Oral history interview with Partha Chatterjee

Chatterjee, Partha

Manjapra, Kris


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Test 123 Test 123 Test 123. This is September 15, 2012, and oral history for the
Bengali Intellectuals in the Age of Decolonization Project. This is an oral history
with Partha Chatterjee, recorded at Columbia University in New York City.
Professor Chatterjee, thank you for taking time to record this oral history with us.
Perhaps we can begin with your childhood, and in fact with your birth. Could you
give us the date and the location of your birth?
Right. Well, there's a slight confusion here, which is because, officially, the date
of my birth is the 5th of November, 1947. But in actual fact, I was born on the 5th of
August, 1947. I have later tried to find out how this confusion ever took place, and
my father says it was a problem caused by my school, when I was admitted. When I
was admitted to my school, there was an error. And this error was not actually
detected until quite late when I was coming up for my first public exams. And by
then, it was too late to correct.
So, in actual fact, I was born 5th of August, 1947,
which is ten days before Indian independence. So, in a sense, I was technically born
in British India.
I was born in the city of Calcutta. One assumes a lot of things were
happening in the city at this time. But, none of this really affected my childhood
Where exactly in Calcutta was your family's home?
Right. My father was then teaching in a college, and we lived in a rented house in
the area of South Calcutta, known as Ballygunj. It was a close to the Ballygunj
railway station. The place is called Igdalia Road and it was actually quite an
interesting place. I later discovered and later realized that this was a whole road an
entire neighborhood, and was very largely occupied by academics. Because most of
our neighbors were college or university teachers. So, I suppose that's how my
father class went in there. So, it was a slightly unusual neighborhood in that sense.
And a lot of people I grew up with were quite used to living in houses, in families,
where somebody of the other was an academic. So, that's where I was born.
Can you tell us now about your childhood, a little bit about your childhood, how
you would describe your early years?
Well, as I said, this was a very middle class neighborhood. Ballygunj, I probably
should explain, was not part of the older part of the city.
This was a relatively recent
part of the city that had come up largely through the twentieth century. And, again,
now looking back, I realize that although, as I said, this was a very middle-class
neighborhood, these parts of the city at the time were also very closely interspersed
with settlements, which were really slums, of what was then the service population.
So, one of the things that I now distinctly remember and was probably something
that today, for a lot of middle class families in Calcutta, they would not have this
experience at all.
For instance, the children I played with in the neighborhood,
would have, were of a very mixed social origin. In other words, lots of the children I
played with actually lived in the slums.
And yet, there was a way in which it was
perfectly normal for us to go out in the park. There were a fair number of open
spaces in the city at least in these parts of the city. They have all been built up since.
So, that's where we played. And, the other interesting characteristic was that both
boys and girls usually all went to the local neighborhood school. In fact of all the
students of my age, I was the only one who went to an English school, which was at a
slight distance. So I actually had to take a tram every morning to go to school. This
was very unusual.
This was not the usual thing. All of the other boys in the
neighborhood went to a local Bengali school. And the girls did too, there was a local
Bengali girls school. And, I remember, I had this distinct sense of being somewhat
isolated. I was kind of actually ridiculed fairly often, for going to this English
medium school. Once again, this is something that has changed completely.
I remember why this happened. My father, for some reason - he later
explained to me that this was the new thing.
And that he had particularly been
influenced by some of his colleagues in the college, who also had decided that it was
a better thing to send their children to English-medium schools. So I went to a
school where all of the neighborhood kids did not go. But otherwise, apart from
this, my most vivid recollections of childhood are in fact a lot of time that was spent
with other children.
But the family situation was that it was a nuclear family, really, except that in
the early years, my grandmother lived with us. She died when I think I was about 5 years old.
But my father a widowed aunt, who also lived with us for a long time until she
died. The other experience of childhood was the memory of large numbers of
relatives who would often come and stay for quite a number of days at a time. Now,
this, of course, was connected with the fact that my family, both from my mother's
side and from my father's side, were originally from eastern Bengal. So, it's
precisely in that period, mostly early 1950s, that many of relatives from the
extended family were then leaving eastern Bengal to come and settle down in India.
