Partha Chatterjee

Kris Manjapra

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Interview Participants
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Test 123 Test 123 Test 123. This is September 15, 2012, and oral history for the
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Bengali Intellectuals in the Age of Decolonization Project. This is an oral history
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with Partha Chatterjee, recorded at Columbia University in New York City.
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Professor Chatterjee, thank you for taking time to record this oral history with us.
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Perhaps we can begin with your childhood, and in fact with your birth. Could you
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give us the date and the location of your birth?
Right. Well, there's a slight confusion here, which is because, officially, the date
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of my birth is the 5th of November, 1947. But in actual fact, I was born on the 5th of
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August, 1947. I have later tried to find out how this confusion ever took place, and
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my father says it was a problem caused by my school, when I was admitted. When I
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was admitted to my school, there was an error. And this error was not actually
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detected until quite late when I was coming up for my first public exams. And by
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then, it was too late to correct.
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So, in actual fact, I was born 5th of August, 1947,
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which is ten days before Indian independence. So, in a sense, I was technically born
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in British India.
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I was born in the city of Calcutta. One assumes a lot of things were
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happening in the city at this time. But, none of this really affected my childhood
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directly.
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Where exactly in Calcutta was your family's home?
Right. My father was then teaching in a college, and we lived in a rented house in
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the area of South Calcutta, known as Ballygunj. It was a close to the Ballygunj
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railway station. The place is called Igdalia Road and it was actually quite an
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interesting place. I later discovered and later realized that this was a whole road an
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entire neighborhood, and was very largely occupied by academics. Because most of
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our neighbors were college or university teachers. So, I suppose that's how my
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father class went in there. So, it was a slightly unusual neighborhood in that sense.
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And a lot of people I grew up with were quite used to living in houses, in families,
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where somebody of the other was an academic. So, that's where I was born.
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Can you tell us now about your childhood, a little bit about your childhood, how
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you would describe your early years?
Well, as I said, this was a very middle class neighborhood. Ballygunj, I probably
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should explain, was not part of the older part of the city.
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This was a relatively recent
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part of the city that had come up largely through the twentieth century. And, again,
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now looking back, I realize that although, as I said, this was a very middle-class
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neighborhood, these parts of the city at the time were also very closely interspersed
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with settlements, which were really slums, of what was then the service population.
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So, one of the things that I now distinctly remember and was probably something
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that today, for a lot of middle class families in Calcutta, they would not have this
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experience at all.
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For instance, the children I played with in the neighborhood,
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would have, were of a very mixed social origin. In other words, lots of the children I
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played with actually lived in the slums.
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And yet, there was a way in which it was
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perfectly normal for us to go out in the park. There were a fair number of open
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spaces in the city at least in these parts of the city. They have all been built up since.
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So, that's where we played. And, the other interesting characteristic was that both
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boys and girls usually all went to the local neighborhood school. In fact of all the
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students of my age, I was the only one who went to an English school, which was at a
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slight distance. So I actually had to take a tram every morning to go to school. This
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was very unusual.
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This was not the usual thing. All of the other boys in the
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neighborhood went to a local Bengali school. And the girls did too, there was a local
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Bengali girls school. And, I remember, I had this distinct sense of being somewhat
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isolated. I was kind of actually ridiculed fairly often, for going to this English
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medium school. Once again, this is something that has changed completely.
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I remember why this happened. My father, for some reason - he later
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explained to me that this was the new thing.
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And that he had particularly been
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influenced by some of his colleagues in the college, who also had decided that it was
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a better thing to send their children to English-medium schools. So I went to a
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school where all of the neighborhood kids did not go. But otherwise, apart from
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this, my most vivid recollections of childhood are in fact a lot of time that was spent
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with other children.
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But the family situation was that it was a nuclear family, really, except that in
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the early years, my grandmother lived with us. She died when I think I was about 5 years old.
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But my father a widowed aunt, who also lived with us for a long time until she
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died. The other experience of childhood was the memory of large numbers of
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relatives who would often come and stay for quite a number of days at a time. Now,
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this, of course, was connected with the fact that my family, both from my mother's
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side and from my father's side, were originally from eastern Bengal. So, it's
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precisely in that period, mostly early 1950s, that many of relatives from the
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extended family were then leaving eastern Bengal to come and settle down in India.
