How a failed economist became one of India's most famous historians
Career principles of Dr. Ram Guha: Transcending Chauvinism
We analyzed Ram Guha’s career and shared some principles that will help you appreciate the importance of transcending chauvinism. Dr. Guha created his category of one. Read on to understand how.
Even though today he is a widely renowned historian, Ramachandra Guha does not have a single degree in history. Instead, he has two degrees in the field of economics– a bachelor’s degree from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and a master’s degree from the Delhi School of Economics. He was terrible at Economics and he realized it was a bad fit in the first week itself. But he hung around.
Remember the mental model escalation of commitment? That explains why we stick with bad decisions and prioritize consistency over accuracy.
In addition to escalation of commitment, cricket was another reason Guha stuck to economics. He played cricket as part of his college team for three years and changing disciplines was not an option then (it still isn’t). If he wanted to play cricket and be in college, he had to keep studying economics.
While his cricketing career was also a failure, Guha later ended up authoring several books about cricket, writing extensively about the history of cricket in India from the time it was first introduced during the British Raj, to its status today as the nation’s most cherished sport. He is famous for retelling the joke that cricket was an Indian sport accidentally discovered in Britain.
All in all, his college life was unremarkable. When he finally graduated and decided to move on, one of his professors quirked - “It is a pareto optimum: a victory for you and a victory for economics.”
From one misadventure to the next
After Dr. Guha’s self-described misadventure with economics, he went on to attain a PhD from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, in the field of sociology/anthropology because it was the easiest institute to get into (his words, not ours). While economics was abstract, analytical, and in his own words, beyond his comprehension, anthropology was different in the way that it directly dealt with human beings.
Curiosity leads to the discovery of passion. You are not born with it.
In the course of his research, he was led to the archives. That is where he fell in love. Working in the archives was more congenial to his temperament than anything else. Following his passion, he went on to write and publish India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (2007), which was chosen as Book of the Year by The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, etc. and received critical acclaim. Furthermore, he wrote a two-part biography of Gandhi, titled Gandhi Before India (2013)and Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World (2018).
Although we have not gathered proof, we are reliably told that Guha attempted to take the IAS exam several times but failed to get a seat. Today, however, almost no one appears for the same exam without reading his books and commentaries. Evidently “India After Gandhi” is considered essential reading. Now that is serious vindication by history and a form of sweet revenge :)
Guha’s Mental Models
In one of his speeches titled History beyond Chauvinism , Guha talks about five categories of chauvinism we must guard against.
Let’s start with Disciplinary Chauvinism. It is incorrectly believed that regimented academic training is necessary and sufficient for professional progress. In other words, only engineers can build, historians can have a point of view on history and economists know all about the economy (We wish!)
Guha believes in transgressing disciplinary boundaries. He states that it is important to be open-minded and draw upon ideas from different fields. When Guha was conducting his doctoral research in the Sundarbans, he missed not knowing much about botany and zoology as he had left science after standard 8.
Such disciplinary silos start in school, go up to college and find their way even in workplaces. That is how innovation gets stifled. Transgressing disciplinary boundaries and questioning assumptions is the first step towards developing a robust understanding of the complex world around us.
In this regard, Guha’s emphasis is not very different from that of Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet. They often talk about building a latticework of mental models. You can find a short summary here.
Other types of chauvinism that Guha talks about are chauvinism of method, chauvinism of identity (or regional chauvinism), chauvinism of ideology and chauvinism of national identity.
*** The next few paragraphs might seem a tad bit more relevant to social science enthusiasts but we believe that they are equally important for business students and working professionals. Just replace historians with managers if you struggle to make the following paragraphs contextually relevant.
The chauvinism of method as described by Guha is the bias that historians have towards using particular sources and avoiding others. He stated that while it is important to study government documents, it is equally important to not confine ourselves to them. Since the 1980s, historians have started exploring more sources of information such as interviews and newspapers. To overcome this brand of chauvinism would certainly help us widen our scope of study and inevitably make our learning experiences more enriching.
For ensuring this further, it is also essential to overcome the chauvinism of identity (regional as well as national) and of ideology. Guha takes the example of historical writing in India, wherein people play to their strengths and write about topics that they’re familiar or comfortable with. This is inevitable to a certain extent because every person is comfortable with what they are proficient at, for example, we would prefer writing in our native language than a foreign one. However, this can sometimes inhibit or limit one’s abilities. Transcending one’s regional identity in the way that one researches or conceptualizes the world around them can broaden one’s prospects.
As for national identity, in Guha’s opinion, while a citizen is responsible to a nation and must hold their government accountable, a scholar must dissociate himself from such a concept and transcend beyond national affiliation.
Finally, we come to the chauvinism of ideology for which Guha uses another anecdote. He talks about a time in his life when he considered himself a Marxist, until someone debunked his beliefs about confining himself to an ideology. That someone was the late Basudev Chatterji, a professor at University of Delhi and a historian. He told Guha that if he chooses to abandon his academic career, and joins a political party, it would be a legitimate career choice. However, if he calls himself a historian and at the same time a Marxist, then he would be profoundly limiting himself intellectually. Society is too complex and diverse to be captured by a particular theoretical framework. In order to have a more nuanced and clear understanding of how society works, one should read Marx but also beyond Marx. In life, one must always be prepared to be surprised by what life throws at us and to have our deep-rooted ideas or beliefs negated.
Though Guha speaks of his own experiences as a historian, we can apply his career principles and mental models to our own. In order to become a true ‘scholar’, one must be willing to overcome the aforementioned kinds of chauvinism and transcend them. Even beyond academia, it is important to be open-minded. Restraining ourselves to certain rigid beliefs, identities, methods or disciplines can hinder our true potential.
Ramachandra Guha may have called himself a “spectacularly failed economist” and a lapsed Marxist but he has built a category of one. This has made him unique, financially robust and intellectually revered in most parts of the world except on some Twitter threads and WhatsApp groups.
Have a lovely day!
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Thank you for sharing this. It makes me understand the rationale behind the NIF fellowship. Would love to know more from him on writing skills.