Oral history interview with Tapan Raychaudhuri

Raychaudhuri, Tapan

Manjapra, Kris


  • Interviewed in Oxford, United Kingdom by Kris Manjapra
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This is June 19, 2008, in Oxford and ah this is an oral history with Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri. Professor Raychaudhuri, could you begin by just saying your date of birth please?
Date of my birth is 8th May, 1926. The Bengali date is 25th of Baisakh.
Thank You. Now in this interview we are going to begin with your university life at Presidency College, college life and then see how far we get from there. So could you speak a little bit about the important intellectual connections, both in terms of mentors and fellow students,that were important to the Presidency College years?
Well, before Presidency College, I had two years in Intermediate Arts, Scottish Church College which used to be a great college, which had been badly damaged by a year-long-- more than a year long, strike. I don't remember what the issues were but the college was badly damaged. When I first came to Calcutta, my idea was to do honors in English literature and there were several famous teachers in the city of the subject. Ah Scottish Church College had one of the most famous, Mr. Mowatt, a Scottish. My idea was that while perhaps the best teachers were in Presidency College for English literature - Tarak Sen, Subodh Sengupta, Srikumar Banerjee - I would prefer to study the subject with someone whose mother tongue was English. So, that's the main reason why I went to Scottish Church College to study with Mr. Mowatt, who benefitted me greatly. He introduced me to the principles of criticism, the Intermediate Arts which is like 'A levels' in England.
This was not taught but since this was what I was going to do honors, he introduced me to some of these. But then I decided to change my subject. In fact one of my teachers in Scottish Church College told me that if I was going to be an academic, English literature was not a fruitful field for an Indian scholar. He gave the examples of the very great teachers of English especially in Presidency College who hadn't left a legacy because he said in those conditions there wasn't-- colonial conditions-- there wasn't a scope for an Indian doing much in the field of English literature and they said on the other hand, in history, there was so much to be done. He drew attention to the achievements of Sir Jadunath Sarkar who had done brilliant sort of narrative history on the Mughal period and suggested I could think of working similarly on the economic history of the period. It appealed to me greatly, but then he said, well, if I did history, he hoped I would not run away to Presidency College! Well, I did that. Decided to do history and went off to Presidency College. And you know, incidentally I am now writing the English version of my memoirs and there I have written a lot about what exactly I got from Presidency College. You know, I think the volume should be out by the middle of 2009.
Very Good , excellent.
"So let us....middle or September, October, autumn. [pause] So briefly what I got was first was my main teacher was Susobhan Sarkar and he taught European history on the modern period. What he did was a sort of anatomy of history. He was a Marxist himself but at least in our days he didn't bring Marxism very much into European history. You see, the course was focused on political history and that is what he did mostly rather than socio-economic or cultural. He could find a pattern in each of the themes. So, he sort of, neatly broke it up into those the components and within that, you see, he showed us how to think very clearly out of a maze of details, how to pick up what is essential and see the patterns within them and the movement from one pattern to another.
He had written a book in Bengali along Marxist lines but not uh in any way dogmatic called Itihasher Dhara, or "Currents in History", where along Marxist lines he showed how -- great historical movements in history from ancient times to middle ages in Europe and Indian history as well.
Uh.. now [pause], we had really brilliant fellow students. We were very vain, Presidency College, we really thought, perhaps rightly, that this was the premier college in the country. Historically it certainly was. It's the old Hindu College. So by the time we came some hundred and twenty five years of Bengal's intellectual history was centered on that college including you know the legacy of Derozio and the Young Bengal.
To a certain extent we felt that we were carrying on that tradition and our contemporaries were really very brilliant. We spent a lot of time in the Coffee House Calcutta, just opposite the College. Some spent all their time there [laugh] not bothering to cross the road, this direction. But it was not entirely wasteful. It was not just idle gossip. We discussed anything and everything. People have started now talking about multi-disciplinary approach, talking about multi-disciplinary approach. We practiced it. You see, many of our colleagues were in the habits of show off as young people would be who are very conscious of their brilliance and, you know, their intellectual abilities, and they would carry around these very bulky volumes of classics of their subjects. I mean uh in the 19th century Kant and Hume had been popular. All these boys used to carry about the classic works of those great philosophers and the more modern ones like Bertrand Russell and so on. [Pause] And sociology was becoming a popular subject and of course economic theory. Economic theory was greatly mathematicised at the time. So I will owe you.[Pause]
And by Sociology, you mean Weber and his
Yes, Yes, Yes
Yes [pause]
and then the Indian sociologists like M.N. Srinivas and Binoy Ganguly
... M.N. [M.N. Srinivas] hadn't written yet, I am talking about the '40s,but in occasional articles and there are some Indian sociologists like Dhurjati Mukerji. So you know since one were -- partly there was intellectual curiosity, partly there was showing off but to show off you have to read this stuff and we did read them you know, we read them very, very extensively. Since my interest remained to a large extent literary, I [pause] used to read the new literature as well. One of my first - my -- among my closest friends was Amal Datta who later became an IAS officer, very powerful IAS officer, and he had great intellectual curiosity. He called these various writers he discovered his "gurus" and every other week there was a new guru. So [laugh] well, we also became part-time disciples of these gurus. ...
We read very, very extensively and that we got from our fellow students rather than the teachers. Among the teachers, the people who influenced me most were -- first there was Susobhan Sarkar...taught me to think clearly, analytically but the professors of English literature were really very great scholars. The tradition in Presidency College was a bit like old Oxbridge, people didn't write much. In fact many of them didn't write at all but they read everything and to a certain extent passed on these things. So we read Shakespeare, with Tarak Sen [Tarak Nath Sen]; more modern, we read Hardy with Sukumar Bandopadhyay. These were really great scholars. I mean, I have spent many years abroad, the great universities of the world and I have realized more and more how great they were...
...both as scholars and thinkers. And what, in retrospect, makes it very charming, they studied just for the pleasure of studying...
They had no botheration about fame because they didn't write anything.
Ah, or once in a while Tarak Sen [Tarak Nath Sen] I think has written 2 or 3 articles in his whole life. One of these which I find very [pause] very, very very charming was a... piece on The Life of The Public Buildings When There is No One There. "Night in Presidency College", it's a most sensitive piece. Then I think one or two of his articles on Shakespeare were published, standard Shakespeare studies jargons and so, but mainly they read, discussed and passed on their knowledge to their students and this I found very, very wonderful. From Presidency College I went to post graduate department in university [Calcutta University].
After the 3 years?
Ah in those days graduate -- undergraduate studies were 2 years.
2 years.
Taking the intermediate it was 4. 'Ah' now it is 3 years but 2+2. The actual honors course we studied for two years and then for 2 years were graduate studies. Post graduate we found a bit disappointing because while there were very great scholars [pause] there were not good teachers. In fact most of them were not terribly concerned with teaching. Some of them I got the feeling considered it a waste of time because they were serious researchers, you know, some of them they were very badly paid so they had to spend some time earning money doing this or that.
They were teachers at Calcutta University?
Yeah, yeah. Some of them were teachers in the colleges with part time teaching in Calcutta University but they were very great scholars like Hem Raychaudhuri, Suniti Chaterji, ah Binoy Sarkar. They were giants in their fields.
How about the literary -- the founder of... the 2 founders of the comparative literature department...ah Sudhindranath Dutta...
Who? Who are the...?
I might be getting their names wrong, a....
Buddhadeb Basu?
Yeah Buddhadeb Basu and ah, anyways, yeah
Who else was there? You know, but the people I am talking about in terms of scholarship, Suren Dasgupta, historian of philosophy. His scholarship was absolutely massive. He had read everything there was to read in Indian philosophy and not just in Indian philosophy. His Cambridge thesis was on Immanuel Kant, so he was well trained in both, but they were very bad teachers. I think they didn't spend much time thinking about teaching. Hem Raychaudhuri [Hem Chandra Raychaudhuri], he was in very bad health then, he would come only once a week, teach for about half an hour or so. He was a good teacher. He could sort of vivify the historical scenes he was talking about. I remember one particular lecture on the coming of ah the... you know central Asian tribes ah to India. You see this is normally considered one of the dullest passages in Indian history because one doesn't know much, one talks only about the numismatics, there are no texts and so on. Now this man would start with the ecology of central Asia, from where these people came...
... then went on to details of social history: how they dressed; what they ate; why they suffered shortage of food and how as a result the different groups wave after wave started coming towards India, and how they settled down. It was absolutely brilliant. He didn't write that well. He was an overcautious person. He was always afraid of making mistakes. Strangely nervous. He used to study 18-20 hours a day. So by the age of 50 he was a nervous wreck. You see his [pause] blood pressure shot up, he was bed ridden, he managed to come once a week. University authorities had told him you shouldn't bother about coming but he was also a very dutiful person so he wanted to come and [pause] so there was that stimulation but directly we didn't get anything from these people.
Because I don't think they were bothered about teaching.
I think the person I was... I am getting his name wrong still perhaps but Sudhin Dutta. Is that right?
Sudhin Dutta.
Yes. The poet and ...
Yeah, yeah.
...literature scholar?
He was a great poet and also I think his literary works, his essays were very good but he was not exactly a professional scholar.
I would not describe Buddhadeb Basu also as a professional scholar. They were literary persons and literary scholars, in their own rights. Ah but these were creative scholars, researchers particularly 3 or 4 of them, they were not all directly our teachers, Hem Raychaudhuri [Hem Chandra Raychaudhuri], Suniti Chatterji, Suren Dasgupta, these are about the top scholars in their field, in the whole world, nothing to compare them.
How about Kazi Wadud [Kazi Abdul Wadud]?
Again the intellectual rather than a scholar but Wadud was not one of our teaching staff, no. I personally happen to know him and what was very remarkable about him was his liberal spirit. This is the great age of Muslim and Hindu communal, not so much Hindu communalism as the rise of Muslim communalism and the Pakistan ideal [The Idea of Pakistan]. [pause] He didn't share it. But his views on the origins of communalism also... were rather different from the standard liberal nationalist one. He thought that rule of the Muslim rulers had been really bad for inter-community [inter-community conflict]. I think he was mistaken there. We know much more about those periods by now. I don't think there was any inter-community conflict in the past.