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Many of them would come to our place because my father was probably the one
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person who actually had a fixed place of residence in Calcutta. So, this is the other
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memory I have from my early childhood, was waking up in the morning to find the
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house full of strange people, who would arrive and stay for weeks, sometimes for
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two or three months even, before moving somewhere else. My mother's family,
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actually, my grandparents on my mother's side, never left Dhaka. They continued to
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live in Dhaka. It's only after their death that my uncles, that is to say my mother's
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brothers, came to live in Calcutta.
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And many of my mother's cousins still continue to
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live in Dhaka. So that's one branch of the family that remained in what was at this
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time, Pakistan. So that's the other memory I have. I still have some of these letters,
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these green postcards, that would come from Pakistan. That was a kind of regular
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event.
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KM: Do you remember what part of Dhaka your mother's family is from?
This place was called Wari, which was, again I later discovered, at that
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time, a largely indo-middle class area. I have visited the area since, and I have
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subsequently visited Dhaka. But, of course, my relatives, none of them live in old
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Dhaka any more. They have moved off to placed like Dhanmundi and Gulshan and so
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on. This is with the expansion of Dhaka city, especially through the '60s and '70s.
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But yes, originally, my mother's family was from Wari.
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And your father's family, where they also from Dhaka?
Well, there is a somewhat peculiar situation too, because my father's
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family was originally from Faridpur district, but my grandfather, he actually left the
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village residence. He went to Dhaka and after graduating from Dhaka sometime in
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the 1890s, he then worked with the court of wards in the north Bengal town of
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Rangpur. And that's where my father, and all my uncles and aunts, grew up. They
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actually had no connection with the ancestral home. Because my father said they
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never owned any land. And once my grandfather left, apparently, the kids from my
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father's generation, there was almost no connection left with the ancestral village.
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So we never actually visited Faridpur, the ancestral home. So, as far as my father
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was concerned and all my uncles and aunts, they always considered Rangpur as
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their home. And that continued until '47, after which everybody came to India.
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KM: And the name of the school you went to, what was it?
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PC: I went to St. Xavier's school, which was Catholic missionary school, run
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by Belgian, they were Jesuits, Belgian Jesuits.
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Actually, that was the high school I
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went to. I earlier went to a primary school, which was called miss Ms. Hartley's,
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which was a private kindergarten, which was run by an English woman. I went
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there for two or three years, and then went to high school. And, as I said, the
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medium of instruction there was English all the way through.
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KM: So, in terms of your school, in terms of other children in your
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neighborhood and home, your most vivid memories are from the home versus from
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the school, or do you have memories from the school?
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PC: No, I have memories from school, but I always thought of the school as
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almost like this is the kind of thing you had to do because you were required to do it.
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But the more enjoyable part of life was not there. I now, looking back, I think there
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was a major question, of the kind of linguistic worlds one lived in.
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Because I realized
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until quite late in high school, the kinds of books I enjoyed reading were all Bengali
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books. And other than what was required for school, required reading at school, all
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of my other readings, were all in Bengali, which is sometimes looking back now, I
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find a little strange, because my introduction to even World Literature, a kind if
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literature that anyone studying in English would have known, I actually was
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introduced to World Literature through Bengali translations for children.
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So, even
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writers like Dickens or Alexander Dumas, or Jules Verne, and people like that, I
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actually never read them in English, until after I left school I think. But I knew all of
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that because I was introduced to that precisely through the other children I grew up
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with, who of course knew of all of this in Bengali translations. There were some
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very well known children's series published by the major publishers.
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KM: Do the others have names that you remember?
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PC: Oh yes. The translations, I am forgetting what their names were... But
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there was a series called Pyramid series. These were all by this famous publisher
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called the Deb Sahitya Kutir. The Deb Sahitya Kutir had these series for children.
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Some of them were things like detective stories for children. I must have read every
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single one of those, must have been a few hundred titles. I read all of them; I knew
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all of them very well. But the others were these translations of world literature,
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which I now realize were abridged versions. But that's how I knew the great names
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and great writers of World Literature.
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KM: And, so the intellectual life that was sustaining your Bengali writing was
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coming mostly from other friends your age, or did you have any mentors when you
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were young, who were training you more in the Bengali literature?
That's the other thing, that
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Apart from my father, who of course was interested that I do more serious
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reading in English, the influence was older cousins.
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Now, the extended family - so
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my family's elder brothers and sisters - many of them did not live in Calcutta,
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because this is the result of partition, so many of these people were living, there was
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an uncle living in Cutch Bihar at the time. There was another that lived in
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Baharampur at the time. And, there, the children who were my older cousins, many
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of them came to Calcutta to go to college. And either lived with us, or they lived in
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hostels, but on weekends they would come and visit us because my father became a
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local guardian for them in the city.
