June 29, 2020
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Turn Of The Pen

With a masterly biography, itinerant scholar-writer Ramachandra Guha spins into a higher orbit

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Turn Of The Pen

It isn’t easy to toss one up to Ramachandra Guha. Try something on the pros of a mega-hydel dam, try something with a looping trajectory about Chipko being a localised protest revolving on timber politics, a sharp turner on Gandhi’s hypocrisy, he’ll play it all with panache. Endless polemic, restless discoursing, constantly bouncing off book and column ideas, animatedly talking of a rejoinder to a newspaper article that has to be written, in Guha one can see a perennial uncoiling of ideas.

OK, his ganglia are wired up that way. Maybe that explains why Guha, 41, environmentalist, historian, social anthropologist, cricket freak, columnist, visiting professor and writer of eight books, should be so childishly fascinated with everything he dabbles in. He’ll tell you the names of four other Christians who played cricket for Pakistan before Yousuf Youhana and then perhaps go on to elucidate the role of minorities in shaping subcontinental cricket. Guha is now passing through mid-life euphoria. He is on the verge of releasing his eighth book, Savaging the Civilised: Verrier Elwin, his Tribals and India ( Oxford), a wrenching and grand biography in the classical mould, which sounds the gong for the coming of age of the modern Indian biography. In the largeness of the theme, in the writer’s tireless effort to get into the mind and soul of his subject, in the way he contextualises a forgotten British intellectual who loved India and its tribals more than his religion, in the ease with which he straddles disciplines to grasp a prolific, difficult persona, in the finesse of language and execution, this book is beyond all other Indian attempts at life-sketching.

Verrier Elwin represents the flowering of a prose cultivated, re fined and value-added over two decades of endless writing. "Its chiselled prose blends high levels of intellection and language," says his publisher, editor and guide of two decades, Rukun Advani, who compares it with S. Gopal’s Radhakrishnan biography. Guha picks an ignored, oft-condemned Britisher who lived in the backyards of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, penned tomes on the Gonds, Baigas, the Murias, and gives him a space and a heart. Like in all such great stories of men that have come to us, here too a sort of telepathic oneness—a merging of persona— between author and subject lifts the book to ethereal levels.

When Guha first heard of Elwin from a friend in Orissa  in ’78, he recalls an instant spark of affinity. Elwin—an Oxford scholar with a yen for Gandhi and a thing or two against colonial forestry—was a charmer, a restless, compulsive writer (so much so, his first tribal wife Kosi said she’d married a typewriter) and an anthropologist with a deep love for India. One more likeness: both Elwin and Guha were scholars who remained aloof from the accoutrements of academia. "I’ve no patron in the academic community," Guha says with the pride of an outsider. Elwin rebelled against two of his religions: Christianity and Gandhi. Guha walked out on Marxism, to which he owes much intellectually—and, for a while, rejected cricket too.

Elwin’s voluminous oeuvre, including an autobiography, helped Guha prise open his psyche. After two decades of searching, reaching out, struggling, Guha—shortened from the Tamil Guhan—can confidently link his hands with the few other arrivistes of Indian English writing. "I want to be a writer, a historian," he says, as if he hasn’t yet reached there. "Ram is always clear and lucid. He doesn’t try to impress through mystification. You know what he’s saying," says good friend and St Stephen’s contemporary Mukul Kesavan.

Guha doesn’t hop fashionable topics like academics are wont to, but pursues his game only if he develops a writer’s crush on his subject. "It’s mostly centred around people. He’s impatient of intolerance, of any attempt to deny people space," says Kesavan. Guha was researching the Pentangular cricket tournaments (which began in ’37) when he came across the story Palwankar Baloo in a clipping and detoured to research the life of the Dalit cricketer, the first public figure from among the untouchables to emerge in western India, according to Guha. As in Elwin’s case, it was love at first word .

The subject of Guha’s doctoral thesis, the history of the Chipko movement, published as Unquiet Woods, (Oxford, now in its sixth edition) was the offshoot of an ’83 EPW article. "A crude Marxist history of forestry in colonial India, it was the first time anybody had talked of these things," Guha remembers now. In Dehra Doon Forest Institute, where his father worked, he met Madhav Gadgil with whom he was to form a memorable intellectual partnership and co-author The Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India.

While ruminating on the injustices of the forest policy, his fascination for another kind of timber, the willow, was gnawing at him. He played cricket for St Stephen’s, his family had a passion for the game, an uncle still runs a cricket club in Bangalore. When Ashish Nandy’s Tao of Cricket was out, it provoked Guha to write the sociology of Indian cricket. It also set him off on a tangential writing career which is now three books rich. "Rukun nudged me towards it," says Guha, gratefully.

In Wickets of the East, Guha mused on things beyond the pitch—the predominantly Iyengar composition of crowds at Chepauk, the Madras locality Triplicane bang next to it. His second book, Spin and Other Turns, was pure escapism, written in a state of trauma after the Ayodhya demolition. "I’m not an activist, but I was devastated. I just kept staring at the walls." Then, in a blinding fit he wrote Spin and Other Turns in two weeks. For him it was therapy, for fans—with its blend of a grandstand spectator’s spontaneous glee and a sense of tradition—it was elixir.

Guha swears by C.L.R. James, whose Beyond the Boundary he has read 30 times—once as he came home with his first born, trying to grapple with fatherhood. "I’m steeped in James. He made modern cricket. I can never dream of being inspired by him. He’s unique."

Hearing Guha speak animatedly for two hours on the lawns of Delhi’s St Stephen’s—pacing to his left, stomping to his right—on the history of environmental protests in India, on anything and everything, one sees a logic behind his inquietude. "There’s a complete unity in what I’m doing," he says. His three cricket books do have a pattern, the first on local cricket, the second on great Indian cricketers and another on great foreign cricketers who played here .

It’s been a hectic day but Guha won’t rest early. Pulling together the lapels of his blazer against the winter chill, he sets off on a walk. He’ll bounce ideas off the wind and return with another theory in his grasp. Maybe the nucleus of another book.

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