AB : Orientation. And they did not view ...associated with encounter congress from cultural freedom and so on and so forth. But nevertheless, it was aninteresting relationship.
KM : So Shields
must have been a colleague with Bernal and with Curie,--Joliot Curie
, I mean the French group that was involved with the ...
AB : Atomic scientist group
KM : The committee of cultural freedom
AB : The congress of cultural freedom
KM : The congress of cultural freedom. That's what the British and French and I wonder if he might have been the American prong so to speak for that movement in the '40s ...'40s and '50s
AB : Yes. This would be more... I mean it was associated with the cold war.
KM : The beginning of the cold war. This is interesting....he sounds to be a very important figure historically.
AB : Yes, I think he was very important.... "tumi ektu aalo ta jele debe, Taslima?" shall we have some tea?
KM : Sure.
KM : All right. This is a Calcutta
Oral History interview with Professor AB. It's August 14th, 2009 in Delhi
and an honor to have this opportunity with you Professor Beteille. Could we begin by some biodata and could you say when you are born and where you were born, just to start?
AB : I was born in Chandannagar
which is one of the five French enclaves in India
, very near to Kolkata
. And I spent the first 9 years of my life in that small town. Towards the end of that - I never went to school in Chandannagar
. I entered school at the age of nine, but there was a tutor who would come to the house and do some tutoring in elementary maths and grammar and that kind of thing. And then I was sent off to a boarding school in Patna
and that would have been in early 1944.
KM : I see.
AB : And I was there for 2 years not liking it very much and we were taken out of that school and put into a day school in Kolkata
and we had come to live in Kolkata
at that time in North Kolkata
KM : Do you remember where you lived or the street name or?
AB : Yes, indeed.
KM : Yeah.
AB : 57/1/1A Raja Dinendra Street
. It was the house of a very well-known gynecologist and a leader of the Nationalist Movement. His name was Dr. Sundari Mohan Das
. He had been an associate of Bipin Chandra Pal
. But by then he was into his late 80s or early 90s. He used to always say that "I was born in the year of the Sepoy Mutiny
." So when we came to live in Kolkata
in 1946 I think he must have been just one year short of 90, so we lived in that house. It was a middle class Bengali neighborhood which had seen better days but it was in decline. We were put into a day school which was in a different part of the city called St. James's School what was then known as Lower Circular Road
and it now known as AJC Bose
Road after AJC Bose
, the physicist. I was there off and on for a year and a half but I must stress the off and on because hardly had we settled into the school then the riots began in Kolkata
. And it was very difficult for us. We were two. My brother who was 3 years older than me and myself, very difficult for us to go by public transportation to that school. And people at home waited and hoped that it would all blow over but it didn't. It lasted for one full year and...
KM : This was from '46 to '47?
AB : It was from August '46 to August '47 exactly one full year. By then my mother had begun to be a little anxious about my education but even more about the education of my elder brother. So she took us out of that school but where to put us in? We had been socialized in English medium schools and my brother was to matriculate the next year or so and we had to change from the senior Cambridge
stream to matriculation stream. So getting into - there were plenty of Bengali medium schools in that neighborhood but it would create enormous difficulty for my brother and some also for me but we did get into a neighborhood school about which I have written called Brahmo Boys School
that is located in a street in North Calcutta
known as Jhamapukur Lane
. And so we and the headmaster who was known to our family said "look the boys both know Bengali quite well" and we were Bengali speakers. Bengali was the first language of home and he said so they will be able to follow the classes. "I will only ensure that they are allowed to take their examinations in the English medium" and he told my mother whom he knew and liked very much that "that you will have to arrange [ph] for." So I moved into this Brahmo Boys School
I think after the summer vacation in 1947 and within a month the riots were over and everything is all right. I liked Brahmo Boys School
. It was a rather rundown lower middle class school, a Bengali medium school not just a Bengali medium school but a Bengali medium school at the lower end of the scholastic [ph] as well as the social hierarchy but that was the school that I liked the best. I really liked it very much.
KM : What was it about it that you enjoyed, that you liked?
AB : Well now that I, you know, I am coming to think about it, it was growing up, it was the age which made one receptive to new experiences and to freedom away from home, but I also liked the fact that I was greatly admired in that school mainly for my proficiency in spoken English. I could speak English like one's first language and that was very unusual in that school. Not just unusual, nobody did it, not even many of the teachers spoke English. And so you know language is so important and so interesting because if you are able to speak fluently people assume that you must be very intelligent.
KM : Right.
AB : So I was liked, and I enjoyed my freedom, I enjoyed the friendship of my fellow students. This is the first time in my life that I could move about on my own alone. Till then I had to be with my brother or with somebody else. In Chandannagar
it was maid servant or somebody. It was the first time in my life that I could go out on my own, have my own friends which were not necessarily friends of the family or children of my parents friends but my own friends. So that they gave a sense of freedom and the freedom to explore the city and to see what city-- I was then what 13, 14, 15.