First, there wasn't a sense of community in an India-wide sense. No one thought that there is Muslim or Hindu community. That was not one's concern. One knew what was Hindu. One knew what was Muslim but not parts of India-wide communities. That's something very new, very 19th century. So I think Wadud Sahab was mistaken on that point but [pause] there were other people, Mushirul's father Mohibul Hassan, he was a very devoted scholar, not a great scholar and he used to say that the policies of the Muslim rulers was communal. For example, yes, Mughals married . . . successive generations of Mughals married Hindu ladies. Did they ever give their own daughters in marriage to Hindus? No, they didn't. But this wasn't entirely true about Bengal. In Bengal the sultans especially of the Sayyid dynasty considered the local Muslims too low class. So they married off their daughters to the Hindu Brahmin zamindars. Brahmins, caste-wise and secular statuswise the zamindars are at the top.
Was... I have a feeling that he wasn't but Bhupendranath Dutta as a historian he was more of a para-, para-academic figure. Bhupendranath Dutta?
Bhupen Dutta-- again an intellectual rather than a...
Than a scholar?
Scholar. Yeah he knew a lot. I knew him well, as I have written about him in Bangal Nama. Again this is the coffee house clientele. He had nobody, he could barely afford a cup of coffee so we would go out, sit with him and listen to him...
...and ah would buy some snacks for him for which he was grateful. Evidently he could not afford to buy his snack in the coffee house. But you see, he had deep knowledge besides his Marxism of Indian revolutionary tradition [radicalism] and he had worked with Lenin. But he didn't want to talk about those things, whenever I asked him he said don't.... he would avoid it. We asked him over to give lectures sometimes, he would always talk only about dialectical materialism and he was not very good at talking so...
And I wonder about your -- you, you were saying that the students at Presidency College were aware of their unique place, in India, but they must also have been aware of their regional identity as Bengalis. It was mostly a Bengali institution. So how did that...I mean even in terms of writing history there is a tradition of writing Bengali, histories of Bengal versus histories of India...
No they wrote history of India because you see frankly those of us who went into...most of these boys would not go into the academic profession because, you see, '47 is when the country became independent. All the best boys with some exceptions, say Amlan Dutta he became an academic. In fact, in coffee house Amlan Dutta was a great influence. He had no time for small talk, he would sit down and ask "what shall we discuss today"?
He was, was he your age at this point?
1 year senior.
But he was very serious?
Oh very, very serious, yeah, yeah. And of course the communists were very serious.
He being...he was a communist?
No, no, no.
No at that point he wasn't?...
He was from the very beginning totally opposed to communism. He wrote one small book called For Democracy which he sent to various people and Einstein wrote back to him appreciating his attempt, he received hundreds of books every day, don't have time to read them. Accidentally I opened your book and my attention got riveted.
I thought he was one of the early, one of the few followers of...people interested in M.N. Roy in the 1940s.
Yes, yes.
But that made him an anti-communist.
Anti-communist rather than communist.
So he was into humanism, radical humanism and so forth, I see...
Well later he became . . . intellectually he was Gandhiite [Gandhian politics]. He never became a good, well he became active in village construction work. He worked with, you see, this extreme revolutionary who later became a Gandhiite, try to remember his name, it will come back.
Your relationship with Amlan Datta was...did you...
Very close, very close.
He was one year older and you would spend...
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
...frequently at the coffee house?
He had a group, I was not a part of that group but personally I was very close to him and ah so yeah.
And then so ah you were then in the postgraduate program at the Calcutta University program, for how many years?
2 years.
2 years.
But 2 years then when I decided to do research, very few people could afford to do full-time research. We had no money and in the entire History Department there was one fellowship. Not an annual fellowship, just one fellowship. If anyone got it he got it for three years so you have to wait three years. So what did we do? We became lecturers in colleges, full-time if lucky, part-time if not lucky. So after graduation. . . my M.A. degree, I started teaching in a small college in Howrah, Narasingha Dutta College, which was an undergraduate college, it had BA pass, no honors courses. So there wasn't a...I mean they paid only Rs. 100. Fortunately at that time I also got a part time job in Scottish Church College. So in the morning I would teach in ah Narasingha Dutta, afternoon I would go off to... and whenever -- we had one off-day a week, then I would work in the library and Saturday-Sunday we worked in the library. I had decided already on my subject, first I would work on Mughal history and then... and at this time...introduced me to Sir Jadunath Sarkar.
And while in the postgraduate class I had got to know Nihar Ranjan Ray. He was the major influence on my intellectual development with his great history of Bengal, you know this sociological approach. I did not take any particular social scientific line in my studies, I depended on my own wits, but I was influenced by the way Nihar Ranjan Ray thought and wrote so, and scholarship-wise the man who helped me was Sukumar Sen, the great historian of Bengali language. And then I got to know Sir Jadunath through ah Narendra Krishna Sinha. And when I had got a bit ahead with Persian, I started going to his personal library, in his own house and sit down there and read mainly 2 Persian texts of which he had unique copies. One is the History of the Conquest of Bengal by the Mughals another was for a later period, collection of letters. So this is what we had... that's about it.
The ah this point you were with the Gandhian stream, the Marxist stream, the humanist stream, you know, all these various intellectual streams...
...where did you position yourself?
I positioned myself, I was a nationalist, you see I come from a family of nationalists. In '42 ... August '42 my father, my elder brother, we all went to prison for participation in the Quit India Movement. [pause] Ah [pause] so basically I was in the Indian National Congress because we still expected that there would be one massive rising in which we would take part, we somehow didn't expect to see the independence in our lifetime.
We really did not
Even in '42 it seemed...
In '42...
In '42 we were very young, 16. We thought that we would win it, that time, our calculations was that it is a very massive rising, it split down here but ah...Bengal not everywhere but three districts in Bengal the power was in hands of the people.
Yeah, not in my district and the... we had thought that we'd get it then but when it failed, we were demoralized and we didn't accept anything in our life. '45 the leaders were released, Nehru came to Calcutta, addressed us, now about a million people. We couldn't hear anything [laughs] because the ah [pause] microphones failed, the sound system failed. We could see Nehru gesticulating very, very angry. And his statement was "look, get ready we'll have to fight again".
We thought that this would be our life, we will have some small job somewhere, teaching, sustaining ourselves but we would be primarily foot soldiers of the national movement and we were ready for it. Independence is the last thing we expected. And even more, what we never expected were the communal riots. And then you see we were completely alienated from British rule, not that we were ever in its favor, but during the war, you see, we... many of us were willing to go into the army, provided the Cripps Mission succeeded. You know, now we know Churchill and ah Linlithgow was undermining the mission, unknown to the labor colleagues in the British cabinet. After that we thought it would be a long haul we would not see in our lifetime, like the previous generation of [pause] ah nationalist activists, we saw our future as in and out of the prison. Ah we thought next generation by that time...
...they would be free, but then it came in '47 so in action I remained a Gandhiite, you know, spinning the wheel and all that, but I didn't have much faith in that. I had faith in the basic ideology of non-violence. I thought that worked because the few experiences I had of direct encounter with the police, I thought it was immensely helpful, you know. It was practical. . . you remained calm, you didn't have any anger or fear. I mean, it's like being, you see high morale in actual armed warfare, ah because we didn't have arms, this was our weapon and I thought it did work, there is no question, but Gandhi's economic ideas, I had doubts. By that time, these were the things we used to discuss, we had doubts about that, his political strategies also, you know, he would never tell anyone what he was going to do. He would start something and it would be very sort of ad hoc. We didn't know...we didn't realize that we would ever achieve independence. But we were willing to follow him, we were willing to follow him, because no one else could lead the country in the same way.
This was the time when Subhas Bose was coming into prominence. People talk of him as a Leftist. He wasn't that much of a Leftist in terms of political ideology. He didn't see great difference between communism and fascism. He thought both had good points. He was a program-oriented person; action and program oriented. The sort of twenty points that these are the things we have... not bound together by any theoretical framework. So while we admired him greatly -- he stayed in our house couple of times in Barisal on his tours through India. Ah we [pause] we were not his followers partly -- especially when he fell out with Gandhi. I thought this won't do. [pause] Marxism, many of the ideas of Marxism appealed at two levels. One, the purely practical which not so much Marxist as democratic socialist that - have some biscuit...
Ah, yeah, yes.
[pause] That ah [pause] you see, we realized that something had to be done for the masses. I mean, there was not much point in independence if the masses remain where they were. What should be done, that we have done. We saw that there was great utility, purpose, constructive program. But we did not see it as solving the problem, these were palliatives and increasingly as we read into socialism, I believe particularly in a poor country, the state had to be involved. I still believe that very much more. You see this sort of globalization and economic development is not going to reach to the masses. Thirty percent are still semi-starving, so this is how... but [pause] we had read Kessler and I believed it and we didn't have much illusion about the Soviet system.
So it had to be some sort of democratic socialism and since Nehru seemed to represent that we were really followers of Nehru.
Ah that's where we stood.
Who... who were the theoretical enunciators of this democratic socialism?
Well the main enunciator was Jayaprakash Narayan and Nehru in his many speeches and later after independence in his action, he was the main projector. In Bengal we didn't have many theoreticians projecting it, I mean the young Congress cadres in which we were . . . most of us used to think about those lines but not officially as members of the Congress Socialist Party. There were several socialist parties-- Ram Manohar Lohia's Revolutionary Socialist Party. We are not members of that. I mean, I was a young cadre and a member of the Congress party but my theoretical belief was the sort of thing which Nehru tried to do after independence. And I still believe all this talk about the damage he has done is rubbish.
Without the things he did we would not have got where we are today. He built the framework, he built the foundations, it's on the basis of that today, in fact he didn't go far enough. His weakness was on the welfare side. We expected that is where he would do the most, but there was too much on his plate and too many forces to take on. He dare not alienate everyone.
What was it like um living...well, you know, the years 1947-1948, in a moment in history that was completely unwritten, where there was no sense of what the future would be? What was this for you and your age?
