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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cric on February 23, 2009, 19:18 GMT

    Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn't Guha on one of the very first episodes of Mastermind India-- circa '98?

  • Krishnan on February 23, 2009, 16:44 GMT

    I am sorry - he may have diverse skills and abilities but I have seen him talk nonsense about cricket. I recall during a show after the Darrell Hair controversy (i.e the Pakistan/England test) a young man from the audience felt that Hair was within his rights to do what he did. Regadless of the merits of this point of view, Guha's response was to storm to the young man that "you are supporting this one main (Hair) against everyone else - when everyone else says he is wrong?" It seems that his dictate was to go with mob sentiment rather than intellectual independence. Similarly, he made some awfully simplistic comments on racism in cricket - citing as evidence comments he purported were made by the late Brian Johnson that whenever a West Indian bowled a bouncer at England batsmen it was a 'nasty ball'. Regardless of whether or not Johnson (a decent and neutral commentator) actually said this, Guha does not seem to understand that the comment may have been meant as a compliment.

  • Ajay on February 23, 2009, 6:33 GMT

    You speak the truth, Mr Menon.I have often felt that Guha,Kadambari Murali and you are the best cricket writers in India. Your point about Guha loving his cricketers hits the nail on the head..it is what makes his writing so enjoyable.My only request of him would be now to marry his several skills and write a biography of Sachin Tendulkar, which should be his cricketing magnum opus.

  • Siddhu on February 22, 2009, 23:29 GMT

    Mr. Guha is an incredible man. I could hardly believe it when I found him on an interview panel for Oxford uni, and we spoke nothing at all of cricket.

  • Srinivasan on February 22, 2009, 16:50 GMT

    Guha is a fine writer, but the best book on cricket I have read, written by an Indian, is "Playing for India" by Sujith Mukherjee. It was publised in 1972, and covered the first 40 years of Indian test cricket. Rajan

  • Sanjiv on February 22, 2009, 14:23 GMT

    A men of genius come in different shapes wearing different hats each with a custom fit making us believe if this is his main profession where he actually belongs to many professions each with a degree of prefection. I think Mr Guha belongs somewhere there. Sanjiv Gupta Perth Australia

  • KUMARAVEL on February 22, 2009, 13:12 GMT

    My experience of Mr.Guha is mainly from his columns appearing in the Sunday Hindu Mag.I don't read pieces on history normally,but Mr.Guha's anecdotal style of writing makes it much more enjoyable and simpler to read.The recent column I enjoyed was his take on the Ideological differences between arguably two of the best minds in Pre-independence India - Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.Another writer similar to Mr.Guha who also has varied topics of writing, from politics,culture sport-cricket is Mr.Mike Marqusee.

  • P Subramani on February 22, 2009, 11:49 GMT

    A fine tribute to a great polymath of our times. It never ceases to amaze me that one can be so multi-faceted and yet so wholesome in each of one's current engagement. While his recognition for a high civilian national award is significant, it does'nt bring out the sheer expanse of the range of subjects and fields that he can embrace totally in his passion for writing. We are indeed fortunate to have someone as versatile in our midst as Ramchandra Guha.

  • Supratik on February 22, 2009, 11:31 GMT

    Great article by a fabulous writer about a great one. Ram Guha is a treat to read. Though I haven't read the Picador book I have read all the others. If his trilogy Wickets.../Spin.../States.... was excellent, then 'A corner...' was matchless. It can be safely bracketed alongside James's 'Beyond a Boundary'. And beyond cricket, his 'India after Gandhi' was an omnibus which is a must read, even if one may disagree in parts. That is the greatness of Guha's writing. Eagerly waiting for another masterpiece or may be I'll just go down to the nearest bookshop and buy the 'Picador book..'. Thanks Suresh, your tongue-in-cheek columns in Gulf News always makes my Fridays!!

  • SRINI on February 22, 2009, 6:06 GMT

    Ram Guha is always a pleasure to read. Ever since I read his occasional column in The Hindu I had become an admirer of his writing. Even when he appears on TV shows he has that air of dignified restrained passion on whom you can rely to get a sane perspective even on a topic that arouses extreme emotions - like Sachin Tendulkar being 'charged' by, IMO, incompetent Mike Denness with ball tampering in South Africa. I wish we had more of such men around. But isnt he one of a kind? A nice tribute that brought up new facts about Guha for me.

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