KM : This is a leading question but it might actually go somewhere interesting. Did you have the sense already at this age of let's say being somewhat different from the environment in which you were ? I am wondering that because I wonder if that helps explain why you eventually would decide to become a social scientist and write critically about society. And to in some ways take an outsider's perspective. Did you experience that in these years in either positive or negative ways?
AB : Yes. Yes, very much so. Let me say that...
KM : Please.
AB : ...you might attribute some particular features of my writing to the sense of being different from the others but I don't think that there is just one way in which one enters the vocation of sociology. I was very conscious of my distinctive identity always because I had a funny name and that was made more conspicuous when I went to this lower middle class Bengali school where nobody spoke any language other than Bengali. I was liked, very much liked by the parents and particularly the mothers of my friends and they would ask me endless questions and they all assumed that I was very bright and they would ask me endless questions very kindly but I squirmed when they - "how did your parents get married?" and that sort of question. So I have always had a sense of my distinctive identity because of my name and my parentage. My children don't have that to the same extent that I do. I think it is to the a large extent a question of social class, social stratification,
particular social milieu and in that social milieu both in Chandannagar
-- boarding school was a little different but even that brought out my distinctive identity because the first boarding school to which I went and in fact the only boarding school was what we would call an Anglo- Indian school. And all the boys had mothers who wore dresses. Not one of them wore a sari, but my mother when she came to see us off at the station, spoke to us in Bengali and she was always dressed in a sari. So even there I was not an Anglo Indian. They knew this and so when I went to the Brahmo Boys School
I was very much - it was not necessarily a negative thing but I was very conscious of the fact that I was different from the others. Then I moved from Brahmo Boys
to St. Xavier's College
in 1950. St. Xavier's College
was far more cosmopolitan college and I - my identity as being of mixed parentage was less conspicuous there because there might have been others of my kind there and I was - my French name was of course noticed by various people but it...
AB : It was a more cosmopolitan --and sometimes I wonder whether that may not have been the reason why I decided to avoid Presidency College
and go to St. Xavier's college.
KM : How did you make that decision because your thinking at the time where you would go to college or perhaps - there was a - maybe perhaps a family decision as well and what are the different factors that made you...?
AB : It was partly a family decision. You see I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to study physics that was quite clear in my mind. But what physics was all about I didn't know at the age of 15 but I thought that it would be good to be a physicist and part of this may have been the
--in the atmosphere because the University College
where Bose and Saha both worked was just at a stone's throw from our house and they were legends and so being a physicist was an important thing. So I wanted to be a physicist. I went to St. Xavier's College
with that intention. Why didn't I go to Presidency College
? Well, partly I think I wanted to escape the narrowness of lower middle class Bengali life. Partly that and the excitement of a different kind of social life more cosmopolitan social life in which my identity as being part French and part Bengali could be left behind. In which I wouldn't have to explain interminably how my parents have got married. So that was one reason. And the other reason was that St. Xavier's had a great reputation for physics and math. Presidency
had a better academic reputation. And I think if there was anyone in the home who pushed me towards St. Xavier's it was my elder brother, the one with whom I went
- moved from St. James's to Brahmo Boys School
. He was not very good in his studies, he was very intelligent, but he was much more interested in sports and he thought that I would do well in studies and he somehow felt that St. Xavier's would be a better place for me. And you know boys at the age of 17, 18 he didn't go to Presidency
, he went to another College
, the Scottish Church College
, which is the college
to which Tapan Raychaudhuri
with which Tapan Raychaudhuri
KM : Yes.
AB : He went to Scottish
and he felt that St. Xavier's was the better college. I didn't know why he felt that way. He was a quite considerable success in sports in later life.
KM : What did he?
AB : He played first division soccer and first division hockey in Calcua and that is no mean achievement. And I think rightly or wrongly he felt that the St, Xavier's was good in sports and it had good people and playing fields and all the rest of it and the Jesuit culture and all of that. And there was one legendary teacher of mathematics in St. Xavier's College
KM : Who is that?
AB : Fr. Goreux. Fr. Goreux. And his name was known everywhere to everyone and partly, accidentally we became close to a Bengali family and I think that had a lot of influence on this decision not just my brother. This was a family of Bengali Brahmos related not very closely but related to Sumit Sarkar
. I met Sumit Sarkar
first in that home. There was a boy - he was a few years older than me more my brother's friend than mine Sujit Sarkar
was his name but his name was Robin
. Everybody called him Robin
's father was a dentist and a very charming and agreeable man. And my elder brother got along extremely well with older people and he lived out of Sachin Sarkar's pocket.
