On Ramachandra Guha

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.

— John Ruskin


Every generation have its heroes, dead and alive. The dead are discovered by writing they left behind. Uninitiated people like me easily get curious about these famous people. Some of us might end up reading them. In these ‘connected’ times, it is much more easier to become famous than it has ever been, save mathematicians. Simply because only they can understand what they have written.

A newspaper named ‘New York Times’ which has the habit of using superlatives prefixed with words like ‘arguably’ and ‘probably’; and which like Harvard historians find it almost impossible to think beyond the nations of Atlantis, titled him ‘perhaps the best among India’s non fiction writers‘. Now I’ll never know why this newspaper uses weired superlatives when it can use fewer words to make the same point. May it is American culture, they will only consume the best.  Even it is ‘perhaps’ or ‘arguably’ best.

It is always dangerous to write about living beings. Not only because they might react to what one has written but one run the risk to get disillusioned should they do something wrong. Or worse, in future your own changed thinking might become incompatible with them. And since one can not undone what one have ‘done’ on-line, these words will haunt you back. Anyway few will deny the temptation of writing about people they admire (and thinking about people they fancy) even if my Indian instincts are better suited for censure and hate. This blog about him, with all its grammatical flaws and spelling mistakes, is account of my one sided acquaintanceship with him – of my readings of his writings. Unlike P. Sainath, I was not able to appreciate him when I read his ‘past and present’ column in Hindu’s Magazine first time. Since he was writing in Hindu, he must have been some authority in some area. Surely, this turned out be an underestimate but one should not charge me with ‘trivializing’ the depth of his mind since his articles in this magazine were not reflection of his mind but mostly his memoirs.

I was not fortunate enough to read him early in my college days since he wrote primarily for ‘Telegraph’ and ‘Outlook’ and I did not read any of them. I was a ‘Frontline’ and ‘Hindu’ guy. Fortunately in IIT, they will not brand you ‘Leftist’ for that. There was a significant charm in his column of ‘past and present’. For me, a teenager with troubled mind with certain dispositions about his future, his column was like what ‘peanuts’ were to America during great depression.  He gave plain truth, if at time it was sweetened with extra optimism, which open my eyes to a nation in which I was born and have been deeply ignorant. He did to me what Indian Ocean did to our music; opened up to the masses.

In March 2008, when I was a ‘matka‘ at IIT Bombay, I went to Crossword bookstore in Powai with Swapnil, a ‘Bhatka’ (B.Tech.) friend. Now in IIT, a M.Tech. and B. Tech. are an odd couple – whatever permutation of genders. It is unnatural for a M.Tech for having a B.Tech. friend and it is offensive and undermining for a B.Tech. to have a M.Tech as a friend. It kind of a caste system on the campus. After doing a comparative study of Bejan Daruwala’s work with others astrologers for 3-4 hours and picking the best of all of them about our zodiac signs, we were about to leave when I saw a book titled ‘India After Gandhi‘. I really don’t know what struck me, I borrowed Swapnil debit card and bought the book. I am not quite sure whether I paid him back!

This was the second book I bought from my own pocket money (if I have paid Swapnil back). The first one was Sainath’s masterpiece ‘Everyone loves a good drought‘ which Robin found depressing after finishing one page. Since this was second novelty in my life which was completely mine, I sat down to read few pages. I did not have much time. I had to pack for journey back home. But I read more than 40-50 pages. This is unexpected from an engineer. Despite of all claims of ‘padhe likhe log’, engineers show colossal hesitation for reading and writing unless there is exam or someone is paying them for it. Next day, I took train for my village with this book in my bag. I did not read this book on the journey, nor I pretended to read it. I spend my time in trains either by looking out of windows or sleeping. In village, the ‘akhand Ramyanan’ was going on. A loudspeaker, initially was a feature of Muslim mosque, is now a integral part of Hindu temples in my area, was making sure that people in nearby villages get to know who is doing this ‘akhand ramayana’. Hinduism have been like semiconductor slab, you can dope it with anything. It will absorb it rather than reject it. Now in villages, you can use only sunlight to read, I finished this book before they could finish their Ramayana – even though they have arrangements for night also. And trust me, it was better than ‘Harry Potter’. And yes, I have read Harry Potter, first 3 books.

Now book reviewer have said a lot about this book. I have seen some blogs written about this book. The power of his writing can be judges by an observation, ‘whoever read him wants to write like him’. When I gave this book to Nishant in office, and next week I asked him how much he have read it, he said, “I haven’t touched it. Dad is reading it for last 7 days. This is the first time, I am seeing him reading anything except medical reports.”

