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Editing A Writing Machine

The academic can complicate what seems simple even while simplifying the seemingly complex­—that’s what made Ram Guha a pioneer of sorts as a writer of history

Editing A Writing Machine
Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
Editing A Writing Machine

It may be best for me not to begin my recollections of Ramachandra Guha along the standard template that recommends the phrase “The first time I met...” The reason is that our first meeting was inconsequential. Apparently we met on a college badminton court 44 years ago, around July 1974. Since Ram didn’t go on from this badminton court to become Deepika Padukone’s father, this first encounter’s location, at least, was not an augury of the direction of Ram’s future fame.

I have no idea what Ram was doing near a badminton court in the mid-1970s because his interests lay in a corner of a different field, the cricket pitch. His agenda even then was anti-Hindutva, though it took a peculiar shape as it had got mixed up with his interest in cricket. His aim in those days was to disprove the Hindu idea of reincarnation by circumventing his own afterlife through becoming either Bishen Singh Bedi or Erapalli Prasanna in this life. Failing either of those two options, he seemed to have resig­ned himself to a third, which was to become Gundappa Vishwanath.

Since I was not passionate about cricket, for the remainder of our college years Ram and I lived proximate lives without ever coming close. I knew roughly who he was, and I also knew precisely what ‘type’ he was—he was what was called in those days a ‘sports type’. This knowledge was a subconscious certainty somewhere inside me that if there was a fellow in our college who was never going to amount to anything intellectually, his name was Ram Guha. He would develop his muscles, grow into a hunk, even perhaps wear a turban, and the climax of his aspiration would be to draw Viv Richards out of the crease and bowl him round his legs. In short, to my mind Ram Guha was someone who could be safely written off and forgotten about.

I was not alone in thinking this way about Ram. The college we went to was full of bright people, who were all mostly determined to join the IAS, and they too seemed to think Ram didn’t stand much chance of becoming a bureaucrat. In an ironic way, and for the wrong reasons, they were quite right. We all thought Ram would never make it into the bureaucracy because he seemed keener on the square drive than the intellectual drive, less interested in his present IAS prospects than the future prospects of E.A.S. Prasanna. But the real reason, which perhaps no one saw, was that Ram was too restless, too passionate, too wayward, and too interested in too many things—playing bridge, participating in quizzes, and casually chasing as many women as possible—to fit into the Procrustean mould that shapes most bureaucrats.

So I forgot Ram quite comprehensively for many years ­until sometime in the mid-1980s, when we ran into each ­other at the wedding of a friend we had in common. I was then an editor at Oxford University Press (OUP) and Ram seemed keen to woo me with his passion for the PhD in sociology he had been working on at IIM, Calcutta. I expressed interest in hearing what he had been up to and invited him to drop in at OUP. Some time later, Ram arrived in my office to discuss the book he had in mind. What Ram didn’t know was that I had only invited him to OUP out of sheer curiosity—over why this man who I recalled as Bedi’s failed reincarnation had been so animated about some Garhwali village where, app­arently, village women had taken to embracing tree trunks. Had his failure to make it to the Indian Test team as a spin bowler bowled him clean out of his own mind?

You can imagine my surprise at our meeting, during which a man I had by now mentally certified as a lunatic at a loose end started telling me about how subaltern studies had helped him understand narratives of dissent that were forged at a great distance from nationalism. He spoke also of E.P. Thompson and someone called Sartono Kartodirdjo, a name so alien and impossible to pronounce that it could only be the name of some exalted foreign academic. Difficult as it was to comprehend, the realisation slowly dawned on me that the man in my office had turned himself into a scholar. It seemed a bad case of spin taking another turn: the Ram I had seen worship at the altar of Bedi and Vishwanath was now worshipping at the altar of Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna. It was a transformation nearly inconceivable because it was so unanticipated and so absolute. I did not foresee then that this was only the first of several radical changes of direction in Ram’s intellectual life.

Nor was The Unquiet Woods—Ram’s first book, published by the OUP in 1989—something that either I or anyone else at the time could have seen for what it was: the starting point of the unusually variegated career of a writer and intellectual. My recollection of the book itself is still fairly sharp, for the reason that it was written in accessible prose of an unusual clarity. Having edited the early subaltern studies volumes and Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, I was just about getting used to the somewhat arcane terms in this kind of Indian history-writing about protest and dissent, the only readable exception to the general trend being the writing of David Hardiman.

