A Man of Many Parts

A student remembers the contributions of the historian Tapan Raychaudhuri, who passed away recently

Published:December 6, 2014 2:21 am

By Shahid Amin

Tapan Raychaudhuri Tapan Raychaudhuri

What does one write about Tapan Kumar Raychaudhuri (1928-2014), D.Phil Calcutta et Oxford, professor at the Delhi School of Economics, head of the department of History, Delhi University and presiding deity of South Asian history at Oxford from 1973 till his retirement in 1993?

Writing from 20 Cavalry Lines (in Delhi University’s North Campus), a garden wall separating me from where I first met Tapanda in the autumn of 1970 —  when I, who retires come March from this benighted University, was a callow 20-year-old —  memories rush through my mind. What an inspiring teacher he was! He would enter punctually, at 11.15 am, a classroom in the Delhi School of Economics, place his pocket watch on the table (just as our classical instrumentalists do before their renditions), and proceed to lecture brilliantly and effortlessly for the next 100 minutes, with just an occasional glance at his notes. And there were the hours of discussion over the drafts of my thesis, lips slightly pursed as he wrote his marginal comments on my drafts — mindful perhaps, from his own Oxford experience, how very difficult it is for a novice researcher to begin writing intelligible, footnoted prose.

As he later recounted casually in his memoir, his own sheaf of notes about the machinations of the Dutch East India Company on the Coromandel coast (several decades before Clive won both Madras and Calcutta for the English traders), were “the energising Benzedrine tablets” that had helped him string his thesis together in 1957. One fondly wonders if, during the initial years of a Ph.D indifferently supervised at Oxford, young Raychaudhuri had chanced upon Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (first hardback edition 1953), where James Bond is able to negotiate a coral reef off the coast of Jamaica, as if “the elation and clarity of mind produced by the Benzedrine were still with him…”

Behind the demeanour of an Oxford don, Raychaudhuri, who founded the flagship journal Indian Economic & Social History Review at Delhi while in his early 30s, barely concealed a strong sense of nationalism, scrupulous (not personal or ideological) academic rectitude and an almost impish sense of humour which those who knew him vouch for — from Amartya Sen, his junior by half a decade, to his last student, Mahesh Rangarajan, director of the Nehru Memorial Library. His memoir in Bangla and English (The World in Our Time) is a veritable biography of the life and times of that stalwart post-Independence generation of brilliant and committed scholars like Ranajit Guha, Partha Sarathi Gupta, Amartya Sen, MN Srinivas and Andre Béteille, who first put our history and social sciences on a firm footing in India and the world at large. To cull some vignettes from Raychaudhuri’s memoirs: during his sojourn at Delhi University, Tapanda with Andre Béteille would, in Chandni Chowk, “indulge in kimam, a tobacco paste enhanced into an experience of paradise by the addition of various spices”. Or this deadpan recollection of a visit to Gandhi at New Delhi’s Harijan basti in early 1947: “He was sitting on a quilt covered with a spotlessly clean white sheet. In a corner there was a Wardha charkha, and somewhat incongruously, a pot of Pond’s cream on the niche. I wondered if the Mahatma’s beautifully shiny skin owed its lustre to that foreign product.”

A firm nationalist, Raychaudhuri faced the slings and arrows of matter-of-fact believers in the goodness of Empire, and the racism of some Oxford colleagues, with dignity and a certain élan that seems missing from our current aggressive posture of wearing Bharatiyata on the sleeve of one’s kurta. Tapanda notes that the greatest “scandals in India’s academic relations with Oxford” was the denial of a D.Phil to SN Sen, a leading Indian historian, who was charged by the “admirable and charismatic Maulana Azad”, then education minister, to write an authoritative work on 1857 in its centenary year. Oxford tried to make amends by conferring belatedly a B. Litt honoris causa on Sen, but the damage had been done. As was the case when Richard Gombrich, the renowned Indologist, was denied the chair at Oxford that Radhakrishnan had once held, as he had successfully opposed the honouring of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto by Oxford University, citing his inglorious role in triggering the 1971 war.

Ever cognizant of the positive aspects of the English connection and the contribution of British historians of India, Raychaudhuri was a polite yet firm critics of their epigones at his ancient university in England. “The pirate ship of empire has been never short of chaplains. Now the ship has sunk, but the unholy race of its propagandists still flourishes,” he wrote with controlled grace and flourish in his memoir.

Shahid Amin is professor of history, Delhi University

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