The Irish internationalist

Benedict Anderson as scholar and human being

By Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 15.12.15

Politics and Play

Benedict Anderson, who died earlier this week, aged 79, was the last of the great polymath social scientists. He was at once a political scientist, historian, sociologist, literary theorist, and biographer. He was also formidably multi-lingual, knowing half-a-dozen European languages and some four or five Asian languages too.

In the range of his learning, in his ability to so effortlessly cross disciplinary, temporal, and geographical boundaries, Benedict Anderson had only two peers: Ernest Gellner (1925-1995) and Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012). Gellner and Hobsbawm were European Jews forced to emigrate to England in the wake of the rise of the Nazis. Anderson was Irish, the son of a colonial official who served in, among other places, Yunan, Manchuria, and Shanghai. He himself studied at the University of Cambridge, before moving further west, to Cornell University in upstate New York, where he taught for some 35 years.

Anderson originally wished to work on India. But he decided to turn his attention instead to Indonesia, writing seminal studies on language and politics in this large, dispersed, staggeringly diverse and often troubled nation. Of a fiercely independent character, Anderson fell foul of the military dictatorship of General Suharto. He was expelled from Indonesia, and not allowed to re-enter the country for many years thereafter.

Anderson saw himself above all as a fieldworker, who liked digging up obscure documents and speaking to peasants and workers. Left to himself, he would probably have deepened his studies of Indonesian culture and history. In the event, General Suharto's ban made him into a theorist of comparative politics. Juxtaposing his own knowledge of Asian nationalisms with works on American and European nationalism, he published Imagined Communities (1983), the book for which he is best known. This presented a brilliantly original analysis of how, through the spread of what Anderson called 'print capitalism', people with no connection to one another came to see themselves as members of the same 'imagined community', their nation.

Interestingly, Gellner and Hobsbawm also wrote important comparative studies of nationalism after Anderson had done so. Meanwhile, the pioneer had himself returned to Southeast Asia. He collected his major essays on Indonesia in a book; then, since the ban imposed by General Suharto was still in force, turned his attention to the Philippines instead. In 2005, he published what is my own favourite of his many books. This is Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination, a marvellous study of radical Asian intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and of the links they built between colonies and continents. Anderson himself said of this book that it was "the 'novel' of someone who always wanted to be a novelist but without the talent for it!"

After retirement from Cornell, Benedict Anderson moved to Thailand. From there, he travelled tirelessly across the region: flying, sailing, driving, or walking to islands or provinces he had not yet visited, meeting scholars and citizens, digging in archives and libraries. Eventually allowed to re-enter Indonesia, he spent much time there, his zest and curiosity undimmed by age, failing health, or the horrific condition of that country's roads.

At the time of his death, Benedict Anderson was working on two books. One was a literary biography of a Sino-Indonesian satirist and journalist, himself a polyglot whose writing was a "cunning mix" of Dutch, Hokkien, Javanese, and Malay, and some English, German, and Japanese too. Anderson was fascinated by this writer, "a colonial cosmopolitan who never went anywhere but opened his heart and brains to the rest of the world".

Characteristically, where one of his last projects drew on his own deep knowledge of Indonesia, a second ranged widely across the world. This was a comparative history of royal heads of State from Napoleon to the Gulf Emirs. The central theme here was the role of the United Kingdom in turning small chiefdoms into "protectorates" and then into kingships, and eventually into nation-states.

As a student in Calcutta in the early 1980s, I read Imagined Communities with interest and excitement. Then, in 1989, I met Benedict Anderson himself. We were together at a conference in Karachi, where the tenor of the talks was strongly flavoured by post-colonial and post-structural thought. I was out of place, and Ben Anderson even more so. So we took long walks through the city, discussing Weber, Marx, Gandhi, Nehru, Sukarno, Suharto, and much else. It was an arrangement that worked well; Anderson had a companion, and I a teacher.