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Now, I had several of these people. One of my
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mother's brothers, who also came to study in Calcutta, the family was from Dhaka,
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but in the early to early '50, he came to Calcutta to study in the university. Now, he
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also stayed with us. Now, these older males were particularly influential in
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directing me towards particular kinds of books. Actually, you know, my uncle was
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another one, who was not necessarily into all the old classics, but he led me to read
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people like Hemingway.
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I still remember, it was probably one of his favorite novels,
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which was about the First World War, which was Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on
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the Western Front, he had another book called Three Comrades, which I enjoyed
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enormously. I still remember that.
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KM: What was the name of this uncle?
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PC: The uncle, I called him mama, my uncle, he was not a particularly
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distinguished person. He later went back to Dhaka, and he was an accountant, and
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joined the Accountant General's Office of East Pakistan, and then finally after my
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grandparents died, he came back to Calcutta, and he worked in the post office. But,
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these elder cousins and uncles were actually very influential, because they kind of
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introduced me to a sort of young adult life, which I didn't get from my parents. And,
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so for instance, in my choice of music, in my choice of cinema. Of course, I couldn't
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go to watch cinema on my own, unless accompanied by older people.
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And it was
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very, very few and far between. But one came to hear about the world of cinema,
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from these...
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KM: And what were some of the reference points to the world that caught
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your attention at the time
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PC: Now, as I said, cinema, music and sports. These were the three things.
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I
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think all of my later likes and dislikes actually developed quite early on. I'm talking
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from the age of 5 or 6 to the age of 15 or 16, I suppose, when many of these older
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males in the family, they were the ones who actually introduced me, for instance, in
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the choice of music. At the time, you see the source of listening to music, there were
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two things. The radio was obviously the most important. But listening to the radio
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was quite heavily supervised and controlled. Obviously, you were only allowed to
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listen after you finished your homework, so on and so forth.
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So there were all these
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regulations. Then there was the old gramophone record. There was a gramophone
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in the house. But for the source of records, you obviously only had access to what
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your parents would buy for you, but this is where of my elder friends actually would
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bring records home for me to listen to. For instance, this entire world of Hindi
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cinema music, which was absolutely not allowed at home, and it was these people
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who would take me out just to be on the streets, and of course these things would be
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playing from shop windows and so on and so forth.
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And I would get to identify
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particular singers and particular songs, and the names of the films that they songs
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came from. That's how I get to know a lot of them. Simply because a lot of this
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world was forbidden, I supposed it made the attraction even greater. And then the
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entire world of the Bangla popular music, which was at this time was very, very rich.
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This is post Tagore, what was called adhunik music. Mostly in the form of 78 rpm
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records, and there were very popular singers at the time. And some of this came
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through the radio, and others through gramophone records.
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But, some of these of
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people also introduced me to the world of classical music. Obviously at this time, I
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heard various classical music singers, but I wasn't really able to get into it for a long,
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long time. But I think the very habit of, from time to time, listening to classical music,
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came, once again, from these people. And then there was the world of sports, where
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of course there were, at that time I would say that the neighborhood associations
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were very strong at that time of course. There were a set of organized clubs in every
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neighborhood.
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And particularly for boys, boys of virtually every age, there would be
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some kind of supervised introduction to organized sports. And because of that,
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then, my interest in whole range of sports, but not all of them I actually played. For
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instance, tennis, which I never played, there was no way one could play tennis,
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tennis course didn't exist, or at least weren't accessible for us - but I know what was
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happening in the world of tennis, and who were the big champions, and who won
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the Wimbledon and so on.
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So all of this was part of a common culture, where boys
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of my age would know of what was happening, whenever possible, a lot of it was not
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possible, but whenever possible, to watch competitive sports. So that became part
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of my life. So, I would say, the association with older males, who were not always,
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some of them were related to the family, but many of them were simply the older
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boys of the neighborhood, they were the ones who shaped may of these tastes and
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even provided the knowledge on which many of these interests later developed.
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And you mentioned that sometimes these older friends would come to your
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home, sometimes you would meet on the street. In terms of being in Calcutta, how
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else would your relationship and friendship with them be expressed in terms of the
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experience of the city?
For instance, it became possible for some of them to take me out into town, and I
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would be allowed to go with one of them.
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"Into town' would mean?
