On “Scandalmongering of the Senile” – Ruminations on Tapan Raychaudhuri, Historian: Ahona Panda

Guest Post by Ahona Panda

[ One of the great losses of this year was the passing of the historian Tapan Raychauduri in November, who is remembered not just for the acuity of his scholarship, but also for his warmth, his humour and his embodiment of a certain cosmopolitan, worldly elan. In this tribute, Ahona Panda, a young scholar at the University of Chicago, remembers what it means for all those committed to the life of ideas to have shared the world with Tapan Raychaudhuri and to have lived through the years in which he sojourned through time. We thought it would be fitting to offer these reflections across generations to our readers as another turbulent year draws to a close. ]

In November 2014, the world lost an astonishing historian called Tapan Raychaudhuri. Professor Raychaudhuri’s laurels and accolades and many publications, along with his students, span the entirety of the globe. I write this obituary as a young graduate student who knew him in some personal capacity, a personal capacity that is difficult to define—my parents were his graduate students in the 1980s—thus making me a recipient of his affection (personal, intellectual) and something akin to a grandchild, no perhaps not quite that, but more what he called a (jokingly) “grand-student”.

It was when I stepped into the murky world of South Asian studies, and dabbled and read material pertaining to India in general and Bengal in particular, that I understood the great contribution that Tapan Raychaudhuri has had in the field of not only South Asian history, but also the cultural history of Bengal. This latter Bengal is not that limited, parochial and steadily shrinking ideological/geographical entity that today stands the risk of being run by a Hindu right wing party. Tapan Raychaudhuri, a tremendous celebrity in Calcutta, was not guilty of belonging to West Bengal. In fact, he was perhaps never guilty of “belonging”.

Born into a zamindar family in Comilla in 1926, Raychaudhuri witnessed some great political and social upheavals in his time and indeed the 1940s marked an important decade in his life—not only was he a part of the Quit India Movement, but was jailed, saw the great Bengal famine, riots and partition. Both his autobiographies, the one in Bengali Bangalnama as well as The World in Our Time, chronicle the tumultuous 1940s: the riots before and after partition, the difficult years that Raychaudhuri had to spend finding a foothold in Calcutta as a refugee and as a Bangal (a term that is still extant in Calcutta to define the refugees who had poured in from the other Bengal, East Bengal or Purbo Banga.)

It was also in these years that the story of his finding a place within the then newly emerging discipline of modern Indian history, while a young lecturer in Calcutta University, is chronicled. Though Tapan Raychaudhuri’s contribution in modern South Asian history is mainly recognized as that of economic historian, his first doctoral dissertation was Bengal Under Akbar and Jahangir, a notable work of social history that stands as reflection on the historical methodology of his time. In both his autobiographies, Raychaudhuri discusses the intellectuals of Bengal who surrounded him during this formative phase—Niharranjan Ray, the very rigorous and prolific literary historian of Bengal Sukumar Sen and Sir Jadunath Sarkar, one of the founders of the modern historiography of India who also supervised Raychaudhuri’s first doctoral dissertation in Calcutta. In fact, the story of how Raychaudhuri wrote this dissertation—how he identified and culled sources like the Baharistan-i-ghaibi (a volume he found in Jadunath Sarkar’s library) to write a social history of Bengal in the 1950s—is an exciting narrative of trying to write an authentic (and non-nationalist/parochial) account of the early-modern period. In the review of the second edition of this book, the eminent historian Simon Digby lamented two things: first, that with the growth of professional history-writing addressed to a smaller academic world, the star of the likes of Sir Jadunath Sarkar (in India) and G. M. Trevelyan (on whose Social History of England Raychaudhuri modeled his work) had begun to wane. Raychaudhuri’s first work had already begun to be outdated and his later work (in the domain of economic history) was outshining that first foray into social history. His work in the economic history of India was prolific—he published The Cambridge Economic History of India jointly with Irfan Habib and Dharma Kumar, Jan Company in Coromandel (1962), and he was founding editor of the Indian Economic and Social History Review. The late 1980s and 90s saw two significant collections of essays: Europe Reconsidered: Perception of the West in Nineteenth Century Bengal (1988) and Perceptions, Emotions, Sensibilities: Essays on India’s Colonial and Post-colonial Experiences (1996). These two books visited the mental worlds of the colonial middle classes in the late 19th century—as well as that specter that haunts us all in contemporary South Asia today—communalism.

