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A Grand Sweep of Historical Analysis

Michael H. Fisher

By Ranajit Guha. Edited by Partha Chatterjee
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2009, pp. x 666, Rs. 895.00

VOLUME XXXIII NUMBER 8-9 August/September 2009

Ranajit Guha has over his long career as the ‘founder and guiding spirit of Subaltern Studies’ (p. 1) and also for his own passionately committed writing, earned great significance worldwide among scholars and students of colonial and post-Independence Indian history and of the nature of historiography in general. The editor of the volume under review, Professor Partha Chatterjee, a charter member of the Subaltern Studies Collective, has devotedly collected forty-four of Guha’s published and unpublished essays, articles, and chapters in English. These works span well over half a century, ranging from Guha’s 1947 essay decrying the violence of teenage wage slavery published in a Communist Party magazine, The Student, to his November 2008 hitherto unpublished address to the Austrian Academy of Sciences on ‘Translating between Cultures’. Chatterjee also guides our reading of Guha’s life and thought through a brief introductory biography and through a thematic rather than chronological arrangement of Guha’s writings. Throughout this volume, we can perceive Guha’s self-identification as marginalized by and hostile to the academic establishments of India as well as of the West, his developing vision of the political nature of history writing, and his largely consistent argumentation about the unrelentingly adversarial relations between the colonial and post-Independent states in India and its oppressed masses.   In his organization of this volume, Chatterjee chooses to highlight what he considers to be six of the major foci of Guha’s scholarly career. Within each of these six parts, Chatterjee largely—but not entirely—follows a chronological sequence. This thematic arrangement—rather than a straightforward temporal one—leads readers away from a biographical emphasis on Guha himself or on the development of his ideas overall and more towards an abstract and synthetic consideration of his thought about a series of topics. Inevitably, some of Guha’s works fit less well under these six rubrics than others.   Yet, both Guha and Chatterjee identify Guha’s own life and academic career with his ongoing intellectual and political commitments. Born in agricultural East Bengal in 1923, Guha recalls how he interacted sympathetically during his youth with the peasants living on and around his family’s ‘middle-sized talukdari’ landed estate (p. 5). Many of Guha’s writings would feature his efforts to recover rural voices. Not until after Guha went as a teenaged schoolboy to Calcutta, however, did he begin to awaken to the tumult of the final decades of the British Raj ...

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