Ram’s prose seemed to me modelled roughly on the template Hardiman had followed, which could be traced back to Thompson, one of the most important thinkers when trying to establish Ram’s intellectual genealogy. For my humdrum editorial purposes when facing the script of Ram’s first book, this was a wonderful lineage as it emphasised a vital interpenetration of complexity of thought and clarity of expression, which basically meant that I as editor had to do very little work as far as straightening out prose was concerned.

In fact, in Ram’s writing ever since I have found very little that needs straightening out because he instinctively stays clear of obscurity. In his first monograph, though matters were frequently complex and complicated, the prose was never gratuitously complicating issues into arguments and analyses that could only be unravelled and properly understood by an intellectual elite already immersed in the literature. Ram was writing even then for seriously interested and ordinarily intelligent readers. This partly accounts for the considerable success even of his first book, despite it being on a specialised subject.

Since I edited at about the same time Shahid Amin’s first book—about peasants who harvested sugarcane whereas Ram’s was about peasants who opposed the harvesting of trees—I remember thinking of the similarities and contrasts between the two. The similarities are clear: both Sugarcane and Sugar and The Unquiet Woods are important monographs in their areas (though Ram’s work seems more pioneering because forest history had not been done whe­r­eas the agricultural economy had); both authors knew their fields from the inside, in the anthropological sense, even while writing histories of peasant life.

The central contrast, from the editorial perspective, however, is clearer: getting into the world of Amin’s peasants entails an intellectual struggle for the non-specialist and the non-academic reader, whereas getting into the world of Ram Guha’s protesting peasants is, for the same kind of reader, not difficult at all. The obvious conclusion for me as an editor, then, was that Ram Guha was likely to be the historian as wri­ter, while Shahid Amin was always going to be an inspiration only to other historians. This is in no way to belittle academic writing, because much academic writing can, of course, only be in a language that is by consensus best suited to convey information of an esoteric nature to specialists and the learned, and which might be seriously diluted if too much effort were put into making it generally accessible. In the Indian context, though, I realised through Ram, that academic prose is rather commonplace—in both senses of the word—whereas it is rare to find a genuinely archive-besotted scholar who can write literary prose for a non-scholarly readership.

In this sense, Ram was pioneering in a second way: he had not only moved from sports to peasants, he had also honed a style of writing about them that most other Indian scholars had either no capacity for, nor much inclination towards. A little later, it also became clear to me as an editor that first-rate scholarly minds with a literary bent, who write accessible prose and whose books sometimes sell in decent numbers—Sunil Khilnani, Mukul Kesavan, Nayanjot Lahiri, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Harjot Singh Oberoi, Srinath Raghavan et al—are looked on with suspicion by some of their colleagues, because the hegemonic axiom of the academic world is that scholars must complicate what seems simple.

Ram, on the other hand, was trying out the Thompsonian alternative in what seemed to me a novel way in the context of Indian history. His writing seemed based on the assumption that the academic can complicate what seems simple even while simplifying what seems complicated. This underlying theory is I think central to understanding the nature of Ram’s prose, which took Indian academic writing out of its long confinement within academia. From my admittedly limited editorial perspective, I see Ram as having spawned academics such as Oberoi, Lahiri and many more, who, in the wake of the example set by The Unquiet Woods—and without doubt of the example of other similar books they may have later read—wrote wonderfully readable monographs.

For any editor who wants to make books that sell in large numbers, which is what every editor wants, chancing upon a writer among the anthropologists is to hit upon a gem of purest ray serene. I’m not sure how clearly it is seen outside editorial offices that, when Ram wrote The Unquiet Woods, he was pioneering not just Indian environmental history, but also a somewhat new way of writing an Indian monograph. Because I am an editor and tend to think of books as belonging to particular stylistic genres, I see that, before the arrival of Ram’s first book, the great Indian monographs were Sumit Sarkar’s Swadeshi Movement and Irfan Habib’s Agrarian System, both solid tomes in an altogether different style. True, historians of an older generation such as Ashin Dasgupta, S. Gopal, Tapan Raychaudhuri and Ranajit Guha were prose writers whose work showed their immersion not just in Marx and Gramsci, but also Tagore and Shakespeare—but such people remained inspiring essentially within acade­mic portals and their work, excluding Gopal’s excellent biography of his father, stayed strictly within the boundaries of the ivory tower.