And so we would go to their home and Robin
was going to St. Xavier's College
knew all about St. Xavier's College
. So I got a lot of information in those 3 or 4 crucial months when you've taken the matriculation examination and are waiting for the results. I spent a lot of time in their home not because I wanted to find out about the prospects but I went there, I liked Robin
, I liked that home and they were connected with our family, they were family friends. So I went there a very great deal and I got a lot of information from Robin
. And Robin
himself was moving out of St. Xavier's College
to Presidency College
but he was on the art side and that he felt that Presidency
would be better to do economics. And he was certainly right. He did not discourage me from my choice of St. Xavier's College
. It's very difficult to at this late stage to be very precise as to what...
KM : To get all the factors affecting [ph]...
AB : But I think that the social factor was important. I wanted to get away from the confines of the lower middle class Bengali life. I ...thought that I had - it was good, it was very nice to me. As I said the mothers of my friends and my friends themselves in Brahmo Boys School
were very, very nice. I had a thoroughly good time there but still I found it somewhat confining and I wanted to explore a different kind of world and that is what must have been the decisive factor behind my choice of St. Xavier's college.
KM : It's often case that there is a period in someone's life, childhood through early adulthood which seems to be a kind of intellectual awakening or a kind of moment of opening to various new questions and begins a kind of path that sometimes you know carries through one's whole life. Was there such a moment, a particular period in time that you can recall in which you had an intellectual when I say intellectual awakening or?
AB : Yes.
KM : ...not?
AB : Yes I did. It was an awakening in a negative sense. I wanted very much to be a scientist and I did the inter science exam. After school --I left school in 15 that would be the normal age and at 17 I did the inter science - I did done very well in school despite all the handicaps I had done fairly well in school. I hadn't done quite as well in college. I got a first and I was easily admitted into the physics honors class. Many of my friends left and went away. I made new friends but in the course of the first year of my B.Sc. studies in physics...
KM : Which is after 2 years?
AB : After 2 years. Yes it's called third year. In my third year in college I realized that I did not have it within me what it took to be a good physicist and that was the moment of awakening. And I am very glad that --I lost a year in the process.
KM : So you changed directions?
AB : I changed directions.
KM : Wow.
AB : I changed directions in 1952-53. I joined the B.Sc. course with honors in physics and maths and chemistry and I found that I could do reasonably well but I couldn't compete with the best students in the class and I thought that it was - I realized inwardly that this is very competitive subject and I didn't have it in me to succeed in that competition.
KM : So what was the inner voice that told you to then - where did that inner voice come from that told you to then to take up the path that you've ended taking - couldn't have been sociology because...
AB : No.
KM : ...there was no such field?
AB : I didn't know anything about sociology. I didn't know anything about sociology. I was very much interested in anthropology without knowing the name. What interested me in anthropology was not social anthropology. What interested me in anthropology was paleontology and evolution. I didn't know how --well again it may have been a moment that brought that in. I discovered that I had some ability, I won't say talent, in expounding things which I myself understood. I realized that in school in Brahmo Boys School
KM : Oh really...
AB : That was a great thing. That was a great thing because I found myself teaching my fellow students not only English at which I was much better than them but other subjects as well. Now in St. Xavier's College
I think at the beginning of my third year B.Sc. studies there was an exhibition, a biology exhibition that had been arranged in the college
. And the teacher of zoology with whom I didn't have much to do he picked me out and appointed me as a demonstrator and he gave me - there was a stall on evolution and he explained what I would have to explain. And I found that I did it very well and people commented on this. So it had a large number of visitors many of whom had been former students of St. Xavier's College
and they went and told the college
authorities that you know there is a young man whose
--and that is when I got caught because I had a conceived the fact that I was a Catholic and one of the new Fathers, Jesuit Fathers, was he was struck by my exposition. He asked me "what is your name?" This is not a question that I wanted him to ask me. And I said "Andre Beteille
." And he said and he looked -he'd just come from Belgium. He looked puzzled and he said --asked me how I had such a name and I said "well my mother is Bengali but my father is French." And then - he almost swooped down on me and said "Catholic? Catholic?" and I had to say yes. So that put me on to a different...path in St. Xavier's College
and so this exhibition was very important for me and I got a pri--I got a sort of small prize and I remember the two books that I bought. The two books --I was given Rs.10.
In those days you could buy two books. One was the Origin of Species and the other was Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra which I tried to read and made no sense whatsoever but Origin of Species I liked. And so I got into paleontology and when I discovered that I would not make it as a physicist I decided to discontinue my studies and sought admission in the anthropology department. And I spent 3 or 4 months doing nothing actually but I would go everyday to the national library
. I had members--.