It was very hard, very, very hard, various levels. The country had been partitioned [Partition] we had left home. Ironically I had to literally work from 8 in the morning to 10 in the evening. You see we were not exactly affluent but livelihood was not a problem. We were zamindars, we had house, we had servants, we had very little money but enough money to live on and we came over to India totally pauperized.
This is from Barisal.
Yeah, Barisal...
And the whole family moved during Partition?
Yeah and so my brother and I, we had to earn living.
For the whole family?
For the whole family. Yeah, my brother was in business but it was, you know feast or famine. Sometimes, we would have a big income which we would spend it all and then for a year no income at all, like that. So it was my bigger income which kept us going for several years. Then, the government, you know, this is the famous "license permit raj". The government used to...part of the economy was under their control, say something like transport, private transport, not the state transport. So they would give licenses to people to, say, run a bus, run half a dozen taxis. So my father bought one of these licenses to run, that became their means of livelihood.
He ran a taxi or a bus?
A bus.
On a route, we had couple of buses, I think, yeah. But this was not immediately. We came over in '48, this was the year I left for England to study on a state scholarship. So it was a very hard time and then you see we had lived through the Calcutta Riots in '46 which I have described at length in my memoirs. The occasional, you know, acts of mutual violence continued and then there were the reports from the Punjab, Bihar and Noakhali. It was above everything else, heart-breaking. This is the last thing that we had expected because during the Pakistan movement until '46 there had been no violence, mutual... but '46 onwards it was continuous and massive violence. That was very, very unacceptable.
And...so moving now to your studies in...
England, so you came to Cambridge...
Oxford, sorry.
I came to Oxford, Balliol College, got the scholarship.
What scholarship did you get?
State scholarship. Yeah. And [pause]
Who were the main...the main influences on you in Cambridge?
In Oxford?
In Oxford. I am sorry, yeah.
You see I will not say that there were main influences that way. You see here I got very close to a group of Marxist historians although later the most famous was Raphael Samuel, the founder of the History Workshop and oral history and all. He was absolutely brilliant and then he later used to teach in Ruskin College I think. There were others. You see in this group there was this Trotskyite, ah, Peter Sedgwick who wrote a biography of Trotsky. Then my immediate neighbor was ah [pause] Christopher Hill, but I would not say that they were directly great influences on me. You know the Marx, Marxist I would say Marxistic, you see, I did not believe in the economic interpretation of the history, but what I did believe in is that it is a major influence which is often ignored, and I believed in the class analysis of history, that there are conflicts based on class and it may not be the moving force in history but it is a major one.
This and ah...then I started reading into the Annales School of History. They influenced my thinking greatly. See my teacher here C.C. Davis was very badly treated by Oxford. They never gave him a fellowship. They did not offer him a permanent job, that is why every 5 years they would renew the contract and that kind of thing. He was very, very bitter. He was an old fashioned historian but an exceedingly good supervisor. He would read every line. Here in those days most thesis supervisors would read at most one third of the thesis and tell them "you do this, do that," some didn't read it at all. In that context, C.C. Davis was a wonderful ah supervisor and I was very fond of this man and I hated the way he was treated. He taught me to write a thesis, you see. Actually there was another person. Ah Vincent Harlow was the professor of Imperial and then they started calling it the Commonwealth History. He ran a seminar called "How to Write a Thesis". It was very great training. Among another things, there was one session on punctuation and he...we realized how important punctuation was. Ah, and the importance of writing straight, without flourishes. So between these two, I learned to write you know.
Though my thinking was not influenced by them. I sort of picked it up from the -- the one thing was this exposure to the journals. We didn't read journals in India very much. They were not easily available, so I became familiar with the current and developing historical thought.
Um. And you mentioned the Annales School. Um did any...were there any other, what were there conferences or sessions in which members of Annales would come to Oxford and you would listen to them was it that it really happened through mediated...through texts more than through personal encounter?
Yeah. Among the great historians I got to know were not all in Oxford [pause] what the name was? Hobsbawm, Hobsbawm. Because Hobsbawm was a friend of Christopher Hill, he came occasionally. So I got to know him and Gordon Child. All sort of leftist leaning historians but I cannot say that I was directly influenced by them. If anything attracted me really was, this was the, Annales School. It's not very obvious in my writings, what I am trying to do now again is not along their line but it sort of drew my attention to certain areas of human behavior. Ah...
Which areas?
You know, the day to day concerns of human beings. I mean anthropology, though the article which influenced me greatly is written by my contemporary, Keith Thomas, who was at Balliol, on anthropology and history. He showed how it is very, very relevant and some of my work is influenced by that.
You know, in the 1950s, two other very strong intellectual streams were phenomenology and Heidegger, all of this, I mean in some ways, anthropological philosophy...
On the other side Habermas and Karl Deutsch and the public sphere... at that point they were not...
No because, Oxford then was the place of... Oxford you know, analytical philosophy. It didn't influence me.
It didn't seep in?
I was much more attracted to the pragmatic historiographic traditions, the more skeptical traditions.
Did you experience... how about the social experience of life at Oxford. Did you experience racism as a student at Balliol?
No I cannot say I experienced racism. You see the graduate student in Oxford in the early '50s suffered from acertain isolation. I mean the first day Icame the senior tutor in the college met me and said that you will have to plough a lonely furrow. The life of the graduate student here is you do your own work. Sometimes you see your supervisor. Of course this was not entirely true in our case because C.C. Davis used to see us a lot but still it was, no. Racism within the university certainly not, but there was a lot of racism in society at that time. Open, unabashed. You see, you would encounter it in a shop when you are standing in a queue...typically what they did was negative rather than positively offensive.
You are standing in the queue, they would thank, say thank you to the person in front of you and thank you to another person, and not to you say thank you. That sort of thing. Occasionally in a restaurant the waitress will say "we don't understand you foreigners", language like that, and when it really caused inconvenience when, you see then, the arrangement was you stayed in the college for a year and then move to digs certified by the university. You know, where you were, at bed and breakfast. In the digs also there was no discrimination because they were authorized by the university, they have been checked and it is not that they were trying to be nice, I didn't feel any, because they have been doing it for long time. Some of them were scouts in the colleges and they are use to having foreigners. Where we encountered it and it became a problem is after we were not staying in either digs or in the college, to find accommodation. Sometimes they would guess straight from your accent that you were not British.
They had advertised and then -- "oh it has been just been let out." In one or two cases, they would say oh come and have a look. As soon as they saw us, oh just now we have let it out. This I saw later also in '60, I came back to England, married and my daughter was born here. I went to the leading housing agency in London for the price I mentioned they gave me list of 800 accommodations of which only two would take colored people with children.
And those two were impossible. One was actually a brothel, so we got accommodation through friends. So actually I find in spite of everything, racism as a social phenomenon is much less now.
Today. It is as a political phenomenon it is powerful, organized. The poorer people are feeling threatened but the population in general I don't feel is very racist now or they have apprehensions about foreigners, about migrants etc. Anti-migrant policies are popular, but still I would say in the British population today, despite facts like rising racist crimes etc., it is very much less than what we saw in '50s and '60s.
Why did you decide not to study in a...or not to continue studies in places like Paris or maybe study in America...these were not even on the map at that time?
Yeah it was on the map. Actually the scholarship I had got, first I got the scholarship for studying in America, in Columbia...
Oh you did?
Yeah, actually taking admission in Columbia, but that was on a scholarship, the Fulbright Scholarship. But I had fallen -- I was then a teacher in a government college in Calcutta. Then I had fallen foul of a senior bureaucrat and he wrote to . . . later, I found this out much later... he wrote to the US Information Service that they were going to take disciplinary action against me and would be very unhappy if the scholarship was given to me. So I didn't get that, instead I got it in here in Oxford.
So it was contingency really, just chance. Very interesting. After your, Oxford period, what happened after this?
I went back. I first got a job in - that's a very interesting story - I have written about all this in my memoir. I went back to India. There I was to take a job in Presidency College, but a curious thing happened, you know, for reasons I don't understand. There were two posts of professors. After interview they gave me the senior post and the other academic who was senior to me - was sort of an elder brother, I had worked with him earlier - they gave him the junior post.
What is his name?
Amalesh Tripathi. I had great respect for his work. He said he would resign. At that time I got the offer of the Deputy Directorship of National Archives. The Bengal government said that "look your contract is you have to pay back."
Because it was a state scholarship?
It was a state scholarship, yeah. Eventually I said yes. You know, ah not the whole amount they had spent on me, but a fixed amount in installments. So I said ok I will pay back and went off to Delhi.
Did Amal Tripathi study with you here? Was he here as well at Oxford?
No, no, no. Amalesh Tripathi was senior to me by 5 years.
Oh so he had already...
He had actually done doctorate from [pause] no...he had done it from Columbia.
So ah now you spent some time in Delhi before returning to Britain and I remember...
No, no, many years in Delhi, all years I was telling you. My job, the minister called me one day and said, "look there was a police report against you from Britain." I said, "police report against me?" I found out. You see the fact that I was friendly with Christopher Hill and his boys who are members of the Communist Party but they have all left the party during the Hungary [Hungarian Revolution], troubles in Hungary. But it had been reported that I was close to the top leadership of the British Communist Party so was a security risk at the National Archives. They offered me an alternative job. The minister said, "you come to the secretariat for a few months and then we will put you back in National, we will clear this, put you back in National Archives." I knew the latter would not happen, and I had no desire to be a bureaucrat because if I wanted that, I would have sat for the exam, you know? So that's when V.K.R.V Rao [Vijendra Kasturi Ranga Varadaraja Rao] offered me job in Delhi School of Economics as a reader in economic history and I moved. And I was there for fifteen years as a teacher. Thirteen years in Delhi School, two years in history department.
And what ah what was your...what were you writing at this time? How was your scholarship changing?
Well, what I was doing, you see, basically my interest has always been, I am making it more explicit in my English version of the... my interest has always been in how our society reacted to contacts with other cultures. The interest in this area is from a purely personal experience. In my home in a remote village in the outskirts of Indian civilization almost...these were the areas which were colonized during the Mughal period, jungle in the past. [pause] There I saw very remote presences. First of all, the basic, you know, my family, we are atheists, my father, grandfather they are both atheist.
