Historian and writer Ramachandra Guha is the editor and curator of Indian Lives, a new series of biographies in which scholars will focus on the life and legacy of important figures from India’s history. Published by HarperCollins India, the series will feature biographies of extraordinary individuals who may be separated in time sometimes by centuries, but continue to shape Indian cultural and political discourses. The first book in the Indian Lives series, Ashoka by Patrick Olivelle, is a fascinating study of the philosopher king, while the second book, Sheikh Abdullah: The Caged Lion of Kashmir by Chitralekha Zutshi, is a richly told narrative about the 20th-century politician from Kashmir.

Guha talked about the series he has conceived, its contents, and on writing today. Excerpts from the interview:

On how the series came to be

My idea for the series Indian Lives, in a sense, goes back to my own career as a biographer. I have relatively recently written a two-volume biography of Gandhi, but a decade and a half before that, I published a biography of a fascinating minor figure called Verrier Elwin, a British scholar who became an anthropologist and worked among Adivasis in India

While I was working on Elwin’s life, I encountered a lot of resistance among my academic colleagues who said, why are you wasting your time writing a book about a single individual? Write about large things like technological change, social conflict, political theory. There’s a kind of prejudice among scholars in India, and elsewhere, about devoting their intellectual and literary energies to a single figure.

On the other hand, the general reader of historical works likes reading biographies. They want to read about an individual life like theirs, of course, pitched at a higher level, maybe with a much greater historical impact than their life, but a life which also has relationships, family, friends, rivals, anxieties, ideas, and conflicts.

So there was a kind of a mismatch between what readers wanted and what scholars were giving them. And this gap was filled by the enterprising amateur, sometimes the ambitious charlatan who would write biographies of interesting and unusual individuals. These books were often poorly researched, sensational, hagiographic, and sometimes outright distortions of what had happened. So I was very keen that this gap be filled. Because I had been a scholar and a writer for more than four decades, I knew that there were a range of outstanding historians, who not only did rigorous research, but wrote well and elegantly. And I thought let me try and persuade some of them to write for my series.

On the books in the series

The first was Professor Patrick Olivelle, whose magnificent book on Ashoka was released earlier this year. HarperCollins is publishing the series in India, and Yale University Press in the US. The book will also be published in Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and possibly German and other languages. My idea was to expose readers to the richness and diversity of Indian life and the depth of Indian history through these rigorously researched yet accessibly written biographies. Because in many ways, biography is for the general reader, the easiest way to approach history.

So that’s the intention of the series. It’s got off to a terrific start. Two other volumes will appear soon, and we’ll go from there.

The second book in the series is about Sheikha Abdullah, written by Chitralekha Zutshi. But before I come to Sheikha Abdullah, let me tell you a little bit about Patrick’s book. Professor Olivelle is a great scholar of ancient India. You know, he’s a master of the relevant languages such as Pali and Sanskrit. He also happens to know Latin, French, and German, so he can put Indian history in a more global context. He has written outstanding books on religion and political theory. He has translated many major texts for world classics, including the Arthashastra by Chanakya, texts written by Manu, and so on. He had never thought of writing a biography till I asked him, “Why don’t you write about Ashoka?”

So that’s how he wrote this book. Likewise, Chitralekha Zutshi is almost certainly the leading historian of modern Kashmir. Now, unlike Patrick Oliver, she had, on her own, before the series was conceptualised, decided to write a biography of Sheikha Abdullah. And she’d been chatting to me about the biography a lot.

So I said, will you give your book to my series? That’s the second book. And again, it’s a first-rate book about a remarkable, controversial, complex individual. Through Abdullah’s life, it tells the history of Kashmir, a territory claimed by both India and Pakistan. It’s a history that spans the British period and the period of independence. It’s also a history of a princely state through the narrative about a singular, controversial figure. So that’s the second book.

The third book is by Nico Slate, a very fine American historian. It’s about Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay, who I believe is, by some distance, the greatest Indian woman of the 20th century. She had an incredibly multifaceted career. She was an artist and a theatre person, and she also joined the Indian freedom struggle. She helped persuade Gandhi to allow women to court arrest in the salt satyagraha, which he was initially hesitant to do. She was also one of the founders of the Congress Socialist Party and one of the leaders of the All India Women’s Conference. She was a great traveller. She went to China and Japan, and she took Gandhi’s ideas of non-violence to the American South in the 1930s when Martin Luther King was still a young boy. She was a committed feminist. So that’s the kind of remarkably pioneering figure she was. After independence, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay did very important work in resettling refugees from Pakistan Punjab, and Sindh. And then over the next three decades, she played a fundamental role in reviving and restoring India’s handicrafts traditions.

The cottage industry is important. The renewal of handicrafts, artisans, techniques, and cooperatives and the marketing of this really rich cultural heritage of India is substantially due to what Kamaladevi did. So she was an exemplary figure, a feminist, nationalist, social worker, thinker, writer, universalist, and an international traveller. That’s the third book which will be out in March next year.