It could mean going to the zoo. It could mean going to the Maidan, where once
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again, it was sports that was very important. You could go and watch a football
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game, or a cricket game. I would be allowed to go with one or two of these older
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men. There would from time to time be things like exhibitions and circus. And,
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from around the age of say 10 or 12, to select, very carefully chosen visits to the
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cinema.
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It was rare, until the age of 10 or 12, maybe no more than one a month, one
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every two months. Something like that. It was a very rare treat. So, as a result,
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because I was accompanied by somebody or the other, I actually did get to go to
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different parts of the city, which normally I would never be allowed to go to alone.
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So, therefore, for instance, parts of central Calcutta, the older parts of Calcutta,
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actually did become gradually familiar to me. So, later on, when I was in high school,
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and was allowed to go by myself, then I knew many of these places already.
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So, that,
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I think was quite important in terms of a sense of actually growing up in the city and
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knowing many of these things that happen in a city, but knowing a lot of these places
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directly.
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Were these your dadas?
Yes
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And could you spend time in the colleges and their hostels?
Yes, sometimes I did. I went to visit Jadavpur University, for instance. And one of
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my elder cousins, studied as the Bengal Engineering College, which was in Shibpur,
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on other side in Howrah, and I did visit their hostels, which was a major experience.
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Even as physical structures, these were very, or at least seemed at the time,
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enormously large places. Once or twice, actually, I did go with my father.
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He taught
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at College, which was earlier known as Ripon College, later became Sirendranath
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College, it was near Sealdah. And then he actually moved to the university, and
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taught classes in the university, in the old Economics department, which later split
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into Economics and Political Science. I actually remember those very first visits to
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College Street, which is where the university is located, which too I still remember
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quite graphically, because I remember I was taken to the university, and my father
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was either supposed to be going to class or had a meeting or something like that.
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And he took me to the university library and left me with some of his students there.
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I still have this very physical sense of this place, which seemed just enormous, and
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the idea of this place which was just completely, totally from ceiling to floor, all
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books, I still have that sense. This very strange sense, and I had never seen this, the
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idea that you would go up these step ladders to collect books from the top shelves, I
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had never seen anything like that before.
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How old were you?
This must have been- maybe I was 6, 7, 8, something like that. But I remember
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that very much. I remember there was the old senate hall, which was then pulled
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down. Very old, classical, renaissance-type building, which was pulled down. Now I
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know the exact year, 1957. So, this must have been just before that. So, I was
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probably eight years old, something like that. I made my first visit to College Street.
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When did you first feel that you were self-consciously becoming an intellectual,
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or did you ever feel that way?
Now, this is hard to say because even when I was in college, I don't know if one
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had that self-conscious sense. Now I went to Presidency College, which, of course, if
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only by reputation, is a place where everyone who went there thought one's a
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budding intellectual. So, I participated in all the things that happened in college. And
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of course, this was 1964 to 1967, so this was a period of quite intense political
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developments in, both in the broader sphere of politics, but also in student politics.
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This was quite a major period of turmoil.
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In fact, among those years, there was a
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time when there was a strike in the college for something like four or five months,
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the college was actually shut down because of student troubles. So, I was there, I
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was part of all of that. But I never had quite made up my mind about consciously
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developing myself into something like an intellectual. It wasn't clear at all at that
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time. A lot of that, I still think looking back, a lot of the things that happened,
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happened by chance. The fact that I actually got a scholarship to study abroad, I
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think that completely determined what happened subsequently.
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But, before that,
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you know, I actually worked for several months, almost a year as a management
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trainee almost immediately after finishing my BA exams. So, at that point of time, I
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don't think there was a very clear direction to my life.
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And what about the development towards a political view of life, and what your
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politics were becoming?
That too developed, I would say, completely during my years in college. Because
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I said, I went to this Jesuit missionary school, where, of course, there was no talk of
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politics. And there was no encouragement to think, or talk, in any kind of serious
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way about political things when I was in school. Now, going into college, that's
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where one was suddenly exposed first time, to all these political things. And
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because of, I suppose, my associations with particularly those who came with me
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from my school, and the group of friends that one sort of immediately almost
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inherited as one entered college, these were all students who at the time
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thought of
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themselves as being against the communists. So that was sort of my initial point of
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entry into the world of student politics. But then, this is when, you know, the
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situation really became more and more tense, there were quite sometimes hostile
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confrontation between communist and anti-communist students. And I developed
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many close friendships with other students who joined the communist student
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group.