That also is interesting. My grandfather was a follower of Auguste Comte, the positivist [Positivism], his complete work in French there. My father followed Gandhi, but this too had nothing to do with life in Barisal or [inaudible], very remote things. The traditional Hinduism which most of my relations, we were sort of extended family, followed was classical north India puranic Hinduism. Again not a local thing. Then my great grandfather was a Persian scholar and a disciple of a Sufi pir. So four or five very distant cultures were presented in our life as daily reality but none of them in their original form, all modified. This I realized when I was growing up that, well, there was a shelf full of Persian books but it is not the Sufism which the ordinary Muslim follower of Sufism... Ah and you know our lifestyle, my grandfather; westernized lifestyle but still it's a peculiar pattern of westernization. This idea I got first: that it has done things to us but we haven't simply borrowed.
So whatever I did and researched, I tried to see how we reacted in different areas of life to different patterns of contact with outside. When I went to Oxford I decided I would work for quite some time on economic history and of the Mughal period. Here I was guided by the traditional historical -- the concerns of traditional historical.... I wanted to do some new material because I felt that there were limits to the indigenous material for economic history. And I also knew vaguely that there is one massive source of which very little work has been done. This is the Dutch Company's [Dutch East India Company] records. The English Company's records have been scoured but, so I learned Dutch before I went to -- and I ...
Before you went to Oxford?
Yeah. I learned Dutch in Calcutta from a Jesuit missionary. I learned Dutch, French and Portuguese in Calcutta, then [pause] you see, I decided how would I do it. There ah C.C. Davis helped me. He said, "instead of working on the records to work directly on indigenous economic history, for purposes of thesis it will be easier, if you work on the history of their trade. Because, you know, at one level, if worse comes to worst, you summarize the records for a few years and that will be a good, you know, thesis, because no one has worked on it." So I decided to work on the Dutch Company straight along the east coast of India for an 85 year period and every vacation I would go away to Holland, Den Haag [The Hague], stay there and work on these records.
Um, and when you were in Delhi for these years, this was also I think a...quite an important period in economic history writing...
...of India. So who were your colleagues who you found particularly stimulating and this -- how did you train your students that you worked with?
Yeah, yeah I will tell you more. You see here one of my colleagues was, in the School of Economics, Irfan Habib who was in agrarian history. That's the thesis he was doing and in Delhi, you see I became a bit isolated in Delhi School because they all had interest in theory.
Very high theory you know Amartya, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Jagdish Bhagwati.
Economic theory?
Economic theory, high theory and Amartya, working to develop welfare economics. I didn't get much from them but what I did, I actually attended their lectures to get some idea of macroeconomics that went directly -- almost as an undergraduate, because I have never done it formally particularly Jagdish and Amartya. Where I got direct help was more in anthropology and sociology because now I wanted to work really on socio-economic history rather than pure economic history. You see what I did when I was in National Archives, where for a year I was the director because there was no director, I entered into an agreement, I got to know these people, the Dutch Embassy. I said "you have these wonderful records. We need it. We don't have the money". They said "We will give it to you" and they gave copies of the entire series of records of India to National Archives. So I could work there but I didn't follow up that line. My interest had moved to the 19th century and to social history. So the book I had done on the basis of my... Calcutta thesis ah...
Your Calcutta thesis? Before you left for Oxford?
Yeah before... just before I left for Oxford, I published the book [Bengal under Akbar and Jahangir: an Introductory Study in Social History]. I got the degree in '50, in '52 -- late '52, I published the book.
How old were you? At that point in '52
In '52 I was 26. Ah [pause] it's raw. I mean it's a very raw book but it has been influential and it's still read particularly in Bangladesh it's one of the prescribed reading and so on. So I decided to do a new -- ah this is when I read Keith's article in Past and Present and that happened to be ah...
On anthropology and history?
Yeah, that here is a theoretical framework which I have ignored, I should look into it and that's where two persons helped me. We made a reading list and discussed it; M.N. Srinivas and Andre Beteille.
In Delhi?
In Delhi. Delhi School of Economics.
And they were, well Andre Beteille was about you age, was he not at that point?
No younger.
He was younger than you? Meanwhile...
8 years younger
Srinivas is older?
Srinivas is slightly older. Srinivas was also my neighbor and very good friend, Andre also. ah so...
Did you know Andre Beteille from Calcutta at all?
No I met him in Delhi and on this basis I thought I would not...first I thought I would rewrite. Instead I wrote a very long introduction to the book [Bengal under Akbar and Jahangir: An Introductory Study in Social History] I had already done and did a new edition of it. So... and you see then I started thinking of what I will do in future and I thought about history of mentality. In all these years I wrote only one piece on it. There was a conference on Bengali culture and society at Hawaii. Rachel Van Baumer, she...she produced that book [Aspects of Bengali History and Society (1975)], might be of interest to you. I don't know. I think I have lost my copy now. There, on family life and morals, I produced a sketch [Norms of Family Life and Personal Morality Among the Bengali Hindu Elite, 1600-1850 (1975)], that's in '72, shortly after that I came to Oxford and after I produced this book... article... I started but meanwhile I had got the...signed the contract with Dharma Kumar for Cambridge Economic History which we planned together and then, you see it was not only our work. Some thirty people from all over the world were involved and it was very trying. People didn't answer letters and for the first volume I had taken Irfan [Irfan Habib] as my co-editor. He is the master in not answering letters. Came to Oxford, wrote, no reply. So then I decided on the ultimate measure: I went and settled down in his house [laughs]
...we sketched it out and...when was it? '73 I came to Oxford, I think, I gave them, early '80 the volumes. You see the first volume Irfan and I edited. Second volume, Dharma edited. He didn't want me to have anything to do with it except in the introductory chapter. So these. . . all these I finished in the '80's nearly 15 years after it came out...
So you had a...you had 15...about 15 years in Delhi after which...and during that period you did not write much but you were, you were developing a new approach.
Yeah and I was teaching.
And you wereteaching.
Teaching and it was during this period I went and taught abroad several times.
To where did you go?
First I came to London, to the SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies, London], as a research fellow and then Ranajit was on a fellowship at Manchester, a prestigious fellowship, Ranajit Guha.
Ranajit Guha
Yeah and he was working in London, in fact we shared a flat. Well I had bought a flat and he said "you have a room why don't you share it." I said "ok, we will share it, yeah." He was not the easiest of persons [laughs] but we did this and it was OK.
Did you have important intellectual conversations during that period?
Yes, yes. I did and... I have known him from Calcutta. I have known him from...actually I have known him since college [Presidency College] days, '43 but I got to know him well just before I was coming here to study, '52-'53. Actually I so arranged that he got my job but then he was a member of the Communist Party. As soon as the government came to know about it, they sacked him.
In Delhi?
No. Calcutta.
In Calcutta.
You know I was teaching in Central Calcutta College and then Susobhan Sarkar was head of the Department in Jadavpur. They put him up there, yeah. But here, this was '60-'61 we were staying together. We had discussions but, no, he was not very communicative about and his ideas on history developed later...
...later. He always use to go and talk to the younger historians, but this Subaltern Studies I did... he, at that time he wrote this book on rule of property [A Rule of Property for Bengal]. It was beautifully written but I think it is not a very valid book, yeah. Ah, now the influence on us at that time was Daniel Thorner because Ranajit's book was published in France, the first book. So...
And this...you mean at that time meaning early 1960s?
1960's yeah, 1960s so...
So you went, you taught abroad at...
Oh first you know I was not teaching. I was a research associate, but the work I did there was partly wasted. What I did -- I thought in one year, what I can do is to have a sort of...my ambition was quite, you know, highfalutin. Like the English factories in India, I thought I will initiate a similar series of the Dutch records which are much more copious than the English records, and I used this time to go and get the copies of the Dutch material and I started a book. I never published that. I covered in 3 years I did this but I did not publish, it is also lost by now. But that material I used later for the Cambridge Economic History in the chapters of Mughal period, the trade and other things. Ah, then I taught, got invitations to America, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Just wait one minute.
All right. Picking up . . . So, you were just beginning to speak about having traveled . . . teaching in America
Teaching in America. I taught at Duke first time round. Duke and Berkley. Then again in '69 I went to teach in America and I taught in Pennsylvania and Harvard. Since then I have been to America many times attending conferences of individual lecturers and so on. At Harvard, I shared a room with Theodore Zeldin and that was fruitful. He was thinking about, you know, his history of France. Very, very original. Some people considered him maverick. But that gave me ideas as to what to do with material. He does not believe in theories. He reads into them. But you know, this is much more subjective approach to it. And I found I would not be that subjective because this Indian influence of anthropological thinking was there. I read also -- you see, America has all these journals. I read also into social psychology, quite a bit. You see, there are journals- Journal of the History of Childhood which is psychological and I read into psychology - analytical psychology. But eventually I decided that if I use these insights, there will not be a formal theoretical structure. I went back to Susobhan Babu's teaching. He said, "look at the material and in the material, you will find your own analytical framework".
Ah did you feel pressure during the time in Delhi and during the time you were travelling abroad to be publishing? . . . publish or perish? Or not so....
A little, but in Delhi, I published hardly anything. I published a few articles and the new edition of The Cambridge, ah, the Social History of Bengal.
Which was your Calcutta . . .
The Calcutta thesis - it's the new anthropological introduction. That was very much appreciated. Keith wrote a review for Past and Present drawing fellow historians' attention to that book. And then I got involved in some important controversies [Raychaudhuri-Morris Controversy], which cost me one good friendship that was Morris D. Morris on the 19th century Indian economy. And ah also, I wrote one article on roots of mass poverty in South Asia. But then I decided to move away from it . . . from economic history. I, you see, the demarcation marks seemed to me to be between [inaudible] and historical writing.
And your methodologies or the approaches that you were drawn to even from the Oxford days were anthropology and then psychology, and... It's a different framework - in fact. So, .....
In Cambridge . . . Ah ha in Harvard among others I met Erik Erikson
and what was that . . .
You know, just meeting him and talking. We talked about Gandhi. You know Gandhi's truth individually. I didn't find it entirely convincing but an interesting way of looking at the subject.[pause]
Um did you feel in Delhi out of place? I mean, your ideas ...
In the Delhi School I did.
But that was professionally.
