'Choose Half a Dozen Intellectual Mentors, Rather Than One': A Conversation With Ramachandra Guha

"In a country like India you can’t only be only in the university, you can’t only be writing for your peers. In times like this, where there is a horrific, nasty regime in power, one has to speak out but I would still say, choose your battles wisely."

At a recent event in New Delhi’s Sunder Nursery, organised by A Suitable Agency, historian and author Ramachandra Guha spoke to sociologist Nandini Sundar about his work and the itineraries of a historian. They talked about Guha’s most recent book, Rebels Against the Raj, but also his previous work, his journey as a historian and what drew him to certain subjects, and more.

The Wire has transcribed their conversation and you can find the full text below.

Nandini Sundar: Hello everyone. It is an extraordinary pleasure to be part of this conversation with Ram, it’s an honour. Ramachandra Guha is someone who has been an inspiration to many of us from his early work on the environment. I personally have used his Unquiet Woods as a model when I was writing my thesis. I have encouraged all my PhD students to use his work. His work is a model of lucid writing, of summing up different kinds of theoretical positions and moving on to make an argument. His subsequent work, as we all know, has moved from the environment to contemporary history to biography to cricket. In each of these different spheres of writing, Ram has done what many people would have wanted to do in an entire lifetime. He has managed to traverse all of these different fields and write spectacularly interesting, readable and fascinating books. Ram is really a people’s historian and it’s a pleasure to have this chance of conversation with him. So, let me just read out some of the books – just to remind us – because this is really not just about his most recent book Rebels Against the Raj, although we will focus on that a lot in today conversation, but also some of his earlier works just to jog people’s memory.

His first work The Unquiet Woods was about the Himalaya. Then he wrote a couple of volumes with Madhav Gadgil which are being taught in universities and are used as standard texts on environmental histories across the world,  This Fissured Land and Ecology and Equity. Savaging the Civilised, his work on Verrier Elwin was something that marked an intervention in biography writing and I personally could not put it down. I read it all night in one go, it was such a fascinating read. His work on Mahatma Gandhi, we all know, has really charted a new territory on Gandhi – if that was possible. His work on cricket I will not comment upon. India After Gandhi again is an indispensable introduction to India’s contemporary history. Ram is very modest. He is extraordinarily generous with his advice to younger scholars with the time he gives. For someone who has received as many prizes and recognitions and awards as he has, you would never know it from seeing Ram.

So let me just read out some of Ram’s awards. They include the Leopold-Hidy Award of the American Society for Environmental History. The Daily Telegraph Cricket Society Prize, the Ram Nath Goenka Award for excellence in journalism, the R.K. Narayan Prize, the Sahitya Academy Award, the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize. He has been awarded the Padma Bhushan and an honorary doctorate by Yale University. In 2019, he was recognised as an honorary foreign member of the American Historical Association and since then, there have been several more as well. I am not going to read the entire list.

So, let me just start by asking Ram something about his current book and the context in which the book is arriving in the world today. So, in Rebels Against the Raj which is a collective biography of whites shall I say Americans and British who came to India, made it their home. He talks about a kind of time, there was a lot of traversing to and fro. Passports and boundaries were not as hardened as they are now.  Westerns went abroad to participate more freely in India’s freedom struggle as well as other causes like the Spanish Civil War. Ram writes about a reverse migration. Do you think that kind of intellectual cosmopolitanism has been in a way paradoxically closed off after India became independent?

Ramachandra Guha: Well, not entirely, Nandini. The book is dedicated to our mutual friend Jean Drèze, who is of course India’s leading development economist but born and raised in Belgium. There are other examples, in this room I see, in this lovely open space I see – somewhere at the back – Gillian Wright, who has illuminated our understanding of India’s literary history. She is as Indian as you and me, though I am not sure what her original nationality was. British or English? Precisely what, it doesn’t really matter, it is her work that matters and all the incredible insights that her work has given us.