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So that was really the time when not just participating in debates, where one
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already had clear positions drawn, but actually being pulled in different directions
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because of the way various debates and confrontations took place, I think that's
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when broadly speaking, my own political leanings were gradually formed and
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decided. It's through those three or four years in college.
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So between that pull and tug between these two groups that you had
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friendships with, how did that work out for you, how did you decide what to do?
There were very interesting situations. This was probably towards the end of
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the second year in college. There was a strike, which was basically organized by the
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communist students. Now, as I said, I was quite friendly with many of these people
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and these people would sit in front of the college gates, picketing the gates every
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day, and I would go to college. There would be no classes, but I would hang out with
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these students and talk to them and so on. It was during that period that one
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somehow felt caught in the middle.
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One of the things that happened was that I,
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along with some others, began to organize classes to be organized by the teachers at
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their homes. So the idea was that we were not going to try to break the strike, but
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that would actually try to get some of the teachers to continue with the classes at
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their homes, and that required some organization. But that was done. And the
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striking students were not against this. So, that's how, in a sense, one got caught in
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the middle of all this.
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But I would say that by the time I was about to leave college,
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which was about '67, and by this time, '67 was the first general elections that I
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remember very well because I was still not a voter. In those days, you had to be 21
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in order to vote. I wasn't 21 yet. But, one got caught in the whole excitement of that
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elections. And, that was the first time the Congress actually lost. And what was
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called the United Front Government was formed. I was just about leaving college at
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the time, '67. That was a very heady experience. I still remember the sense of the
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city at the time of these elections. The first announcement of these results.
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The
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complete disbelief that the Congress could actually be defeated, which had never
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happened before. A lot of these people became ministers, and only a few months
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before they were still in prison. So the very idea of communists becoming ministers
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in government was completely unprecedented. That was a really-yes, it was a
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watershed experience. For two or three days, on buses and trams, the conductors
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would not ask you for tickets. For two or three days, buses and trams were running
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but no body bought tickets.
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It was like one of those completely extraordinary, world
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changing moments. That was the sense one had. So, I also remember when, just a
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year later, when the United Front government was actually dismissed. The
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government fell. That, too, was equally momentous kind of event, because got the
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sense just walking the streets of the city, that people felt this was a complete
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conspiracy against a government that was not being allowed to function. So those
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were events that shaped ones views about politics. It must have.
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It clearly
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sharpened one's judgment about various things, in other words, things that one had
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taken to be conventional knowledge was suddenly shaken. And I still feel the sense,
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first, of course of somewhat astonishment and surprise, but also the sense of
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actually living through moments that were, in a sense, quite transformative. I still
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have that sensation.
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So, what college were you living in when you are Presidency. Or did you still
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live at home?
No, no, we lived at home. There were very few students who lived in the college
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hostel. There were very few students who lived in the college hostel. Very few.
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In terms of the affective life of college, in terms of mentors, either in terms of
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actual individuals, or imagined mentors, some scholar you read, who were the
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people?
This is very hard... it's a question I have often been asked and I've thought about
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it myself. My sense is that I've never had enormously influential teachers in college.
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I don't have that sense. There were many teachers who were excellent teachers.
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Somehow I never had very close relations with any of them. They did not shape my
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intellectual life in any strong sense. I think I learnt far more, my preferences were
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shaped far more, by other students. Perhaps by older students, because there was a
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circle of discussion and debate and all sorts of things, where older students, simply
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because they knew more, were probably quite influential.
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But again, I can't think of
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any single person who was hugely influential in this regard. I don't know, maybe
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this is somewhat unusual. But I really do have this sense of not having mentors at
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all, which probably explains the very eclectic kind of education that I've had. But
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that seems to be case, yes.
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And, in terms of in some ways having your path determined for you when you
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went abroad, where did you go and how did that come about?
It happened, as I said, entirely by chance. For a while, as I said, for a while,
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immediately finishing my exams, I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do, so I took
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this job as a management trainee. But doing it, I realized it was not something I was
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very keen on doing for any length of time. It was an interesting exposure. I actually
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worked in this factory. It was a sowing machine and fan factory, which interestingly,
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only a few years later, there was a huge strike in that factory. It's now shut down.
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It's called the Usha factory, which belonged to the Delhi cloth mills group. But the
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job I had was in the personnel department.