Professionally... yeah. No. . . something -- I didn't like Delhi. I found it very beautiful place. We had a lovely University house in Cavalry Lines just near the range. My daughter was growing. Personally it was a happy time, professionally it wasn't. In Delhi School I felt isolated. They did everything possible to make me happy, to make me Director. The center, all the cash they got for development, they poured into economic history and development. But I was not happy there. And then when I moved to the History Department, hoping to build up the History Department - it was horrible. All the worst feature of academic politics I had to endure. Every morning, get up and get a large number of abusive letters . . .people who have got jobs in this college or that. You know that sort of... It was very miserable.
Once I moved into Delhi History Department...
This is DU?
The DU History department.. Delhi University's..?
Yeah. Yeah. My first anxiety was to try and get out of it. And then Eric Stokes came to Delhi. But, you know, Gopal [Sarvepalli Gopal] had left his job as reader here and gone back to Delhi. And various Indian scholars had applied. Eric Stokes.... I had never met Eric before. We met and he [pause] you know, came back to... he was on the electoral board. He wrote to me asking . . . a telegram, that would I be interested in being considered? I sent back a telegram straightaway saying, "very much, yes". Then for four-five months I didn't hear anything. Then I heard that I had got it. I said, "I would need some time to wind-up my affairs" and then...
And this was for a position...
Reader in South Asian History.
Here at Oxford?
Yeah. And then I came here.
Ahhh, did you have any students during your Delhi years that you particularly...
Yes. Not many. But I did. Om Prakash, who later succeeded me to the chair. He was my student. And then another girl, who did not continue her work, also worked on the Dutch records, Indira Nara. But that's about all. Well, once I moved to History Department, I had several. But none of them finished their... I don't know what they did after I came away. You see, the experience there was so horrible, I really lost interest. My only -- I used to teach and then started looking for a job anywhere. Actually, Calcutta, Jadavpur University, offered me the chair, but my wife wasn't very happy about going back to Calcutta. So, I didn't insist. So, I looked for something else.
Ah so when you come to then -- return to Oxford, how old were you at that point?
In '73.. January '73, I was 46.
Going on 47.
How did you feel in some ways, you know it would seem to me that in the life-cycle of the profession... Did you feel that this was going... coming too late in your career? Were you very excited about it?
I was excited. I always wanted to come to Oxford.
To teach at Oxford?
Yeah. I applied when C.C. Davis retired. Actually, Basham [A.L. Basham] wrote to me, saying that if I applied I would have a chance. Actually at that time... You know, here these things are pre-arranged. This cannot be sort of just depend on application and see who is responding and who is not. So, I think it had been pre-arranged then that, quite rightly, he was the leading British scholar on modern India, Ballhatchet [Kenneth Ballhatchet] would get it. But Ballhatchet had a peculiar personality. He was a very fine scholar. Basham was not the best of friends with him. Basham said that the person was most likely in the British academy to get it, would probably not get it, for personality reasons. So if you apply, you would have had its chance. So I applied. I didn't get it. Ballhatchet got it, as was right. Then, Ballhatchet fought here over the taking away of the Indian Institute and left.
That's when Gopal [Sarvepalli Gopal] came. This time, I did not apply. I said, "look, I did not have any contacts here and if I was being considered somebody would have written to me."
Hmm, and this is Gopal...
Yeah, Gopal came. Gopal left, you see, he didn't get the chair in the Commonwealth History he had applied for. That went to Robinson. So he was a bit disappointed. He went back to India. That time, I did not apply either. But then when Eric wrote, I said, "OK, yes sure," and I got it. And after many years they gave me an ad hominem chair.
And, so, now in these years, so the 1970s you spent....
...Working ... was that from '73 on . . . working on the editing of the Cambridge Economic History of India [Published in 1982-1983].
Yeah. We finished that work by volumes, not '73. They gave [laugh] an ultimatum, I think that was '76 . . . that we will give you two more years. If not we'll cancel the... So '78 I finished that work. But they took 4 years to publish it; '83 they published it and that's when I started doing these other works seriously, all focused on the history of mentality.
Yes, which . . .
But the book I have not written yet. Only out of that workshop has come two books mainly.
Sorry, which workshop was this?
You know, workshop means my personal workshop on history of mentality. The first was Europe Reconsidered [Published in 1988] and the second is this collection of essays called Perceptions, Emotions, Sensibilities [Published in 1999] which is quite close to the other school of approach, except that, there is no obvious theoretical structure there. And two other things I also consider closely linked to this work: one is this translation of Haimabati Sen's widow's diary [From Child Widow to Lady Doctor: The Intimate Memoir of Dr. Haimabati Sen (2000)] and my memoirs also is largely orientated to this thinking. You see, it's as much a history of that period in Bengal -- social and cultural history -- as my own life's story. In fact there is very little on my own life's story. So I would consider these four books important. If I live another three to four years, I will be able to finish this book.
The one on mentalities?
The big book putting everything together. Otherwise it will not remain finished. I am doing this English version in ... that I am finishing now. It will take another three to four months.
Skipping ahead now. But the project . . . the project that you just mentioned on mentalities when you say "putting it all together", what is the scope, what is the material that you . . .?
... In the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I have a central theme. In fact, which is the central theme of all the varied work I have done. Central theme is: the contact with the West for Indian civilization proved to be a catalyst. It's not westernization, it's not . . . well, if you call it modernization, this is the character of the modernization. It is not just taking certain artifacts from the West, not certainly imitating the West, though these elements are there but it's like putting an agent . . . chemical agent into something and starting a process. And what happens, the end result is not just the combination of the new thing you put in and the old thing, but something very different. And it's in these terms that I am trying to look at, with comparison with other parts of India, with Bengali, you know, basic concerns of existence; how it changes, what are the new things which happen in interpersonal relationships, ideas of the good life, ideas of relationship to society including nationalism there; from this point of view. And ideas of...you know, you can put it crudely as man and God, but its not just man and God; man in the universe. Yeah.
Now, in the 1970s . . . well, your thinking has obviously been very important to many historians . . .younger historians and one sees the influence in. . . more in subtle ways than perhaps in strong. . . I mean, with Ranajit Guha, it's clear that he wanted to form a school [Subaltern Studies]...
No, I have no school in mind here and I am not interested in influencing other people. I'm interested in teaching, the way I am thinking about the subject, the way it excites me, and I have invested a great deal of energy in teaching. I mean, when you say . . . well, I've got some twenty graduate students from here doing their thesis.
Over the years?
Yeah, their work obviously is influenced by mine but not in any particular line of thinking, more about how to handle history. I have left them free to do what they like but kept an eye that, you know, you keep within certain limits, certain frameworks of analysis. So that way I have influenced but I haven't given any particular set of ideas or encouraged people to work in particular areas. You see I am a teacher. Ranajit is a guru. [Laugh]
Yes, that's the difference between the two.
Amongst the more than twenty graduate students you have, are there .. . is there a select few that you think of as particularly brilliant/ important?
Who are they?
You know,I will go back to the old days. The most solid in the whole lot has been, in the traditional economic history, Om Prakash. He did exactly what I did in another area of India and then gone on from there. Among my Oxford students, several I consider very outstanding. One is Shahid Amin, the other is Gyan Pandey [Gyanendra Pandey]. These two were most outstanding achievers, though I think perhaps the most significant thesis that has been written under my supervision is not any of these but one who doesn't quite compare in intellectual caliber, is Nandini Panda's book [Nandini, Bhattacharya-Panda, Appropriation and Invention of Tradition: The East India Company and Hindu Law in Early Colonial Bengal (2008)] on . . .This really changes one's thinking on the subject on Hindu law and the nature of British influence on it, you see, "Appropriation of Tradition", that. The end result is very, very important.
So with these three scholars that you just mentioned who were your students, all three of them really did something that seems quite fresh or new. Now with Gyan Pandey, there is, he. . .
And his first book was based on the Oxford thesis on the nature of nationalist mobilization in UP [Economic Dislocation in Nineteenth Century Eastern UP (1981)] during the '30s and '40s.
There, at least, you know, Shahid Amin and Gyan Pandey there is real facility with theory. And there is . .
Yeah, that they didn't get from me. That, you see, their work which is mainly known is done under Ranajit's influence, but I think Gyan has gone beyond that. Gyan, you see, in terms of deconstruction, he is brilliant and he doesn't use a lot of, you know, jargon, he writes directly but his brilliant deconstruction. How various notions were formed by the colonial government? What is their role? . . . How and why they are false? He shows it absolutely brilliantly. And Shahid's late work is on Chauri Chaura [Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922-1992], brilliant piece of work. Again it has nothing to . . . He worked with me on, excellent work [Surgarcane Cultivation in Gorakhpur, U.P., c. 1890-1940: A Study in the Interrelations between Capitalistic Enterprise and a Dependant Peasantry] . . . he hasn't published it I think . . .has he published it on the sugarcane industry yeah in Gorakhpur, his own area? He has moved away from economic history altogether.
But of course, you yourself were ... started as an economic historian but had always felt some ...
I didn't quite start . . . I had started as a social historian. Then I moved ... done certain amount of work in economic history. And have been, you see, here, the first thing I did when I came here, actually I was invited to listen to various lectures, seminars and debated with the Cambridge historians and they asked me to write about it and I wrote which was quite an influential essay in its time. "Indian Nationalism as Animal Politics" ["Indian Nationalism as Animal Politics," Historical Journal 22, no. 3 (1979): 747-63]. Yeah.
So before speaking about the relationship to the Cambridge group [Cambridge School], could you go a little bit... tell me a little bit more about your teaching style . . .You mentioned you. . . you know that Oxford . . . old Oxford style is that people read thirty percent or less of a work. Then of course, there is the addas [adda], you know, context that you know well. What was your mix of. . . then there was this C. C. Davis's style you mentioned...
I was the traditional Calcutta-type teacher here. I took a great deal of trouble on my lectures. Of course, the typical Oxford lecturer in my student days was something different. They presented something they were reading or thinking about. There was no covering of the entire course. I tried to combine the two. I would cover the course but not in its entirety, but take a theme and around that theme put a great deal of labor into it; something that will not go into my research. That labor. Because the two were separate. [pause] Ah, and then, in my research and guiding of research, I allowed the students to choose what subject they liked. This I got from America.