There have been times in our history as a nation of seven and half decades when we have been more open to influences from outside and times when we have been less open to influences from outside. So, the Emergency was a time when we shut ourselves off. Today we are living through another wave of xenophobia. There have also been times when we have been open to refugees, of both Hindus and Muslims from East Pakistan who came to India after the brutal military crackdown there in 1970-71, and you contrast that with how we treat Rohingya refugees today. Surely, all societies large, complex countries go through periods in which they are relatively open, confident and secure in what they stand for and hence, willing to embrace interesting, original and progressive ideas from outside. On the other hand, a frightened, insecure and paranoid society closes itself off. So, I think a lot depends on who we think we are.

My book is about seven foreigners, but it begins with two epigraphs – one from Mahatma Gandhi and one from Rabindranath Tagore, which tells us a little bit about why those foreigners could make their home here and contribute so richly and creatively to our country. So, a lot depends on what Indians are like; our encounters with the rest of the world whether it be economic, political, cultural, intellectual, spiritual and what kind of reciprocal mutual benefits we could get. It depends on us. I think Gandhi and Tagore were special kinds of people. Of course, these seven individuals are remarkable in their own right, it’s their own journey but there was this open-minded capaciousness that ironically, when we were ruled by the British, we were able to display.

NS: You do say in the book that it’s been a long time in the making, so perhaps, you can tell us a little bit about how the different characters, chart your trajectory as a historian, because they draw on different aspects of you work. There is no cricketer though!

RG: Well, that not’s entirely true, as I will tell you in a minute. Nandini, you said some very nice things about my book on Verrier Elwin. As you know I was a very indifferent student of economics and was looking for some kind of alternative forum to express my intellectual ambitions and I found and read Elwin and discovered anthropological and sociological history. So, I think, all of me went into that Elwin book and I say in the preface to a revised edition that was published some years ago that books that, ‘Parents are not supposed to have favourites among their own children’ but as an author it is probably my favourite book. Obviously, it is not the book which sold the most, it is not the book that has the most impact or created the most controversy, but it means something special to me because Elwin changed my life. His own journey was so incredible, interesting and complicated. A missionary from Oxford who comes to India, leaves the church, joins Gandhi, leaves Gandhi, works with Adivasis, marries an Adivasi woman, writes incredibly rich ethnographies which the great scholars of the department you now belong to, the Department of Sociology in Delhi University, did not consider it to be proper anthropology and that made it more appealing to me. While I was writing that book on Elwin, I always wanted to write a sequel but I wasn’t sure how many people I would include. It could be ten, fifteen or twenty, a larger history of extraordinary foreigners who made their home in India, in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Verrier Elwin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

My Elwin book came out in 1999 and the next year I was invited to give a series of lectures named for Elwin at the North-eastern Hill University in Shillong, which is a town in which Elwin himself spent the last decade of his life. I gave my lectures on what I called, ‘The other side of the Raj’, a term my teacher Shiv Viswanathan had coined to describe while people who were not generals, civil servants, exploitative planters etc but who were actually making themselves at home in India. I wanted to write this sequel to my Elwin book for a very long time. Then I got distracted into other work and I wrote India After Gandhi, which took a decade, then I wrote my Gandhi biography which took another decade. But, all this while, whenever I was in an archive and I found something on an interesting or eccentric foreigner, I filed it in my notebooks under the subject heading – ‘Other Side of the Raj’ and all this kept on accumulating.

In 2018, when the second volume of my Gandhi biography was published, I returned to all those notes and decided I had enough material to write this long-delayed sequel and I would focus it around people who had got arrested or had been deported. I didn’t include bridge builders like C.F. Andrews and Sister Nivedita, who are of course remarkable in their own right. I decided, so that I could focus the book around an identifiable theme, only to include those who transgressed completely and fully by being arrested or deported. The last thing I would say about how and why this book was written that one of the characters in this book is B.G. Horniman, who is a fascinating character, he was principally a campaigning journalist and editor. But, I was introduced to Horniman because the great newspaper he started which is now sadly defunct, called the Bombay Chronicle contains some of the best cricket coverage in first two decades of the 20th century. So, without my love for cricket Horniman would not have featured in this book.