KM : Where was the national library
AB : National library is the same place where it is now.
KM : Same place? Alipore
AB : It is in Alipore
. It was there. And I got a ticket for the reading room not to borrow and I spent lot of time reading books on various things. So when I went to the Department of Anthropology in 1953 again it was a sort of lower end of the social as well as the academic hierarchy, Anthropology. the real subjects were physics or economics or even history but not anthropology. Again I was a star pupil. I was a star pupil because partly because I knew English. My English was good. I could speak English fluently and partly because I was very well prepared. I read a lot of books in the national library
on physical anthropology.
KM : So that means you restarted the third year?
AB : I restarted.
KM : You began again on a different track?
AB : On a different track. But the track was different but I now wonder why I did not make it completely, but I did not want to give up science and anthropology was a science subject and you had to take one honors subject, six papers and two pass subjects, three papers each and I stuck with physics and maths as my pass subjects somehow. I did very well in anthropology but I was scared that I might flunk it in physics or maths but I went through with all of that and I did well in my studies. And I was at that time more interested in the esoteric side of anthropology
KM : Meaning theoretical?
AB : No.
KM : No?
AB : No. No. Meaning primates. The evolution of primates. The curious customs of cannibalism, matriarchy and all of these.
KM : The natural science?
AB : Yes. That's right and see which are very different from our way of life. And in the first 2 years I read enormous amounts of ethnography, enormous amounts. I don't think I had any specific theoretical interest or focus. That gradually grew through reading all these ethnography. So that is what I was doing between 1953 and 1955.
KM : Did you have a - you mentioned this a priest who took a great interest in you at the science exhibition but in this period when you were making the transition and you were voraciously reading, did you have a guide per se or did you really experience this is your at the frontier on your own and kind of?
AB : I didn't have any guide in my reading anthropology but what happened was we all admired Fr. Goreux, this maths teacher. He was a legend. He still is a legend. I don't know if he is alive now but I have - my wife has nephews who are now in their late 40s and 50s they went to St. Xavier's School and said that they remember Fr. Goreux. So I kept up my connections with the college
. I would go and meet Fr. Goreux. Fr. Goreux was a great hero although I had detached myself from maths and physics I still went and saw Fr. Goreux and discussed a lot of things. What had happened in the mean time is that I had acquired an interest in literature and in these 6 months I was not just going to the national library
. I taught myself French.
KM : So you did not grew up with the language?
AB : I was taught French as I told you by my private tutor who would come home but it was very rudimentary but I was familiar with the sounds of the French language. My sister spoke French fluently. She was much older than me. Of course my father spoke French and my father insisted - often spoke in French with each other. You know how it is when you are a boy of 7 or 8 or 9 you hear a language spoken and you pick up the words and your pronunciation is good and so you pick a few sentences and people --that's-"oh my god you are so good in French." So I had some sense of the sounds of the French language when I picked...
AB : ...picked up again in 1953 and I joined the Alliance Francaise
and I felt that I must do something with myself so I discovered some old books in my grandmother's house where my father had grown up. Old French books, all kinds of books. And these included the plays of Moliere
and what better way of learning French than take one of these books and take - no, no I am fine.
KM : Okay.
AB : I am fine.
KM : So...
AB : But you switch it on. Okay. So
KM : Using the grandmother's house and Moliere?
AB : Moliere
and what better way of learning French than go to Alliance Francaise
, the pace is very slow. I picked out a couple of plays, one act plays and I took a dictionary and I translated them into English and that was very, very good.
In the mean time this discovery of my Catholic roots brought me in contact with a very interesting man called Fr. Vester [ph] who had some administrative position not in the college
alone but in the society of Jesuits and he lived in St. Xavier's College
. So I got to know him well.
And he was very nice and very encouraging and he gave me access to the fathers' library and I started borrowing French books and reading French. So that also is opening up French literature and not just paleontology. I was exploring but and I think I was trying to get over my sense of failure and not having really having it within me to become a physicist and I was and it was nice and in the 2 years that I spent for my B.Sc. I had a lot of freedom because I realized that I was well ahead of the rest of the class. I didn't have to strive strenu--. I could read on my own and read whatever I want to read and my teachers felt that I was very good and they pampered me and encouraged me and gave me their own books and I was also doing all this French and the rest of it. And I think that was the time when I also began to explore the Calcutta
Coffee House. This is slightly before I completed my B.Sc. and moved to the M.Sc. program in anthropology.
KM : This is in the fourth year as it were?
AB : In the fourth year in the...
KM : Or that?
AB : Third year and fourth year. Oh.
