Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Sunday, January 21, 2001

Front Page | National | Southern States | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Entertainment | Miscellaneous | Features | Classifieds | Employment | Index | Home

Features | Previous | Next

The life and times of an anthropologist


With moving, personal portraits of some of the leading men and women of the cultural and intellectual history of the last century, portraits which also capture the ambiguities involved, Ramachandra Guha's An Anthropologist among the Marxists and other Essays makes compelling reading, says T. G. VAIDYANATHAN.

ON the very first page of his new book, An Anthropologist Among the Marxists and Other Essays (Permanent Black, 2001), Ram Guha tells us that "inside every thinking Indian there is a Gandhian and a Marxist struggling for supremacy." By p.138, we find him - a Gandhian enthusiast, by now - walking down "a gently sloping road" in North London towards Marx's grave in the company of Gopal Gandhi, the Mahatma's grandson, "talking, as Indians would, of Marx and Mahatma Gandhi." Clearly, the "[struggle] for supremacy" - Mahatma Gandhi or Marx? - had, for these ex- Stephanians, already abated. Ram's case must be quite special, for, no admirer of Gandhiji, as far as I know, was quite so smitten with Marx early on as Ram's autobiographical title essay makes so painfully clear. The portrait of the late Samar Sen, in particular - the legendary editor of Frontier - is redolent of nostalgia for the Calcutta that was before "the Naxalite movement was crushed through state repression, aided by fratricidal warfare among its cadres." Samar Sen seemed "the best kind of Indian Marxist" living "in a tiny flat in southern Calcutta," travelling by tram to his office in north Calcutta, some six miles away, till he was 70 and ailing, "a cigarette forever unlit upon his lips." Ram characterises Samar Sen's politics as "anarcho-Marxist," whose favourite line was Trotsky's: "that there was no Pravda (truth) in Izvestia (news), no Izvestia in Pravda." Even more moving in the opening section, "Comrades and Companions", is the portrait of the Andhra Naxalite, C. V. Subbarao - the choicest little gem in the entire collection, even marginally better than the deeply moving memoir of E.P. Thompson in a subsequent section (needlessly marred, in parts, by a running anti-Americanism).

Ram quotes the advocate Gobinda Mukhoty's encomium paid to Subbarao at his memorial service that "when the history of the Indian democratic rights movement comes to be written, the name of C. V. Subbarao shall be placed alongside those of Jawaharlal Nehru, who established an Indian Civil Liberties Union in 1936, and Justice V. M. Tarkunde, who helped found Citizens for Democracy 40 years later." There are striking similarities with the Samar Sen portrait. Both are chain-smokers with an abiding love for literature - in Subbarao's case, Telugu literature. The Subbarao portrait ends with a poem of Cherabandaraju (translated by Subbarao himself) which serves as epigraph for one of Ram's own books, Ecology and Equity. Significantly, two of Ram's leftist heroes - Samar Sen and E. P. Thompson, too ("Remind me before you go to give you a book of my poems," E. P. tells Ram on his last visit to the Thompsons) are poets, even if Sen had "renounced" poetry at the age of 25. But as a "young college student, barely out of his teens, he wrote five slim volumes" where his "socialism was expressed most directly."

There are several felicities in the book, particularly for the Bangalore reader: I can only mention the portraits of P. K. Srinivasan, D. R. Nagaraj and the Civil Servant, C. S. Venkatachar (all dead now but who lived in Bangalore where Ram lives at present). But it is the one on one of Ram's great uncles - the erstwhile editor of Gandhiji's collected works - that I would like to single out for particular attention. I describe K. Swaminathan as Gandhiji's editor, advisedly, for it is difficult to describe Swaminathan as a Gandhian. He was merely an "editorial" Gandhian (to borrow the telling description of the blurb on the back cover) or, to vary Ram's own title, "an anthropologist among the Gandhians". For, by the time Swaminathan finished editing The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi in 1994 - his "Qutb Minar" in the words of C. S. Venkatachar - he reverted to the pieties of his old South Indian Saivite brahminism. Referring to the Mahatma invariably as "Gandhi" - in the manner of Calcutta's uppity bhadraloks (all, that is except Subhas Chandra Bose who, in spite of differences, always referred to him as "the Mahatma") - Swaminathan even questioned the Vaishnavite roots of Gandhiji's thought - never questioned by recent students of Gandhiji like Lannoy, Erikson, Kakar, Parekh - by calling it "an outrageous perversion of the Truth, our dharma, which is not bhakti but shakti and shanti." "Gandhi," he continued angrily to Ram in a four-page handwritten letter (deviating, for once, from his usual practice - a Gandhian legacy - of writing only postcards) "was not an exponent of bhakti, but a messiah of shakti." Gandhiji is thus just pulled into Swaminathan's own Saivite tradition! To understand this we will have to take a closer look at Swaminathan's "nervous breakdown" that prevented his younger brother, Dr. Sanjivi, from accepting a professorship at the newly created AIIMS in 1957. His Oxford sojourn had clearly precipitated a spiritual crisis of sorts and it was to cope with this that Swaminathan had made so many trips along with students and friends to Tiruvannamalai between September 1940 and April 1950 when Sri Ramana Maharshi passed into what has been described as maha-nirvana. If Swaminathan's "close association with the ashram continued without interruption for 44 years," as claimed by V. S. Ramanan, President of Sri Ramanasramam in his "Foreword" to Swaminathan's posthumously published Sri Ramana, The Self Supreme (Chennai, 1997) - then it is obvious that he was only an anthropologist all along, editing "Gandhi" and just that. It is true he never turned anti-Gandhian - as ex-communists like Koestler and Orwell did when they renounced the Faith - but he did the next best thing in his "thrice-born-ness" (in