Many of them would come to our place because my father was probably the one
person who actually had a fixed place of residence in Calcutta. So, this is the other
memory I have from my early childhood, was waking up in the morning to find the
house full of strange people, who would arrive and stay for weeks, sometimes for
two or three months even, before moving somewhere else. My mother's family,
actually, my grandparents on my mother's side, never left Dhaka. They continued to
live in Dhaka. It's only after their death that my uncles, that is to say my mother's
brothers, came to live in Calcutta.
And many of my mother's cousins still continue to
live in Dhaka. So that's one branch of the family that remained in what was at this
time, Pakistan. So that's the other memory I have. I still have some of these letters,
these green postcards, that would come from Pakistan. That was a kind of regular
KM: Do you remember what part of Dhaka your mother's family is from?
This place was called Wari, which was, again I later discovered, at that
time, a largely indo-middle class area. I have visited the area since, and I have
subsequently visited Dhaka. But, of course, my relatives, none of them live in old
Dhaka any more. They have moved off to placed like Dhanmundi and Gulshan and so
on. This is with the expansion of Dhaka city, especially through the '60s and '70s.
But yes, originally, my mother's family was from Wari.
And your father's family, where they also from Dhaka?
Well, there is a somewhat peculiar situation too, because my father's
family was originally from Faridpur district, but my grandfather, he actually left the
village residence. He went to Dhaka and after graduating from Dhaka sometime in
the 1890s, he then worked with the court of wards in the north Bengal town of
Rangpur. And that's where my father, and all my uncles and aunts, grew up. They
actually had no connection with the ancestral home. Because my father said they
never owned any land. And once my grandfather left, apparently, the kids from my
father's generation, there was almost no connection left with the ancestral village.
So we never actually visited Faridpur, the ancestral home. So, as far as my father
was concerned and all my uncles and aunts, they always considered Rangpur as
their home. And that continued until '47, after which everybody came to India.
KM: And the name of the school you went to, what was it?
PC: I went to St. Xavier's school, which was Catholic missionary school, run
by Belgian, they were Jesuits, Belgian Jesuits.
Actually, that was the high school I
went to. I earlier went to a primary school, which was called miss Ms. Hartley's,
which was a private kindergarten, which was run by an English woman. I went
there for two or three years, and then went to high school. And, as I said, the
medium of instruction there was English all the way through.
KM: So, in terms of your school, in terms of other children in your
neighborhood and home, your most vivid memories are from the home versus from
the school, or do you have memories from the school?
PC: No, I have memories from school, but I always thought of the school as
almost like this is the kind of thing you had to do because you were required to do it.
But the more enjoyable part of life was not there. I now, looking back, I think there
was a major question, of the kind of linguistic worlds one lived in.
Because I realized
until quite late in high school, the kinds of books I enjoyed reading were all Bengali
books. And other than what was required for school, required reading at school, all
of my other readings, were all in Bengali, which is sometimes looking back now, I
find a little strange, because my introduction to even World Literature, a kind if
literature that anyone studying in English would have known, I actually was
introduced to World Literature through Bengali translations for children.
So, even
writers like Dickens or Alexander Dumas, or Jules Verne, and people like that, I
actually never read them in English, until after I left school I think. But I knew all of
that because I was introduced to that precisely through the other children I grew up
with, who of course knew of all of this in Bengali translations. There were some
very well known children's series published by the major publishers.
KM: Do the others have names that you remember?
PC: Oh yes. The translations, I am forgetting what their names were... But
there was a series called Pyramid series. These were all by this famous publisher
called the Deb Sahitya Kutir. The Deb Sahitya Kutir had these series for children.
Some of them were things like detective stories for children. I must have read every
single one of those, must have been a few hundred titles. I read all of them; I knew
all of them very well. But the others were these translations of world literature,
which I now realize were abridged versions. But that's how I knew the great names
and great writers of World Literature.
KM: And, so the intellectual life that was sustaining your Bengali writing was
coming mostly from other friends your age, or did you have any mentors when you
were young, who were training you more in the Bengali literature?
That's the other thing, that
Apart from my father, who of course was interested that I do more serious
reading in English, the influence was older cousins.
