India inhospitable terrain to write biographies: Ramachandra Guha

Arguing that India is an “inhospitable terrain to write biographies”, historian Ramachandra Guha today said biographers here work under “fear of giving offence”.

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Guha, 58, alleged that the mails also warned him against criticising BJP President Amit Shah.(Source: IE)

 

Speaking at the Samvatsar Lecture of Sahitya Akademi’s Festival of Letters here, Ramchandra Guha said that “biography is an underdeveloped branch of historical or literary enquiry in India”. (Source: IE)

Arguing that India is an “inhospitable terrain to write biographies”, historian Ramachandra Guha today said biographers here work under “fear of giving offence”. Citing Mahatma Gandhi’s example, Guha said, the Freedom Fighter is the “only great Indian” whom anyone can criticise without their face getting blackened, their books being banned, or having to go into exile. “Because Gandhi belongs to everyone and no one. No sect, no religion, no region, no language, and no political ideology can claim him,” he said. “Fear of giving offence is also something that comes in the way of liberating our robust and rich biographical tradition,” he said while listing seven major issues faced by historical biographers in the country.

Speaking at the Samvatsar Lecture of Sahitya Akademi’s Festival of Letters here, Guha said that “biography is an underdeveloped branch of historical or literary enquiry in India”.

Besides, the fear of giving offence, Guha listed writers’ “colossal” egos and scholarly inheritance, indifference to record-keeping and treatment of history as “social sciences”, as reasons that come in the way of producing biographies.

“Writing biography requires you, as a writer, to suppress your ego and sense of individual self, in favour of the individual ego of the person you are writing about,” he said.

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The “India after Gandhi” author also suggested young and aspiring historians that a person’s biography should “not be just about his work”, but should also tell the “primary character’s relationship with others around him”.

Recalling writing the biography of anthropologist and tribal activist Verrier Elwin, which was also Guha’s first biographical work, the award-winning historian said “secondary characters are important” while writing a biography.

“If you are going to write about Jawaharlal Nehru, you will have to write about Nehru’s relationship with his wife, with his father, with his colleagues like Vallabh Bhai Patel,” Guha said.

He also said that writers “must look for sources other than those emanating from the primary character himself”.

“It is an irresistible temptation to base your work on Ambedkar, Gandhi, Nehru, Churchil or Roosevelt around their own writings.

“Their writings are so voluminous that you can write the whole story from them. But must look for sources other than those emanating from the primary character himself,” the historian said.

He went on to advise aspiring historians to never tell readers “what to expect next” and not to be “deterred even if your subject has written a comprehensive autobiography”.

“Even if your subject has written a detailed and comprehensive autobiography, don’t be deterred because every autobiography is a preemptive strike against a future biographer. An autobiography also has unanswered silences and missed memories, which needs to be written by a biographer,” the author said.

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