You know, in the American system, I found, you know, for undergraduate students you have a term paper and how one move towards focusing on a subject. I encouraged them to do that. At times it has helped. Ah, another very important piece of work which has been done with me was by a Bangladeshi scholar, Tazeen Murshid. Tazeen worked [The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses, 1871-1977 (1995)] on the tension between the secular and the sacred in the intellectual history of the Bengali Muslim intelligentsia. I first told her that this cannot be done, there isn't enough evidence. She didn't listen to me. I said, "look, you are taking a risk and I will help you since you are determined." And then she produced enough evidence see, partly because the one totally secular movement in modern Bengali Islam and one of the leaders was her own father. It's called "Buddhir Mukti Andolan"
This is the Freedom of Mind Movement.
Freedom of Mind. Freedom of intelligence.
Of Intelligence Movement.
They were beaten up in Dhaka Hall and so on but they stuck to their guns. So what she produced is excellent.
And who was her father again?
Ah oh Sarwar Murshid.
Did you have students come and stay with you in your living room and discuss? Did you produce a kind of adda, or . .?
Not adda. Well, I had a lot of adda with my students, especially the Bengali ones. You see these became a home from home for them and Hashi likes to cook and entertain. When she was younger and stronger we used to have a big party of some 60 students and colleagues every summer and the rooms always were in and out of the house, there was a lot of adda. But I didn't mix the two. Occasionally an adda was brought up for the network so I kept the two separate yeah.
Hmm. [pause] And ... in terms of the . . . in your Oxford time, who were your colleagues? Not necessarily only here in Oxford but also internationally, who were your closest conversation partners?
You know, what I tried to do, Indian studies was a very isolated subject you know. I tried to develop some seminars in collaboration with the others.
With other historical fields?
Other historical fields. Yeah. You see for example with Commonwealth History, I tried ... started participating in it regularly which none of my predecessors had done. They have done what I call you know unilateral declaration of Indian methods. So, but, I attended the Commonwealth History seminar. I started attending the Economic History seminar presenting papers -- papers of India to be presented there. Then I started seminar in Comparative History, Economic and Social History with two of my colleagues.
Um Patty O' Brian, historian of France and England, and ah ah [pause] ah Mark Elvin historian of China. His ideas influenced me directly. I have used some of these ideas in Cambridge Economic History. Ah in between I had taught in Australia where in ANU [Australian National University] I came in contact with another economist studying developing societies, but he studied an interesting type of developing societies, not the great countries like India or China, but the islands. And he described their economy as affluent subsistence, Fisk [Ernest Kelvin Fisk]. I have used this idea to describe pre-colonial Indian economy with modifications. Another idea I took from Mark Elvin namely the idea of um "high-, um high-level equilibrium," both of these are in the Cambridge Economic History. And I interacted with them quit a lot. So, I broke the isolation. Then Arjun Sengupta who was the financial advisor to Mrs. Gandhi came at a year's fellowship here, and he proposed setting up a center and got not a large amount -- about GBP 10,000 a year for us, and we stretched it up to 15 years when Manmohan [Manmohan Singh] was [pause] Finance Minister but then they stopped it after 15 years. We saved a little, we could continue for a little longer. So long as I was teaching, the center was there.
This was the Center for South Asian Studies [Oxford Center for South Asian Studies] Research.
Yeah, yeah. So, there also I could bring in everybody who had some interest in South Asia from ancient India to modern economic development. We produced a brochure indicating the areas of interest in South Asia. To a certain extent from that now they will have a degree in South Asian Studies though the Center has disappeared. Oh I also worked with someone with whom I was in deep disagreement. That was Neville Maxwell. Here I had no such isolation.
At Oxford?
I was very, very happy and I started writing almost immediately after coming here.
So maybe the fact, the time in Delhi, you were not able to . . . you were not writing is a ...ah ah marks or indexes the level of discomfort that you felt there intellectually.
Yeah, yeah. There is a School [Delhi School of Economics] for one reason and the horror story of the History Department. It was really a horror story [laugh].
But you know speaking about mentalities or emotions, did you feel ah. . . were you beginning to question your own productivity, your own ability to produce, because you were already 44-45 and this is already . . .
I wasn't questioning. I felt frustrated that I wasn't doing it.
I see. You had things to say but it was frustrating that it was not . . .
Yeah, I was not saying it. But you know, it's like removing a block as it were. I mean, I started writing within a couple of months of here, wrote on a variety of subjects. The first thing I did was that essay on "Indian Nationalism as..." ["Indian Nationalism as Animal Politics" (1979)]. It has been quite influential, you know, in the debate and ah. . . [pause]
And how about in terms of your actually . . . let me ask you a different question . . . about that . . . about the differences and connections between what you were doing here and the so-called "Cambridge School" with quotes around it. What is...?
You know, [laugh] Cambridge School . . . I don't want to say . . . it's not entirely fair either. [pause] Ultimately though some of them like Washbrook [David Washbrook], who I think is very, very brilliant; very brilliant indeed....
...excepting him, [pause] you see, you have a general gut reaction to a subject. And that basic gut reaction is that the Raj [The British Raj] was a good thing. My basic gut reaction is that it was evil. It was evil and it did a lot of damage; much more harm than good. This is the basic difference which cannot be crossed, partly because they will not openly state that they too are chaplains on the pirate ship of empire. They are. And where they are not, like say, David, they have such a negative view of Indian indigenous politics. It comes very close. They don't recognize it and they feel very hurt if I ask them. The whole imperialist view of nationalism that it's a game of a few self-seeking people and the same justification in contemporary Indian politics. He said, "it didn't happen in a day." I said, "no, it didn't happen in a day but we are talking about two completely different situations: colonial rule where nationalism is a living force and post-colonial power politics, where the politician necessarily is after power and not for abstract ends, but for his own good as well. It's a very basic different situation."
Ah how did this become over the years very tense, very antagonistic or did it remain very somehow professionally . . .
Antagonistic mood in India. I don't like antagonisms. You see, this is where my Gandhian orientation helps. Repeatedly we were told, my father told me, our local leader told me and of course the nation's father was telling me: we have no enemies. And I believe in that in a pragmatic sense. You see . . . look at the history of the world in the last 100 years. Two major devastating wars and Germany and England are allies today. Japan, where the first atom bombs were tried, the second one for no reason at all is close ally of, ah. . . You see one is guided over time by one's self-interest and the nature of self-interest changes. So at a pragmatic level there is nothing like permanent enmities unless you create an emotional basis for it which the Hindu communalists are trying to do today in India. It can be done, it can be done. It's disastrous to do it.
And maybe the last question before I leave. [pause] The . . . well , maybe I will just . . . so when I was saying earlier that there seems to be a . . . that I see the connections. I was thinking for example of Gyan Pandey obviously in his work where he has interest in mentalities. Rajat Ray in his interest in emotions. Dipesh Chakrabarty and his interest in again mentalities. However, except for -- not Rajat, but the other two they are thought of today as more as Subaltern scholars.
They are Subaltern [Subaltern Studies] scholars.
And so I wonder because you have spoken about the axis between Oxford and Cambridge, but then the axis between Oxford and Sussex . . .
I don't have an axis with them, but I accept their work. You see, I think, one is at one's best in studying things one understands and have access to. I have more access than any of them to Subaltern mentality because I have grown up around them. I have lived in peasant homes during 1942, but I still don't understand my -- our masses. I have sympathy for them, because I belong to a class which has done enormous damage to them, but I would not like to write about things or people of which I have a limited understanding. So while I feel they are doing very important work, this is not work I can do. And the other questions which have arisen . . .that in the colonial context, the elite is also a subaltern. Who are the elite clerks who could barely manage to maintain their families, school teachers, local journalists? You know the difference between them and the real subaltern is considerable but more in social than in economic terms. I mean, some of our leadership whose income was one-fourth of ours were worse off than some of our peasants. [laugh] So who is . . . their social status is higher: caste Hindus, zamindars, but they barely manage to have two square meals, you see. So, I don't have an axis with them. I appreciate what they write, particularly Gyan [Gyanendra Pandey] because on one point his interest is the same as mine. I have no respect for the 'Raj' and he shows them up. Severely shows them up. But I have admiration for their work. I have admiration, and I believe they have done very important things, but I would not venture to do it. You see, Ranajit-da has absolutely no contact with the.... He worked more in the village than I... with the peasant. We had much more to do with the peasants but even there I would not dare. I don't understand them. I have chosen a subject where I have access, you see?
This is the continuation of an Oral History with Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri on June 19th, 2008 in Oxford. Now I wanted to ask about the development of the field of post-colonial studies . . . not the field but the movement. It really began you could say in the early 1980s. Ranajit Guha, Homi Bhabha, Sussex University. What . . .did you have any relation, exchange with these figures at that time about what they were doing?
No. No.
When you . . . Obviously you are aware of their conferences or the 1984 conference "The Empire Writes Back" and so forth. What were you thinking about this . . . about their developments? What they were doing?
At one level . . . you see, first I didn't take much interest. You see, we have seen several intellectual movements in our time. First powerful influence of Marxism in our youth, then structuralism, then post-modernism beginning with Foucault and others. This, especially as presented by Bhabha and Spivak. I frankly first didn't take it very seriously. [pause] I thought these were... you see exercises in unintelligibility, but then I didn't take much interest [pause] so, I kept away from it as it were. You see Subaltern Studies is a different thing. I did not take it as part of post-colonial studies because its reference point initially at least was not post-colonial phenomenon and so far as I could understand Bhabha and Spivak, their concern was with abstract theory. It all started with literary theory, questioning canons etc., and I did not find anything particularly illuminating and the absence of substance and Gayatri's tendency to pick up something from here, something from there and there apply her thesis didn't excite me or attract me. I thought I could do without it. I had enough on my plate. You see, up to post-structuralism, I found something . . . oh incidentally, deconstruction I found interesting. This is the only thing in this whole lot ...
Particularly Derrida...
Derrida, yeah. I mean it really starts with Foucault's Archeology of Knowledge [The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969)]. That I found interesting. It really . . . you see, you can never get at truth or ultimate truth, but you can explore facets of reality and the nature of. . . . you know it was really epistemological and at that level I found it interesting.