Now, the extended family - so
my family's elder brothers and sisters - many of them did not live in Calcutta,
because this is the result of partition, so many of these people were living, there was
an uncle living in Cutch Bihar at the time. There was another that lived in
Baharampur at the time. And, there, the children who were my older cousins, many
of them came to Calcutta to go to college. And either lived with us, or they lived in
hostels, but on weekends they would come and visit us because my father became a
local guardian for them in the city.
Now, I had several of these people. One of my
mother's brothers, who also came to study in Calcutta, the family was from Dhaka,
but in the early to early '50, he came to Calcutta to study in the university. Now, he
also stayed with us. Now, these older males were particularly influential in
directing me towards particular kinds of books. Actually, you know, my uncle was
another one, who was not necessarily into all the old classics, but he led me to read
people like Hemingway.
I still remember, it was probably one of his favorite novels,
which was about the First World War, which was Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on
the Western Front, he had another book called Three Comrades, which I enjoyed
enormously. I still remember that.
KM: What was the name of this uncle?
PC: The uncle, I called him mama, my uncle, he was not a particularly
distinguished person. He later went back to Dhaka, and he was an accountant, and
joined the Accountant General's Office of East Pakistan, and then finally after my
grandparents died, he came back to Calcutta, and he worked in the post office. But,
these elder cousins and uncles were actually very influential, because they kind of
introduced me to a sort of young adult life, which I didn't get from my parents. And,
so for instance, in my choice of music, in my choice of cinema. Of course, I couldn't
go to watch cinema on my own, unless accompanied by older people.
And it was
very, very few and far between. But one came to hear about the world of cinema,
from these...
KM: And what were some of the reference points to the world that caught
your attention at the time
PC: Now, as I said, cinema, music and sports. These were the three things.
think all of my later likes and dislikes actually developed quite early on. I'm talking
from the age of 5 or 6 to the age of 15 or 16, I suppose, when many of these older
males in the family, they were the ones who actually introduced me, for instance, in
the choice of music. At the time, you see the source of listening to music, there were
two things. The radio was obviously the most important. But listening to the radio
was quite heavily supervised and controlled. Obviously, you were only allowed to
listen after you finished your homework, so on and so forth.
So there were all these
regulations. Then there was the old gramophone record. There was a gramophone
in the house. But for the source of records, you obviously only had access to what
your parents would buy for you, but this is where of my elder friends actually would
bring records home for me to listen to. For instance, this entire world of Hindi
cinema music, which was absolutely not allowed at home, and it was these people
who would take me out just to be on the streets, and of course these things would be
playing from shop windows and so on and so forth.
And I would get to identify
particular singers and particular songs, and the names of the films that they songs
came from. That's how I get to know a lot of them. Simply because a lot of this
world was forbidden, I supposed it made the attraction even greater. And then the
entire world of the Bangla popular music, which was at this time was very, very rich.
This is post Tagore, what was called adhunik music. Mostly in the form of 78 rpm
records, and there were very popular singers at the time. And some of this came
through the radio, and others through gramophone records.
But, some of these of
people also introduced me to the world of classical music. Obviously at this time, I
heard various classical music singers, but I wasn't really able to get into it for a long,
long time. But I think the very habit of, from time to time, listening to classical music,
came, once again, from these people. And then there was the world of sports, where
of course there were, at that time I would say that the neighborhood associations
were very strong at that time of course. There were a set of organized clubs in every
And particularly for boys, boys of virtually every age, there would be
some kind of supervised introduction to organized sports. And because of that,
then, my interest in whole range of sports, but not all of them I actually played. For
instance, tennis, which I never played, there was no way one could play tennis,
tennis course didn't exist, or at least weren't accessible for us - but I know what was
happening in the world of tennis, and who were the big champions, and who won
the Wimbledon and so on.
So all of this was part of a common culture, where boys
of my age would know of what was happening, whenever possible, a lot of it was not
possible, but whenever possible, to watch competitive sports. So that became part
of my life. So, I would say, the association with older males, who were not always,
some of them were related to the family, but many of them were simply the older
boys of the neighborhood, they were the ones who shaped may of these tastes and
even provided the knowledge on which many of these interests later developed.
And you mentioned that sometimes these older friends would come to your
home, sometimes you would meet on the street. In terms of being in Calcutta, how
else would your relationship and friendship with them be expressed in terms of the
experience of the city?
For instance, it became possible for some of them to take me out into town, and I
would be allowed to go with one of them.