NS: Okay, so all these characters and Verrier Elwin in particular. Clearly, you like them and have great admiration for them and perhaps you could only write about Spratt because he was ‘cured of communism’ as you say. There is also another nasty line about communism ‘receding into his past’ but I think our common mentor André Béteille said that Ram only writes about people’s positive side. He likes them, and they are always good. So, could you write a biography of someone you dislike? Could write one of Nathuram Godse or M.S. Golwalkar?

RG: You know, there are seven characters in this book, obviously I generally warm to them. But I am not completely blind to their faults and their angularities. Likewise with my book on Gandhi, likewise with my book Elwin and his treatment of his first wife and so on. But yes, I would only write about people I am broadly sympathetic with. I think both Nathuram Godse and M.S. Golwalkar deserve their biographies, written by scholars, who can place them in context, who can talk about their influence, who don’t come under the sway of their ideologies. They are important historical figures, M.S. Golwalkar more in his lifetime and Nathuram Godse now posthumously. As you said something about my views of communism, I should note that it’s hard to say what I detest more: Communism or Hindutva? I think it is probably Hindutva but it changes day by day. Tomorrow if some nasty things come out of some Communist country, I don’t know what I will think.

File photo of M.S. Golwalkar. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But let’s say, I had the same politics today when I was 25, I think I might actually have thought of a book on the life and afterlife of Nathuram Godse. But I am almost 65 and I don’t have the kind of energy – it took me all my life to write on Mahatma Gandhi. I think the answer to your question will be, I will not write on Nathuram Godse or M.S. Golwalkar but there is no reason why someone who is not a Hindutvadi but a young historian who understands the historical significance of what Nathuram Godse represented and what he represents today, should not do such a kind of book. I think it will be a service to scholars. It would contribute to the understanding of where we are today. If a young scholar came to me and said, “I would like to write about Nathuram Godse. What advice would you want to give me?” I will give that person purely scholarly advice. I wouldn’t bring Sadhvi Pragya Thakur into the conversation or Nalin Kateel who is the president of the BJP in my own state who has also praised Nathuram Godse. I would say these are the reasons Nathuram Godse’s interesting and intriguing. These are the kinds of sources you should begin to look for and I would love to read your draft or manuscript and comment on it. It is an important historical theme.

Biographers cannot ignore influential and important people whom they dislike. That’s the reason there are so many books on Adolf Hitler. In the last decade, there have been at least four or five really rich, scholarly books on Hitler with new material, each a thousand pages long. But, let me say one last thing, Nandini, I think your remark and André Béteille’s criticism has some merit in it. Generally, biographers are attracted by people they broadly like because writing a biography means is that you suppress and submerge yourself, your individuality, your personality, your ego, for someone else. You are spending five years or in some case 10-15 years making another person the most important person in your life.  So I think most biographers would tend to go in the direction of choosing subjects which they are broadly sympathetic towards.

NS: Sir, if someone was to write a biography of you and try and explain your intellectual trajectory from environmental research to Mahatma Gandhi. How would they chart this travel?

RG: I think no one should waste their time writing a biography of me. I have had a very ordinary life. Whatever is there is in my books, for good or for ill. I have been very lucky in my friends and colleagues. You mentioned Madhav Gadgil, you mentioned André Béteille. Another person who could have been mentioned is Professor Dharma Kumar, who was both a relative of mine as well as a friend and a teacher. The late Anjan Ghosh, my sociology mentor whom you also knew. I have been very lucky in having had people, older people and not only Indians (though mostly Indians) whom I have met at a formative stage in my life and have oriented me the right way or in interesting ways. They have stoked my mind, opened it to new ideas and were always open to being challenged. I think I was very fortunate in not finding a guru. Just older people I could converse with.

