Ranajit Guha: A duality of literature and history

Ranajit Guha jpg

It is not easy to write about Ranajit Guha. His longevity has gifted him a vast range of experience in life. Before one reaches any conclusion about him, one must be aware that he is an overflowing stream of knowledge that has refashioned himself again and again. He has asked questions, found solutions and raised questions again. And all this was made possible through his extensive knowledge and practical experience.

He has always tried to say something new. The desire for this comes not from mere ability but from the urge to interpret and present a different and needed perspective. He practiced history, created new teaching methods. He pioneered perhaps one of the most effective ways of looking at history in the late 20th century. The world-renowned economist Amartya Sen has also called him “the most creative Indian historian of the 20th century”. Ranajit Guha’s historical research is unmatched by anyone from his time or before. He seemed indebted to Karl Marx. Historical materialism allowed him to explain economics, socio-politics, language and literature. Despite being a devoted Marxist one time, he could not believe in communism  politically throughout his life. And the reason for this is his diverse experience in life and his working relationships with Marxist organizations and theorists at home and abroad. He who once spoke of reading the history of the Communist Party like the Bible, said, “It is true that I have visited various so-called Communist countries and found that what we understood by Communism was what the RPD and King Street, London, meant.” However, despite not having faith in Marxism, his fascination with Marx never faded. A reason for this may be that his method of research owes a lot to Marx. It is not easy to write the history of a post-mercantile era without knowing the nature of capitalism. Despite his use of Marxist methods, his historiography and research were not well received by Marxists. In an interview with Partha Chatterjee, he said he was not very political.  As a result, epistemology, history, language and literature became the main subjects of his practice rather than politics. Certainly, his subaltern history became so influential that a number of talented young historians turned to him. His students were immensely popular among postcolonial theorists. Today they are recognized with the same fervor as Guha is. Many talented historians like Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, Gyanendra Pandey, Shahid Amin, Gautam Bhadra, David Hardiman and Dipesh Chakraborty shined in his style of thought. Most of them have been discipled by Ranjit Guha without being formal students in his classroom. In the history of the subaltern, their names are mentioned evermore. Guha challenged the dominant strain of History of his time. Especially when it came to writing about who benefited from British rule.

A native of Barisal, in southern Bengal, he did not forget to say that Fazlul Haque was a friend of our house. “He took my father to Dhaka. When he became Chief Minister, my father threw a party,” he said. Despite being a son of a talukdar clan, he gained visibility through the community of Dalits, Muslims and working class people. And that is probably why his research paper, ‘A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement’ is still considered an important work. Cornwallis’s permanent settlement had given rise to a rentier class in the country—in the context of British colonial rule, he has shown this in his study with many facts. The reason for his interest in this genre of research is known—”My father was a High Court advocate. He used to read and buy many books for his livelihood. One day I saw that six volumes of the Flood Commission report had arrived. I heard that a statement from the Bengal Provincial Farmers’ Sabha was printed in it. It was known that the Krishak Sabha was a mass organization run by the Communist Party. So I sat down with the report instead of going to college. As a result of that reading, my boyhood curiosity about power relations in rural society was transformed into political inquiry in my early youth.’