"Into town' would mean?
It could mean going to the zoo. It could mean going to the Maidan, where once
again, it was sports that was very important. You could go and watch a football
game, or a cricket game. I would be allowed to go with one or two of these older
men. There would from time to time be things like exhibitions and circus. And,
from around the age of say 10 or 12, to select, very carefully chosen visits to the
It was rare, until the age of 10 or 12, maybe no more than one a month, one
every two months. Something like that. It was a very rare treat. So, as a result,
because I was accompanied by somebody or the other, I actually did get to go to
different parts of the city, which normally I would never be allowed to go to alone.
So, therefore, for instance, parts of central Calcutta, the older parts of Calcutta,
actually did become gradually familiar to me. So, later on, when I was in high school,
and was allowed to go by myself, then I knew many of these places already.
So, that,
I think was quite important in terms of a sense of actually growing up in the city and
knowing many of these things that happen in a city, but knowing a lot of these places
Were these your dadas?
And could you spend time in the colleges and their hostels?
Yes, sometimes I did. I went to visit Jadavpur University, for instance. And one of
my elder cousins, studied as the Bengal Engineering College, which was in Shibpur,
on other side in Howrah, and I did visit their hostels, which was a major experience.
Even as physical structures, these were very, or at least seemed at the time,
enormously large places. Once or twice, actually, I did go with my father.
He taught
at College, which was earlier known as Ripon College, later became Sirendranath
College, it was near Sealdah. And then he actually moved to the university, and
taught classes in the university, in the old Economics department, which later split
into Economics and Political Science. I actually remember those very first visits to
College Street, which is where the university is located, which too I still remember
quite graphically, because I remember I was taken to the university, and my father
was either supposed to be going to class or had a meeting or something like that.
And he took me to the university library and left me with some of his students there.
I still have this very physical sense of this place, which seemed just enormous, and
the idea of this place which was just completely, totally from ceiling to floor, all
books, I still have that sense. This very strange sense, and I had never seen this, the
idea that you would go up these step ladders to collect books from the top shelves, I
had never seen anything like that before.
How old were you?
This must have been- maybe I was 6, 7, 8, something like that. But I remember
that very much. I remember there was the old senate hall, which was then pulled
down. Very old, classical, renaissance-type building, which was pulled down. Now I
know the exact year, 1957. So, this must have been just before that. So, I was
probably eight years old, something like that. I made my first visit to College Street.
When did you first feel that you were self-consciously becoming an intellectual,
or did you ever feel that way?
Now, this is hard to say because even when I was in college, I don't know if one
had that self-conscious sense. Now I went to Presidency College, which, of course, if
only by reputation, is a place where everyone who went there thought one's a
budding intellectual. So, I participated in all the things that happened in college. And
of course, this was 1964 to 1967, so this was a period of quite intense political
developments in, both in the broader sphere of politics, but also in student politics.
This was quite a major period of turmoil.
In fact, among those years, there was a
time when there was a strike in the college for something like four or five months,
the college was actually shut down because of student troubles. So, I was there, I
was part of all of that. But I never had quite made up my mind about consciously
developing myself into something like an intellectual. It wasn't clear at all at that
time. A lot of that, I still think looking back, a lot of the things that happened,
happened by chance. The fact that I actually got a scholarship to study abroad, I
think that completely determined what happened subsequently.
But, before that,
you know, I actually worked for several months, almost a year as a management
trainee almost immediately after finishing my BA exams. So, at that point of time, I
don't think there was a very clear direction to my life.
And what about the development towards a political view of life, and what your
politics were becoming?
That too developed, I would say, completely during my years in college. Because
I said, I went to this Jesuit missionary school, where, of course, there was no talk of
politics. And there was no encouragement to think, or talk, in any kind of serious
way about political things when I was in school. Now, going into college, that's
where one was suddenly exposed first time, to all these political things. And
because of, I suppose, my associations with particularly those who came with me
from my school, and the group of friends that one sort of immediately almost
inherited as one entered college, these were all students who at the time
thought of
themselves as being against the communists. So that was sort of my initial point of
entry into the world of student politics. But then, this is when, you know, the
situation really became more and more tense, there were quite sometimes hostile
confrontation between communist and anti-communist students. And I developed
many close friendships with other students who joined the communist student
So that was really the time when not just participating in debates, where one
already had clear positions drawn, but actually being pulled in different directions
because of the way various debates and confrontations took place, I think that's
when broadly speaking, my own political leanings were gradually formed and
decided. It's through those three or four years in college.
