understand the present, it’s important to understand the past, says Chandigarh-based historian Jagtar Singh Grewal. At 91, he has no regrets and is satisfied he found his calling and did justice to it.
“I turned to history rather late in life. I was studying math and physics at Forman Christian College, Lahore, but after Partition, my father could only afford to send me to a government college in Ludhiana. I did postgraduation in English and geography,” says Grewal.
College meant cycling 10km from Dhandra village in Raikot where his father had been reallotted land. The youngest of five children, he was inspired by his father, who was well read in traditional literature. “He knew the Guru Granth Sahib by heart and had read the Mahabharata in Urdu. I was introduced to poetry by professor Mohan Singh and Amrita Pritam, the two most important contemporary poets of the last century,” he says.
Grewal participated in debates and loved football. His teachers suggested he take a shot at the civil services, which he did but missed the administrative and police services by a whisker. He made it to the audit and accounts training in Nagpur.
Be a seeker
“It’s there that I realised that my heart lay in history not accounts. Everything is connected. If history is about time, geography is about space. Physics is just as relevant. When Isaac Newton formulated the laws of motion, he challenged contemporary wisdom with rationality. Reading Greek and Latin classics in English offered a broad view of civilisation. Studying Persian and Urdu in school at Lyallpur helped understand medieval history better,” he says.
After quitting the audit service and joining Government College, Hoshiarpur, to study history in 1954, Grewal realised that he was influenced by Partition and wanted to know more about the cultural interchange between Hindus and Muslims. So he focused on the social and cultural history of the medieval period.
On the advice of his professor, he went to the University of Durham in the UK and taught at a school while researching on how Sufism in India had been treated by European scholars. “I just followed my heart and ended up doing a PhD in 1963 on British historical writing on medieval India. It was published by Oxford University Press in 1970 as Muslim Rule in India: The assessments of British historians.”
Return of the native
In 1964, then Panjab University vice-chancellor AC Joshi met Grewal in the UK after which he joined as a lecturer in the history department. He served PU for seven years before joining Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. “I had an offer from Jawaharlal Nehru University too, but it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small one in a big pond,” he says with a gentle smile.
He retired from the GNDU after serving as its vice-chancellor from 1981-84 before going on to join the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, as its director. “It was my highest ambition to become a university teacher,” says the prolific writer, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2005 for his contribution to Indian literature.
On the state of academics today, he says pay grades have improved but it’s not rejuvenated interest. To drive home his point, he quotes his favourite poet, Ghalib: “shauq har rang raqeeb-e-sar-o-saamaan niklaa. qais tasveer ke parde mein bhee uriyaan niklaa’’ (To be well possessed and having all the material wealth is an enemy of passion and desire. One can be passionate only or one can be of good possession only as both these qualities are enemies of each other).”
Grewal, who retired as a national fellow of the Indian Council of Historical Research, likes the solitude of Chandigarh. “I’ve limited needs. This city can leave you alone if you wish. It gives me time with books,” he adds.