Madhav Gadgil, who is India’s greatest ecologist and who is now working on his autobiography which may come out in a year or so — I urge all of you to read it — is an extraordinarily democratic scientist. He is not someone who is a typical male authoritarian which is what most Indian scientists tend to be. I mean, India’s most famous living scientist is also from Bangalore and there is a circle named after him in Bangalore, to whose inauguration he came. He is absolutely typical of the genre. Madhav Gadgil is not like that. I was very lucky to meet people like that and I think they shaped me and also shaped how I relate to younger people. I could always argue with Dharma fiercely and that is why I am happy to engage and work with younger people. It is very important for a scholar not to be part of a political party, not to be part of a school and not to attach yourself too closely to an intellectual mentor. Choose half a dozen intellectual mentors, rather than one.

NS: So that’s one aspect that might go into making up your biography, the people who have influenced you. But what actually led you to environmentalism and to Mahatma Gandhi and another question I want to ask is that whether there were periods in history that have led you to do certain kind of work or was it something in your own intellectual trajectory?

RG: That is a very fair question. A lot of it is chance and contingency which plays a part in history and the life of the individual historian. I discovered Elwin when I was doing an MA in Economics and I was doing an economics project in an aircraft factory in Odisha which employed Adivasi workers. I was studying the productivity records of Adivasi workers which is what development economists do. I went to a tribal village one Sunday and there was a Odia veterinary doctor called Dr Das and he was interested in anthropology. He asked me where I had come from. I said, ‘I have come from Delhi’. He said, ‘A long time ago there was a young man like you who came from very far away to these hills in Koraput and his name was Verrier Elwin. Have you heard of him?’ I said I hadn’t. I went back to the library and discovered Elwin and I abandoned economics. An abandonment which I would like to say benefited me but benefited economics much more. There is no question that we were spectacularly ill-suited to one another; the subject of economics and myself.

As for my interest in the environment, what happened was that I was doing a PhD in Sociology in Calcutta and juggling with what kind of project to take up. I was thinking should I go to Jamshedpur and study steel workers? Should I got to rural Bihar and look at agrarian relations? The kind of thing sociologists generally do. There was a visiting scholar from IIM Bangalore called Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and I was chatting with him when he came to Calcutta. I asked him what kind of thesis I could do and he found out that I was from Dehradun This was in 1981. He said, the Chipko movement started just eight years ago in 1973. Journalists have written about it, activists have written about it but sociologists have not written about it. So, my first biography and my work on environment was really through meeting Dr Das and Dr Bandyopadhyay respectively. But then, of course, it sparks something in you and then you try to find out more yourself and you get more deeply involved. When an idea strikes you and it captivates you, how do you follow it up? By immersing yourself in primary research. You got to a village or you go to an archive. You look at reels and reels of old microfilms to find out about B.G. Horniman. If the idea captures you, your next step should not be to go to Google and search JSTOR about what the scholarly journals have said about journalism or environment or cricket or tribals. Which is often the default mode in which graduate students in certain American universities work. Possibly, in certain Indian universities too.

If an idea strikes me, I want to find out where are the papers? What are the archives? That’s what you yourself do, that’s what you have done your entire life – through field research, as you are a much better field-worker than me! Yes, at some stage you read the scholarly literature, you will read theoretical stuff, you will try and locate your primary material in some kind of analytical framework. But, the joy of finding out new facts; hidden uncovered facts. I think that’s what drives me. That’s the main motivation. It’s this curiosity that has driven me all my life. Mahatma Gandhi, I have lived with so long that I had to write about him. So, I will say my work on cricket and my work on Gandhi came from my own orientations and interests. But ecology and Elwin I was just lucky that people pointed me in that direction.

NS: Talking of Gandhi, many of the people in this book are people who have worked closely with Gandhi or were influenced by him to leave their countries and come here. So, given how important Gandhian thought was as an intellectual project, what do you think accounts for its failure subsequently?

