Savaging the Civilised
by Ramachandra Guha
OUP. New Delhi, 1999
Even if you put all our modern patriots together, Verrier Elwin was a better Indian by far
There was a certain justice, if that’s the word I want, in reading this book during a time of clamour over foreign birth. When we are smack in the middle of a mindless race to define loyalty to India solely by coordinates on a map, it is good to read about Verrier Elwin. Foreign name, foreign birth, a missionary Christian to boot when he came to India, but the man lived and died Indian. Not Indian just because he was issued with the necessary documents, but Indian because of a lifelong commitment.
I do not mean to reduce a book, a life, to just these terms. But as it happens, this book was published and I got to read it at a time when the spectre of Sonia Gandhi wielding power is driving Indian ‘patriots’ into a frothing frenzy. Turning the pages of Savaging the Civilised, one can not but be aware of the mockery Elwin’s life makes of notions of patriotism as they are sold to us today. For my money, even if you put all our modern patriots together, Elwin was a better Indian by far; in fact, the very comparison is faintly insulting to the man. If the criterion is an understanding of and an empathy with Indian lives, I would much rather have trusted him to lead India, to do good for India, than almost anybody who jostles for the privilege today
And again, because we live in peculiar times, Ramachandra Guha’s one great achievement in this book is that he forces us to think about being Indian. Are we so identified by simply being born here, or is there something more to it? Is being Indian as trivial a matter as a place on a map? Or should we ask more of ourselves? Or do we deserve more from ourselves?
Born 1902 in Dover, Verrier Elwin took a degree from Oxford in 1924 and landed in India in late 1927. He was going to India, he wrote to a friend, “to test both the missionary and religious vocation”. Many years later, he was also to write in his memoirs that the move was an “act of reparation…to give instead of to get, to serve with the poorest people instead of ruling them, to become one with the country we had helped to dominate and subdue”.
The young Verrier was touched by the rising tide of Indian nationalism. From lectures and meetings with people who had spent time in India, he knew about Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent movement for India’s freedom, a moral struggle. Combining his religious bent with the appeal of Gandhian values, Elwin joined the Christa Seva Sangh (CSS) in Poona. The CSS modelled itself on the Hindu idea of an ashram, particularly the one conceived by Gandhi at Sabarmati. Service to the poor, simple living and identification with India: these were the CSS precepts. Jawaharlal Nehru himself was to take notice. While the church was “usually wholly ignorant of India’s past history and culture”, the CSS people were exceptions, and their “religion has led them to understand and serve and not to patronise”, wrote Nehru.
Gonds over Gods
This was the air Elwin was breathing as he began life in India. It is curious, then, that by the mid-1930s, he no longer wanted it. This man of the church was disillusioned with his church. The one-time admirer and friend of Gandhi had also come to disagree with him, having been “put off by Gandhism”. There is something almost refreshing in Elwin’s willingness to admit that the God that brought him to India had failed him, but that nevertheless he was more sure than ever that India was where he wanted to make his life
This apparent conundrum was the fulcrum of Elwin’s life, and is the core of this book. To live in India, to be aware of what happens around you in India, is often to be frustrated with the perversities of India. This, indeed is the fundamental dilemma of every Indian who has his/her eyes open. And yet, there is no other country in the world that offers so much to discover, to learn, to absorb, to write about. This is what drove Verrier Elwin, and what Guha speaks to me of Elwin, in this biography.
Following a suggestion from the industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj, Elwin moved in 1932 to Mandla district (in today’s Madhya Pradesh) of the Central Provinces, to work with the Gond tribe. He settled in Karanjia, a tiny town near the source of the Narmada. With his life-long friend Shamrao Hivale, he set up the Gond Seva Mandal, running an ashram there. Elwin’s years in Karanjia are the subject of his delightful and insightful 1936 book, Leaves from the Jungle. Not a scholarly treatise, essentially a diary, this slim volume is peppered with Elwin’s self-deprecatory humour, even as it informs on Gond life. Elwin’s eye for detail here is but a foretaste of the more serious writing he would do over the next 25 years, years spent living among his beloved tribals. In that sense, it is a record of a significant first step he may not then have been conscious of taking —towards becoming India’s foremost anthropologist and authority on tribal life.
In Leaves From The Jungle, Guha tells us, Elwin “find[s] out more about himself as he finds out about Gonds”. Not just about his “growing rejection of Gandhi and Christ”, but also about a “shift in vocation that was already under way”. Elwin had come to India, in some sense, to “serve” its people, through Christ to begin with, and by extension, in “providing education and medical relief”. But less than a decade later, he was to understand that his talent lay in writing about India’s tribals “indeed, he could help the tribals by writing about them”. It was this understanding that opened the floodgates for Elwin’s writing.
For the paths Elwin’s life took from then on, I will leave you to read the book. But it is these quiet yet profound shifts in Elwin’s ideas, in his thinking, in his focus, in the kind of man he wanted to be, in his very image of himself, that make Elwin the intriguing character that he was. Guha explores all these vividly, weaving them into a life-sized picture of Verrier Elwin to make this biography a rewarding read.
Elwin was a man of eminence and integrity who counted among his friends some of the greatest Indians of this century. But Guha puts some muscle into that cardboard image, and is able to describe for our benefit Verrier Elwin as an essentially, fundamentally, profoundly, Indian man. Regardless of his birth, accent, clothes, looks. Regardless, let’s be sure of this, of his becoming an Indian citizen in 1954. He was Indian before, besides and above any of these trivial details
A subtle point, perhaps. But the fact that Guha chose to paint a portrait of the man who makes this point is a tribute to the author’s own understanding of Elwin. There is no doubt Guha admires Elwin. But it is not the unqualified admiration of a hagiographer. It is the respectful admiration you develop for a complex, driven man. A man who explores his many interests to the fullest. A man with foibles that only deepen and round out the respect. “I have also dogged the shadows which Elwin chose to keep out of his [autobiography],” Guha writes, “and so reveal that his life was more troubled and altogether more interesting than he made it out to be.” Such dog-gedness, of course, is the privilege of the biographer; Guha pursues history admirably
One complaint is with the chapter notes. This is a massively researched book and Guha is thorough about giving his reader the source for every quote or excerpt he uses. These are via footnotes, which unfortunately are bundled in the last pages of the book. For a book like this, that’s a distraction. There is no perfect solution here, but the bibliographical notes could have been separated from the few explanations; the former to remain at the back, the latter at the bottom of each page
Trifles apart, Savaging the Civilised is a beautifully nuanced portrait of a fascinating man. It is also a timely and necessary portrait. Call it an obsession if you like, but to me the book addresses a question whose answers get shallower by the day: what does it mean to be Indian?
On 25 February 1964, three days after Elwin died, Calcutta’s Amrita Bazaar Patrika carried one answer to that question. It was inserted by the Bengali Little Theatre Group and the Minerva Theatre of Calcutta. It read:
In memory of
Dr Verrier Elwin
the best of Indians.
Amen, Elwin may not have said, to that.