Five most underrated Ram Guha books you must read

The acclaimed historian, who recently won Japan's Fukuoka Prize, has produced seminal work much before the publication of 'India After Gandhi'.

 |  4-minute read |   22-06-2015
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On Friday, historian Ramachandra Guha was declared the winner of Japan's prestigious Fukuoka Prize (in the Academic category). The Fukuoka Prize honours achievements across art, culture and academia across Asia: previous winners include Ravi Shankar, Mo Yan, Partha Chatterjee, Akira Kurosawa and Muhammad Yunus. Ever since the publication of India After Gandhi, perhaps the most-read Indian history book of the last decade or so, Guha has become synonymous with his 900-page magnum opus (He is currently working on the second part of his two-part biography of Mahatma Gandhi). But here's the thing: Guha had been producing seminal work since much before the publication of India After Gandhi. Here are five such books worthy of your attention.

The Unquiet Woods (1989)

The Fukuoka Prize citation begins by observing that Guha "pioneered the new horizon of environmental history viewed from the general public's viewpoints." In The Unquiet Woods, Guha presented us with a short history of Himalayan forests, from the 19th century onwards, all the way up to the Chipko movement of the 1970s.


More significantly, using this as a case study, he showed us exactly how commercial forestry clashes with the needs and inclinations of those who have lived in forested regions for generations. The exhaustive research and the assuredness of the writing would become hallmarks; this was Guha's first book.

Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India (1999)

Guha may be working on a comprehensive Gandhi biography these days, but his first-ever biographical subject was a man who grew tired of being a Gandhian. Verrier Elwin was one of the most remarkable Englishmen to have lived in the country: he started off as a missionary, went on to fight the British regime as a Gandhian and then rejected both callings to live and work for the tribals of India.


Elwin's own writings on tribal culture are fascinating anthropological documents: I remember an excerpt that was on my CBSE Class XII English syllabus. But his memoir smoothed over some of the more controversial aspects of life, like his messy divorce with a very young tribal woman. Guha does not flinch from these events and still writes a sympathetic, passionate and genuinely engaging account of Elwin's life and work.

An Anthropologist Among the Marxists (2000)

The opening line of this collection of essays has become the stuff of legend: "Inside every thinking Indian, there is a Gandhian and a Marxist struggling for supremacy."


The sentence sets the tone for what is to follow: a fascinating dissection of the different sub-species of Indian intellectuals: Gandhians, Marxists, anti-Marxists, Nehruvians, seculars and, of course, pseudo-seculars. (Guha considered himself a Marxist for a while before he felt that Marxists had "abandoned" him.) Through ten-page essays, Guha writes about people as diverse as EP Thompson, CV Subbarao, Khushwant Singh, MS Subbulakshmi and Sanjay Gandhi. My favourite in this collection is a little gem of an essay on two-time Kerala chief minister EMS Namboodiripad.

A Corner of a Foreign Field (2002)

Cricket has been one of Guha's enduring passions: before the historian, there was an off-spinner who was good enough to play college-level cricket. Before embarking on A Corner of a Foreign Field, he had written a few cricketing essays, most notably one on Sachin Tendulkar and his what his rise meant for post-globalisation India.


But with this magisterial history of Indian cricket, Guha outdid himself. One might even go as far as to say that next to India After Gandhi, this is his finest book. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is to reverse "the placing of sports history in a ghetto of its own". As Guha remarks, in the introduction: "Why is it that a new and conspicuously successful party in the land of Mussolini and Michelangelo has called itself Forza Italia, or Goal! Italy? (…) And how is it that since the end of the First World War there has been only one Kaiser in German society, and he a footballer, Franz Beckenbauer? These are questions that should in theory interest historians, but in practice they do not. Or at any rate, not often enough."

The Last Liberal (2004)

All the major strands of Guha's career are represented in this anthology: ecological history, biographical sketches, cricket, Marxism and the nature of Indian democracy.


Here lies his magnificent meditation on Stalin, as also his warm tribute to the literary critic/cricket writer Sujit Mukherjee and Black is Bountiful, his essay on CLR James (who once said, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"), author of Beyond a Boundary, undoubtedly the finest cricket book of them all. Dip into this volume from time to time and pick up a short essay arbitrarily. I assure you that you won't be disappointed.


Aditya Mani Jha Aditya Mani Jha @aditya_mani_jha

Writer works at Penguin Random House India. The views expressed here are his own.

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