Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cow, Coconut Tree, and Ram Guha

Here's the story about the cow and the coconut tree (I have heard it in several other variations as well, but this will do for the moment):

... in a lower primary school students were asked to prepare essays on subjects like "coconut tree" and "the cow." They were lazy students and they wanted to know which among the two may appear for the examination. They influenced the attender of the school, and he leaked out the question which he thought to be the correct one and said that it is about the coconut tree that you will be asked to write ten sentences. All of them learnt thoroughly ten sentences to be written about the coconut tree. But as they sat for the examination to their great dismay the only question appeared was to write 10 sentences about a cow. Some of the students found it difficult even to start and they left the examination hall. Some other smart students wrote "in Kerala cows are usually tethered on coconut tree and then wrote 10 sentences on "coconut tree" and completed the subject.

Now, go read Ram Guha's latest fluff on IISc.

* * *

Guha's thesis -- that IISc should "establish and make active a proper centre of humanistic studies" -- is eminently worth supporting; and it certainly has my support.

Here's my problem with Guha's piece. Among the many arguments to support his thesis, he has chosen one that betrays a certain disrespect to the existing scholarship. From B.V. Subbarayappa's history of IISc, one can learn quite a bit about the real efforts (summarized here) to get humanities included in the Institute's mandate. Many of these efforts were led by Burjorji Padshah -- the one person who put his very soul into seeing the IISc project through.

Does Guha acknowledge any these efforts? No.

What he does instead is to go on and on about virtual efforts by Patrick Geddes, who wrote five letters to Sister Nivedita about the kinds of things that IISc should do. In doing so, he connects these two figures -- Geddes and the good Sister -- to IISc in a way that is not quite justifiable. They were, at best, peripheral players in IISc's prehistory. As Guha himself admits, "One does not know whether Geddes’s [letters to Sister Nivedita] reached" Jamsetji Tata, so he's not even sure if Geddes's ideas had legs.

If Guha wants to bring them centrestage, that's fine; but he needs a lot more than "hey, look what I found in the National Library of Scotland."

* * *

Just because someone finds a bunch of letters between, say, a professor of Jyotir Vigyan and Sushma Swaraj about an auspicious launch time, does it mean that the two deserve a chapter in the history of the Chandrayaan mission?

* * *

Also check out this comment by my colleague Prof. S. Ranganathan about Guha's previous article about the IISc that waxes eloquent about Vivekananda's role in IISc's prehistory:

History is too important to be left to historians and industrious scholars! It is no doubt romantic to think that Swami Vivekanda inspired J N Tata to start an Indian Institute. This received further authority from Dr A P J Kalam's view of the beginnings of IISc. But there is little evidence for this viewpoint, as a noted historian B V Subbaryappa has pointed out in his reservations about the inclusion of Swami Vivekananda in the IISc Centenary commemorative stamp.Long before Tata met Swamiji the vision of a higher educational institution had taken shape in Tata's writings. No doubt the meeting on the voyage from Japan to the USA had some influence on Tata. That was in 1893. After five years he wrote a letter requesting his help in a missionary mode. To construe it as an offer of the directorship of IISc is stretched. [...] Readers may want to see my presentation on The Foundation of IISc, A Presentation by Professor S. Ranganathan, Department of Materials Engineering, IISc. [edited to embed the link]


  1. Anonymous said...

    Nice post - the cow and the coconut tree story is really apposite.

    That Ramachandra Guha is considered an intellectual speaks of the sad intellectual state of the country.

  2. Abi said...

    Anon: Thanks for saying nice things about this post.

    However, I disagree with your other comment about Guha.

    This post was only about one article among, literally, thousands that Guha has penned. Over the years, I have enjoyed many of them, and I admire Guha for his scholarship on Gandhi, Nehru, post-Independence India, and so many other topics.

    One disappointing piece doesn't -- and shouldn't -- take much away from Guha's status as a leading public intellectual in India.

  3. Anonymous said...

    My comment may be overharsh and even somewhat unjustified since I have not read Guha's "more serious" work e.g. his book on Elwin etc. However, I have read a lot of his journalistic work and find it to be shallow, trite, and often, as this particular piece shows, written with a predetermined goal in mind, i.e. to talk about what he knows about Patrick Geddes. None of this suggests that he indulges in serious scholarship in his non-free time.

    I don't doubt Guha's status as a (the?) leading public intellectual in India. I am put in mind of G-C Rota's: "When pygmies cast such long shadows, it must be very late in the day."