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On The Whole, We Are A Much Freer Society Today: Ramachandra Guha

The author and historian opens up about Gandhi, cricket and RSS at his favourite Bangalore restaurant.

23/09/2016 5:20 PM IST | Updated 03/10/2016 10:14 AM IST
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It's 9 o' clock in the morning and Koshy's, on St Mark's Road in Bangalore, is barely open. But my guest, writer-historian Ramachandra Guha, and I are already there, seated at the table on the extreme left, which, Guha had told me in an email, is his favourite spot at the city's well-loved establishment.

"I first came to Koshy's in 1963, so I've been visiting this place for over 50 years now, though regularly from the 70s," he says, beckoning to a waiter. We place our orders. Poached eggs on toast for him, fried eggs for me. And, of course, coffee.

It's Ganesh Chaturthi, a public holiday in Karnataka, and our hope of having a quiet morning at the popular restaurant is soon crushed. Within minutes, the place is filled with families chattering away noisily, children throwing tantrums, young people with books and the odd guitar, and a few loners staring moodily at the unfolding spectacle.

A typical morning for Guha begins with work ("always after breakfast"), which stretches till lunch. He writes for another couple of hours in the afternoon, but seldom beyond 6 p.m. Evenings are for reading, listening to music or watching a Test match.

This routine, Guha tells me, started years ago, when his children were young, especially around the time his daughter began to go to playschool. "Some 15 or 20 years ago, I'd be thinking about work all the time," he says, "if I had an idea in the middle of the night, I'd get up to make notes, I'd even begin a column after dinner, but not any longer." Still, the only time Guha completely switches off is when he is on holiday or watching a Test match ("These days, I'm too exhausted to last for five days"), otherwise every day is a working day--Sundays, public holidays, nothing makes any difference. "In that sense, my work is my life," he adds.

It was the "extraordinary support" of his family, Guha says, and their decision to move to Bangalore over 20 years ago, that enabled him to cultivate his career as one of the leading public intellectuals of our time.

Guha's wife, Sujata Keshavan, is a renowned graphic designer and co-founder of the firm, Ray and Keshavan, while his son and daughter are independent professionals. "I was lucky I could avoid the usual family pressures on married men in India," he says, "Also, for someone like me, Bangalore is an ideal place to live in."

The weather in the city is mostly glorious, the distractions are far less than, say, Delhi's. Bangalore can be a relaxed and easy city to live in, if one doesn't need to commute every day. For someone like Guha, who works from home, it allows for enhanced productivity.

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"I'm a fourth generation Tamilian from Bangalore," he says, "I call it a second hometown." Tamils in Bangalore, as Guha puts it, are like Gujaratis in Bombay. "You think you're of the city, but you're told you're not so."

Born and raised in Dehra Dun, Guha spent whole summers in Bangalore with his extended family. He came here to play cricket, spent a year between his MA and PhD in the city. "I fell in love with Sujata, who's also from Bangalore," he says. "Professionally, Delhi seemed to be the better city for us to live in, but we decided to shift here in 1994."

It proved to be the best decision, for both of them. While Keshavan found assignments with the IT and banking sectors, Guha got his independence to work, without being subjected to Delhi's fashions. But over the last two decades, he has seen Bangalore change quite a bit.

"The entire eco-system around Koshy's is gone now," he says, conjuring up a map of that vanished past. "Above Koshy's used to be the British Council Library, which was a rather good library in those days. Across the street was Variety News, an excellent newspaper and magazine seller. About 100 yards down the road was Premier Bookshop, one of the best in the country. And then, for a cricket-lover like me, Chinnaswamy Stadium and Cubbon Park, both quite close to Koshy's, were the added attractions."

In spite of the myriad mutations and turmoil of the present, Guha calls Bangalore his city. "My new collection of essays, Democrats and Dissenters, which Penguin is publishing this month, is dedicated to Koshy's," he says.

The book, which has 16 pieces, captures the range of Guha's interests. Its first part focuses on politics and society, with a long reflection on the adivasis, one of Guha's research areas since years. This is followed by essays on India's neighbouring countries--Pakistan, China and Sri Lanka--written from comparative perspectives. "I contrast, for instance, the abominable treatment of Kashmiris by Indians with that of Tamils in Sri Lanka," he says. The second part has portraits of public intellectuals--Eric Hobsbawm, Amartya Sen, U.R. Ananthamurthy, André Béteille, and so on. The only omission seems to be cricket, about which Guha has written extensively.

"I hardly ever write on it anymore, though I follow Test cricket regularly," he says. "My style of cricket-writing is now archaic. It depended on the reader not having seen the sportsperson on TV. The challenge was in writing interestingly about, say, [E.A.S.] Prasanna playing in the '70s, when no footage of him was available."

It was one of Ashis Nandy's books, on cricket, he admits, that spurred him on to write about the sport. "Much as I admire his other work, especially the essays on Godse and Gandhi, I was shocked to read a book on cricket without a single joke in it," Guha says. "How can you write about cricket without passion and humour, I thought, and that became the trigger to take it up."

Five questions for Ram Guha:

Ramachandra Guha on Breakfast With HuffPost

Guha's involvement with cricket goes much deeper than a connoisseur's interest in the sport. A favourite uncle of his ran one of the best cricket clubs in Bangalore for over 60 years. "Afflicted with a childhood injury, he could not play the game at a very high level," Guha says of his mama, "so I became the object of his ambition."

From the age of 11 to 21, through school and college, Guha played cricket. "I was an off-break bowler, not bad but not very gifted either," he says. "Arun Lal and Kirti Azad, who were in my college team, went on to play Test cricket." Accidentally, it was cricket that pushed Guha towards becoming a scholar and public intellectual.