RG: That’s a great question and there is a whole book to be written about that. But let me say two or three things. Gandhi was a relatively contested figure in his lifetime. There was a great aura about him, he was the so called ‘Father of the Nation’, he was the most influential leader of the freedom struggle but even in his lifetime there were people arguing with him and debating his ideas. They were not getting much attention because Gandhi was so powerful, so influential, so dominant. After his death, it’s these different perspectives on Gandhi that have got influence.

Gandhi was criticised by the Hindutvavadis when he was alive, now the Hindutvavadis are intellectually and politically dominant. Mahatma Gandhi was criticised by B.R. Ambedkar when he was alive. Now Ambedkar is rightly so the exemplar of Dalit assertion and not Gandhi and I think it is appropriate that it should be Ambedkar. But sometimes in Ambedkar’s assessment of Gandhi there is a certain lack of acknowledgment about what Gandhi also did to further the cause of the abolition of untouchability. When it comes to economic policy, scholars see Mahatma Gandhi as antediluvian. Now the other thing about Gandhi, is that in his lifetime he belonged to everyone. In his afterlife he belongs to no one because there is no sect that can claim Gandhi. The Maharashtrians can claim Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the Bengalis can claim Subash Chandra Bose, the Dalits can claim B.R. Ambedkar. Gandhi belongs to no one because Gandhi actually in that sense, is beyond identity politics.

Mahatma Gandhi wearing cap, India, 1915. © Jayan Mitra/Dinodia Photo

However, having said all of that, there is so much Gandhi available, there are 97 volumes of Gandhi’s collected works and his life was all in the public domain and the editors of his writings put it all out there. So, there is so much to read, digest, criticise, argue with, cherry-pick, if you wish to demonise him. The last thing I would say about Gandhi is that he is a universal figure. This an insight I owe to my friend Gopalkrishna Gandhi from whom I have learnt so much about Indian history. He said like the Buddha, Gandhi was born in the subcontinent and like the Buddha, the subcontinent may expel him, extinguish him but he will be born again somewhere else. So, I think Gandhi is a universal figure. He is affirmed and avowed in many parts of the world while Indians might of course forget him or scorn him or defile him as they are doing now.

I approached Gandhi as a scholar. But there are some aspects of Gandhi that are enduringly relevant, and I wish some of his non-Hindutva critics would pay attention to them. Today, there are four or five (I wouldn’t put any kind of hierarchy) challenges our republic faces today. If we wish to meet those challenges, overcome them, combat them we cannot do without Gandhi. The first challenge our republic faces today is the increasing stigmatisation and demonisation of our fellow citizens who happen to be Muslims by birth and on that issue — on equal rights of Muslims, on Hindu-Muslim harmony, on not abusing the powers of the state to harass and intimidate Muslims in particular — the one person who did most to challenge that was Gandhi.

I think even his critics on the left and the right, who at least share this pluralistic idea of India should take their clues from Gandhi. I don’t see myself as an activist and I am not generally on the road protesting but the reason I protested in 2019 against the CAA was because I am a biographer of Gandhi. That’s really the main reason, but there were other reasons too. I was horrified at what had happened to the students in this city and the attacks in Jamia.

Another critical challenge that our republic faces today is of course the challenge of the degradation of the natural environment. There again, I think, of  all the great modern Indians, Gandhi teaches us the most, he anticipates the environmental crisis of modern industrial civilisation more acutely, more presciently and more pointedly than anyone else. This is so far as I will preach the virtues of Gandhi, the more important thing is that as a scholar he endlessly fascinates me and I hope one day, to write about his complicated and contentious afterlife.