So between that pull and tug between these two groups that you had
friendships with, how did that work out for you, how did you decide what to do?
There were very interesting situations. This was probably towards the end of
the second year in college. There was a strike, which was basically organized by the
communist students. Now, as I said, I was quite friendly with many of these people
and these people would sit in front of the college gates, picketing the gates every
day, and I would go to college. There would be no classes, but I would hang out with
these students and talk to them and so on. It was during that period that one
somehow felt caught in the middle.
One of the things that happened was that I,
along with some others, began to organize classes to be organized by the teachers at
their homes. So the idea was that we were not going to try to break the strike, but
that would actually try to get some of the teachers to continue with the classes at
their homes, and that required some organization. But that was done. And the
striking students were not against this. So, that's how, in a sense, one got caught in
the middle of all this.
But I would say that by the time I was about to leave college,
which was about '67, and by this time, '67 was the first general elections that I
remember very well because I was still not a voter. In those days, you had to be 21
in order to vote. I wasn't 21 yet. But, one got caught in the whole excitement of that
elections. And, that was the first time the Congress actually lost. And what was
called the United Front Government was formed. I was just about leaving college at
the time, '67. That was a very heady experience. I still remember the sense of the
city at the time of these elections. The first announcement of these results.
complete disbelief that the Congress could actually be defeated, which had never
happened before. A lot of these people became ministers, and only a few months
before they were still in prison. So the very idea of communists becoming ministers
in government was completely unprecedented. That was a really-yes, it was a
watershed experience. For two or three days, on buses and trams, the conductors
would not ask you for tickets. For two or three days, buses and trams were running
but no body bought tickets.
It was like one of those completely extraordinary, world
changing moments. That was the sense one had. So, I also remember when, just a
year later, when the United Front government was actually dismissed. The
government fell. That, too, was equally momentous kind of event, because got the
sense just walking the streets of the city, that people felt this was a complete
conspiracy against a government that was not being allowed to function. So those
were events that shaped ones views about politics. It must have.
It clearly
sharpened one's judgment about various things, in other words, things that one had
taken to be conventional knowledge was suddenly shaken. And I still feel the sense,
first, of course of somewhat astonishment and surprise, but also the sense of
actually living through moments that were, in a sense, quite transformative. I still
have that sensation.
So, what college were you living in when you are Presidency. Or did you still
live at home?
No, no, we lived at home. There were very few students who lived in the college
hostel. There were very few students who lived in the college hostel. Very few.
In terms of the affective life of college, in terms of mentors, either in terms of
actual individuals, or imagined mentors, some scholar you read, who were the
This is very hard... it's a question I have often been asked and I've thought about
it myself. My sense is that I've never had enormously influential teachers in college.
I don't have that sense. There were many teachers who were excellent teachers.
Somehow I never had very close relations with any of them. They did not shape my
intellectual life in any strong sense. I think I learnt far more, my preferences were
shaped far more, by other students. Perhaps by older students, because there was a
circle of discussion and debate and all sorts of things, where older students, simply
because they knew more, were probably quite influential.
But again, I can't think of
any single person who was hugely influential in this regard. I don't know, maybe
this is somewhat unusual. But I really do have this sense of not having mentors at
all, which probably explains the very eclectic kind of education that I've had. But
that seems to be case, yes.
And, in terms of in some ways having your path determined for you when you
went abroad, where did you go and how did that come about?
It happened, as I said, entirely by chance. For a while, as I said, for a while,
immediately finishing my exams, I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do, so I took
this job as a management trainee. But doing it, I realized it was not something I was
very keen on doing for any length of time. It was an interesting exposure. I actually
worked in this factory. It was a sowing machine and fan factory, which interestingly,
only a few years later, there was a huge strike in that factory. It's now shut down.
It's called the Usha factory, which belonged to the Delhi cloth mills group. But the
job I had was in the personnel department.