Coming from a family of scientists and being reasonably good at the sciences, Guha was expected to take up sciences in college. But his uncle found a glitch in the plan. The practical classes, all held in the afternoons, would come in the way of his cricket practice.

"Left to myself, I'd have chosen English Literature," Guha says, "I was always a big reader, I edited the school magazine, but was too scared of offending my grandfather." So he chose Economics ("a pseudo-science") as a compromise, though he realised, in the very first week of attending classes, that "the student and the subject were spectacularly ill-suited to each other". During his MA, he read Verrier Elwin, and instantly felt drawn to sociology and anthropology, which lead to a PhD in environmentalism from Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata.

Since then, for over two decades, Guha has been writing books, essays and columns on politics and history, pulling off 1,000-word articles and 1,000-page tomes with what seems like equal ease. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin invoked a metaphor to describe these contrasting modes of being. The kind of mind that immerses itself in the immediate present and retains many different things is like the mind of the wily fox, he said. The other kind of intellect, which takes a long perspective, is like that of a hedgehog's. In his roles as an opinion-maker and a historian, Guha, too, has to negotiate between two ways of thinking and writing.

"I have to balance the two impulses, keep chunks of time to work uninterruptedly on a bigger project, while I write my weekly commentaries," he says. "Sometimes I keep a pool of columns ready so that I can free up some weeks to immerse myself in my book work. Of course, there are times, when I still have to quickly respond to an incident that's urgent and topical."

India After Gandhi, Guha's magnum opus, was the only book he did not come up with the idea for but was commissioned to write by literary agent Peter Straus, who was at the time working with Macmillan in London. Given the book's vast scope, it took Guha eight years to finish it, of which several were spent poring over archives at the Nehru Memorial Library, the Lok Sabha debates and thousands of pages of reports in magazines and newspapers. "I could only do it in my 40s," Guha says, "At 58, I'm too tired to take on such a daunting task."

Guha has his way of rationing his time on Twitter, too, the only social media platform he has a presence on. "It's a useful medium to send out your work to a larger audience. You can also promote the work of others you admire on it," he says. "Mukul Kesavan, for instance, is not on Twitter, but I think he's a wonderful columnist. So I post his work when he writes something new." Guha is not much bothered by trolls. "I use Twitter sporadically anyway, so I can live with the nastiness," he says, "though women get the brunt of it--like Sagarika Ghose or Barkha Dutt-–and minority women, like Rana Ayyub, face the very worst abuse."

Freedom of expression, one of the themes Guha takes up in his new book, is undoubtedly imperilled in India, though Guha doesn't like to take an absolutist view on the matter. "Freedom operates at different levels--personal, economic, cultural, intellectual. If you compare our time with the 50s and 60s, you may say the stranglehold of the family has lessened over young people now. In the cities, LGBT people are freer, in spite of the Supreme Court judgment upholding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code," he says. Elections, in our time, are also fairer. "In the 50s, women voted as their husbands or fathers did. In the villages, Dalits voted as the Brahmins told them to," he adds. "This is not to say, of course, that we enjoy universal or total freedom in the spheres of gender, caste and sexual choice."

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When it comes to artistic freedoms, our liberty to write as we wish or make the kind of movies we want to are hindered by regressive colonial laws. "Writers in the Indian languages-–Perumal Murugan, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar--had to pay a steeper price than those writing in English," Guha says. "In the recent case of sedition against [Kannada actress] Ramya, for instance, the judge had no business admitting the petition filed in Coorg," he adds. "The same holds for the police who registered the complaint against Amnesty India." Even in cases where courts pass a progressive judgment against an appeal to ban a book, publishers may not be able to get protection from the vandals on the street.

In the tenth anniversary edition of India After Gandhi, scheduled to come out next year, which Guha recently finished revising, he has added two new chapters and a new preface, a major part of which deals with Kashmir. "I've mentioned a letter there, written in 1949, by Sardar Patel to his friend G.D. Birla, who was in America then," he says. "While telling Birla of the political situation in India, Patel says Kashmir is giving them all a severe headache. More than seventy years later, it still is causing us a severe headache and it will not go away soon."

The spectres of history are coming back to haunt us in unforeseen ways, these days, from text books being rewritten to Rahul Gandhi making statements about Gandhi's 'killers'. "People feel free to pass opinions on an extraordinary range of matters," Guha says, "Rahul Gandhi, for instance, could have looked at what the RSS is doing on the ground, how it is influencing the educational curricula in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan-–that would have been a much more useful exercise."

According to Guha, of all our political predecessors, the only one who can be criticised without fear of retribution is M.K. Gandhi. His observation, he clarifies, is based on an empirical fact.

When Narendra Modi, not yet the prime minister of India, was trying to rebrand himself as a national leader in 2011, Pulitzer-winner Joseph Lelyveld wrote a book, in which he suggested Gandhi may have been in a homosexual relationship with a German architect. Like many at the time, Modi took umbrage and got the book banned in Gujarat, the state where he was the chief minister. However, after Guha and Gandhi's grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, wrote against the move, the Central government didn't impose an embargo. The offence was not strong enough to merit a nationwide ban.

Born a Bania, Gandhi transcended his caste, he is disliked by many Hindus for being too soft on Muslims, not claimed by Gujaratis as one of their own, in the way Bengalis do for Subhas Chandra Bose. "Gandhi is the only Indian who belongs to no particular sect. He belongs to everyone and no one" says Guha, as our waiter presents the bill.

This is part of HuffPost India's exclusive interview series, Breakfast With HuffPost, presented by Lufthansa. The other interviews in the series are here.

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