Although there have been some changes in the research methods of this genre, the importance of the history of the subaltern class has not decreased yet. Even towards the end of his life Ranajit Guha’s main activity was language and literature. He believed that literature is the main and reliable regulator of history. And through this, language becomes his principal accessory. As language is the vehicle of literature, human history is embedded in the body of language. His ground-breaking history delves into the practice—”the history we read and write is created by the English’s lack of power.” And in the light of this knowledge, he analyzes modernity and nationalism. According to him, British rule in India did not bring about any fundamental change. British rule never wanted Indians to prosper. The kind of benevolence that was apparent was essentially the will to rule. We know one of their principles in governing India—”Divide and Rule” but what we are less aware of is “Keep Poor and Rule.” The uneven development of capitalism was due to the British’s relationship with their subjects. Their laws were also based on discrimination. Subjects of colonial states are always subjugated non-citizens. During half of the British rule, the term “public” only stood for white-skinned British and some English-speaking, upper class Indians. Because the cost of maintaining peace with the army is a little high. The so-called liberalism of Western civilization was intended to ‘civilize’ Indians. They knew that in order to maintain peace through military power, western rationality and humanity must be applied with sanctity to the oppressed masses. Even though the song of liberalism was sung, it did not work on patriotism as evidenced by the 1961 fine and imprisonment of Reverend James Long in the Nildarpan case. It has been seen that the English rulers used to suppress the voice of the people by law, even if it went against the interests of the bad whites. But Ranjit Guha thoroughly analyzes the roots of the modernity and renaissance that began in the country at the dawn of British rule—analyzing the character of Rammohan’s reform movement. His anti-euthanasia movement grew out of his feelings of respect, duty, and compassion. He actually meant that his conversion was achieved on the basis of Indian secular knowledge, that the English played little role here. According to him, secular change in the concept of worldly knowledge is not new. Seeing that Rammohan was seen to be associated with the philanthropy of Kant and Jeremy Bentham. Ranajit Guha wrote a book titled ‘Kindness: Rammohan Roy and Our Modernity’ at a special moment in Indian politics; During the horrors of Gujarat massacre in 2002. He wanted to say, ruthlessness is not the last word. Muscle based communal radical politics was not a major part of the Indian consciousness. A special aspect of this discussion was to present evidence through scriptures and logic that never before has such devilry been seen in the name of Hindutva—as witnessed in Gujarat at the opening of the 21st century. He could never reconcile the atrocities of Gujarat with the history of independent India. According to Ranajit Guha: “the minority slums, middle-class neighborhoods, and shops are burnt by the gods and goddesses in that pyre; Regardless of the age and age, the unarmed innocents are beaten with tridents and cheers of joy; The fetus of the dead pregnant woman is pierced by the tip of the sword and screams of appeasement…And as a reward for the achievement, there was the undisputed success of those assassins in the assembly elections of Gujarat.”

But they came to power with the approval of the people. Searching for the source of this ruthlessness was the theme of Ranajit Guha’s book. In the light of the scriptures under which they find the logistics of atrocity, he analyzes the catastrophe that ensued. “Doesn’t kindness mean anything to those who, being human, treat people like this?” Another important Bengali book by Ranajit Guha is Kabir Naam O Shorbonam. (“The Poet’s Name and Pronoun”) to satisfy some curiosity of the reader in terms of poetic-literary criticism and interpretation of the underlying meaning of language. Linguistics is laid on the path of poetry: how Rabindranath expressed his painful consciousness through word-symbols wrapped in nouns and pronouns. In some songs of Gitanjali, Gitimalya, Gitali, Balaka and Gitbitan.

According to Ranajit Guha, language pronouns are so universal that they exist in all languages in some form. In his words, “Language by its very nature has clothed man in the armor of pronouns so that he can protect himself from the dictatorship of names. The function of pronouns is to keep the language moving.” Surely this discussion of a term of language falls within the higher linguistic boundaries. Jacques Derrida, Saussure, Heidegger of the world of language are not left out. According to him, ‘When a doctrine, theory, belief or so-called ‘view of life’ is presented in poetry in such a way that the reader can accept it as well-coordinated, mature and founded on the facts of experience, then that doctrine is acceptable or unacceptable to him, worthy of approval or not. In any case, it is not a hindrance in the case of pleasure.”

Ranajit Guha has settled on the position of religion and morality in literature,writing Prem Na Protarona. (“Love or Betrayal”) From literature to social reform, religion has a place in the debates created by the clash and combination of altruistic moralities. The author believes that the immense curiosity of the reader towards Bengal of Vidyasagar will work at the root of this. Bankim also quickly spread among the readers because of the language. However, the reader’s emotional connection with religion and moral issues easily creates closeness. Through his works we can deduce that the greatness of literature has not been bound within the boundaries of religion, but placed in the steps of religion.

Ranajit Guha was also very interested in modern poetry. Samar Sen, one of the foremost poets of the forties, translator and editor of Frontiers, wrote numerous letters to Ranajit Guha and his wife at various times. About seventy of them are printed in volumes edited by Partha Chatterjee. Analyzing the letters, one can understand a lot about the time, scope of work and thinking of these two great writers. Here are a couple of examples: In letter No. 7, Samar Sen writes, “I like your article very much…. Two tons of lead [costing Rs.17,000] have been stolen from the printing press within the last year, so they are unable to act quickly…. Your writing is very topical; The temptation is to issue two numbers on January 2nd and January 9th.| Letter No. 12 says, “If you live in Calcutta, perhaps give up thinking about the intellectuals, because discussing the good sense needed in times of crisis is like playing the flute at a funeral pyre.” Letter No. 18 says, “Yesterday Sumant Banerjee said [having spent a few days in Bangladesh] that the Mukti Bhani harassment is still going on. Most of the girls who are pregnant in a clinic have four-month-old babies—that is, Bangladesh”.