Did you take any interest in hermeneutics? I mean your work is very hermeneutical. So which ...who . . . with who . . . was it more kind of the approach of anthropology and sociology in which this would be expressed?
Yeah. Yeah.
I see.
... And I felt in much of this. You know, social science, ultimately, is common sense organized. I had a feeling that Gayatri or Homi, whom I don't understand at all, was leaving common sense behind. And that did not appeal to me. And, you know, their questioning of rationality and the use of the word 'colonial rationality'. Well, whatever happens under colonial rule is not colonial. I mean the rationality...which you find manifest in Raja Ram Mohan Roy, I don't see anything colonial in it.
You see there are after all in Toynbeean [Arnold J. Toynbee] terms, human civilization is only a few thousand years old. If you take the totality of the history of our species, it's an insignificant part, few minutes in a day. So to a certain extent uh... dealing with that reality, you cannot make it substance-free (....) I have a feeling much of what they say is unnecessarily substance free.
You know it . . . involves an avoidance of . . . an encouragement of avoidance of research.
That I find very unappealing.
It may have some room somewhere. After all, epistemology is a part of philosophy. It deals with the abstract, but they were going to things which were not abstract. Very much rooted in... you know, empirical and pragmatic reality, and they don't do justice to that.
How about... the... some of the important Anglo-Saxon thinkers like Quentin Skinner. Did... uh... his interesting contextual, intellectual history
Did any of these people interest you in particular...
Well, I read them, but I thought I would draw the line there. I am not going to use them. What I am going to use is different sort of thing.
I have used more recent writings. I have used ideas of Keith Thomas, in a very different way, of Theodore Zeldin.
Uh, uh and when, when, in what year did uh... your book come out on... Europe Reconsidered?
I think '87.
What did you think of Edward Said, uh... Orientalism?
Useful, but again it's bit of a propaganda and simplification. What he said is fairly obvious because it's stated in a particular form. In fact, it's anticipated by Soumyen Mukherjee [Soumyendra Nath Mukherjee, Sir William Jones, A Study in Eighteenth-Century British Attitudes to India, 1968] in his book on, uh... Jones. He anticipates it quite powerfully, that uh... it's a certain image of the East which is their construction and... very much the other and [pause]
I mean in some ways you could . . . one could say that the post-colonial movement was very interesting, including Said and maybe Bhabha and Spivak, was very interested in representations, but your interests seems much more in uh....exchanges, interactions.
Yeah, yeah.
In historically-embedded experience.
When you look back at the scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s who are the...apart from yourself, who are other historians of the colonial experience who you think were doing good -- who were getting at this? Who were getting at reception, at exchange, at interpretation, how things change from one . . .
Rajat.... Rajat, I think on India was doing good work. Uh.... You see things -- unfortunately some of it was not written in English. Amalesh Tripathi, he has a book on the Renaissance, Bengal Renaissance uh.... good work, and some of the people who are beginning to question these old concepts, you know, Partha Chatterjee umm... uh... in Bengali unfortunately, uh um, Bhadra
Gautam Bhadra
and uh in, in this period in the 18....1980's ...what was your personal relationship with the editors of Subaltern Studies?
Personal relationship was very good.
And writers...
Uh, you know, Ranajit is a very good friend. He has a mercurial temper. So there have been ups and downs in our relationship but so has been ups and downs in his relationship with everyone. That's his personality. Nothing to do with the intellectual work.
And some of these people are my students and my relations with them have always been good. You know Gyan, then Shahid, and uh Dipesh. He is not my student, but he is also a very close friend.
So, personal relationships have always been good. I had no problem there. I had bit of a problem with Gayatri but you know she was never very close and...
Did you know either the younger - well, Gayatri is how -- she is how much younger than you, not much younger?
Twenty years... not twenty years, Gayatri and Nabanita, about twelve years.
Twelve years. Did you at all know them from Calcutta? Probably not.
Gayatri, no. Gayatri, I came to know later. No, I didn't know them in Calcutta.
But Homi Bhabha I knew through a . . . strange... My first student in Oxford was Homi's elder sister who was a very meek little character dominated by her parents and so on, and Homi was originally student of literature and of course the whole thing starts with literature.
That I also believe is one of its limitations.
Although you began with literature.
Yeah, but not literature qua literature.
But literature as a source material.
But their entire theoretical development is in relationship with literature.
Then, they applied it to social reality... I felt that they never had the solidity or strength of the social sciences. You know, anthropology they sort of reject totally. Anthropology may have racist undertones and assumptions, but the ethnographic work it has done, it is enormous.
Very enriching, yeah [pause]
Um... with a figure like Dipesh Chakhabarty...
And Provincializing Europe...
Some people have criticized the book because they say it is overly theoretical and it isn't grounded enough in historical depth...
It is not grounded enough, yeah.
But, how -- where do you draw the distinction between say Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak and the kind of high theoretical history writing of Dipesh Chakrabarty?
Yeah, well...
You see, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri, I don't take them as contributors to historiography.
Dipesh is very much a trained historian and it shows, it shows in his writing... I mean what you can say what you cannot say when you have to add a "perhaps." There are no "ifs" and "perhaps" in Homi or Gayatri.
Hmm. So in other words there is what may be the writing in Dipesh Chakarabarty represents is a kind of a historiographical uh contribution as well.
Yeah, it would be an important historiographical contribution
You know, it would be part of intellectual history. Yeah.
Uh... How about in terms of...American or Continental European scholars? Were there any . . .
You mentioned some of these people at Harvard that you met with, but over the course of your twenty -- the 1980s and 1990s, are there others who...
Come to mind?
You know, scholars like -- I keep forgetting names now -- the Belgian scholar, economic historian. I think he is a very good historian.
Of South Asia?
Not South Asia. His work is on Europe. It's the study of one village. "Mo..." uhh [pause] keep forgetting the name, both of the scholar and his major work. It's the history of one village.
Beautifully done. There is theory in it, but he doesn't make it obvious. It's more a narration, very detailed narration. There is another person who avoids theory altogether that's uh... historian of France uh... He was Professor of Modern European History here. I keep forgetting names now.
It will come back. Historian of France. Uh.
You know, work on crowd in...crowd the French Revolution.
Not Eugene Weber? ...
... not Keith Barker. No? Ok.
Slightly older than them. He was professor of history here.
We can... if you think of it later, you can tell me...
Another question I have is in terms of the importance of Bengal to India, what do you think of...how do you think of the importance of Bengal to India?
It's not important now. It was very important in the 19th century. Now it is sort of...it has been provincialized, let's say. Um, but still, you see many of the intellectual movements even today start there. I mean even post-colonialism, you know, Ranajit, Gayatri, Dipesh then ah, Partha, Partha Chatterjee, I mean, they are all Bengalis. This is an interesting point. Amartya... [pause] What Amartya is doing now is partly old-fashioned history, analytical, not narrative history but old-fashioned history. [pause] You see whole areas of intellectual and cultural activity. Music, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar, their teacher, Allauddin Khan, they are all Bengalis. The political importance of Bengal disappeared gradually after 1911, when the capital moved, it became less important, and industrially Bengal became unimportant especially during the early phase of leftist rule.[pause]
Um and if one thinks of the coming of British as a kind of catalyst then what would explain the differential way in which um different regions, different regional cultures of India responded to that catalyst? Why is it that the Bengali reaction in some ways is so much more, well, so much more active in the 19th century, even in 20th -- one could say even today in engagement with European thought than in other areas?
I would say there are two things one has to look into: one is the actual history of colonial rule. It's not the same everywhere. It varies from region to region. I mean Bengal comes under British control, 1757, say Maharashtra not until 1818-1820. So 60 years difference, by which time the internal history of Britain had changed. Take at the other extreme, exactly 100 years difference, the Punjab and Bengal, and by that time British policy in India, their perceptions of India had changed completely. So the history is different. Colonial rule is not the identical experience for everyone. Then, I mean, what laymen crudely described as racial character or national character.
If you forget that term and think of sociological characteristics, long term and short term, then there are specificities to particular cultures, and it is the distinctive features of Bengal in these two terms. You have to go into the details -- this has not been done -- which explains the distinctive character of Bengal's response. Similarly other parts of India also have their distinctive characters. So it's the history and the sociological base of the culture interacting with each other that give the distinctiveness to various regions. You see throughout the nineteenth century we find the...elite character in the Hindi speaking belt. Very, very rejective of the West. They think of it as something really unnatural or unpleasant. That's not true about Bengal.
Hmm. What did you think of scholarship and work of David Kopf?
David is a good friend. I mean, no, I don't think much of it. I'll tell you why. You see his knowledge of the language is virtually absent. That leads him to commit howlers. There are howlers in his book. And if you do not have a knowledge of the language and you are working on culture, if you are working in political history, fine, will do, but he has tried to go into cultural history, intellectual history. This you cannot do without going to the texts and his are the... he has lived in Bengal from time to time, but he hasn't lived in the nineteenth-century which he is writing about. So I find his work limited. I feel a bit sorry for him because, you know, it was a pioneering effort in America, and he has done a lot, collected a lot of data, but as soon as it comes to interpretation he seems to collapse, nothing significant to say. [pause]
In terms of your connections with Calcutta as a city, with Bengali culture, you chose to publish you memoirs -- well you wrote them in Bangla but then you also published them in Bengali before working on the English translations...
Yes, yes.
...despite the fact that you have lived for a long time now in England, in Britain. So how do you keep your transnational connection with the Bengali language and region and, you know, living culture, so strong?
Well first of all I came here when I was 46, and the other thing about modern Bengali culture is [that] Europe, particularly Britain, is a part of it, which you see very powerfully in Nirad Chaudhuri. I mean this is not a foreign country for us really, intellectually so moving to and fro between Calcutta and Oxford was not an unnatural activity for me, came quite naturally and I felt at home in both, and to a certain extent my connection with India was enriched by my stay here. I will write more about my interaction with England in this volume than I have done in the Bengali one and that will show how exactly I have interacted with England, deepening in a distinctive way my understanding of Bengal.
When you first came here in 1946 ah
No here I came first in '53.