On researching for the books

If you write about a figure like Sheikha Abdullah, or Kamaladevi, or in my case if you write about Elwin or Gandhi, if you write about a 20th-century figure, there’s an abundance of what historians call primary sources. Letters written by your subject, speeches made by them, along with books authored by them. There are also letters written about them. You know, government records, for example, in the case of Gandhi, there would be intelligence reports of the British following him and what he’s doing. There’d be newspaper accounts, there’d be pamphlets, there may even be cartoons. So there’s an abundance of primary material to mine for the historian.

Whereas for someone like Ashoka, the materials are scarce, scattered, scanty, and fugitive. And that’s the real art of Patrick Olivelle. I’m not saying it’s easier to write about Gandhi than it is to write about Ashoka because sometimes there’s such a mountain of material that you don’t know how to make sense of it. Maybe that’s the other end of the spectrum. But here from this scarce, scanty and fugitive material, Olivelle has constructed a wonderful book. And that’s because this book is the product of 50 years of scholarship. You know, none of these books in the series will be written in a hurry. They’re not like the works of enterprising amateurs, which you might find in bookshops where, you know, a biography of Subhash Bose has been written based on three books and six pamphlets, and so on.

These are books by scholars who have dug deep into the archives, immersed themselves in primary sources, and reflected on larger historical processes. As I said, Chitralekha Zutshi has been working on Kashmir for 20 years and Patrick Oliver has been working on ancient India for 50. So it’s a culmination of that, but Olivelle has also employed his scholarship, experience, and command of all these languages to give us a fresh, vivid, and illuminating portrait of Ashoka. In a sense, it’s a work of reconstruction.

On creating books that will endure

I think a work of history should endure, as should any literary or scholarly work. The Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler wrote the famous novel Darkness at Noon. He also wrote many important works of nonfiction and he once said, “I would sacrifice a hundred readers today for ten readers in ten years’ time and one reader in a hundred years’ time.”

The books in this series shall hopefully capture a hundred readers today too, because they are written for a general audience, but by scholars who have paid their dues by working in the archives and studying a larger historical and social canvas. These works are to be read today and tomorrow and next year. I’m confident that Patrick’s book on Ashoka will last, maybe we will read it even after both the BJP and the Congress party are finished.

This book is not an intervention in politics. It is a scholarly, illuminating, fascinating, enquiry into an underexplored aspect of our past. That’s how it should be read. Every Indian who likes reading books, and is interested in history, will be educated about their country and its past by this book. And the second, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth book in the series. What political use or misuse is made of them is not really my concern. And I don’t think it should be the concern of any of the writers.

This book is not about myths and legends. It is not an artificially constructed past. This is a carefully restored past based on rigorous research and knowledge of the necessary languages. In Olivelle’s case, also knowledge of architecture and landscape. Of course, it does not have the certitude of science. It’s not like this is absolutely true. Rather, this is likely to have been the case when Ashoka said this. He seems to have meant this. However, these are not conclusions reached on the basis of imagination or invention.

On a writer’s independence

My advice to every writer, whether scholarly or otherwise, is to always stay far away from politicians and parties. That is, you may have your views, you may be left-wing, you may be liberal, you may be conservative, you may be pro-abortion, anti-abortion, pro-environmental sustainability, or you may think environmentalism is just a deviation from economic growth. All that is fine but always maintain your personal, professional, and political independence. One of the things that appals me about some younger writers today, who are ambitious, is that they write a book and then they will go and have a photograph taken with the Prime Minister, or the Home Minister, or a Chief Minister. And this happens regardless of party. I mean, it won’t just happen with Narendra Modi. If Rahul Gandhi becomes Prime Minister tomorrow, you’ll see ambitious young writers flocking to him. There’s an insecurity – that your book can’t land on its own merit.

Olivelle does not need my endorsement. I’m proud to have published this book. He’s a great scholar of ancient India who’s published a magnificent book on Ashoka. And everyone in this series will be of a similar scholarly pedigree and intellectual independence. I would urge young writers to learn from this independence. Sometimes it’s very seductive to want to influence policy, you want to become a Rajguru. There are some writers and intellectuals of this kind, but thankfully, not many. Some others want to join Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra and advise him. They want to whisper in his ears, “I’m telling you, I’ve studied Indian politics. I know Indian society. This is the best way to defeat Narendra Modi.” This, in my opinion, is not the path for a writer or scholar to follow.

Writers can have political views. They may even have politicians as friends. For example, it so happens that I have known both Swapan Dasgupta and Jairam Ramesh since I was in college. We are contemporaries. I’m not going to disavow my friendship with either of them, but I’m not going to parrot their views or pretend I can influence their views. Through Dasgupta, I can get to Modi and through Ramesh, to Rahul Gandhi. But I don’t want to. I believe it is very important to maintain your personal, professional, and political independence and focus on your work. But that does not mean that as a writer you won’t have ideas, strong opinions, and take sides in a particular political debate.

Go and vote for whichever politician or party you choose to support, but the temptation to ally yourself with a particular politician or a party is sadly very widely prevalent among Indian intellectuals and writers. And it’s not a creation of the BJP. It could be there among the Congress, the Left too, as in Kerala. Intellectuals who are close to the CPM were awarded with vice-chancellorships and that kind of thing. So it’s very, very important for young writers to maintain their independence. After all, it is their work that will suffer if they compromise their independence.