NS: So I will come back to the question I wanted to ask about the afterlife in the form of the constructive work that many of the people in this book were engaged in. The fact that I don’t agree with you necessarily that Gandhi had no one to promote him because there is a whole network of Gandhian Ashrams who seem to have lost their intellectual and political force but I want to come back to this point you made about protesting because—

RG: Can I answer that first question? You are absolutely right, Nandini. The Gandhians after Gandhi let down Gandhi. They ritualised Gandhi, they memorialised Gandhi. They set up Ashrams, they did their daily round of spinning and that kind of stuff. If you look at the preeminent Gandhians after Gandhi and I am particularly thinking of Vinoba Bhave who was really the main leader of the Sarvodaya Movement. Hindu-Muslim harmony and the abrogation of untouchability never figured centrally in their politics. Among the reasons – I just want to quickly put that in – Gandhi lost his visibility and his relevance in India is because of the Gandhians who really didn’t understand his message.

NS: That answers the question I was asking but to come to your own role as someone who protests because Gandhi inspired you. Well, a lot of people might see you as a contemporary rebel against the contemporary raj. So, how do you see the discomfort or how do you see the tensions between doing intellectual work and protesting against the regime.

RG: I only did it that day. I should explain…

NS: You were dragged away, mid-interview. Like today, you could be dragged away.

RG: There is a lesson Madhav Gadgil taught me. He said that of course you must write on issues of public importance. You should write in newspapers. So, I do that, and I try and get my newspaper articles translated so they appear in 8-9 Indian languages so they reach more people. I try and write clearly and simply and not jargonised sociological prose. So you communicate your ideas to a wider public. When do you go beyond that? In recent months, in several interviews I have given expressed my personal discomfort at the term ‘public intellectual’. Other people may call me a ‘public intellectual’ but I don’t like calling myself a public intellectual because as our mutual mentor André Béteille likes to say, ‘a public intellectual is someone who is more public and less intellectual’. Now, I am a historian, a writer and columnist.

The question is, when do you go beyond columns, for example, when do you sign a collective letter? For every collective letter I have signed, I probably turned down 20 or 30 each year. When do you go to protest in public? I think it is important that scholars intervene in the public sphere about things they know about and have some credibility and have done some research on. In my case, it is freedom of the press which includes attacks on not just journalists but intellectuals and universities. Yes of course, forests, which I have worked on. And on Adivasi rights and Hindu-Muslim harmony. That’s about it.

So, for example, if I go back to what happened in December 2019, when I was dragged away. About a year later were protests about the farm laws. I was asked by many people to be in public meetings and discuss these issues and I told them I have not studied agriculture. What views I have on the farm laws are not interesting or credible by themselves. I may have views as citizens but they said Aaap us din likal gaye they, dharna mein (You participated in the protest that day). So, I said that was about the rights of Muslims, which I have studied and am concerned about. I am not coming in the anti-farm law dharna. I am reading what the press is saying, I am imbibing it, I am making my own judgements such as it is but I am not writing on that issue, I am not protesting on that issue because I lack the competence and credibility.

I am not an all purpose activist and finally I don’t believe in celebrity endorsement. Let me give you one example, which happened today and I won’t take names but it will give you a sense of how I think. There was a very great fellow resident of my city who died several years ago. Far greater than me. But let me take his name, it is only fair that we take his name. Girish Karnad was an extraordinary figure and the range of his cultural influence far exceeds that of a historian, for that’s what creative people, novelists, poets and playwrights can do. It was my great privilege to have known him as a friend. So, after he died, I wrote about him in the press. Now there is a public commemoration of his work in another city and the organiser insisted that I should come there and speak. The whole of today I had been exchanging polite emails with the organisers, explaining why I can’t speak and I was also giving  them names of people who understand his plays, his acting, much better than I and are who are also actually from Bangalore whom they should invite instead. Obviously, they want to put it on their poster that Ramachandra Guha shall be speaking about Girish Karnad, even if he is speaking utter bullshit about Girish Karnad, 50 more people will come to hear it.