KM : So two questions. One question of two parts before we perhaps jump into the M.Sc. and Ph.D. period and you mentioned the Brahmo School
AB : Brahmo Boys School
KM : The Brahmo Boys School
as well as Robin
and his family who are Brahmos and also you've mentioned the Jesuits at St. Xavier's College
and you also mentioned the fact that there was perhaps a decision or partly a part of your decision was to escape or leave the middle class colony.
AB : The confines of the lower middle class.
KM : The confines of the lower middle class Bengali context which one might actually find at Presidency
for example. So and you also use the word cosmopolitan so what I was just wondering putting your experience in '50s in Calcutta
in the context of what else was happening in Calcutta
at that time. Perhaps specifically the rise of a wave of Marxism
amongst the young, the youth which possibly was quite connected often with a kind of identity as well with a desire to be grounded and rooted in a Bengaliness or in the village or return to the village and so forth. And maybe I am drawing with too broad a brush stroke but how - what - how was that context playing into your experience in the 1950s. Kind of the larger intellectual movement perhaps the Bengali mainstream --or not necessarily the mainstream but the bhadralok youth. What was happening?
AB : I must mention one thing because it could be source of misunderstanding. Brahmos represent a more cosmopolitan part of the Bengali middle class and that was something that I found in Robin
's family. That is something that you would find in Cherubin Sarkar's home but Brahmo Boys School
by the time I was a student therewas Brahmo only in name. There were hardly any Brahmos who went to that school. It is started with Brahmos. P C Mahalanobish had gone to that school but that was in an another age. By the time I was there it was lower middle class. It was a lower middle class Bengali school. There was very little of the Brahmo element in it. So yes Marxism
of course --you know I am a believer in the autonomy of ideas or the partial autonomy of ...ideas I think that once material circumstances, social conditions, identity etcetera have some parts certainly. I think I was never a Marxist
and I reacted against it mainly as far as I can see looking back now on intellectual grounds.
I found it unacceptable on intellectual grounds. So is it mine? Sorry. I found the Marxist
system extremely oppressive. I found it oppressive, intellectually oppressive. I didn't know very much about what was happening in Stalin's Russia. I found that among my friends the brightest [ph] and the most able and the most successful were the Marxists and --but they were extremely convinced that they had the answers to all the questions. They were somewhat self -satisfied and arrogant, intellectually arrogant, and it is that side of Marxism
that I found repellent. I am sure there are many other sides to it but I found the Marxists in the coffee house in Calcutta
and Indian Statistical Institute
")'>the Indian Statistical Institute
, that was another haunt of Marxists-- St. Xavier's College
was not, Presidency
college must have been at that time I found them too self -satisfied intellectually. They knew all the answers. My model of an intellectual is not the person who knows the answers to all the questions.
You know, I often use this example of a conversation between Bertrand Russell
and G.E. Moore
. They were both Cambridge
philosophers, very different in personality and temperament. Moore, very laconic, hardly spoken and Russell very - Russell writes in his memoirs that there is only one occasion on which he could get an immediate answer to a question. He said "I asked Moore, I said Moore one day, I asked 'Moore, who is your best pupil?' And without a moment's thought he said 'why, Wittgenstein [ph] of course. He always looks puzzled.'" The Marxists never looked puzzled and I didn't find that a very attractive-- No brilliant people like Amartya Sen
, Sukumar Chakraborty
--they were brilliant but they never looked puzzled they had all the answers and I found this-- And by the time I was going to the university some idea of what was happening in the Soviet Union
had begun to creep in and I found their attitude that those who are not for us are against us repellant and I began to see that
--and this was confirmed by the record later on that between Nehru
and Stalin there really was no choices as far as I was concerned. Nehru
was the sort of person who didn't have the answers to all the questions. He may have been a little too woolly and fuzzy but I found his intellectual temperament very attractive as against the intellectual temperament of the communists [ph].
KM : So when you went to the coffee house
if there were a certain groups of Marxists and Marxists would be there would it be that those groups you would spend time with was there another group that you would spend time with?
AB : No, naturally as a young man I sought out the brightest and the brightest were almost all Marxists although there were exceptions not that I knew very many of them they were the most prominent one. Abhinav Dutta
[?]was very - but he was of an earlier generation. He was already a teacher and I didn't have access to Abhinav babu in those days I got to know him later on. Ashin Das Gupta
whom I did not know at that [Unclear] husband. He was a Marxist
. So there were non-Marxists but I didn't know them at that time. The ones I knew were either Marxist
or Marxisant --that was the language-- but we discussed other things and they got me interested in things which I then found interesting and exciting. I told you that I came to anthropology from an interest in the otherness and in the differences of different ways of life. And the more esoteric, the more the arcane or archaic, the better for me but I mean one tires of it after 3 or 4 years and I had studied
--and I wanted to find --what was discussed in the coffee house
is amongst these very bright young students --Marxists --were 2-- 2 or 3 things. One was politics in which I was an innocent and the other was literature...in which a lot of these people knew a very great deal but you know this famous thing that Isaiah Berlin
quotes from some Greek writer "The fox has many little things. The hedgehog has one big thing." I had one big thing: I knew French and I was translating Baudelaire's poetry. So I can talk about French literature from the inside. So there was literature. There was politics and of course Marxism
was very important even in literature. Marxism
was very important. But I didn't find Marxism
- I found it of course I found it interesting but not very attractive at that time.