But I was basically an assistant to the
manager who was in charge of their executive cadres. So my job was, essentially, to
help out with the recruitment of engineers and junior managers, so I would sit in, I
was actually part of, there was a whole series of exams and interviews with
engineers. So that's basically what I was doing for the few months I was there. But
simply because I realized this was not something I wanted to do, I put in
applications to three or four universities, not really knowing particularly what areas
they specialized in. I was not very well informed in all this.
I picked out three or
four of them and it just so happened that the University of Rochester-- I was allowed
admission into two others, but they did not give me any financial aid. The University
of Rochester was the only one that offered me a fellowship, and I took it. Now, it
turned out that the University of Rochester Political Science Department was one of
the pioneers in the rational choice approach to Political Science. I realize they
selected me because of the fact that I had a background in mathematics.
Was that your undergraduate major?
It wasn't. I did political science. But from the various transcripts and so on, they
made the judgment that I had some mathematics in my background. So they gave
me the fellowship. As a result, much of my work as a graduate student was with
developing rational choice and game theoretic models of politics. In fact, that's what
I did for my PhD research, which was on arms races, nuclear arms races, game
theoretical models.
So, again, I have to say that what was really transformative, was
not so much the actual coursework that I was required to do, but the very fact of
gaining access to a regular university library in the USA, that I think completely
transformed everything. Because for the first time in my life, I could read whatever
I wanted to. It was all within my reach. Yeah, I spent hours and hours in the library.
So, that of course, was the first sort of serious phase which completely determined
the future, which was the future as an intellectual. It was really during my years in
graduate school, that that was firmly shaped.
And how did your interests transition from what you wrote your PhD on to
what became, if it's not incorrect to call it, your life's work?
The big choice was, and I think I was quite firm in my mind, that I had come to
the US to do a degree and that I would go back. I never, ever, thought of pursuing an
academic career in the United States. So I finished my PhD in just over three years,
three and a half years. I finished my degree. And I returned, I returned
immediately. Without any insurance of a job, I just went back.
And then after I came
back to India, it became very clear, and that of course required, as I said, I had to
rediscover the Indian academic world almost from scratch. When I left, I had just
done a BA degree. I really had no serious intellectual engagement with the India
academic world at all. It's only after I returned. I went to India in early 1972. And
then, that's when I realized that doing the kinds of things I had been trained to do as
a graduate student in the US would be completely impossible in India. Because there
was not a single person. I had a dissertation.
I produced two or three papers out
that. I tried to get people to read them, or talk about them. And it became very clear
that it was impossible. One couldn't find a single other person who was familiar with
the literature, or who would even be interested in getting to know the literature.
Because it was so completely remote to the concerns of Indian academics at the
time. So I, had to basically then had to re-educate myself. And then for a long time,
what I did was actually immerse myself in Indian history, politics, sociology, all of
these kinds of fields which until then I really did not know at all in an academic way.
I did not know these fields. For the next many years, I basically taught myself. And
that was a phase when I probably had mentors. This is interesting, this is well after a
For a while, I taught for a year in Punjab. I returned to Calcutta in '73. That's
when the institute where I spent most of life, the Center for Studies in Social
Sciences, ha just been formed.
It was a formed as part of this network of institutions under the Indian Council
of Indian Social Science Research. At the moment , I think there are some 20 odd
institutes. At the time, this was one of the first so the first five or six that came up in
the early 1970s. Now, looking back I know that this was part of the, broadly
speaking, the Indira Gandhi phase of more broad-based, populist, development
program, in which there would be a place for Indian institutes, Indian academic
institutions, which would play a more active, interventionist role in development
planning. I think that was a broad idea. And the idea of these institutes of
essentially research, set apart from the universities, I think the model was that of
the Academy of Sciences in the Soviet Union, I think that was broadly speaking, the
model. So these were set up, and they were supposed to be fairly closely connected
to what was seen as "development priorities" particularly by the particularly the
planning institutions, to provide a certain kind of academic grounding to the various
planning and policy-making exercises of the government. So I think that was the
original kind of plan.
But, once I became part of one of them, I then go introduced to major debates
and cross-currents of discussion in the Indian social science world. One got to meet
people who were leading figures in this world at this time. And that's really when I
became engaged in what would become, as you said, it would become my lifetime's
work. But that was the world I was introduced to in the early '70s.
where there any conversation partners who played an important role at that
time for you?