It goes without saying that literary creation and literary inquiry in the spirit of Ranajit Guha are closely related to the same idea in the minds of writers and readers. It would be safe to say that Ranajit Guha was more inclined to Bankim’s symbiosis through literature and nationalism than to Communism. Bankim saw history through literature. He discovered his liberation in literature rather than politics. Politics was more important to him than nationalism. Bankim’s influence from Rabindranath and his entry into politics. His comment: “I actually became a communist after getting the Bankimi influence from Rabindranath,”  is a surprising thing. For him, the exchange of feelings between the writer and the reader, and vice-versa, is very valuable. He was equally interested in the poets of his time, and even later, writing extensively on Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shankha Ghosh and Uppal Bose. He named this book, Tin Amir Katha.  In the midst of various changes, the character of the time is caught through the way young writers draw their own mind and contemporary time. And it became one of the elements of historical research. We meet another Bengali like him in the early 20th century; His name was Nirad C. Chaudhuri. He too had a long life—his fascination with British colonialism, his teaching at British universities, his taking up writing mainly in Bengali but attracting the attention of middle- and upper-class Hindu Bengalis alike. Although his similarity with Ranajit Guha is negligible, the name quickly comes to mind for various reasons. Both lived long lives for their age. Despite being colonized citizens, their writings were recognized as English by the English. One taught at Oxford and the other briefly at Sussex. They have continued to practice literature and culture through the consciousness of history; Although acclaimed mainly for writing in English, both achieved their greatest fame for writing in Bengali at the end of their lives. Even in the last two decades, Ranajit Guha gave up writing in English. He used to say that writing in English was a waste of time. However, if this gross similarity is excluded, the discrepancy is not less. Nirad C. was fascinated by green leather forever. In the context of British rule, Bengali nationalism, aristocracy never deviated from his discussion. Another fierce critic of British rule spoke more about the history of the rulers and the ruled and the perspective of language construction. However, although there seems to be a difference in the apparent structure and working style of these two senior Bengalis, the difference in the subconscious mind-set does not seem to be very great. Like Niradchandra, Ranjit Guha’s biases toward Bankim was strong. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay occupies a large part of Ranajit Guha’s Bengali works. He firmly places Bhavabhuti alongside European theorists in judging the aesthetics of modern literature. For example, his notable polemics include, ‘Uttacharita: Bhavabhuti’s Kutjigysa and Bankimchandra’s Literature’, ‘The Dramatism of the Novel: Vishabriksha’, ‘Indira: The Melodies of the Elegy’, ‘Dramatism and Historicism: Sitaram’, ‘Dramatism and Historicism: Rajasingha’. According to his claim, Vidyasagar and Bankim laid the foundations of his Bengali language. At the same time, he learned morals from literature. He sought liberation in Rammohan, Vidyasagar, Bankim and Rabindranath. But the absence of Nazrul is detected in the works of both, which is particularly antithetical of Ranajit’s literary and historical spirit. Nazrul was not completely stagnant when he joined the Communist Party. Still Nazrul’s friend Muzaffar Ahmed was the most respected and influential leader of the party. Poet Golam Quddus was also a friend of Ranajit Guha, a professional communist but closely associated with literature. Of course, taste and tendency are important in literary criticism and creation, what he didn’t do is a matter of discussion. As a party member the literary historian Gopal Halder was not liked at all. According to Ranjit Guha, ‘Man is a sentient being. This is the manifestation of being Human consciousness, the expression of that consciousness is reflected in language and thought. The historiographical inquiry expressed in the triangle of Being, Consciousness, and Language-Imagination extends to different forms of human experience, from purely causal reasoning to romantic literary discourse.”

Answering one’s experience is the purpose of historiography. In the mind of the historian, the information verified in the form of argument and written language takes the form of the desired narrative. In the same way, the conscious poet floats and expands his own personal experience in the consonants of the literary words and makes his work the heart of different hearts in different countries and times. In fact, this master of subaltern history wanted to engage with literature mainly in order to connect himself more deeply with the human spirit. The living presence of people in history is captured in literature. Therefore, literature has always won out in Ranajit Guha’s  language, economics and history.

Author Bio Mozid Mahmud: I am a poet, novelist, and essayist based in Bangladesh. Some of my notable works include In Praise of Mahfuza (1989), Nazrul – Spokesman of the Third World (1996), and Rabindranath’s Travelogues (2010). I have been awarded the Rabindra-Nazrul Literary Prize and the country’s National Press Club Award, among others. My novel Memorial Club is forthcoming from Gaudy Boy in 2024 in the USA.

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