KM : And I am wondering about how knowledge and what the theme that you have contributed so much to status and knowledge and how they went together. In other words in the coffee house
amongst all of these bright young men was there a particular status associated to being able to speak about ideas that were not British or Anglo-Saxon or was it and if so how did --because you mentioned Baudelaire-- Were people particularly interested in American intellectual contributions and German intellectual while I guess the Russian would be in some ways be the Marxist
so how did that field play?
AB : I think in some ways the Bengali intellectual was remarkably insular. They were interested in Bengal
and then they were interested in Europe
. They were not interested in the rest of India
, hardly any interest in the rest of India
So they had a remarkable amount of information and also knowledge about what was happening in literature in the West, painting, all acquired from books. You know, Nirad[?] [ph] Chaudhuri is the classic example of getting all this information from books. Information about paintings-- He'd never seen those paintings but he had a remarkable understanding of those paintings. He didn't know too many European languages but he had a remarkable insight. So it is --you can gain a lot of insight from books about people and I think Nirad Chaudhuri
is in some ways the quintessential selftaught Bengali intellectual and many of us were in fact selftaught but we were in a group. Nirad babu may have also been in a group of that kind. So that's how life was. I mean we didn't know it at first hand but while --so what? I mean there is a wonderful story that [Unclear] told me about Nirad Chaudhuri
. Nirad Chaudhuri
had a phenomenal memory and she was a great admirer of Nirad Chaudhuri
KM : Encyclopedic as he was known.
AB : Encyclopedic and peculiar memory. It said that when somebody wrote him a letter from a house in Darjeeling and the house had a letterhead giving the name of the house and she wrote him a letter from that and a long letter about life in Darjeeling and he wrote back to her describing that house and the trees that stood around it and it appeared that he had never been in Darjeeling. He had heard about this and read about this and stored it in his memory. [Unclear] story was that Nirad babu had never been outside India
till he was in his mid 50s. Then he decided to go to England
and he decided to pay a visit to France
, to Paris
and he wanted to see Paris
. So [Unclear] thought that this man [Unclear] looking after.
He had a French friend in Paris
he go to him saying that I have this Indian gentlemen he is a remarkable person he is very Indian in many ways but he is remarkably knowledgable in European literatureand European history. He is going there. He wants to see the city I would be very obliged if you were take him around and show him. So they set up an appointment in some café, Boulevard St. Michel, whatever, and Nirad babu went he was very punctual and very meticulous and but his host did not show up so he waited for 15 minutes, 20 minutes got up and moved around on his own. And the friend came about 10 or 15 minutes late and thought that being an Indian he might take his own time so he sat down after about an hour when he began to worry as to what would have happened with this man Nirad babu showed up bright and beaming and said "I have been all round come let's go" and he said this man this Indian he started taking me through lanes and bylanes and he seem to know them better than I do. So it is remarkable how much detailed knowledge and even insight you can get out of books. I am a great believer in that.
KM : Let's move on to, maybe to the Ph.D. period so that I don't take too much of your time. Can you describe that phase in your development and the major intellectual...[Unclear] these are of course these are canonical figures so how did that and I think you moved to Delhi
at this point?.
AB : Yes.
KM : So that decision?
AB : Yes. Yes. I moved to Delhi
and this is a misunderstanding which is repeated over and over again. I didn't join Delhi University
as a Ph.D. student. I didn't come to Delhi
to do a Ph.D. I came to Delhi
to teach. By that time I had realized that my real vocation was as a teacher and I had a job after my M.Sc. I joined Indian Statistical Institute
")'>the Indian Statistical Institute
and it was a research job, I didn't like it and I was on the lookout for a teaching job. So I got a lectureship in Delhi University
to my great happiness but to my great surprise as well because I was the least qualified on paper of the candidates. Once I got the job I decided that I will settle down and teach. Read all the books and write book reviews, write articles and it was Srinivas who prodded me into doing a Ph.D. So then in course of time I registered for the P--but I did a Ph.D. while I was a full time lecturer. I came to the Delhi
school as a lecturer not as a Ph.D. student not to do my Ph.D. So I was teaching. I had got into teaching I really loved it but...
KM : And how old were you at this time when you had begun teaching?
AB : 24.
KM : That young?
