15 January 2013


‘Sir William Jones’, a book review dating to 1968 and therefore 45 years old, is in 2013 exactly half the age of its author, Ranajit Guha, the Bengali writer and thinker who is also the most influential living historian of South Asia. Guha and his wife Mechthild live close to the Viennese woods on the outskirts of Vienna. From their house you can see straight to the sanatorium in which Subhas Chandra Bose was briefly housed. The other figure from nationalist times who once lived not so far away was Mirabehn. She spent her last years in the proximity of the regions where her first idol, Beethoven, had composed his music. At one time Mechthild had thought of writing a book about Mirabehn, but many years back, after some meetings with her prospective protagonist, she decided against pursuing the idea. (Unlike Annie Besant, C.F. Andrews, and Verrier Elwin, who have biographers, Madeleine Slade seems to have made a getaway.)
Mechthild and Ranajit Guha in 2008 (photo courtesy Nonica Datta)

But to return to the author of 'Sir William Jones', who turns 90 in May. His piece on Jones, consistent with his work as a whole, shows an idiomatic hold over the English language which is seldom found among people writing Indian history now. The precision and elegance of his phrasings are nearly antique: you could look at his review as a kind of Grecian urn, an artefact that isn't made any more. The internalization among history practitioners of what might as shorthand be termed Spivakese or Bhabhanese, the universal urge to sms, email, and update facebook pages, and newer forms of writing in a vast and democratized marketplace have taken historiographical prose in very different directions since Guha’s heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s. The older forms of crafting history via a thorough immersion in the English and European literary canons are either seriously weakened or lost or, worst of all, condescended to. The straitjackets that pass under the name of disciplinary specializations have, specially in India, made history’s divorce from literature pretty nearly complete. Speak to any of the professors teaching history in an Indian university and the first complaint they voice is that their students can’t write history because they need to be taught English, never mind the literary canon. Yet this isn’t something that anyone is going to rectify institutionally, for example by making every history student take compulsory courses in the classics of English prose.

Which makes it all the more important to read Guha’s work, and recognize the value of this short book review. This little essay is an unputdownable putdowner. It tears into William Jones in prose of an Orwellian precision and ferocity. The book being bayoneted is S.N. Mukherjee, Sir William Jones: A Study in Eighteenth-Century British Attitudes to India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968). Guha's piece was first published in South Asian Review, vol. 1, no. 4, July 1968, pp. 314–15, and may now be found in the author's collected essays, The Small Voice of History, edited by Partha Chatterjee (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2009).  

The review is reproduced in full to felicitate Guha as that rarest kind of Indian historian who has written English prose worth reading half a century after he wrote it. There’s also of course the added excitement that by the time Guha’s done with him there’s very little left of Sir William Jones. Guha shrivels Sir William into a rather little heap; in fact, the Burra Sahib, seen through the review, seems rather lucky in not having been alive to read Guha’s views or he’d have shrivelled into an even littler heap. There’s nothing as lip-smackingly satisfying as a hatchet job which buries its subject so deep that you begin to wonder if he ever existed. On the other hand, in this case it does seem legitimate to ask if Jones merits such annihilation, and to wonder if the severity of Guha's castigation isn't  tied up with his demonization of all Sahibs and valorization of Subaltern resistance to everything imperial.

To honour Ranajit Guha, some weeks back Permanent Black, in consultation with Mechthild Guha, asked a few scholars to send in short tributes of 300-600 words. These have begun coming in and will in the course of time be blogged. The deadline for submission remains end January 2013, extendable by a few days if necessary.

Then, we heard out of the blue from a couple of scholars we had not invited—they asked if they too could send in their tributes. We agreed, of course. In view of this, it seems a nice idea to open the field even wider: there are bound to be plenty of scholars and historians wanting to pay some form of personal homage to Ranajit Guha. So Permanent Black hereby invites all readers of this blog: if your professional or personal life has been changed or improved or influenced in some way by Ranajit Guha’s life or work, and you would like to send in an appreciation or critique, please do. We cannot promise to publish all the tributes that we receive, but they will all be conveyed to Ranajit Guha. And we will blog as many of them as we can. The tributes should be 300-600 words and emailed to perblack@gmail.com as Word attachments.

