23 May 2013


We continue the 90th birthday tributes to Ranajit Guha with these two pieces by Nonica Datta of the University of Delhi, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University

Photo of Mechthild and Ranajit Guha by Nonica Datta


A Point in Time:  Purkersdorf
Nonica Datta
Nonica Datta teaches history at the University of Delhi

In February 2008, I travelled by train from Vienna to Purkersdorf to meet Ranajit Guha. I was excited about meeting him. I had taught myself to read his works. I had been inspired by his style, language, and critique of the Enlightenment. I was influenced by his exposé of elitism in South Asian historiography, and his engagement with complexity, ambivalence, and alternatives in history. Among my favourite essays were ‘Chandra’s Death’ and ‘The Small Voice of History’. On my train journey through the Vienna woods, some inner demons gnawed at me. What if Guha thinks I’m a Bengali and he just wants a conversation with one. My surname was often mistaken for a Bengali’s. But I wasn’t a Bengali, I didn’t work on Bengal, nor was I a star. I was a Punjabi. I was a teacher at an undergraduate college in Delhi University. As I tried to work this out in my temporary semi-bronchial state in the shivering cold, the railway station of Purkersdorf arrived. 
On my way to Guha’s house, I became a little nervous and somewhat awkward. As I climbed up the stairs, a giant of a door opened. There he was. A delicate looking man with deep expressive eyes, in smartly tailored trousers and a green pullover. I took a deep breath, walked into the house with Guha behind me. Soon the warmth and smile of Mechthild Guha made me feel easy. Mechthild, Guha’s companion for years, came across as erudite and attractive. I sat down to lunch anticipating the question about whether I was Bengali.  But there was none of that. After a couple of glasses of red wine, my awkwardness disappeared, and there we were, the three of us, talking, sharing. His library reflected the journey of his eclectic world, with books ranging from Pali and Sanskrit to Hegel, Heidegger, and Indian classical music. Guha’s remarks plainly displayed brilliance and depth. I was listening to a philosopher, a thinker, and not to a professional historian. Some more wine followed, allowing me to take in Guha’s imaginative leaps and theoretical reflections. I saw myself as Guha’s pupil, learning at the dining table, inch by inch, the rubrics and grammar of history. Mechthild enriched our conversation. I discovered another side of Ranajit Guha, a rare and innately gentle side. And his piercing sense of humour, his no-nonsense attitude. Sometimes my answers wouldn’t convince him, and like a great teacher he would gently correct rather than dismiss.
Ranajit Guha gave me some rare tips. Let me share some: first, to focus on studying the state, a point that I think arises from his deeply philosophical critique of the narrow politics of statism and statist historiography. Second, Guha asked me to read political thought. Just simply read Machiavelli or Rousseau, he said. And converse with friends who teach political science. In times when much is measured as ‘post-Derrida’ or ‘post-Zizek’, Guha spoke of intellectual openness and honesty. Third, he talked about the craft and practice of history itself—to write history as a literary narrative, and not to be enslaved to mere facts. And finally, he said my best teachers could be my students.
I was overcome with humility. I set out, having taken my leave of Ranajit and Mechthild Guha. Stepping down the stairs, I looked back. Ranajit Guha was standing at the door. I said in my broken Bangla, ‘aami aashee’. Guha replied graciously, ‘esho’.  The return journey was longer than I expected.
The phone woke me up the next morning in Berlin. ‘Is that Nonica?’ It was Ranajit Guha on the phone. ‘Yes, Professor Guha.’ Then started another amazing lesson. History, its loud clamour, its disjunctions, its small voice. I listened. Later, he said, ‘Nonica, all the very best. You are a good learner.’ Meeting him was empowering. It was as though, in those moments with him, my small voice had been amplified.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Columbia University
©2013 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

I met Ranajit Guha in 1984, in Partha Chatterjee’s house. (His directions were: “Turn left by the garbage dump.”) Samar Sen had told me the evening before that Ranjitda would like to see me and I couldn’t believe my luck.  Subaltern Studies was big news in radical historiography, anywhere. I was in awe. Ranajit Guha kept everyone, including me, to a high standard of performance. I have not always satisfied his perfectionism.  
My admiration for him has never faltered. To have turned the direction of the historiography of a place as important as India singlehandedly – I know the younger subalternists are not belittled by this comment – was a magisterial achievement. I have often said, to him and others, that A Rule of Property for Bengal came before an audience not yet ready to receive it. It is rather amazing to see the archival and theoretical work leading to it in The Small Voice of History.
Partha Chatterjee explains this at greater length and proposes a “paradox:” “a typically bourgeois form of knowledge was bent backwards to admit itself to the relations of power in a semi-feudal society.” I would like to think the paradox as a necessary performative contradiction of both colonialism and the postcolonial structuring of the polity, looking forward rather than backward.  This performative contradiction is breaking up the civil societies of the proto-socialist Scandinavian countries and the countries of the Eurozone as “visible minorities” stream in. And it is this performative contradiction that produces the class apartheid in education in the postcolonial nations that keep the largest sector of the electorate and the enforcers of the law outside of the right to intellectual labor.  Indeed, one may connect it with the performative contradiction in the working of capital itself – social productivity enabled by and requiring sustained subalternization – removal from access to the abstract structures of the state – nor merely proletarization. 
I was in Vienna a year ago, visiting Mechthild  and Ranajit Guha, and Ranjitda, who despises empty praise, quizzed me on A Rule of Property. I believe I passed the test. It is a book I re-read periodically, to remind myself how to track epistemological performance, always out of joint with later epistemic conclusions, never hoping myself to achieve such archival and speculative brilliance, of course.
I have left proof in published work how much his definition of the subaltern mattered to me.   

This was collectively repeated and endorsed in the celebration earlier this year of the 30th anniversary of the publication of Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency. The description of religion as the insurrectionists’ way beyond mere personal suffering toward “the world-historical” matters a great deal today, as does the construction of an “Ideal Consciousness” for the deserving and undeserving other by the Human Rights lobby and the self-selected moral entrepreneurs of the so-called international civil society as well as by the proliferation of “empty abstractions [in] tertiary discourse.”
It is a gesture worthy of a great Indian intellectual that he has now decided to write only in his mother tongue. There is a certain freshness in the specifically literary material – I am thinking of Kobir Nam Sarbonam – that is moving for this reader. He has wandered into my home there, and I can welcome him as a friend rather than work for him as a novice, as I did at a certain stage in my life.  And Doya brings me back to the novitiate, for it opens a corner of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in ways that I could not reach.
Happy Birthday, Ranjitda. We will keep reading you.

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