AB : Yeah. 24. I was teaching. That is one of my - that is something in which I take great pride that I gave the first lecture to students in the department of sociology which is the most outstanding department in the country. I gave the first lecture on the 18th of July, 1959.
KM : Of in that department?
AB : In that department. It just started. We recruited the first batch of students. The first batch of MA students. Srinivas had come in February. He joined as Professor. I was interviewed along with others on the 4th of April, 1959. I joined the department on the 1st of July. Classes started on the 18th of July and since I was young and I was a bachelor I was naturally assigned the first lecture in the morning hours and I loved it and I did it for a year and in my first year, by the way, I had no thoughts of doing a Ph.D. but Srinivas pushed me into it and said that you must do it and of course he had very good reasons for doing this. So I went out to do my field work in the summer vacation of 1961 after completing 2 years of full time teaching. And then...
KM : And having read into the field in your off hours, as it were you were doing...
AB : I read a lot. I can't say that my reading was very purposeful. I read very broadly and the one thing that because of my days in the coffee house in Calcutta
and my friendship with all these people who were Marxists or pseudo-Marxists I had acquired a lot of interest in Marxism
and the Delhi
school, the economics department believed-- if I were to oversimplify I would say in those days by and large the sociologists studied caste and the economists studied class. They believed that the real divisions in Indian society were the divisions of class.
KM : who were and who would you say was the main figure and couple of main figures at economics, in the economics department?
AB : At that time the main figure was K.N. Raj
who he was considerable influence on me, K.N. Raj
. And K.N. Raj
used to tell me that in later years you are wasting your time in the sociology department come and... So I was interested in class, I was interested in class, I had read-- I now realize as I started teaching Srinivas was intolerant of all this. Srinivas thought that Marxism
was just a bombastic form of propaganda. It had - there is nothing intellectually serious about Marxism
. He was quite opinionated in this and but he did not stop me from talking about Marx [ph] or doing a course insisting that we should have a course on sociological theory with Marx, Weber
, and Durkheim which had become the staple in American and British universities by then
so he gave me a free hand in doing this and I think he sensed that I was not a Marxist
or that-- I was fascinated by Marxism
but I was not a Marxist
. So I was teaching all kinds of things and then I set off to do my field work in the classic British anthropological tradition. I have never been to Britain
but I knew all about it from Srinivas and from my reading because Srinivas had been and in later years when I did go to Cambridge
and spend time there I used to educate...the young lecturers in anthropology in Cambridge University
about the history of their own department. And the first professor of anthropology in Cambridge
was a man called Hodson, T.C. Hodson
who was a member of ICS. And the second professor of anthropology was also a member of the ICS called J.H. Hutton
but then anthropology had turned around in the 1940s
but it had a past in Cambridge
and the people who were teaching anthropology in the '70s and the '80s and '90s and particularly in the '80s and '90s in Cambridge
had no idea of this past. So this is to reassert the point that you can learn a lot from books and from talking with people but specially from books so I went out to do field work. Did I have a plan? No I didn't. I did have a plan but I set that plan aside straight away. I wanted to study temples and the religious organization of temples in Tanjore but once I went there I discovered that the social divisions of caste and the social divisions of class were very important and that is when I discovered that the real challenge in Indian society is to understand the dialectic of caste and class and that is the problem which has stayed with me for a long time and I am very, very pleased. It give me a great deal of satisfaction. One of my early Ph.D. students and the one who had remained closest to me oddly enough is an English one called Jonathan Parry. I do not know whether there was a [Unclear] for me when I retired in 1999. It was edited by two persons Ram
Guha do you know the name? Ramachandra
KM : Of course. Yes.
AB : Rama Guha and Johnny parry they edited it. Johnny was one of my early Ph. D. students. He was in Cambridge
but I was a supervisor in Delhi
and he was doing field work [Unclear] this started in 1966-67 and last year I had gone to the LSE
School of Economics], at the invitation of the LSE
to be the chief speaker at Johnny's retirement.
KM : So it was very much full circle or something very poignantabout it?
AB : Yes. And not only that Johnny Parry has at last come back to the problem with which I started off: What is the relationship between caste and class?[Unclear] And of course he has done enormously more detailed field work than I have done and I felt really very happy. He was at first very, very skeptical of all my pre occupation with class but he has come back to it now and I feel very in a way I feel fulfilled that he has now after retirement he has now discovered the importance and the value of this problem with intellectual resources that are enormously superior to what I had in the early 60s.