On that trip to Karachi, Anderson was carrying, as his plane-and-bed-time reading, a copy of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. The book had just been banned by Rajiv Gandhi in India, and was, of course, verboten in Pakistan too. At breakfast one morning, Anderson told me that a kindly waiter, bringing him a cup of tea, had advised him to hide the book in a drawer whenever he left the room.

Anderson was a superb stylist, who carried his vast learning extremely lightly. Despite his distinction, he had an absolute lack of self-importance, and a lovely dry wit, characteristics on display in the letters and emails we exchanged over the years. Once he wrote to me from a hospital bed in Bangkok, where he was laid up for weeks with multiple fractures in his ankle: "But being in hospital (nice one) in a monsoon country isn't bad at all. Food a little bland, but otherwise tasty. Nurses who, trying to cheer you up, and making fun of your belly, ask you 'how long have you been pregnant and when is the baby due', visitors at all hours, with armfuls of fruits and cookies, cheerful doctors just back from golfing. Very unlike the chilly hospitals of the US, to say nothing of the prices being 60% lower. I kept thinking about a student comrade in Indonesia in 1963, who came down with hepatitis, and was stuck in a hospital for two weeks going mad out of loneliness and impatience. He asked me to see if I could find any folk medicine. So I asked around. I was told that the best medicine is two or three head-lice concealed in a banana. Luckily headlice were easy to find in those days, so I took the lice-filled bananas and (not knowing what they contained) he wolfed them down. Two days later he was cured. It's true!"

On another occasion, when I told him I was going to Paris on a family holiday with my teenage children, Anderson replied: "Despite the long run of truly awful presidents it has suffered since De Gaulle, with their corruption, megalomania, and ridiculously bad taste, Paris is still Paris - where roadside food markets, wine shops, are still galore, plus lots of nice things to see. Eighteen and 16 are good ages to go. My beloved Auntie and her best friend took me there when I was twelve years old, as a reward for getting a scholarship to Eton. I remember very little, except my aunt's record: You went out early to see what there was at the kiosk, and you came back delighted to have found a French language Tarzan comic. When I looked at it, I was surprised to find that Tarzan had a lovely girl friend [England's Tarzans stuck to monkeys and boys]..."

Another time, when I wrote to him that I was down with "a minor ailment, laryngitis, aka too much bullshitting syndrome", Ben answered: "I suddenly thought that if Vishnu were around he might punish bullshitters all over the world with chronic laryngitis. No doubt that the internet and the cellphone have vastly increased the numbers of nonstop bullshitters. Early in the internet days, when visiting Dartmouth for a lecture, I asked some of the youngsters why they liked the internet, especially 'chatting' so much, abandoning local bars, student canteens and so on. Answer: You can't be interrupted! If you go to bars and canteens, people are interrupting all the time. Narcissism on a global scale."

My last mail from Ben Anderson, received in April this year, had three gems. First, about himself: "I am leaving Bangkok tonight to keynote a flashy All-Asian Blabla in Korea, I think maybe on peculiar ideas about nationalism. I think that secretly the Koreans want me to be a 'referee' fearing intellectual war between the Chinese and the Japanese."

Second, in response to a query of mine, about right-wing intellectuals in the West: "I once went to a [meeting of] Conservative Intellectuals in Boston, and it was a real riot, screams and roars between the Brits - elegant traditionalists against the Australians and Yankees - trashy demands for the freedom to get as much money as possible, and use it as freely as possible too."

The third remark was slightly more serious: "How many public intellectuals are there in India? In Southeast Asia they are dying, replaced by professors and bureaucrats to whom not many ordinary people pay any attention... I guess your Gandhi was a public intellectual, but probably Nehru not???????"

It was just and appropriate that Ben Anderson died in Indonesia. His students there, elsewhere in Asia, and in Europe and America, will surely do proper justice to his memory. They will bring to fruition the book projects he was working on, and perhaps compile collections of his essays as well. I hope his correspondence over the decades is also collected, edited, and published. He was a great scholar, a remarkable human being, an Irish cosmopolitan who went everywhere and opened his heart and brains to the rest of the world.