'53? Sorry, when you came here you were 46, I meant to say. When did you retire from you teaching position?
67, I was 67 then.
67. So for those years how often would you travel to Calcutta?
Every year.
Every year for the summer?
No, I didn't go in the summer. I usually went in winter. What I did, you see, we have the sabbatical system which means usually in the old days after 6 years one took leave for a year, but you could take off for a term after six terms. So what I often did was after 6 terms I would take the summer term off, then of course I went in summer. You see I would... say the summer term starts in...when does it start? In anyway, it gave me a long stretch every alternate year for about 6 months in India and so... alternate years I would include part of the summer in my sabbatical and every year I went, you see...readers and professors ah are suppose to spend minimum of six terms and twelve lectures -- ah six weeks and twelve lectures in a term. So what I would is to do two lectures a week in the first six weeks and the next term I would begin 2 weeks later so I had six plus four, ten weeks in winter, in India, and alternate years I would get nearly get six months.
So you were able to spend actually quite a bit of time...
Quite a bit of time
In India regularly?
Yeah, yeah.
And you would always go to Calcutta or did you sometimes spend the time...
Basically went to Calcutta because what I decided to do for this work is not to depend so much on documentary material but printed stuff, which is vast.
You mean for Reconsidering... [Europe Reconsidered (1988)]?
No -- well that is part of the work but the history of mentality.
In general?
Yes in general for both these books, they are part of the...
Of a longer project?
...chips of the workshop.
I mean, I bought whatever was available in old bookshops or reprints and took copies of material from the National Library and also here, India Office Library. So I worked between Calcutta and London. There is quite a bit of material in Oxford as well. So there is enough to do, and I have seen only a fraction of the total evidence available because the subject is very large. One doesn't take this sort of subject nowadays. Theoretically one does, but as empirical study, no.
How would you spend your time in Calcutta for these 10 weeks? Would you spend it daily going to National Library?
National Library. Went to National Library every day.
Yes, did you...and how about your intellectual colleagues, friends, community? What did that consist in? Who did it consist in when you were...
Well the...first of all some of my old colleagues like Gautam's mentor Arun Dasgupta was a historian of Southeast Asia but from my very first thesis, he was my first reader, who read the manuscript and gave comments. He was a very, you know, mature historian with no show, so I communicated... Then quite a lot with Sudipta Kaviraj, Sudipta. Sudipta's father was my friend. He was a member of the Communist Party, Narahari Kaviraj and who else? Got to know Sudipta, I think, where I forget now, but then lot of communication with Gautam whom I met in Australia. Not Gautam, Dipesh. I met him in Australia. Ah...
When you were visiting or teaching in Australia?
Visiting. Yeah. [pause] And Andre, Andre came to Calcutta occasionally to -- in discussing what I was doing, he was a major figure.
Um, in which, who were the people who would come to you to discuss what they were doing most frequently or most regularly?
Dipesh, quite a lot; Dipesh, Sudipta... Sudipta. You see my students remained my students quite a bit. After they had finished their theses, I helped them with making it into books. I mean the people who published their theses like, like um Tazeen Murshid, um Nandini Panda, [pause]
...Ah then Suranjan Das and numerous younger scholars in Calcutta whose names also I don't remember. They were doing a thesis or a post-doctoral. They always came, very large number. All their names I don't remember.
But you would often meet with students who would call on you when you were there?
Yeah, yeah.
Yeah. How about your relationship with uh some -- with Amlan Dutta, when he was --he was eventually...?
I have not seen Amlan very much.
I see. You know, why is that?
Why is that, given that you were so close in the school?
Yes he sort of, you know, moved away. First he was not in Calcutta quite a bit of time, he was the Vice Chancellor in North Bengal then he was Vice Chancellor in Delhi, and he had developed his own circle of sort of disciples I would say, so we met very rarely in the last 2-3 decades. [pause] And I had a new group of friends in Calcutta, younger people, with whom I did not have much academic or intellectual exchange. They were really adda companions.
From which worlds did they come?
Some academic, some from the corporate sector.
Asin Dasgupta?
Yes quite a lot.
Because he also was the head of the National Library.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually as National Library...when I started working in the National Library, Rabi Dasgupta was the director. Then he was succeeded by Asin Dasgupta. Rabi Dasgupta was a friend from my college days. He was senior to me by 10 years, and Asin, junior to me by 5 years, was actually directly my student in Calcutta University. And his work is partly a continuation of my work on the Dutch East India Company. [pause]
Ah Asin Dasgupta took a real active role, you could say, or active stance in Bengal politics or Calcutta politics, i.e. taking a stance against the Marxist wave.
Yeah, very much.
Ranajit Guha...
From the very beginning.
From the very beginning.
Ranajit Guha saw himself, well, was a member of the Communist Party but also saw himself as bringing a kind of Marxist/communist approach into his scholarship. So when you were to return to this very fraught political atmosphere, with the CPI(M) and the Bengali politics which was so tumultuous, what role did you play?
No, I stayed away from politics. In these conflicts I did not have a role. I voted for CP(M) [CPI(M)] for one reason mainly: they are the one solid secularist party in India. No other party in power is purely secularist.
Even the Congress? I mean given that you were a Gandhian?
Yeah I am a Gandhian...
And are a Gandhian...
...but Congress has made compromises of all sorts over the year. The most glaring example is they took no action against BJP, either Advani or this chap, Narendra Modi, after they committed what is crime in our law book. Real crimes. I mean Ayodhya [Babri Masjid Incident] is a crime and of course the Gujarat pogrom [Gujarat Riots]. This is sort of crime punishable by death. No action was taken against them but you see due to the CP(M) [CPI(M)] this type of politics could not enter Bengal. This is the main reason I supported them. I voted for them all the time. But they have become a very, I would not say financially corrupt party, but politically corrupt. They are far too dependent on the cadres who are really, you know...[pause]
...they are hooligans. All the other parties have it too, but that they should need it too... You know in our student days we knew of communist party activist as a dedicated political worker. You may not agree with them but you could not help respecting them. Now you will not feel any respect for these people. I mean, there is no political party for whom I feel any respect now.
What do you think the effect of CP(M) [CPI(M)] has been on the intellectual life of, let's say Calcutta, also in terms of its institutions such as the National Library?
National Library, you see, wherever their cadres have penetrated the workforce it has been disastrous. I mean they don't think of anything except their own interest and with that they are very, very corrupt as well. Ah educational institutions they have undermined. You know they invented a new phrase: "elitism". Any emphasis on quality anywhere is "elitism." Presidency College, everyone should be free to teach there. Many of their party cadres, who became party cadres to gain the advantages of membership ah have been posted in Presidency College. They have nothing to do with education. These are the sad sides.
What do you think of the decline of Bengal... of Calcutta as an intellectual powerhouse? I mean now many people would say St Stephen's [St Stephen's College], JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] are where the elites go. I mean, the intellectual elites...
They still do, but in Calcutta the movement away from Presidency College to Jadavpur has been massive.
That now Jadavpur plays a more important role?....
Yeah, yeah. I would still not say that, because Presidency College as an institution doesn't have quality, stamp of quality. The students, a very large section of the brighter students still go there, but inevitably afterwards they migrate to Delhi, to JNU, Delhi University also.
And Delhi University, JNU, St. Stephen's, well, which is Delhi University. These were not - this was a more recent development? When you were there in Delhi these schools were not, well certainly JNU...
They were coming up. JNU was really established when I came away, and Delhi School of Economics was very powerful. It was a powerhouse. I mean it would compare with any similar institution anywhere in the world. [pause] But in our student days, there was really nothing outside Calcutta which would compare to Presidency College. Some of the post-graduate departments in North Indian universities were very, very good in terms of traditional scholarship like Allahabad, Lucknow, Pune, Banaras, these were great centers of research. They are not any longer. [pause]
Ah did you ever encounter colleagues in India who criticized you for moving abroad...
Oh yeah, very much.
...declared as a brain drain of India?
Very much so. Well, it was not because of the brain drain so much. You see in Delhi University, the History Department, I encountered serious hostility and these are the people when I left, you know said, you know, "he has left for the loaves and fishes, and he was a senior professor and he has gone as a reader." My predecessor Gopal [Sarvepalli Gopal] had done identical things, but he was one of their leaders so they would not talk about him.
So who were those? Who were the people who were the most critical again?
These were the so called radical teachers in Delhi University and JNU.
And what were their names?
Names I will not give. [laugh]
And they were very...they were the ones who were very...apart from that group you didn't encounter much more?
No, no.
So when you look back over the 1980s and 1990s, ah and you see the way that historiography in South Asia has progressed, do you, do you think the direction of South Asian scholarship has moved in the right direction, do you think it... do you regret the...?
You know, one thing I now believe in history that you cannot resist trends. You either go with those trends or you are bypassed. So what is happening is people going with the trends, I mean looking at the underprivileged and their history, tribals you know recently, some of it is very high quality. There is one lecturer from JNU KBI, forget her name, Muslim lady, she did a paper on the Hajj Pilgrimage, excellent stuff, really excellent. There was solid substance and there wasn't much theory in it, but it was a pragmatic database study of the Hajj, their social origins, their conditions, how the government treated them, and I found that quite interesting. And feminist influences, you know, Gyan Pandey's wife Ruby [Ruby Lal], she has done this excellent piece of work on women in the Mughal harem. I was the examiner. I think it was very high quality and in Bengal, Calcutta and Delhi any number of students are working on various aspect of tribal history or the history of the underprivileged social classes and so on. There isn't a great deal of theory there. It's a concept. It has moved away from middle-class nationalism to the politics and social -- more politics than social framework of the underprivileged.
And your...how frequently or intensely did you discuss with Partha Chatterjee on your...
Not very much now.
Not when you went to Calcutta, when you go to Calcutta, you don't...
I don't see him a lot anymore.
Was there a period when you saw him more?
Yes, you know he was here for sometime. That's when I really got to know Partha and after that and then, Sudipta Kaviraj was also here as Agatha Harrison Fellow but since they left I don't see them a lot. I used to see Partha a little more in adda rather than serious discussion so...
Hmm, all right. Well, I think we might conclude.
All right.
Thank you.