KM : Coming to the --close to the end of this interview it struck me in some of the other discussions that I've had for example with Tapan Raychaudhuri
or with Prashant
that when they speak of you they speak of you as somebody who opened up new methodologies for them that when you came to lecture in sociology in Kolkata
Prashatn said I realized there is something called sociology that I would want to get involved with. And I noticed in some of your early writings in the '60s that you certainly engaged deeply with the British tradition of anthropology but then there is also this deep engagement with the French tradition of I guess anthropology-- sociology you mentioned your interest in Marxism
which was something that other sociologists might someone skeptical of like Srinivas so how do you - it seems that you were able to channel or bring together discourses that were not always part of a particular [Unclear] that was someone from the outside. Where did this ability or this affinity come from would you say?
AB : But you I just want to mention you omitted one influence which Dipankar, if you read Dipankar's introduction to this. I think yes I was greatly influenced by the British anthropological tradition. It started in Calcutta
when I was an M.Sc. student and then Srinivas and I read a lot of British ethnography and I was --through my teaching I got interested in it. French yes -Durkheim--I knew the French language but if there is one single major intellectual influence on my sociology that influence is Max Weber
who is neither British nor French. And it was - I remember again I have written about the man he is no more he was one most fascinating figures of that periods. A man called Surajit Sinha. Surajit Sinha... ...now who is an anthropologist who later became Director of the Anthropological Survey of India
and then became Vice Chancellor of Visva Bharati
and was for sometime the Director of the Calcutta Center
and its Chairman. He didn't publish very much.
He was a rather - he was - he came from an old zamindar family, very old Bengal
zamindar family and rather bohemian inwardly but he was a great influence on me and I still remember because he was the first one none of my teachers knew about Max Weber
. I have discussed this endlessly with Ralph Nicholas and Kim Marriott and anthropologists did not engage with Max Weber
except at the University
in those days. I am talking about the '40s and '50s now but Surajit drew my attention to the importance of Weber
and I started reading Weber
. I think what I did in my book Caste, Class, &Power which was in some ways novel I wouldn't say original and what was novel about it is that I didn't do it at all deliberately but somehow this came about and I think the main driving force behind it was my teaching. I combined the ethnographic approach of [E.E.] Evans-Pritchard [ph] who was Srinivas's teacher and one of whose important books I was teaching every year. I combined that ethnographic approach with the broader view of social inequality that I had acquired from Max Weber
because Evans-Pritchard was writing his ethnography about a totally unstratified small segmentary tribal system. I have brought the two together and somehow they gelled and I was lucky.
KM : Now this is the last question. We began the conversation earlier before we began recording about internationalism in the 1950, 1960s how would you locate yourself within a context of academic internationalism in India
, in that period and do you - if there was some break or change when did that change happen? When did the discontinuity occurred if one can speak of such...?
AB : I don't think that in my case there was ever any break or change. I think I believed that one of the greatest threats to rational discourse and rational social science is the notion of an alternative sociology whose routes lie in a very retrograde [ph] kind of nationalism, although this is dressed up in very sophisticated language and I think that is one of the greatest threats that we Indians
--that tradition is not only an object of investigation it provides us with a method which is different from the method that is being developed in the West or in the modern world. I have written about this a great deal in newspapers. I think this is one -- it will last, I think it will not go away. This search for an alternative which is authentically Indian. I don't believe that there is such a thing --that in social science I don't believe that you can develop a social science approach or method which will be distinctively Indian and if it is it will be retrograde. I have no absolutely no doubt in my mind about that.
KM : When did the move for this search for this alternative tradition? When was it strongest?
AB : I think it was there all along but I think the Emergency
and the aftermath of the Emergency
was the turning point in many ways.
KM : Very interesting.
AB : And the great proponents of this are people like Ashish Nandy
and there are several others and it's always shimmering around in the horizon if you try to pin them down but it's a critique of the western model of sociology or main stream sociology which is very acute in many places but the alternative which they don't actually promise in concrete terms but which they imply is waiting to be discovered
--I think it was there even long before all of this. Many people --again I have written about this in a paper which I called "Sociology and Tradition" that to go back to the to dharmashastras
to find a distinctive tradition for doing socio --it's too late now and one of the great proponents of that, I don't know whether you know the name of man called T.N. Madan
. Madan flirts with this kind of idea but he is not in forthright as Ashish or even Partha
Chatterjee, but Madan flirts with this idea and one of his great mentors who is his teacher in Lucknow
is a man called D. P. Mukherji who is very - I have never met D. P. Mukherji but he was a legend and I think frankly --I think he was a charlatan --very famous.
KM : His full name was?
AB : Dhurjati Prasad Mukherji
. Frankly I think he was a charlatan. If you are interested I have a paper called "Sociology...Tradition" or the "Sociological Approach." You see I have collection of papers called "Sociology Essays on Approach and Method" which I bring this up, discuss this point. Intellectually, I think, it had very little power but it has a great power of popular appeal.
KM : Thank you. Very much. Very stimulating interview. Thank you
AB : Thank you.