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But I was basically an assistant to the
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manager who was in charge of their executive cadres. So my job was, essentially, to
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help out with the recruitment of engineers and junior managers, so I would sit in, I
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was actually part of, there was a whole series of exams and interviews with
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engineers. So that's basically what I was doing for the few months I was there. But
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simply because I realized this was not something I wanted to do, I put in
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applications to three or four universities, not really knowing particularly what areas
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they specialized in. I was not very well informed in all this.
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I picked out three or
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four of them and it just so happened that the University of Rochester-- I was allowed
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admission into two others, but they did not give me any financial aid. The University
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of Rochester was the only one that offered me a fellowship, and I took it. Now, it
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turned out that the University of Rochester Political Science Department was one of
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the pioneers in the rational choice approach to Political Science. I realize they
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selected me because of the fact that I had a background in mathematics.
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Was that your undergraduate major?
It wasn't. I did political science. But from the various transcripts and so on, they
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made the judgment that I had some mathematics in my background. So they gave
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me the fellowship. As a result, much of my work as a graduate student was with
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developing rational choice and game theoretic models of politics. In fact, that's what
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I did for my PhD research, which was on arms races, nuclear arms races, game
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theoretical models.
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So, again, I have to say that what was really transformative, was
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not so much the actual coursework that I was required to do, but the very fact of
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gaining access to a regular university library in the USA, that I think completely
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transformed everything. Because for the first time in my life, I could read whatever
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I wanted to. It was all within my reach. Yeah, I spent hours and hours in the library.
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So, that of course, was the first sort of serious phase which completely determined
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the future, which was the future as an intellectual. It was really during my years in
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graduate school, that that was firmly shaped.
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And how did your interests transition from what you wrote your PhD on to
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what became, if it's not incorrect to call it, your life's work?
The big choice was, and I think I was quite firm in my mind, that I had come to
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the US to do a degree and that I would go back. I never, ever, thought of pursuing an
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academic career in the United States. So I finished my PhD in just over three years,
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three and a half years. I finished my degree. And I returned, I returned
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immediately. Without any insurance of a job, I just went back.
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And then after I came
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back to India, it became very clear, and that of course required, as I said, I had to
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rediscover the Indian academic world almost from scratch. When I left, I had just
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done a BA degree. I really had no serious intellectual engagement with the India
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academic world at all. It's only after I returned. I went to India in early 1972. And
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then, that's when I realized that doing the kinds of things I had been trained to do as
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a graduate student in the US would be completely impossible in India. Because there
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was not a single person. I had a dissertation.
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I produced two or three papers out
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that. I tried to get people to read them, or talk about them. And it became very clear
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that it was impossible. One couldn't find a single other person who was familiar with
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the literature, or who would even be interested in getting to know the literature.
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Because it was so completely remote to the concerns of Indian academics at the
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time. So I, had to basically then had to re-educate myself. And then for a long time,
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what I did was actually immerse myself in Indian history, politics, sociology, all of
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these kinds of fields which until then I really did not know at all in an academic way.
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I did not know these fields. For the next many years, I basically taught myself. And
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that was a phase when I probably had mentors. This is interesting, this is well after a
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PhD.
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For a while, I taught for a year in Punjab. I returned to Calcutta in '73. That's
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when the institute where I spent most of life, the Center for Studies in Social
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Sciences, ha just been formed.
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by...
It was a formed as part of this network of institutions under the Indian Council
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of Indian Social Science Research. At the moment , I think there are some 20 odd
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institutes. At the time, this was one of the first so the first five or six that came up in
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the early 1970s. Now, looking back I know that this was part of the, broadly
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speaking, the Indira Gandhi phase of more broad-based, populist, development
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program, in which there would be a place for Indian institutes, Indian academic
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institutions, which would play a more active, interventionist role in development
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planning. I think that was a broad idea. And the idea of these institutes of
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essentially research, set apart from the universities, I think the model was that of
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the Academy of Sciences in the Soviet Union, I think that was broadly speaking, the
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model. So these were set up, and they were supposed to be fairly closely connected
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to what was seen as "development priorities" particularly by the particularly the
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planning institutions, to provide a certain kind of academic grounding to the various
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planning and policy-making exercises of the government. So I think that was the
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original kind of plan.
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But, once I became part of one of them, I then go introduced to major debates
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and cross-currents of discussion in the Indian social science world. One got to meet
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people who were leading figures in this world at this time. And that's really when I
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became engaged in what would become, as you said, it would become my lifetime's
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work. But that was the world I was introduced to in the early '70s.
