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Monday, March 16, 2020

Ramchandra Guha: Gandhi’s Humble Beginnings

Ramchandra Guha is an established historian from India and presently a writer who adopts a narrative style of writing history.

I have avoided writing reviews on the work of highly reputed writers, and probably I have an inferiority complex. I fear that while commenting on the scholarship of an expert, I may not betray my ignorance and inapt learning.

However, I have ventured to overcome my shortcomings and picked this task to comment on this book.

In the historiography of India, Ramchandra Guha is identified with the Subaltern Group. Subaltern Group is influenced by the thoughts on writing a history of Erick Stokes. The Indian scholar Ranajit Guha was influenced by his lecture and started a brand of Subaltern studies in the form of a series of essays. It is considered to be an exclusive group. The scholars of high calibre with good fortune and research abilities are given entry to their circle. The Subaltern School belongs to the Marxist tradition of writing history. They are influenced by the idea of history by Marx and Gramsci.

In a book which I have written on Historiography of Modern India, I wrote, “Marxist historian does not mean that the scholar is a member or a follower of any communist political association. The Marxian methodology follows the dialectic materialism. The theory can be as a tool of the research methodology even by a non-communist scholar.” (Sharma, Sumir. Essays on Modern India Historiography (KindleLocations 1005-1006). Kindle Edition.) There was a reason to make such an observation on the Marxist historians. Most of the Marxist historians and their allied group proudly claim themselves to be real Indians. They raise many such issues and give such interpretations that they became a target of fierce criticism by the Nationalist and Fanatic Hindu groups. It was not a surprising thing that Dr Guha, a Padam Bhusan decorated scholar, was arrested recently during the protest against the Citizen Amendment Act 2019. (Refer to the report: timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/ramachandra-guhas-detention-in-bluru-further-inflames-public-anger-against-caa/articleshow/72894186.cms) Well, he was picked and released on the same day.

Dr Guha is a world-known scholar on environmental history. In India, it is more famous as the Chipko Movement started by Vinoba Bhave, a Gandhian leader and Medha Patekar. Ramachandra Guha is also identified for his work on Contemporary History of India, a field which is not yet popular among the universities of India. One of my students, who is seeking to start research in Contemporary History, has yet not found a guide in contemporary history. In one of his books, Dr Guha has rightly observed that the Indian history ends with August 15, 1947, and succeeded by works of Sociologist and Political science. Move around in any university, and one may quickly come across a Medievalist, but it isn't very easy to find a guide in the field of contemporary history. I dare to say that with a strong stance.

Now let us move towards the book. One can go through the Preview of the book from the thumbnail given below: 







The book is mainly a monograph. 

There is only one chapter in the book. One may read it in less than one hour. The monograph on the subject merely forms the 30 per cent of the whole book. The Prologue takes one-third part of the book by the writer. The Prologue and not the Preface is the feature of the works of Dr Guha. His books have long Prologue. The other one-third part is given to bibliographic essay and an acknowledgement.


Dr Guha belongs to Subaltern group. They believe in the fieldwork and use Eco metrics, or one may say Clio Metric to derive their conclusion. But, Ramchandra Guha adopts a narrative method of the old school. He is the best in his trade. Therefore, you will be able to read this monograph in one sitting and complete it in an hour or a little bit more.


MacMillan publishes many of his books in paperback form. Penguin has published this edition in eBook form. His works are available both on Kindle and Google Playbooks.

While formatting the present volume, the Publisher has missed some aspect of e-formatting. There is no preface in the book. Dr Guha writes Prologues but no Preface. His Prologues are quite long. He writes a separate section as an acknowledgement in which he writes about his collaborators which is generally given in Preface. In the Prologue, he builds the background for his main work. His Prologue is always in a narrative style as if he is going to start some novel. In the section, he writes about his methodology and game plan. For uninitiated, he may sound as if he is talking too much about himself. But, he has it as a method to provide the historian's mindset as he works to write his work. The Publisher has not taken care of it. Dr Guha has mentioned itself in the Bibliography section that how the people from Penguin pushed him hard to bring out enchanting writing. But the Publisher has created a Preface section in the Table of Content – TOC which does not exist. A quotation by Mahatma Gandhi is marked as a Preface. Is it so? I do not think so.

A Map section is created. But it has lost its purpose the way it is formatted.

The Bibliography is termed as “A Note on Sources”. It is so long that one starts wondering that if it was such extensive research, the author has given a very less material in the actual body of the book.

The actual book is termed as Middle Caste, Middle Rank, and it is the only chapter. It traces the history of the parents of Mahatma Gandhi in Porbandar up to the day when Gandhi Ji left India for London.

In the monograph, the historian is successful in sketching the social environment in which Gandhi Ji was nurtured in his earlier years. It is strongly recommended that readers should not skip the footnotes. One may read it in one go without referring to the footnotes. The author writes it in an effortless but effective style. One keeps on moving from one page to another. A reader virtually glides through the pages. Nothing is overloaded or sensational weaved into the different episodes of the life of Gandhi Ji. But, even then, nearly all the aspect of life and its turfs and ebbs are nicely sketched in words. The author claims to have used some new documents in writing it. I believe that many people would find some further information even in this small monograph. But one must seriously read the Prologue to fully appreciate the structure of the content which refer to the society and people around Gandhi Ji among whom his earlier days were fabricated. I wonder that the research scholar has not made some chapter in it. He has given only one episode. I know that it is a part of a bigger work. But even then, there is every possibility of making some chapters even in this book. The period of Porbandar and Rajkot can be separated. The schooling and later days of academic years in India can make a separate episode.

The scholar has detailed how this book has gone under scrutiny before appearing in its present form. He knows better about making chapters in this monograph.

I have enjoyed reading his book. His other books on contemporary history are spread over 800 pages, and I am still reading it. I am going to buy the next section of the series on Gandhi Ji. I may come up with further views on his work as I complete my reading.




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