M. N. Srinivas's pithy formulation): assimilate Gandhianism to his ancient Saivite faith. And hence "Gandhi was not an exponent of bhakti but a messiah of shakti"; hence, too: "All the 'Monkey' devotees of Gandhi and Rama are now SOLIDLY behind Advani" (sic) in a bitter letter to Ram during the

Ayodhya crisis. Hence too, the not-altogether lighthearted gibing of Ram when he named his son Keshava Dhananjaya: "In olden[i.e. British] days, K.D. meant Known Depredator, professional thief. The initials may have lost their meaning now. But be careful. Make sure that the baby doesn't wear a bad label. Krishna [i.e. Keshava] was a butter-thief ..." Swaminathan's growing conservatism - a strange mix of an atavistic Faith and a contemptuous dismissal of law-breakers, human or divine - can be gauged from this. The sole advice to Ram of the once Oxford- educated Madrasi professor who had served as Gandhiji's editor for 28 years was simply "Learn Tamil and lead a simple life." This was the man who, in the 1920s, had "talked sedition and planned strikes without mustering courage to declare them." Like Herzog, in the Saul Bellow novel, Swaminathan had settled down to writing letters to students (the ex-President R. Venkataraman, his former student at Sri Meenakshi College, Chidambaram, later to become Annamalai University) and contemporaries (the former diplomat, G. Parthasarathi, his contemporary at Presidency College, Madras) to intervene and settle the Ayodhya dispute. But all in vain: "Parthasarathi commanded no influence any more, whereas Venkataraman was unable or unwilling to exercise it" observes Ram matter-of-factly. Swaminathan must have died a very, very lonely and deeply embittered man at the end. Ram's portrait of Swaminathan is a bit like Krishna Bose's of her own mama, Nirad Chaudhuri, but bristling with a largely unresolved ambivalence. It is a deeply complex picture we get of an important figure in the cultural history of Madras of the last 100 years. On a visit to "Dharmalayam" - Swaminathan's "ancestral home in Alwarpet" (the intellectual epicentre of South Indian bhadralok brahminism) in Madras where he lived after his return from Delhi after completing his Himalayan labours - Ram is given a copy of his uncle's biography of Ramana Maharshi. As he receives his gift, Ram's "great-aunt muttered, in Tamil, 'Don't give the boy the book - it is wasted on him'." The exchanges between mama and nephew had been cold and rather academic this time and "before I left I did not touch his feet" as he had done in the past. The Ramana biography, Ram disarmingly confesses, "still lies unread on my shelves." Ram is well advised not to attempt the task, for, Swaminathan, despite his Oxford credentials, is no Paul Brunton, and on the evidence of the only book of his I have dipped into (apart from The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay which he edited for Longmans in 1936, sometime after his return from Oxford) - Sri Ramana, The Self Supreme - the task is indeed quite formidable. It is a far cry from Aubernon Waugh's memoir Will This Do? that Ram found so riveting and virtually unputdownable en route to the Thompsons in Worcester.

