February 22, 2009

One writer, many hats

Ramachandra Guha is a polymath who happens to write superbly on cricket


Guha: cricket through the eyes of a 12-year-old © Sujata Keshavan
 

When my son was graduating and looking into the future, a professor told him of the choices ahead: pure science, technology, public service, media, or, he said, "Ramachandra Guha". This was the first I was hearing of Guha as a career option; the professor meant it as generic term for brilliance spread over a number of fields.

The challenge here is to write about Guha without dwelling on how he has been picked as one of the Top 100 public intellectuals in the world, or that he is the recipient of India's third-highest civilian award, or that he is a historian, biographer, sociologist, environmentalist, anthropologist with profound, seminal works on each of these subjects. He is among the finest essayists and columnists around, with a range of interests that goes beyond even that list, and takes in music, science, literature, fiction, travel.

But this is about Guha the cricket writer, and - after acknowledging that his work in other fields must inform his writings on cricket, placing them in context and taking them into avenues others leave unexplored - we must descend from the general to the particular.

Provoked by the sociologist Ashish Nandy's procrustean approach to cricket history in his book The Tao of Cricket, Guha wrote Wickets in the East; thrown into depression over the demolition of the Babri Masjid, he sought solace in cricket, and dashed off Spin and Other Turns in a week's furious writing. With these books Guha liberated cricket writing in India from the two poles it had been tethered to - the cynical-journalistic and the statistical-dogmatic. Cricket, he underlined in these anecdotal histories, is about the human stories, not just of the players but of the fans too; its humour is rich, its culture varied.

His eye for the unusual is evident in the three collections he has edited, of which the Picador Book of Cricket is outstanding. The author's "Epilogue: An Addict's Archive" alone is worth the price of the book.

Guha brought to cricket writing the sheer joy of watching cricket, of reading about it, of revelling in its folklore and legend. He appreciated the chasm between the man who can spin a ball in his backyard and the genius who does it for a living on the world stage. The difference is not one of kind, it is a difference in degree, and as a modest offspinner in his college days, Guha understood this and captured it in those early books. These were fans' books, and it was no coincidence that on the title page of one was the line from Ian Peebles: "There are no cricketers like those seen through twelve-year-old eyes."

Guha was in his thirties then, but his eyes were those of a 12-year-old, and now, nearly two decades later, they continue to be that way. It is a remarkable quality, and the basis of the sheer excitement in all his writings on the game. Reading Guha has given me as much pleasure as watching my hero Gundappa Viswanath bat.

 
 
Guha liberated cricket writing in India from the two poles it had been tethered to - the cynical-journalistic and the statistical-dogmatic. Cricket, he underlined in his anecdotal histories, is about the human stories, not just of the players but of the fans too
 

In Guha's cricketing world there is no original sin, no fall from grace. Batsmen and bowlers and fielders continue to live among angels. This is not to say that he has no strong views on match-fixing or Twenty20 cricket; but he is convinced of the essential goodness of cricketers, sympathetic to their needs, and understanding of failure.

All this was sound preparation for the book that opened up a third field: the historical-interpretative. A Corner of a Foreign Field began as the story of Palwankar Baloo, the untouchable left-arm spinner whose talent helped him transcend caste. As Guha dug deeper into the story, he realised not just the symbolism contained in it but the hard historical facts that had been neglected by historians. The book is a wonderful read because Guha wears his learning lightly; the research is extensive but not intrusive. In some ways it is a stylish anecdotal history that just happens to be backed by facts and footnotes.

Guha has often said that he writes on history to make a living and on cricket to live. A Corner of a Foreign Field marries his two preoccupations, narrating the history of a people through the evolution of their cricket. Well might he have asked the question, what do they know of history who only history know?

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

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