Yes. You see, in the Center in Calcutta, I would say the most importance
influence was an economic historian by the name of Ashok Sen. Ashok Sen was
earlier associated with the CPI, but was also very critical of it. He was one of the,
among the circle of Susobhan Sarkar, who was the famous teacher, and professor of
History. He was also very close to the poet Bishnu De, who was a very major
intellectual figure at the time, particularly among literary circles. Ashok Sen was an
economic historian, who was then writing on the British colonial period, the
transformations of land, property and the emergence of essentially the propertied
middle class in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That's when, that in fact, the kind of
work that I began to formulate for myself in my early work on agrarian history
which is really where I began. Ashok Sen was a major influence here.
The other important person, he was closer to my age, was the historian
Hrites Sanyal. He unfortunately passed away very early in life. Hrites Sanyal had a
very interesting background. Unlike most of the other people in the Center, who
were directly associated with the left communist movement or intellectual inclined,
Hrites Sanyal was a very strongly Ghandian-inspired person.
Actually, I became his
collaborator in this project to construct, largely through oral history, the Congress
movements in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, in rural areas of Bengal. So, in fact, one of
the most intense learning experiences of my life, was precisely in these years,
precisely from '74 to '78 or '79, when Hrites-babu and I basically traveled 10 to 15
days every month, in the villages of several districts of southern Bengal, Medinipur,
in particular, but also Hughli, Bakhura, and Purulia.
We traveled into several
hundred villages and actually met and spoke to, well, probably more than a
thousand people, whom we actually talked to and recorded interviews with. These
were all people who were minor activists, and even more than that, people who in
various capacities, had joined the, broadly speaking, nationalist movement in
different phases. And that was really an enormously important phase of work for
Because, you see, very early on, it made me realize something, that there was a
whole world of very effective political communication that was outside the domain
of the textual. That is to say, at the time the general sense was, alright, let's get
beyond the high-level political negotiations of the big leaders, so on and so forth.
Let's get down to what was going on in the small towns and districts. So, go and find
the local newspapers and manifestos and at local levels. And that's how we began.
But, then talking to people, one realized that a lot of these people who were very,
very closely involved in these movements actually never ready anything at all.
their political ideas, and views and arguments even were not necessarily shaped by
reading printed material. They were shaped by all sorts of other ways of hearing
and responding to political messages. And that's what one became aware of. And I
still think that's a very, very major place where mass politics operates today. Even
today, the rate of literacy rates are much higher and people are exposed to a more
formal way of doing politics. But talking to these people and their concerns, and
observing and in a sense attuning oneself to the language that they spoke was a
very, very major influence to me.
Coming close to the end of this interview. I wanted to ask two more things. One
is, it actually has to do, with the fact that your scholarship within a certain
movement, of Subaltern Studies. How is it that you moved from, what has been so
interesting about your life, is that it seems to have gone in directions that were not
determined from the outset. Was it the same thing for you when you came to
collaborate with that set of internationally renowned scholars that you are also a
member of, or did it happen in some other way.
When we began to collaborate, we were not internationally recognized scholars.
No, a lot of those associations developed precisely through the work that I just
described which is looking at agrarian politics. That's I began to work with. So I got
in touch with other people of my age, some of them younger, who were working on
other parts of India. '70s was a major period when this began to happen, looking at
the nationalist movement in the different regions, but looking at them at micro
levels. This was of work that was going on.
It's through those sorts of connection
that I got to meet Ranajit Guha for the first time, when he actually visited India in
1980. He was in England all this time. He had not visited India in a long time. Some
of the connections were with people I had known, obviously Dipesh Chakrabarty,
who had a very similar kind of background to mine. He was also in Calcutta but then
went to Australia to do his PhD. He had met Ranajit Guha when he went to England
to do his research at the India Office Library.
The other people who were the first sort of core group in Subaltern Studies, people
like Shahid Amid and Gyan Pandey for instance, they were both students in Oxford.
And I had met them in India when they came to their fieldwork in India and so one
got in touch with them. So, Subaltern Studies- when Ranajit Guha first broached
the idea, Ranajit himself was by this time in his 60s. All of us where in our 20s and
early 30s. The idea was to first simply bring out one volume of essays on, essentially,
Indian politics in the early twentieth century. This was basically the idea of what
became volume one of Subaltern Studies.
