Looking Back

Letter to Ranajit Guha

Sumanta Banerjee

Dear Ranajit da
Do you remember me? I was your student for a brief while in 1953 on the eve of my I.A. (Arts) Intermediate Arts examination at the then Central Calcutta College. You came to teach us history, and replaced Tapan Ray Chaudhury who had left for Oxford for further research.

But even before listening to your lectures in the classroom, I had been your admirer from a distance. Since ours was a Communist family, your name often cropped up in discussions among elders. I heard about you being a dedicated young leader who was chosen by the CPI leadership to represent the party at the World Federation of Democratic Youth in 1945. That assignment took you to Warsaw (if I remember right). After several years of active involvement with the international youth movement, you returned to Calcutta in 1953. As far as I remember, you took up residence in Dover Lane—which was near our house in Ekdalia Road in South Calcutta. You were accompanied by your wife Martha, a brave Polish lady who was a survivor of the notorious Warsaw Ghetto, where she was imprisoned during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Your own experiences abroad and Martha’s struggles, lent an aura of heroism around both of you. To us youngsters you were an ideal Communist couple.

I met you occasionally after leaving college, at some meeting or social gathering. But I lost touch after you left Calcutta in 1959, and joined the University of Sussex. It was again in 1970/71 that we renewed our acquaintanceship. Those were tumultuous years—following the peasant rebellion in Naxalbari. You visited India, and came to Delhi where I was working as a journalist with The Statesman newspaper. You and your partner Mechthild (another wonderful woman! You’ve always been lucky in your relationships, Ranajit da) put up at Maiden’s Hotel in old Delhi, where one evening you invited me and my wife Bizeth. We spent a delightful time, discussing international politics and the Naxalite movement. You disagreed with me on my views about the activities of the Chinese Red Guards, whom I had criticised (in an article in FRONTIER) for their depredations during the Cultural Revolution. You were in favour of them. But both shared our common admiration of the peasant warriors and the student activists of the Naxalite movement. During your brief stay in Delhi, you addressed the students of the Delhi University in a meeting, where you urged them to come forward in support of the movement.

The next time I met you was sometime in 1979, when during my short stay in London, our mutual friend Gagan Dutta along with his wife Krishna and little daughter, drove me down to your home in Sussex, where you were teaching then. We had a fantastic lunch, spread out by Mechthild, and talked about old times. You told us about your current research project. You narrated how your interest in the Naxalite movement had prompted you to try to understand the peasant psyche. This had led you to explore the historical roots of anti-British peasant rebellions in India in the past.

A few years after my return to India, in 1983, I received a copy of your book ‘Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India’. This seminal book was the outcome of your research about which you talked that afternoon in your Sussex home. I had the privilege of reviewing it in Economic and Political Weekly.

Your insatiable urge to probe further into the subject led you to come up with the concept of the ‘subaltern,’ and soon with the help of your students and ardent followers, you established the Subaltern School of Studies. It opened up a new vista in the academic world. I met you both in Calcutta and Delhi during seminars held on the subject—although I expressed reservations about some of the conclusions made by the historians of the Subaltern School.

The last time I met you was, may be some time in late 1990s or early 2000s at a group discussion in Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum library. You were as youthful as ever, brimming with new ideas, and at your best argumentative self. In 2009, I discovered your new Bengali book ‘Kobi’r Naam O Sarbanaam’ —yet again another extraordinary work, throwing a new light on Rabindranath.

Ranajit da—looking forward to wishing you a happy birthday on May 23, 2023, when you will turn a centenarian.
Warmest regards
Sumanta Banerjee

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Vol. 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022