An Anthropologist Among the Marxists is, indeed, an excellent read, especially its title essay with its glimpses of Calcutta in the early 1980s, just three years after the CPI(M) came to power. But on the evidence of at least two essays - the one on Ambedkar and the concluding one on "Soccer" (a term never used in India - always "football"; probably this, too, is a "republican reflex!") in Calcutta - it looks like Ram is ready to move on to fresh pastures: 'multiculturalism', already, as we learn from "The Gandhi Who Loved the West." "It should and will find space for many heroes" - especially "Ambedkar and Gandhi" as we learn from the Ambedkar essay. For, once an anthropologist always an anthropologist (Ram, too, like Swaminathan, consistently refers to Gandhiji as "Gandhi" except in the essay "The Bhadralok's Gandhi" where he uses the "Mahatma" to probably distance himself from the Calcutta bhadraloks. In the Kumarappa essay, he even slides into "Gandhiji" for which he chides Shourie in his Ambedkar essay. Probably, both "Gandhi" ("simply a republican reflex") and the "Mahatma" (too impersonal for the greatest Indian of the 20th Century) are unsatisfactory today and 'Mahatma Gandhi' only confounds the problem by simply juxtaposing opposites. I much prefer the honorific "Mahatmaji" employed at least twice by Rajaji in a speech on 20th December, 1932 at Guruvayoor which Ram himself quotes from. It conveys respect without quite leaving out the personal, although I myself have fallen back on "Gandhiji" throughout this essay.

The other bhadralok of the Right dealt with in the book is Nirad Chaudhuri, who lived in North Oxford, much like Swaminathan in Madras, but who was not lucky enough to have his wife living with him till the very end. Ram and Gopal Gandhi are met at the door by the nonagenarian 'Nirad babu' (still two years younger than the Madras bhadralok, Swaminathan!) "clad in formal Bengali attire, an immaculate dhoti panjabi " - "less than five feet tall" - who, for his age (he was 98, if a day!), was "a physical and intellectual marvel as described by Ramaswamy Venkataraman, the former president of India." But the "intellectual marvel," as Ram was soon to find out, had his head still stuffed with arcane lore about the two World Wars. He even deemed "the bottle of port we brought with us" as "upper second-grade, fit to drink but not to serve." Chaudhuri's extreme fastidiousness extended beyond port and ventured into the slippery domain of female pulchritude where he tended to institute bizarre comparisons. "A Hindu wife," he informed the befuddled ex-Stephanians "is like a gleaming marble bathtub with two golden taps: one hot, one cold." Not surprisingly, the emphatically contemporary attire - "a flowing chooridar kurta" - of Ram's otherwise, impeccably Hindu wife, Sujatha, seems to have provoked Chaudhuri into saying, "I would never wear a pyjama instead of my dhoti, because it is Islamic."

Like all Ram's heroes, Chaudhuri, too, is bilingual: Bengali and English (although he would switch, in conversation, "dramatically from English to Latin, Sanskrit, German, Bengali or Hindustani"). But again, like Swaminathan, Chaudhuri ("two tongues, two nationalities") was beginning to revert to his native tongue Bengali ("his last books were in that language") signifying "a turning around from the image of an English writer and gentleman, crafted for the good part of a century." As Ram leaves the Chaudhuri residence, a young Bengali woman scientist is taking a call from his son in Calcutta, "'desh', home." In one of the book's most bizarre ironies, the Chaudhuri portrait is clubbed with the visit of Ram and Gopal Gandhi to Marx's grave in Highgate. One not really dead and the other almost living! The sad, imploring ghost of Orwell - clearly a hero of sorts for Ram - beckons from the shadows. It is the only secular Right option left for Ram after the anarcho-Marxist (Samar Sen), the Naxalite sympathiser (Subbarao) and the far-Right represented by 'Nirad babu' - "a master of English prose" Ram tells E. P. Thompson weakly who has just described 'Nirad babu' as a "bloody reactionary' - and the "editorial" Gandhian turned "Mountain Path" editor (Swaminathan). Ram's "pilgrim's progress" will undoubtedly be watched with continued interest by all his numerous friends and admirers, here and elsewhere.

Ram's book, I learn, is the fifth book to come out of the stables of the fledgling Delhi publishing firm, Permanent Black. Its editors - the husband-wife team of Rukun Advani and Anuradha Roy who once adorned the editorial offices of OUP, New Delhi - richly deserve all our thanks.

An Anthropologist Among the Marxists and other Essays, Ramachandra Guha, Permanent Black, Rs. 450.

Send this article to Friends by E-Mail


Section  : Features
Previous : Homespun wisdom
Next     : First impression

Front Page | National | Southern States | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Entertainment | Miscellaneous | Features | Classifieds | Employment | Index | Home

Copyrights © 2001 The Hindu

Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of The Hindu