After finishing this book and rereading some parts of it many times after that, I ordered one more book with a scary title, “Anthropologists among the Marxists and other essays”. They ask never to judge a book by its cover, it turned out to be a truism. Now Outlook said  this about him while reviewing this book,

Reading Ram Guha is like listening to a trilling broadcast by Alistair Cooke … No fiction by Amitav Ghosh or Amit Chaudhary has evoked with such brevity and wit the soul of a real place, real people .. These are pictures in the round, affectionate, malicious people .. Guha’s faceted little gem shows that light is beginning to glint on Indian non-fiction.

Till now I have not seen him in person – not even on youtube. One day while searching his articles on Internet, I discovered that he has given a talk in Canada and the video is available on  youtube. I shared this video on this blog and after watching the video, I got carried away and wrote the following email to electrical engineering dept students.


Ramachandra Guha is author of an acclaimed book on modern Indian History,
"India After Gandhi". Recently, he gave a seminar at International Development
Research Center which is now available at youtube,
To my knowledge this video is his first talk available in public domain.

His articles can be found at http://www.indiatogether.org/opinions/ramguha/
as well as in a prominent Marxist Magazine http://www.epw.in

P. Sainath was Roman Magsaysay award 2007 winner for journalism. He is aut hor
of the book "Everyone loves a good drought - stories from the poorest district
of India". He is currently rural affairs editor at an estimable Indian
newspaper 'The Hindu'. His writings can be found at
http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/ as well
as at http://www.indiatogether.org/opinions/psainath/

His talks given in 2005 and later are available at

I hope few will consider this email Spam.

EE Dept.

Two reply came back. One was thankful to me for sharing these links. Another claimed that ‘he enjoyed it throughly’.  Now, 5 days back, on Dec 19, 2010, I was going to department to give ‘e-attendace’. You put your thumb on a electronic machine. It feels like being an illiterate since back in village ‘angootha chap log‘ means illiterate. It would be better if they let using fingers for that purpose (i.e. fingering the machine). Anyway, on the way to office, I saw an A4 size notice lying on the road, ‘Interactive session with Ramachandra Guha at FC Kohli Auditorium‘. On the way to FC Kohli auditorium, I was wondering how much part that email did play.

It was surprising to learn that IITans invited him. He agreed to come, I was thrilled. It started half an hour late since a quiz was going on in the room. During the session, students were more surprised than they were delighted. And never before I have seen so many IITans asking that many questions (with an exception of pre-placement talks of banks, but in per-capita basis he outperformed them too). One of the guy who responded to my email was sitting on the first bench with brand new ‘India after Gandhi‘ asked him, “Why Manmohan Singh is quiet all the time?” As usual, the most ridiculous sounding questions can only be satisfied with the wittiest answers. He gave after making sure that the conversation is not being recorded. Well, I have that in my music player. One day I might get the chance to blackmail him for a conversation. 

If one look at his works, his interests are as diverse as the country he was born in. Once a professor of us passed a remark during lecture, “These IITians, they want to touch everything.” Well, that is largely true for any Indian student. They wants to know something about everything. Still our universities  put a lot of premium on ‘specialization’ – ‘a form of semi-illiteracy’ as D D Koshambi used to call it. I can only think of only one Indian who, all of his life, have his mind only on one thing. This Indian was Ramanujan.

I couldn’t get mic to ask my question. All I wanted to ask him about ‘the makers of Ramachandra Guha’. Though he has written about them – contributor to his ‘intellectual growth’ – I missed the joy listening about them. Finally coming back to IIT Bombay for Ph.D. paid off. You don’t get to listen to these kind of people everyday – at least, off the Internet.

[1] His first available publication.

  I went bird watching with that well-known ornithologist Dr. Josef George. We first went to scrub Jungle on the way to the river and saw a solitary Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), the first Starling I have ever seen.

Then we sighted a longtailed Bazzard (Butio rufinus). We also saw a lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca) among the bushes.

— Master Ramachandra Guha, Aged 11, The Doon School


0 thoughts on “On Ramachandra Guha”

  1. My favorite is "Anthropologists among the Marxists and other essays". In writing biographies, he did not have to be 'non-biased'. And ideas and electrons moves in a fine direction when biased. He is best in this book. Its available on google book for free. One more is 'Corner of a foreign field'. Hope you'll enjoy them too.

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