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where there any conversation partners who played an important role at that
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time for you?
Yes. You see, in the Center in Calcutta, I would say the most importance
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influence was an economic historian by the name of Ashok Sen. Ashok Sen was
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earlier associated with the CPI, but was also very critical of it. He was one of the,
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among the circle of Susobhan Sarkar, who was the famous teacher, and professor of
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History. He was also very close to the poet Bishnu De, who was a very major
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intellectual figure at the time, particularly among literary circles. Ashok Sen was an
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economic historian, who was then writing on the British colonial period, the
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transformations of land, property and the emergence of essentially the propertied
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middle class in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That's when, that in fact, the kind of
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work that I began to formulate for myself in my early work on agrarian history
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which is really where I began. Ashok Sen was a major influence here.
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The other important person, he was closer to my age, was the historian
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Hrites Sanyal. He unfortunately passed away very early in life. Hrites Sanyal had a
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very interesting background. Unlike most of the other people in the Center, who
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were directly associated with the left communist movement or intellectual inclined,
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Hrites Sanyal was a very strongly Ghandian-inspired person.
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Actually, I became his
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collaborator in this project to construct, largely through oral history, the Congress
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movements in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, in rural areas of Bengal. So, in fact, one of
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the most intense learning experiences of my life, was precisely in these years,
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precisely from '74 to '78 or '79, when Hrites-babu and I basically traveled 10 to 15
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days every month, in the villages of several districts of southern Bengal, Medinipur,
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in particular, but also Hughli, Bakhura, and Purulia.
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We traveled into several
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hundred villages and actually met and spoke to, well, probably more than a
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thousand people, whom we actually talked to and recorded interviews with. These
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were all people who were minor activists, and even more than that, people who in
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various capacities, had joined the, broadly speaking, nationalist movement in
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different phases. And that was really an enormously important phase of work for
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me.
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Because, you see, very early on, it made me realize something, that there was a
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whole world of very effective political communication that was outside the domain
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of the textual. That is to say, at the time the general sense was, alright, let's get
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beyond the high-level political negotiations of the big leaders, so on and so forth.
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Let's get down to what was going on in the small towns and districts. So, go and find
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the local newspapers and manifestos and at local levels. And that's how we began.
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But, then talking to people, one realized that a lot of these people who were very,
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very closely involved in these movements actually never ready anything at all.
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And
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their political ideas, and views and arguments even were not necessarily shaped by
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reading printed material. They were shaped by all sorts of other ways of hearing
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and responding to political messages. And that's what one became aware of. And I
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still think that's a very, very major place where mass politics operates today. Even
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today, the rate of literacy rates are much higher and people are exposed to a more
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formal way of doing politics. But talking to these people and their concerns, and
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observing and in a sense attuning oneself to the language that they spoke was a
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very, very major influence to me.
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Coming close to the end of this interview. I wanted to ask two more things. One
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is, it actually has to do, with the fact that your scholarship within a certain
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movement, of Subaltern Studies. How is it that you moved from, what has been so
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interesting about your life, is that it seems to have gone in directions that were not
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determined from the outset. Was it the same thing for you when you came to
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collaborate with that set of internationally renowned scholars that you are also a
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member of, or did it happen in some other way.
When we began to collaborate, we were not internationally recognized scholars.
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No, a lot of those associations developed precisely through the work that I just
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described which is looking at agrarian politics. That's I began to work with. So I got
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in touch with other people of my age, some of them younger, who were working on
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other parts of India. '70s was a major period when this began to happen, looking at
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the nationalist movement in the different regions, but looking at them at micro
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levels. This was of work that was going on.
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It's through those sorts of connection
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that I got to meet Ranajit Guha for the first time, when he actually visited India in
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1980. He was in England all this time. He had not visited India in a long time. Some
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of the connections were with people I had known, obviously Dipesh Chakrabarty,
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who had a very similar kind of background to mine. He was also in Calcutta but then
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went to Australia to do his PhD. He had met Ranajit Guha when he went to England
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to do his research at the India Office Library.
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The other people who were the first sort of core group in Subaltern Studies, people
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like Shahid Amid and Gyan Pandey for instance, they were both students in Oxford.
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And I had met them in India when they came to their fieldwork in India and so one
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got in touch with them. So, Subaltern Studies- when Ranajit Guha first broached
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the idea, Ranajit himself was by this time in his 60s. All of us where in our 20s and
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early 30s. The idea was to first simply bring out one volume of essays on, essentially,
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Indian politics in the early twentieth century. This was basically the idea of what
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became volume one of Subaltern Studies.
