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Thinking Beyond Past Folly and Present Greed

Mahesh Rangarajan

By Ramchandra Guha
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 262, Rs. 595.00


In his memoirs, In the Afternoon of Time, the veteran Hindi writer, Harivansh Rai Bacchan expressed a strong preference for the way the Hindi language ought to evolve in the public sphere. Hindi words, he wrote, should constitute the main body of a text, but they should be laced with Urdu and Persian. This would add to the beauty of the prose but not detract from its own distinctive attractions.   Coming as it does nearly a quarter cen-tury after Ramachandra Guha’s forays into the history of environment-related conflicts in India, the book under review does not disappoint. There is a pulling together of the key strands of writing over the last two decades, but in the process there is a sense of rediscovery. Nowhere, except in the conclusion does he pull his punches, but the narrative is laced—to use Bacchan’s phraseology—with anecdote and wit. There are connections that are obvious to all and there are otherlinkages that come from a rare gift of synthesis.   The book begins with a careful retelling of the paths that took Guha, a young graduate student with two degrees in Economics, to the forests of Uttarakhand, a foray which eventually resulted in his The Unquiet Woods (1989), a foundational text in environmental history and sociology in South Asia. He singles out the individual and groups that set him on this intellectual journey. Alam Singh Rawat, headman of Mandal in Chamoli district appraised him of the local context of the Chipko movement. Jayanta Bandhopadhyaya and Anjan Ghosh, senior mentors at Calcutta’s Indian Institute of Management urged him to step beyond the neo-Marxist orthodoxy then prevalent in much of social science academia. Where the story gets interesting is in Guha’s acknowledgement of the impact on his research of activist groups in Delhi. The larger ecumene of those engaged in democratic rights, science policy and environmental issues not only drew him closer as a citizen but also shaped his own worldviews.   This stays as a thread through this book, irrespective of the issue under his scanner. Those who feel he criss-crosses centuries and continents in quest of parallels and contrasts must be warned that many observations here are backed by the author’s substantial academic works. But the threads are often illumined with specific references that prove good food for thought. African conservation initiatives as he quotes a Zambian scholar are African only ...

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