Though it is possible to trace in Ram’s work Gopal’s inspiring example as biographer of both Nehru and Radhakrishnan, it would still have to be said that, unlike Ram, no one in the earlier generation of Indian historians—not even Gopal—caused such a considerable and influential outward expansion of historical prose. The truth of this is evident merely by listing the many genres within which Ram’s historical knowledge took root: the popular biography, the large synthesising text, the short historical memoir, the punchy feuilleton, sports history, political polemic, and the memorable newspaper op-ed.

His independent-mindedness gradually became more and more evident in the fact that he was never afraid of venturing into what were considered the bylanes of history not worth exploring. He explored them, and in doing so showed others new directions. In a sense, only after Ram’s Elwin and Gandhi, for example, could you have Lahiri’s Ashoka, as well as numerous scholarly biographies that are now also striving to become popular biographies. In this special sense, as the forefather of a style of writing, Ram indirectly enabled several Indian scholars to make something like a decent supplementary income from their scholarship. If I had some hand in giving him a leg up in that direction, I am happy to take a small portion of the blame.

Other things followed from my early apprehension of Ram’s writing abilities, and by other things I mean other books by Ram. Once an editor knows that the historian he has on his hands is a writer for possibly large audiences and not a scholar who will write largely for historians, it becomes mainly a matter for the editor to make­encouraging noises every time the writer says he wants to write on Topic X or Topic Y. This, at least, was the policy I followed with Ram. Some time after The Unquiet Woods, he said he had quite a lot of journalistic stuff on Indian cricket and cricketers. Sure enough, I soon got the script of his first cricket history, Wickets in the East: An Anecdotal History, another book I recall as not requiring editorial inputs. The subtitle may seem facetious, but it may not be stretching a point, to say there was also something new about this kind of titling.

Ram Guha with his wife

Historians in India did not write sports history; nor, if they intended being serious, did they write proper histories that they then advertised as ‘anecdotal’. Ram may not have realised it at the time, but in retrospect it looks to me like he was cocking his first snook at academic prose. I think the day will come when some student of English studies will, deploying Lacan and Saussure, examine Wickets in the East as a subconscious Freudian attempt by Ram to parody the prose of scholars, even perhaps to say out loud that though he hadn’t succeeded in becoming an economist and though he hadn’t got his doctorate from Oxbridge or Harvard, he would show them he could write casual scholarly history of a kind they hadn’t even conceived of in India.

It is often asserted that so and so budding writer was ‘discovered’ by so and so great editor, and a fair number of these great editors have made their careers by listing the budding writers they apparently discovered. From what I have outlined above, it should be plain that I discovered no budding writer in Ram Guha. We found each other. And at the time we did, he was pretty full-budded, so to speak, and his resemblance to a flower that would soon be in full bloom was not in doubt. My own experience suggests that budding writers arrive at editorial offices and the editor sitting there is in luck if they later happen to become famous and hand them over books that sell in large numbers. Ram Guha was from the word go rather like an unstoppable force, a volcano spilling over with more ideas for books that he wanted to write than his brain was able to contain.

In addition to spilling the beans on all these future books of his, he also had the pleasant habit of trying out on me all the possible titles that these books might one day have. Sometimes he would call on the phone and the entire phonecall could become an over half-an-hour discussion on the absolutely appropriate title of a book that he intended writing five years after our conversation. The man was bursting with unwritten books that were springing unbidden out of him.

For me, as his editor, there was something quite soothing about his frenzy over matters so far off, because there was no immediate script to worry about and convert into a book. It is naturally much easier for editors to cluck in sympathy over scripts that are unwritten and in the realm of dreams. The advantage is also that the author hears editorial clucking as a sign that his collected works have been accep­ted. In Ram’s case, my clucking did, in fact, indicate that I was willing to sign on, there and then, his collected works.

From the word go, Ram was a volcano ­spilling over with more ideas for books to write than his brain was able to contain.

