For Ranajit Guha’s 90th birthday, publisher Permanent Black had asked “a few scholars and friends of Ranajit Guha to contribute a short piece each, primarily recalling what his work has meant to them and also if possible anecdotally narrating any personally meaningful incidents...” Seven scholars wrote affectionate, warm tributes.

Introducing the pamphlet that resulted, Rukun Advani recalls that his association with Ranajitda “stretches back to the time I ‘edited’ (the word is meaningless here, there was nothing to edit) Elementary Aspects 30 years ago and most of the Subaltern Studies volumes later. During a visit to their home on the outskirts of Vienna, “after a gourmet meal cooked by Mechthild, they drove me around for several hours through beautiful vineyards to Baden and back. Ranajitda’s health was uncertain, and Mechthild was not in the best shape either, yet they stretched themselves beyond all expectation to make me feel at home.”

He goes on, “On behalf of Permanent Black, a small publishing house to which on account of his generosity and friendship Ranajit Guha entrusted The Small Voice of History, a collection that the American university presses would have given their eye teeth to publish, I thank them both for all they have done.”

Ranajit Guha would have turned 100 this May. Our sense of gratitude as well as of loss is profound today.

The pamphlet published by Permanent Black on Ranajit Guha's 90th birthday. | Image courtesy: Permanent Black

Exactly ten years ago, we published a short memoir by his wife Mechthild Guha, entitled Danube, Ganges, and Other Life Streams. Here are some extracts from it, revealing little known aspects of a man most people only knew and revered as a great historian.

Ranajit was so fond of milk that, once, when the milk tasted different from what it had done the week earlier, he astonished cattle farmers in Austria by asking them whether they had changed the cattle feed. They knew of wine tasters, they said, but had never met anyone who could by tasting milk accurately detect a change in farm routine.

We [Ranajit, Mechthild, and a mutual friend] met again in London . . .He promised to cook Indian food, expecting to dazzle us with chillied dishes. He actually lectured us on the uses of spices, and chili in particular. My friend, a gentler character than me, did not comment but could not help giggling when I objected to his sweeping comments about Europeans not being able to enjoy spices. Now he was in for an irate lecture from me about Hungarian chili, our youthful competitions over who could eat the hottest goulash, and about living on Nigerian food – which is spiced solely with first-class bell chilies. We appeased the cook by praising the food he served up. Thus encouraged he invited me again. The egg curry he offered on that occasion had one small defect, it was terribly over salted. As a polite guest I didn’t comment until Ranajit tried to convince me that genuine Indian food was always over salted. I asked him to stop trying to browbeat me. He also might like to know an Austrian saying: “If the food is over salted, the cook must be in love.” To my knowledge, there is no equivalent saying about the emotional state of the person eating over salted dishes.

Ranajit and I spent Christmas 1969 in London, our first of many to come. He disliked the festive season in England, which meant loneliness for those who had no family, while I was glad to escape the pressures of family gatherings. He was preparing for a two-year secondment to Delhi University. My plan was to finish, by the following June, research in German archives about the Maji Maji peasant rebellion against the German colonial power in Tanzania. In autumn my father, who was then the Austrian ambassador in Ethiopia, visited us in London and invited us to Addis Ababa after Christmas. It would be a stopover for Ranajit on his way to Delhi, I would return to London. We were looking forward to seeing Ethiopia which at that time was still ruled by Haile Selassie. Having arrived from wintry London we enjoyed a first warm and sunny day in Addis. We kicked off our winter shoes and woollens before joining my parents for lunch.

We were just sitting down for a drink when my father called me to the garden. Had I known what was to come I would not have been tempted to admire the garden. What followed was the silliest of incidents one can ever be involved in. In a low voice I was asked to dress properly; my mother objected particularly to our bare feet. Even worse, I was to convey to Ranajit to put on shoes and a shirt (no tie, mercifully) before entering the dining room. Astounded, I asked what was wrong. Even more astonished, I listened to the explanation: we were not allowed to walk barefoot nor wear T-shirts in a diplomat’s house because “what would the servants think?” I frankly thought my parents had gone mad. Naturally I didn’t look forward to conveying these conditions to Ranajit, who was a guest after all. Later, I heard from my sister that her husband had made a similar mistake in Addis Ababa, but being of a docile character he had obliged without protest. Ranajit and I changed our clothes. We were hungry after our long flight but I made no secret of my opinion. We weren’t at the royal court, after all, merely at a family lunch. Where did the bourgeois pretence come from? . . .

When we got married in October 1970 I sent my parents a postcard, it was my first communication with them since Addis Ababa.

This article first appeared on Permanent Black.