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But it was prefaced by what is often called
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the Manifesto of Subaltern Studies, which Ranajit went over with us like five or six
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times, it had different versions. And, as I said, initially, we didn't know we would
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have subsequent volumes. It became a project then, largely because of the initial
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statement, and I would say even the kind of criticism and hostility that it received in
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the first phase. That prompted us to respond, and then came the second volume and
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the third volume and so on.
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And so if you ask me whether this was entirely by
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chance, well, I suppose, there would have been something of the kind in any case, it
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need not have been in the form that Subaltern Studies took, because there were
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enough people of our age, who were looking at this whole question of India
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nationalism, and what are the connections between Indian nationalism and the kind
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of political formation that we were living in in the 1970s.
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And because there was a
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generally critical view of the Indian political formation in the 1970s, I think that
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prompted us to look back at Indian nationalism in a much more critical way than
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our earlier generation had done. I think this was historically the situation. That
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critical view would have emerged in any case.
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I think what was distinctive was, for us, Ranajit Guha's intervention. He came
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from a very different generation, a very different political background. He was an
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activist for much of his life. That gave it a very different inflection. It's often
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described now as a kind of school. I think that formation probably would not have
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happened, if the connection with Ranajit not have developed in the way it did. That
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clearly determined that particular form. But I think the critical historiography of
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Indian nationalism would have emerged no matter what.
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KM: Now just two last questions. The first is, if when you were just finishing
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undergraduate, you didn't know what direction quite you would go and you were
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interested in some things and others. Did there come a point in where you can say,
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in that year or during that phase, "Scholarship became a vocation for me. I really felt
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inducted into a kind of way of life that I now practice," or did that never happen?
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PC: No. The way of life only emerged after becoming a graduate student in
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the US.
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In that phase?
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PC: Yes. Because that really determined one's life because that for the first
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time was when one actually had chosen a vocation, when you say, your entire
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existence was framed by an intellectual pursuit. Before that, this was not, I wouldn't
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have said my life is the life of an intellectual.
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And then finally, when you look back at the books you have written or
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the essays you have written, do you feel that you have written in a way that have
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expressed the times, and that your scholarship perhaps does that more vividly than
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usual, and if so, what explains that would you say?
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PC: Well, I don't know if it does that more than usually. But, yes, I do think
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that my concerns, even when I have been writing about historical topics, I think they
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have been informed, and even influenced by the concerns of the present, yes, at at
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least two levels. One, of course the concerns of the present in terms of the given
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intellectual climate of the time, so even that particular field. So a kind of critical
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engagement with approaches, directions, in that particular field at any given time.
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And obviously I have always felt it important to engage with others writing in the
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field, and to either affiliate with particular trends, or be critical of particular trends
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in a particular field. But even more broadly, in terms of social-political concerns of
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the day, I have, I think, responded to that situation as I just said earlier on, much of
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my involvement with let's say with agrarian politics and the critical study of
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nationalism, was in fact, prompted to a large extend by what I think was a general
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sense of unrest in the period of the 1970s. This was the period of the emergency.
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This was the period immediately following the emergency was particularly creative,
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once again, because for the first time, it was seen that it was possible to witness the
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collapse of what could have been a typical authoritarian, Third World dictatorship.
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The Emergency Period was really moving towards something like that. It didn't
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happen.
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What followed subsequently was very important in terms of the shaping of
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both political structures, but also broader social and intellectual movements in
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India- the emergences of various kinds of institutions. And the quality of
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intellectual life in India, through the '90s and later on. I would say there has been a
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quality that many other Asian and African countries didn't have, that kind of quality
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of intellectual life, with all of its internal conflicts and disagreements and so on, but
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nevertheless.
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This was very unlike the situation in the '50s and '60s. I still remember
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among my father's associates that it was not unusual for college teachers and
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university teachers to find suddenly that they were under arrest and put in prison
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for all sorts of political reasons and because of political associations. That's not
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usual in India, and it's almost not happened at all in the last 20 years or so. It's a
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different climate. So within that, there is a way of, shall we say, becoming an
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engaged intellectual, who takes the purely professional demands of intellectual life
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completely seriously, and yet could also engage in a public intellectual life.
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I think
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that is a possibility which exists in India, and I suppose I have profited or benefited
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from that situation, and I have tried to do both of those things.
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KM: Wonderful thanks so much for your time.
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