Indian Persuasions: 50 Years of Seminar: Selected Writings
Edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Roli, Rs 695
Romesh and Raj Thapar left Bombay and came to Delhi in 1959 when they were hardly 30. With a princely capital of Rs 15,000 they started Seminar, a monthly journal of thought and debate. When I came to Delhi in 1966, I met them through my brother, Mahendra, who was very fond of them. He admired Romesh Thapar’s deep voice; when he was news director of All India Radio —this was before the advent of television — he often used to call Romesh for broadcasts. I found that Romesh had a great interest in ideas and was always fun to talk to; besides being beautiful, Raj was an indefatigable worker and kept the show going while we talked and gossiped. I left Delhi in 1973 and then lost touch with the Thapars. But I always considered Seminar to be an Indian treasure.
Both Romesh and Raj died, at a relatively early age, in the 1980s. Then their daughter, Mala, took over the running of Seminar, together with her husband, Tejbir Singh, and has brought it out, month after month, in the format set by her father and mother: an initial essay that poses a question, and a dozen or so answers, usually from people who have thought seriously about it. The issues published over 50 years virtually represent an intellectual history of independent India. Rudrangshu Mukherjee has read them, and brought out a kind of golden anniversary festschrift consisting of 60 articles selected out of the thousands published over half a century.
It is not possible to describe at all accurately what these 60 articles are about; the variety is simply too great. Rudrangshu classifies the articles into five classes broadly representing politics, sociology, economics, history and culture. But it is not the subjects that matter; it is their treatment. In many essays the reader will find something to learn and ponder. Let me draw a small sample.
Romesh and Raj Thapar knew Indira Gandhi well. Romesh’s judgment on her life, written in 1984, is sensitive to her personality and trials without losing a critical sense of the damage she did. Her disastrous adventure looked more serious then than it turned out to be. Raj gives a more personal, more dramatic account of what it felt like to live through the Emergency, when Seminar stopped publication for six months.
D.D. Kosambi was a Marxist polymath. From his eyrie in Deccan College, Poona, he used to wander in the hills behind, pick up sharpened pebbles (‘microliths’ in archaeologists’ jargon), and wonder which of them shepherds had used to circumcise their goats as they migrated between their winter pastures down in the hills and monsoon refuge in the Western Ghats. In a 1960 article included here, he asks what should be India’s national language. He rejects both Sanskrit and English because they were imposed by ruling classes, and Hindi because its adoption would scare Madrasis that they would be overrun by Marwari shopkeepers. Having rejected all common languages, he is left with the alternative that everyone should speak his own language — whether they understand one another or not is immaterial.
Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s article dates from 1959 — much before his ironical books were misunderstood by literally minded Indians and he was branded a traitor. He wrote then that he considered it lucky that India’s Congress rulers were culturally illiterate: they would therefore leave culture alone.
Amartya Sen, while still under 30, freshly made fellow of Trinity and freshly married to Nabaneeta, wrote in 1959 that it was right for the government planners to make India socialist because historical experience showed that socialist countries grew faster than capitalist countries. The surge of East Asian growth was then still in the future. Now Amartya has mellowed into a sort of modern Fabian.
Ravi Dayal, the Oxonian who ran Oxford University Press in Delhi for some time and then set up his own publishing firm, wrote in 2002 about the history of Delhi Kayasths. He remembered the days when a Dilliwallah could drink tap water, take a boat on the Jumna, and walk on grassy pavements. Delhi then meant old Delhi, with Mohammad Umar the tailor and Atma Ram’s bookshop; that was where people came from afar to see the only trams of north India.
Krishna Kumar, writing in 1982, contested the view that rural children did not go to school because their parents disdained education. The school year was out of tune with the rhythm of rural life, especially the agricultural seasons; the most incompetent teachers were sent to village schools as punishment; the schools are simply huts with a tree, almost always too small for the number of children they have to serve. The curriculum had no relation with the children’s lives or needs. She describes the tribulations of Manju, a child widow who was sent to teach in a remote village. She shared the single classroom with one other teacher; both found it difficult to find a room to stay. Nita Kumar, writing in 2003, describes education in a typical madrasa. Learning official history which brands Muslims as invaders is least of it. The teaching is better than in government schools; but the prospects at the end of school are no better than for illiterates.
The volume comprises these and similar contributions. For those who read serious literature, it will be good entertainment; for those who read fiction, this may be an entertaining introduction to serious literature. One could cavil with the selection: no doubt there are some flimsy articles, and some writers who are more modern than good. But that does not matter; this is a good experiment. Over the 50 years, Seminar must have published some 7,000 articles; Rudrangshu could make a hundred such selections without running out. My only suggestion is that his future selections should be briefer, lighter paperbacks; this volume is too heavy to read in bed.