So, I think it is very important to not be swayed, to have a sense of where you are actually contributing in some constructive way to what’s going on. This is what Madhav Gadgil taught me and it happened very early on in my career, when I took a signature petition to him opposing a nuclear plant coming up in Karnataka. If the petition had been on the decimation of biodiversity, he would have signed it. If it had been on eucalyptus replacing teak forests, he would have signed it. But here he said, ‘Ram I don’t understand this. My authority is as an ecologist. I am not an energy specialist.’ I said, ‘No Madhav, this is about a military industrial complex, nuclear energy is connected to the bomb which is connected to superpower rivalry. You must sign it.’ He said again, ‘Ram I am not an energy scientist.’ He told this to me a hell of a long time ago. Now I don’t think I have digested that lesson fully because there are probably a few letters I have signed that I should not be signing. But I agree with you Nandini, in a country like India you can’t only be only in the university, you can’t only be writing for your peers. In times like this, where there is a horrific, nasty regime in power, one has to speak out but I would still say, choose your battles wisely.

NS: One, since we are talking about battles won and itineraries. My grandfather used to joke knowing Ram as a young man that the road from Dehradun to Calcutta, where he was then studying, went through Ahmedabad and it was very strange that it went through Ahmedabad because Sujata, who then became Ram’s wife, lived at NID. So, Ram always chose these complicated itineraries.

I want to ask you Ram, since I know a lot of people are waiting to ask questions so this will be my last question to you. What do you think Sujata’s intellectual and aesthetic influences on your work has been? I should just tell people who have seen Sujata through her work but may not know that who the spirit behind is. A lot of the visual, urban landscape that we see has been designed by Sujata Keshavan, the Airtel logo, the JK Bank logo, any number of things that we just take for granted, in our visual landscape is a product of Sujata’s work.

RG: The Bangalore Airport logo, the Bombay Airport logo, the Delhi Airport logo, the Vistara logo, the Bank of Baroda logo.

NS: Exactly. So what do you think her role has been in your life? Also, of Keshava and Iravati?

RG: I talked about accidental encounters. Now, I met Sujata through a friend in Ahmedabad, we fell in love and in 1980 I had two choices and what I am telling you is linked to the question you posed about intellectualism or activism. I had two choices – one was I had got into the Institute of Rural Management in Anand in the first batch, and I had been very inspired by Dr Kurien and cooperatives and the film Manthan, and the other was I had got into a PhD programme in Calcutta. Sujata said, ‘If you want to marry me, you have to do a Phd because as a graphic designer I can’t live in a village I have to live in a city.’

So I became a scholar. Sujata is a persona of extraordinary equanimity, and balance of judgement, though she detests bigotry and religious fundamentalism probably even more than I do. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the time to read drafts of all I write but if it is a particularly contentious column, she is always the first reader and, in that sense, apart from of course living together for 40 years and the arguments and debates we have had. I am deeply fortunate in having a life partner of that kind.

Also, I don’t have a particularly developed visual sensibility. Now, I can at least appreciate the landscape here vis-à-vis a kilometre way, the distinction may have not struck me, had I not been married to Sujata for close to 40 years. We are a very argumentative family, as my children have grown older, of course I have learnt a great deal from them, about how to think through complicated personal and political choices. I have been very lucky Nandini, of course in my family but also in my mentors, in my friends and I am deeply grateful for that. Many of them are no longer around and I think of them all the time.

Someone who died, whom you also knew also quite well, who died last September was Keshav Desiraju  who gave me a sense of what a truly, skilled, brilliant, fair minded public servant could do. He taught me about life, about this country and of course about classical music of which he was such a great scholar. I would say that, there have been many people I have met, who have mostly been Indians but not only Indians. If I may just say at the end, again mention someone whom you know, who is the Catalan polymath Joan Martinez-Alier, who has been an extraordinary inspiration for me, in his ability to transgress intellectual boundaries, in his sense of mischief. So, I would say, a lot of what I have done has been made possible by the people who have befriended me and kept me going.

NS: Thank you Ram for responding on that.