Sir William Jones
a book review by Ranajit Guha 
'The Father of Indology' emerges from this study as a pretty poor mouse. Dr Mukherjee takes a close look at Jones’s record as a linguist, historian, and translator from Indian languages. His ‘discoveries’ about the affinity of Indo-European languages had already been largely anticipated by other European scholars. His chronology of Indian history made confusion worse confounded, if only because of his uncritical adherence to the current practice of fitting oriental traditions to Judaeo-Christian creation myths. The identification of Sandrocottas as Chandragupta had already been arrived at by Joseph de Guignes years before Jones came up with it. As an epigraphist, Jones’s achievement falls far below that of Wilkins, Prinsep, and Radhakanta Sharman. Wilkins was a better Sanskritist, too, and Jones’s own translations are the result of his collaboration with Indian scholars. And, finally, the Digest of Hindu and Mohammedan Law which he wanted to bequeath as ‘a noble legacy from me to three and twenty million black British subjects’ turned out to be ‘a disorderly compilation’, according to James Mill, and a work of ‘very little practical value’ according to Dr Mukherjee. Yet this was the man who, almost before he had learnt the elementary rules of Sanskrit grammar, came out with a weighty pronouncement on the structure of that language; who, equipped with the ragbag of biblical legend as the basis of his historiography, casually set about writing a comprehensive history of the ancient world; and who, even before he reached Calcutta, had made up a sixteen-point plan of investigation ranging from ‘proofs and illustrations of scripture’ to ‘the Music of the Eastern Nations’.

The curious fact is that Jones himself seems never to have been bothered by doubts about his intellectual ambition being far out of proportion to his ability. If this was something that had to do with his personality, the present monograph at least is no guide to our understanding on that particular point. Dr Mukherjee talks of Jones’s ‘complex personality’ without telling us exactly what he means. Far from being complex, Jones comes out in these pages as being very ordinary indeed. He seems to have had an excessive attachment to his mother, but we have no way of knowing what it actually means in terms of behaviour except that from time to time he would quote the old lady in justification of any of his attitudes, and that he used to dote on his wife. Dr Mukherjee speaks of his aversion to power. Yet such aversion, if there was any, did not prevent Jones from seeking patronage in the manner characteristic of his times. He was as conformist as any of his brand of Radical Whigs, and it is not quite clear why Dr Mukherjee, against his own evidence, describes Jones as having been to some extent alienated from Oxford: at every crunch Jones seems to have jumped up in defence of the Oxford system of education and scholarship.

What emerges is in fact the portrait of a man of large ambitions and little talent—and less humour. This latter characteristic was noted by Horace Walpole, that shrewd contemporary, who found Jones’s election address ‘absurd and pedantic’, and subsequently by Bentham, for whom Jones was ‘an industrious man with no sort of genius’. One is not surprised that as a young man Jones used to prefer swimming to
dancing; that as an aspiring scholar he found Voltaire’s wit unbearable, apparently because ‘he cannot give an abstract of the Newtonian philosophy without interspersing it with strokes of humour’; and that, in translating Kalidasa’s famous play, he omitted all that in the original referred to the heroine’s bosom. Dr Mukherjee is quite right in concluding that Jones’s legacy boils down to one solid achievement—the foundation of the Asiatic Society. Yet the legend dies hard that he was the founder of Indology. The legend continues to hurt and to falsify to the extent that even in this, the most recent work on the subject, there is no mention at all of Max Muller (except in the bibliography) and that even in a work of this kind the tradition of pedantry has left its stain: why indulge in the archaic distinction between romanticism and classicism when it is so obviously futile to try and draw a line? Why, for that matter, use diacritical marks for Sanskrit words, particularly if one has not quite mastered the rules which govern them?

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