India is such an endlessly fascinating, diverse and conflict-ridden and confusing place that fiction can capture this reality only up to a point
On the few occasions that India's celebrity-obsessed media takes a break from focusing on cricketers and film stars, it turns briefly to writers such as Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh or Jhumpa Lahiri for a spot of brain fodder.
They are noted mainly for fiction, commanding hefty advances from publishers Indian and foreign. But recently, a non-fiction writer made headlines with one of the biggest contracts in India. Historian Ramachandra Guha, who agreed to a 9.7 million rupee (HK$1.54 million) advance from Penguin Books India, says, however, the seven-book deal, to run until 2015, has to be seen in perspective.
'Put it at monthly instalments. I'm a 52-year-old writer with many books behind me and my monthly instalment would be less than a fresh MBA from an IIM [one of the Indian Institutes of Management] gets,' he says at his house in the southern Indian city of Bangalore.
Nevertheless, the contract is a 'recognition of the importance of history and non-fiction', says Guha, whose 2007 book, India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, received critical acclaim around the world and has so far sold more than 70,000 copies, which for an Indian writer is fine going. Equally well noticed was 2002's A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport, a meticulously researched book on cricket. He has also written books on environmental movements and other issues. 'The Indian publishing industry has been consumed by an obsession with fiction, with novels,' says Guha, who was named by American Foreign Policy magazine last year as one of the world's top 100 public intellectuals.
'India is such an endlessly fascinating and diverse and conflict-ridden and confusing place that fiction can capture this reality only up to a point. It needs history, biography, memoir, travel writing, autobiography, to capture this diversity and different dimensions.'
The diversity he prescribes is reflected in his writings and in the books he has agreed to write for Penguin. Three of them will be new editions of his earlier works. One is a biography of Verrier Elwin, an Englishman who went to India in the early 20th century to work with the church but made his home among tribal people, becoming their spokesman. The new version will discuss the plight of tribes in India today and the rise of Maoism. Another is an update of a history of global environmentalism and the third a reissue of one of his cricket books.
His new offerings include an anthology of Indian political thought and a collection of his essays. The mainstay of the contract will be a two-volume work on Mahatma Gandhi. Why a book on Gandhi?
'I cannot tell you in a soundbite. You'll have to wait for the books to come out,' Guha says before adding that he has had a long-standing interest in Gandhi, who figures in his historical and biographical works as well as in his books on the environment and even cricket: the social movements Gandhi led against India's religious and caste divisions had an effect on the composition of teams.
Guha acknowledges, however, that the effort is partly linked to his complaint that the art of biography remains undeveloped in South Asia. In an essay titled, 'Why South Asians Don't Write Biography, and Why They Should', he says: 'We know how to burn our dead with reverence and bury them by neglect but not how to honour or judge them. There is no obituary page in the best of our newspapers.'
He blames the subcontinent's dominant religion, Hinduism, and the ideology that greatly influenced many academics, namely Marxism, for undervaluing the role and status of the 'singular human being'. Moreover, an indifference to record keeping, fear of giving offence and the complexity of the biographer's craft - its unique combination of art, industry, scholarship and literature - have put subcontinental writers off, he surmises. South Asians, he concludes, are 'too genteel and fastidious to attempt burgling the souls of subjects'.
These remarks on biography are contained in The Last Liberal and Other Essays (2004), which approaches the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru through reflections on people who interacted with independent India's first prime minister or were influenced by his policies. Guha calls himself a Nehruvian Indian, crediting the leader with having kept India plural and diverse, not declaring any religion or language 'official'.
But Guha is hardly uncritical of his own country. The failure to convict those behind the massacre of Sikhs in New Delhi after the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, or the perpetrators of a pogrom against Muslims in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, show serious deficiencies in India's criminal justice system and undermine its credibility as a democracy, he says.
Given his ability to capture the country's contradictions, ably shown in India After Gandhi, Guha can be counted on for an equally enthralling job of 'burgling the great soul' of Mahatma Gandhi.