June 18, 2021
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The Storyteller-Historian

Classically brilliant essays on everything from plaster saints to cricket

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The Storyteller-Historian
An Anthropologist Among The Marxists....
By Ramachandra Guha
Permanent Black Rs : 267; Pages : 395
Collected journalism is that tired old label for the regurgitated perorations of some of the biggest bores and windbags of our time. It is the publisher’s repackaged rip-off for major ego-trippers; burnt-out hacks, dons and bureaucrats having a shot at a second career. Most of all, the art of the essay is dead in India, perhaps because there is no sustained tradition of journals such as The New Yorker, Spectator or the New York Review of Books to uphold it.

It’s a broad field, ranging from memoir to belles-letters, profiles to polemic and Ramachandra Guha is the remarkable exception with range. He derives the title from Bernard Cohn’s An Anthropologist Among Historians. Although a sociologist by training, Guha’s interests are so varied and his enthusiasms so intense, from Gandhi to cricket to ecological history, that he’s a bit like those gifted Victorian amateurs who put professionals to shame.

From the very first sentence of his introductory essay—Inside every thinking Indian there is a Gandhian and a Marxist struggling for supremacy—he has you hooked, taking you through the byways of the central political debate of modern India, a debate that the clamour of the new century has failed to drown. But Guha is neither pedantic hack nor arid library hawk; he is a storyteller bursting from the historian’s straitjacket, a man who came to investigate the lesser or greater heroes of India via his hero-worship of cricketers. And so the sociologist sifting through faceless aggregates learned...to write of individuals beyond the boundary too, to write of politicians and saints and scholars.

His liberation from the academy seems complete. Reading Guha is like listening to a thrilling broadcast by Alaistair Cooke. The musty Marxist arguments at the iim or the feted atmosphere of Jadunath Bhawan of Calcutta of the ’80s come as alive as the cast of academics that inhabited them. No fiction by Amitav Ghosh or Amit Chaudhuri has evoked with such brevity and wit the soul of a real place, real people. Guha’s cabinet of curiosities yields a fascinating rummage through wonderful characters. In"The Use and Abuse of Gandhi", he offers portraits of Gandhi’s biographers and European acolytes, and also a sharp debunking of Vinoba Bhave, the sarkari sant of Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency rule. (Bhave’s memoirs, Moved by Love...could...have been called Moved by Myself). Shedding the cloak of academic objectivity but mindful of its research tools, he tackles Arun Shourie over the Gandhi vs Ambedkar dispute: "Practiced in the arts of over-kill and over-quote, Shourie is a pamphleteer parading as a historian... Entire chapters (of Worshipping False Gods) are based on one or other volume of the Transfer of Power, the collection of official papers put out some years ago by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. The editor of that series, Nicholas Mansergh, might claim co-authorship of Shourie’s book. In a just world he would be granted a share of the royalties too." Portraits without a point of view are flat, but these are pictures in the round, affectionate, malicious but always thought about and felt. Among others, there is a very funny account of Khushwant Singh’s political infatuation with Sanjay Gandhi and a very moving profile of M. Krishnan, the late naturalist and pioneer nature columnist. Guha’s faceted little gem shows that light is beginning to glint on Indian non-fiction.

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