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The lost world

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THE WORLD IN OUR TIME: A MEMOIR

Author: Tapan Raychaudhuri

Publisher: Harper Collins

Price : Rs 399

Historian Tapan Raychaudhuri dwells nostalgically in his memoir — albeit with a few regrets thrown in here and there to uphold his socialist credentials — on the family’s lost zamindari, writes Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Scholars being far removed in the public consciousness from rent collectors, one doesn’t think of Tapan Raychaudhuri, the eminent historian, as a zamindar. But here he is, surprising admirers by dwelling nostalgically — albeit with a few regrets thrown in here and there to uphold his socialist credentials — on the family’s lost zamindari and saying a shade wistfully, “I think of myself as a member of an extinct species.” The late Fatehsinghrao Gaekwad, Maharajah of Baroda, once brought the house down by describing himself in almost those terms except that he used “endangered species”.

Whether or not Raychaudhuri is extinct or endangered depends on what he regards as his primary identity. NDTV’s Prannoy Roy belongs to a possibly grander zamindari family in the author’s own district of Barisal (“the zamindars of Lakhutia” are mentioned in passing as the epitome of Westernisation) but is probably blissfully unaware of this aspect of his heritage. Some of the biggest zamindars from the old Mymensingh district clung to their place names and titles like grim death. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if there were more dispossessed East Bengal zamindars in Calcutta than there had ever been zamindars in East Bengal!

Raychaudhuri is right, therefore, to lament that the zamindari lifestyle has never been properly chronicled. A companion work could be on the rise of a new East Pakistani/Bangladeshi middle class from the ashes of the zamindari system. These are studies that someone with his intimate knowledge of the subject and mastery of academic discipline could take up, now that he is free from more pressing duties. If he doesn’t feel inclined to return to research, perhaps as National Research Professor, an honour that was bestowed on him last year, he could guide some questing younger worthy.

Not that this eminently readable book wallows only in East Bengal. Its sweep is magnificent, taking in the author’s childhood in Barisal, early adult life in Calcutta, graduate studies at Oxford, work in Delhi’s National Archives and as director of the Delhi School of Economics where Manmohan Singh was a fondly remembered colleague, and return to Oxford in 1973. He retired from there 20 years later as professor of Indian history and civilisation. He now lives in well-earned retirement in Oxford as emeritus fellow, St Antony’s College. The serious import of the story he tells is relieved by his gentle self-deprecation and an unending stream of delightful anecdotes.

Raychaudhuri is a raconteur, his gift for story-telling well honed in the Bengali institution of adda to which there are several references. I loved the description of the self-righteous MP who, outraged to find that meals were served in the Western style at Delhi’s Constitution House, “solemnly sat down on the floor and demanded that his lunch be served there. When this request was turned down with due apologies, the man who made our laws climbed and squatted on the table”. The account of the overland journey from England to India is an especial treat, worthy of a travel writer like Eric Newby. A keenly observant eye and breathtaking historical knowledge make the reader share in the joys of the journey.

Raychaudhuri calls The World in Our Time “a memoir” and it is just that — the sparkling memoir of a gifted man who has led a long and useful life, observed great events and personalities at close quarters, and is able to capture the passing show with gentle humour and often deep insight. But being a memoir, it is not autobiography. Nor is it history. The judgements are too subjective for that. Raychaudhuri was a nationalist and, as the blurb says, “was imprisoned for his participation in the Quit India movement.” Emotionally, if not also intellectually, that past marches with him still. A minor instance will suffice. The author claims that “it is doubtful that there would be many takers” if the British Viceroys gave audience in the manner of Mughal emperors. That idealistic assessment — ignoring the Indian public’s opportunism — also finds an echo in the narrative’s very last lines when, waiting to receive the Padma Bhushan, Raychaudhuri muses with satisfaction on the transformation that the viceregal palace has undergone and hopes that “the very poor who could not afford to dress decently, or for that matter afford to have two square meals a day” would one day gain admittance to those hallowed precincts.

That noble thought is not likely to have occurred to anyone else in that august gathering. Indians have always been schizophrenic. The massed millions at the Delhi Durbar and similar events, accounts of the scramble for invitations to viceregal levees and for British titles, and a photograph of even Motilal Nehru decked out in the court finery of gaiters, tight tunic and dress sword hardly indicate an austere boycott. For whatever reason, some of the fiercest critics of the British Raj also felt most comfortable in Britain.

One last point. When a second edition appears — and there should be one — I hope the publishers will take the trouble (and incur the expense) of providing an Index.

The reviewer is former editor, The Statesman

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