With the publication of Bangalnama in serial format in the magazine Desh in Calcutta over 2006, published by Ananda Publishers in 2007, Raychaudhuri brought history into the homes of the average Bengali. His autobiography chronicled in sparkling, nostalgic, and beautiful prose the exile of the early years, the lost Bengal of another time—undivided, riddled with class and caste hierarchies, yet hopeful. Most of all, these autobiographical reminiscences spoke of history that was public, yet so deeply personal. It reminded of those who knew him of how they learned an astonishing amount about the past and the present just by listening to his anecdotes. Most of the stories that Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri had to tell were stories that had a deep, embedded truth (truth? Can one call it moral? Lesson? I don’t know which word is adequate of capturing that which lay at the heart of a story he had to share. Let us settle for meaning.) Thus: most of his anecdotes had an inherent meaning attached to it. Let me for example take an incident from The World in Our Time. Raychaudhuri describes an encounter between him and another young man in the 1950s in Turkey. The young man had a unique problem: parental opposition to the fact that he had fallen in love with the most beautiful girl in the world. He pressed his friendship on Professor Raychaudhuri (expensive cigarettes, the fare, inedible tea) and asked the latter for his good advice. Like “a good Bengali” Tapan Raychaudhuri advised him to neither kill himself nor join an order of dervishes but to merely get a job and await the necessary children who would make the marriage tolerable to the in-laws. The young man’s eyes filled with tears at this “classic Bengali solution”—Raychaudhuri had saved his life. This encounter ends with Raychaudhuri walking away, not even knowing the young man’s name…pathos, humour and open-endedness (and good advice!) characterize this exchange, and this quality marks the majority of his autobiographical writing.

In the paradox that was Raychaudhuri—acutely cosmopolitan and yet intensely Bengali—lay a human being who reminded one that history is not something that one merely writes, but also something that one lives through. Raychaudhuri’s Bangalnama became a literary phenomenon in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, a common site for both sides of Bengal in the 21st century. He visited Bangladesh and Comilla after more than five decades—a homecoming for a man who described himself as a “yokel from East Bengal.” And one of his greatest books—a memoir called Romanthan Athoba Bhimroti Prapter Porocarita Carca, a peculiarly culturally untranslatable book set just before the partition of Bengal (if a book like that can have a temporal setting)—can be roughly translated as Ruminations Or, The Scandalmongering of the Senile. This book begins at the sick-bed of the famous Bengali feminist writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen ( a neighbor and very close friend of the Raychaudhuris) as she had been one of the first people to encourage him to write it. (Tapan Raychaudhuri tells us that she approved of this book, her cat gave every indication that he did not.) And then the book begins: a catalogue of Kirtipasha (his ancestral homestead), of Bengali social and literary mores, and most significantly: of that old Bengali obsession, ghosts. (It is baffling how privately, he told a fantastic spine-chilling ghost story only to end with the strict injunction: “There is absolutely nothing called an afterlife, or the supernatural, or ghosts and don’t let hysterical people convince you otherwise!”)
Perhaps human beings do not have an afterlife, but our shared stories and pasts do. And it is the afterlife of a past that was constructed on goodwill, idealism (“that state of our youthful dreams”), communal harmony and understanding, and a rational and unbiased appraisal of the socio-economic worlds that were, that underwrote Tapan Raychaudhuri’s historical writing. For Bengali interlocutors, that history sometimes transgressed into a realm most peculiarly one’s own—myths, stories, and experiences that unfolded on the banks of the river Kirtankhola (or even say, Padma on that side, Ganga on ours, or even a Subarnarekha…) and it was this sudden entry of the interlocutor into a world of compassion, generosity, dazzling understanding and enchantment that formed the crux of Raychaudhuri’s personality.

A chapter in Romanthan is called, “Adventurous, Or, A Hair-raising History.” Perhaps that is too literal a translation of “roma-harshak” which would also mean delightful, exciting, mesmerizing. Raychaudhuri had the unique gift of capturing and conveying history’s many enchantments and crucial ruptures. Romanthan ends with the night of Partition, the Raychaudhuri patriarch holding their solitary gun and keeping his emotions about Partition to himself, then and in the future, as his son Tapan Raychaudhuri tells us. One of our greatest historians knew that not all history can be told explicitly, and perhaps some historical experiences is best understood through silence.

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