A related point I would like to stress is that if sheer chance had not made sure I happened to be the editor sitting in that OUP office, he would have met some other editor there and been published with as much success. No 18th-century publisher could have stopped publishing Mozart’s frenetic outpouring, and no 20th-century editor could have done anything other than publish the flurry of fine books that Ram was throwing at him. In this sense, my feeling is that the exceptional writer isn’t ever discovered by an editor—he merely throws himself into the arms of an editor, who then becomes an octopus and embraces the writer for good, making sure never to let go.

This is not the same thing as saying that Ram’s books would have been identical under any editorial hand. Of course, every editor brings his particular skills and distinctive perspective to every book he edits, and it is generally true that, like a valued hair-dresser, a valued editor can, for long stretches, be thought irreplaceable by the generously grateful author. In that sense, I think Ram and I hit it off beautifully, and he felt he could flick everything I threw at him with the finesse of Vishwanath executing a square cut. So he stuck with me, for which I was grateful, because the OUP was finding it easier to sell his books than most of its other academic titles.

Ours was what is called in academic terminology a symbiotic relationship. In publishing, this is a bonding of mutual benefit between author and editor. This symbiotic relationship that Ram and I established with The Unquiet Woods continued for perhaps 25 and more years. It included the time over which he changed from an environmental historian to a cricket writer to a sociologist to a biographer to an anthologist to a writer of the advanced synthesising text called This Fissured Land to an essayist, in no particular order.

The nice thing for me was that while Ram was intellectually diversifying and changing and reincarnating himself in all these astounding ways, he remained at an emotional level consistently affectionate and sentimental, always taking the lead in a friendship we both cherished and sustained through regular letters and emails. If I were to start detailing the very many ways in which he helped me—mainly on account of his enthusiastic commitment to the editor who had published his first book—I would end up with a very large memoir. But I will say, in brief, that Ram became a kind of propagandist for OUP and for me, so that a very considerable number of writers and books that I later published and made money out of were directed to me by his boundless propaganda campaigns in our favour. After Anuradha Roy and I started Permanent Black, we often recalled how Ram was among our closest supporters and went far out of his way to ensure that we were never short of books to publish, those by him as well as those by writers who listened to his advice.

It seems ironic to me, therefore, that rather than editors attributing their success to writers, it is writers who more often attribute so much of their success to their first editor. Sometimes this can be for good reason, especially in the area of fiction writing, where the number of writers is large and the number of high-class editors and presses quite small. Fiction writers are, therefore, repeatedly turned down, and when in the end a press accepts them, they are over the moon. But this situation has nearly no connection with the original publication of the book with which my relationship with Ram began, and which, thanks to his sentimental generosity, remains to this day, in its new edition, in print with Permanent Black.

There are two reasons why I think Ram’s attribution of some of his writerly success to me is overgenerous. Firstly, it would have been obvious to any sort of history editor that Ram’s first book was an unusually competent monograph, which, on account both of its original theme and unusually cogent style, could hardly fail to embellish any serious academic history list. Secondly, OUP, in the mid-1980s, had no serious competitor when it came to scholarly publishing. Ravi Dayal had made its stature virtually unassailable, so, even if Ram had wanted to publish elsewhere, there was no real elsewhere to go to. All academics in those days, from Amartya Sen to M.N. Srinivas to Ranajit Guha, headed straight to the OUP, and I think Ram came into my life because he really had no choice in the matter.

More important, though, were the vibes between Ram and me. We just instinctiv­ely liked each other very much, and this, in my experience, is crucial to the making of books. The author and editor have to hit it off and feel easy and happy in each other’s company, and this has been the central feature of my relationship with Ram. It made the making of his books both pleasurable and easy. If I asked him to clarify or modify or explain or expand or delete, he was receptive. If I had an extraneous literary idea, which I sugges­ted might be squeezed into something he had written to make it look brighter, he mostly looked delighted and made the insertion. If he asked me to read several versions of a script he was writing and then revising and re-revising, I was happy to.

I have published more books by Ram, and over a longer stretch of time, than I have anyone else’s. In my longish professional life as an editor and publisher, this relationship has been the most important I have had with an author. So, although I hope he writes many more books, and with equal or greater success, I also secretly hope he does not write so many that he grows even fonder of some of his future editors than he has been of me.

(The writer is India’s foremost publisher-editor who runs Permanent Black)

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