'History will judge Gandhi with Jesus and Buddha'
Ramachandra Guha's book Patriots & Partisans is being launched today at a city literary festival. He talks to Fiona Fernandez about a range of subjects from Gandhism to bilingualism and explains why he feels privileged to be a political commentator in these times
It was tough to pin down Ramachandra Guha for this interview. Apart from his literary accolades and astute commentary, he has emerged, for a while now, as a hugely sought after, third view – the balanced, analytical voice that cuts through many raging debates on news channels. When we did manage to get him to discuss his latest title, Patriots & Partisans, the words flowed — like an effortless, analytical and insightful political commentary on India, no holds barred.
Excerpts from the interview.
How and why did the idea of working on this book come about? How long did the entire book take?
This is my third major collection of essays. Eight years back, I had written a biography on Mahatma Gandhi. In between, I had accumulated sufficient content, which I believed could have been integrated into a book. I enjoy the essay form of writing as it provides the freedom of a book, and unlike a newspaper column, one isn’t restricted by constraints of space and world length. It is a genre of its own. A suitable analogy would be of likening it to the role of a thumri in Indian music. It’s a distinctive genre, yet no less than the elaborate khayal or at the other end of scale, the film song. My 30 years of research and travel have ensured that I was able to accumulate content that was not time bound. In the larger picture, it is all about coherence, without being random.
How did you go about deciding on the areas of focus – especially since it covers a huge canvas across the socio-political and economic landscape?
It wasn’t easy. I had to remove three-four essays in the final draft. There was a long essay on Tagore that didn’t make it as well. It depended on what was happening at the time. One has to define and adapt. For example, my earlier lists of essays didn’t include writings on the anti-corruption movement, about Anna Hazare or about Dr Manmohan Singh.
Tell us about the most challenging essays that you encountered in this collection.
It’s hard to pinpoint, really. The first essay (Redeeming the Republic) threw up several challenges, naturally. Also, the essay on bilingual intellectualism (The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual) where I focused on how this aspect within the Indian literary landscape was getting invisible, and where I identified its transformation over the decades; it gave me immense satisfaction, and was less of a challenge, actually. I also enjoyed working on the essay about the Oxford University Press (Life with a Duchess), which was my homage to publisher Ravi Dayal.
Do you believe that being a political commentator in our times is one of the toughest hats to wear?
It hasn’t been difficult at all. In fact, I consider myself fortunate to be able to play such a role in today’s times. Firstly, these are tumultuous, complicated times. It is more a privilege to be a part of such a society as opposed to being tied down to a classic, boring society in countries like Iceland or Sweden. Besides, we live in times where different media exist across different parameters. We are lucky to have this scholarly training, which can be put to use, unlike in so many other countries across the world.
You’ve mentioned Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar as the famous four of the 20th century; according to you, how much of their legacy is relevant in today’s times? What can we make of their ideas?
The ideologies of the four are relevant today. Of these, perhaps Dr Ambedkar’s vision remains the most alive in India, in our times while Mahatma Gandhi and his ideals have found acceptance, globally. For that matter, even Nehru’s ideas find resonance in India as much as it does, in the West.
For those born in the 1970s and ’80s, the political history of our country from its making to now has been a terrific lesson in the churn of a democratic state; what do you believe today’s youth will remember the most from the current times?
(Pauses) It’s hard to predict what will inspire this generation. All I can say at this juncture is that one must use the past to illuminate the present.
From environment to sports and politics. What is next on your plate?
I intend to spend the next 10-15 years working on a major three-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi. The first volume will be ready by the end of 2013. History will judge Gandhi along with Jesus and Buddha. This first volume will look at his years in South Africa. Very little has been documented on that period. I want to flesh out the Gandhi story in detail. The second volume will follow his life from 1915 until his death while the third will focus on the arguments and aspects of Gandhi, his ideals and beliefs. I am in my fifties now, so this project is probably going to keep me busy till I die (chuckles)!
Were you happy with the outcome of Patriots & Partisans?
At the end of the day, you do your best. Nothing can be perfect. If you keep on revising your writing, it will never see the light of day. The longer you wait, the more insecure you get. I was reasonably happy and satisfied with this work. Of course, there will be flaws to be picked upon and arguments but I am fine with it — this is part of a democratic set up, after all.
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