But it was prefaced by what is often called
the Manifesto of Subaltern Studies, which Ranajit went over with us like five or six
times, it had different versions. And, as I said, initially, we didn't know we would
have subsequent volumes. It became a project then, largely because of the initial
statement, and I would say even the kind of criticism and hostility that it received in
the first phase. That prompted us to respond, and then came the second volume and
the third volume and so on.
And so if you ask me whether this was entirely by
chance, well, I suppose, there would have been something of the kind in any case, it
need not have been in the form that Subaltern Studies took, because there were
enough people of our age, who were looking at this whole question of India
nationalism, and what are the connections between Indian nationalism and the kind
of political formation that we were living in in the 1970s.
And because there was a
generally critical view of the Indian political formation in the 1970s, I think that
prompted us to look back at Indian nationalism in a much more critical way than
our earlier generation had done. I think this was historically the situation. That
critical view would have emerged in any case.
I think what was distinctive was, for us, Ranajit Guha's intervention. He came
from a very different generation, a very different political background. He was an
activist for much of his life. That gave it a very different inflection. It's often
described now as a kind of school. I think that formation probably would not have
happened, if the connection with Ranajit not have developed in the way it did. That
clearly determined that particular form. But I think the critical historiography of
Indian nationalism would have emerged no matter what.
KM: Now just two last questions. The first is, if when you were just finishing
undergraduate, you didn't know what direction quite you would go and you were
interested in some things and others. Did there come a point in where you can say,
in that year or during that phase, "Scholarship became a vocation for me. I really felt
inducted into a kind of way of life that I now practice," or did that never happen?
PC: No. The way of life only emerged after becoming a graduate student in
the US.
In that phase?
PC: Yes. Because that really determined one's life because that for the first
time was when one actually had chosen a vocation, when you say, your entire
existence was framed by an intellectual pursuit. Before that, this was not, I wouldn't
have said my life is the life of an intellectual.
And then finally, when you look back at the books you have written or
the essays you have written, do you feel that you have written in a way that have
expressed the times, and that your scholarship perhaps does that more vividly than
usual, and if so, what explains that would you say?
PC: Well, I don't know if it does that more than usually. But, yes, I do think
that my concerns, even when I have been writing about historical topics, I think they
have been informed, and even influenced by the concerns of the present, yes, at at
least two levels. One, of course the concerns of the present in terms of the given
intellectual climate of the time, so even that particular field. So a kind of critical
engagement with approaches, directions, in that particular field at any given time.
And obviously I have always felt it important to engage with others writing in the
field, and to either affiliate with particular trends, or be critical of particular trends
in a particular field. But even more broadly, in terms of social-political concerns of
the day, I have, I think, responded to that situation as I just said earlier on, much of
my involvement with let's say with agrarian politics and the critical study of
nationalism, was in fact, prompted to a large extend by what I think was a general
sense of unrest in the period of the 1970s. This was the period of the emergency.
This was the period immediately following the emergency was particularly creative,
once again, because for the first time, it was seen that it was possible to witness the
collapse of what could have been a typical authoritarian, Third World dictatorship.
The Emergency Period was really moving towards something like that. It didn't
What followed subsequently was very important in terms of the shaping of
both political structures, but also broader social and intellectual movements in
India- the emergences of various kinds of institutions. And the quality of
intellectual life in India, through the '90s and later on. I would say there has been a
quality that many other Asian and African countries didn't have, that kind of quality
of intellectual life, with all of its internal conflicts and disagreements and so on, but
This was very unlike the situation in the '50s and '60s. I still remember
among my father's associates that it was not unusual for college teachers and
university teachers to find suddenly that they were under arrest and put in prison
for all sorts of political reasons and because of political associations. That's not
usual in India, and it's almost not happened at all in the last 20 years or so. It's a
different climate. So within that, there is a way of, shall we say, becoming an
engaged intellectual, who takes the purely professional demands of intellectual life
completely seriously, and yet could also engage in a public intellectual life.
I think
that is a possibility which exists in India, and I suppose I have profited or benefited
from that situation, and I have tried to do both of those things.
KM: Wonderful thanks so much for your time.