30 May 2013


Ranajitda and the Mysticism of Knowing

Dipesh Chakrabarty

Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago

What has always made Ranajitda unique in my eyes is his capacity to love prose that expresses the subtlest of ideas. I have not another teacher or a friend who would point to a sentence or even a phrase in a book, and instead of immediately moving on to its propositional content, would take time out to savor not only that which may have been simply beautiful about it but also dwell and exult over the way the sentence or the phrase or the word in question may have actually helped the proposition come into play. Sometimes, when he could, Ranajitda would break open a word – etymologically, grammatically, historically – to show how its multiple meanings not only destabilized the proposition we were trying to extract from it but actually endowed the proposition with a certain internal motility that we had not seen before. Heidegger would have been one of the thinkers from whom Ranajitda learnt this way of reading. But it than just a method of reading. With Ranajitda, it had become an art of living: pick up a book and read it slowly, and open up for yourself an infinite vista of human thought, a vast and unending network connecting names and minds from very different worlds and periods, a vision that takes one away from the cares and desires of everyday life. A vision of infinity, you might call it. If it is true that some mathematicians have known infinity, Ranajitda too, I suspect, has at least had glimpses of it.

All this became a matter of “talking cure” for me one winter evening in Canberra in 1991 when I had just been rejected for a professorship under circumstances that I had found unpleasant and unfair. Dejected on getting the news, I went to see Ranajitda that evening to have dinner with him and Mechthild. Mechthild, as always, cooked up a great meal and, as was her wont, left Ranajitda and me to talk in Bengali sometime after we had had our meal and had discussed my news. Still smarting from the sheer fact of having been rejected, I was perhaps speaking somewhat obsessively about how I felt wronged.

But then, gradually, something quite wondrous happened. As the evening wore on, and Ranajitda gathered himself into a shawl and reclined comfortably in his divan, our conversation drifted away from the topic of professorships and other academic hierarchies, from careers, successes, and failures, to Indian history, initially, and then slowly on to that much larger vision of arguments and propositions that all eventually blended into an infinite stretch of human thinking, something too vast to be grasped by the scale of any individual life, yet something that spoke of the necessary and eternal human desire and effort to make sense of that which, ultimately, always escaped his grasp. By the time the clock struck one – or may be two – in the morning, I could see how small my personal disappointments were. Ranajitda, the most wonderful teacher that he was in these moments, had enabled me to take the true measure of my individual disappointments, or even “successes.” I drove home feeling grateful. My small, human ambitions were not gone, to claim that would be to tell a lie, but their burden had been lifted. I was never again going to let them take away from me the vision of an infinity that Ranajitda laid out for me that night, an infinity before which all individuals stood small and bare.

Turning ninety is probably one human experience I will never have. But Ranajitda has always been well ahead of us. I wish him and Mechthild many more years of the rich life they have so generously shared with others.

Transcendence and the Subaltern

Milinda Banerjee

Assistant Professor, Presidency University, Kolkata, India

I first met Ranajit Guha, along with Mrs Mechthild Guha, at their apartment near Vienna in early February 2011. I was a doctoral student at Heidelberg then, and my supervisor, Gita Dharampal-Frick, had arranged the meeting. Vienna, luminous in snow, with its strange juxtaposition of the most imperious of architectural rhetoric and the most lyrically piercing of musical and philosophical-psychological languages, had proved to be a love at first sight. But the warmth that I received at the Guha home was something even better. As I got to know and converse with the Guhas, I could find, it seemed to me, a home away from home.

A day-long interview (later published in the website of the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University) revealed a Ranajit Guha to me who was inspiring, and also intimate, to think with. Guha told me in detail about how he had always been inspired by the human quest for perfection – and how this sometimes led to the self engulfing and destroying the other, and how (and this was what Guha was more interested in) sometimes it led the self to seek greater social justice, to reach out for a more altruistic engagement with others, and indeed to strive for continual upliftment. Upliftment is a poor translation of the Bengali term that Guha himself used – uttaran, a rather poetic word which brings to me the image of a bird about to soar. It is also a word that can be translated as transcendence. He told me at length how it was this quest for perfection which he had sought to discover in peasant rebellions, in popular religion, in Hegel (Guha could accept the Hegelian quest for transcendence but not its Euro-hegemonic anthropology that grounded upliftment in narrow political-social stages; the master-slave dialectic was also useful to think about the destructive as well as the creative potential of the quest for upliftment), and in Indian philosophy and literature, from Shankaracharya to Rabindranath Tagore and beyond.

Gradually it seemed as if layers were getting stripped away as the historian transformed into a poet of the self who was interested in describing the past and the present in so far as it could equip us to transform, to widen our selves, to become more just and equitable. There was a strange line that connected the subaltern peasants’ discomfort with their present condition, and their compelling desire to translate utopia into reality, with Indian philosophical and poetic notions about the self’s perennial search to go beyond exclusionary duality. There were times when I felt that Guha was functioning like those precolonial South Asian visionaries of social devotion whose quest for transcendence couched in theological vocabularies were accompanied also by mass pressures and campaigns to articulate and seek greater social and political equality in the empirical world. In a landscape of decolonization of worldviews, transcendence also perhaps offered to Guha a counterpoint and critique of colonial and neo-colonial Euro-hegemonic discourses about societal development and evolution, which often operate through narrowly deterministic perspectives, and are reductive of the richly textured ethical (rather than purely technical) emotions that transcendence conveys.

Since then, I have often spoken to, and corresponded with, Ranajit and Mechthild  Guha. Every time, I have been very moved by the warm affection they have shown me. But I am still haunted by that long conversation in a snowy Vienna  – the image that often comes to my mind when I think of Guha is of a self, a bird, that soars, that continually opens its wings in unsatisfied thirst for a luminous and clear sky. In Indian literature and music, one sometimes encounters a bird called the chatak which, it is said, can only satisfy its thirst by drinking from the clouds. Guha reminds me a bit of that bird. I do believe, I think as Guha himself does, that the quest for perfecting oneself, for being more just and embracing of the Other, is a quest that one cannot abandon, and that it can be a technique of resisting both totalizing narratives of development and control, as well as the despair of being mired in radical doubt and incredulity towards all narratives. Perfection, if critically engaged with, perhaps offers a third space entangled with, but also offering vistas beyond, both dogmatic authority and sceptical doubt.

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