The Quality of Empathy

Moushumi Bhowmik

I came to Ranajit Guha’s work only recently, late in my life. If I had been a first year at university then my teachers and peers would tell me what to read and how to read him. Now I must seek assistance in writings on Guha, from his readers, scholars and critics; in interviews and reminiscences.

The good thing about coming so late to someone’s work, especially to work as vast and deep as an ocean, is that by now I have a measure of my own self, I know that I have not learned to swim and I can’t even stay afloat, but barely dip my ankles in the water. I also know a thing or two about what I can take home after hours of sitting by the shore; some sand sticks to my feet, that I must  dust off before walking in through the door. But I keep with me the sights of the rising waves I have seen and their sound as they come crashing, ships which cross the horizon, small fishing boats, even drowning people I was unable to save.

It is with such sounds and sights and feelings that I tried to loosely sketch an impression of Ranajit Guha, translating what I have understood to be some of his lifelong concerns and questions, into song.   

On 20 October 2023, when we had gathered at the University of Sussex to remember Ranajit Guha, two weeks of systematic destruction of life in Palestine had passed, following the 7 October bloody Hamas operation against Israeli occupation. Is there no daya left in our hearts? Where is the quality of empathy? There was an all-pervasive feeling of helplessness, even on the faces of those who were courageously marching to stop the killing spree. 

Around 2008, Ranajit Guha had started to write a Bengali book entitled Daya: Rammohan Roy O Amader Adhunikata (Empathy/Compassion: Rammohan Roy and Our Modernity) which was first published in 2010. 

‘We easily forget’, he wrote in its Prelude, which he subtitled ‘The Victory of Cruelty’. ‘If we couldn’t forget, then perhaps our very existence would be unbearable under the weight of remembrance. So, we need to forget. Even to those who witnessed Partition [of India] in their childhood and youth, that experience has faded now as [the colours and details] in an old scroll painting. The dust of Mahakal (Endless Time) falls on the past and everything fades away. Dust has begun to settle on the communal frenzy in Gujarat which happened barely seven or eight years ago. Which is why millions of people are unable to see in their minds’ eyes what they had actually seen. However, we know that the discipline of history and forgetting are sworn enemies. Hence, with my belief in justice [attainable through remembrance], I have picked up my pen to write about a much older time, to remind ourselves of 2002. [Lest we forget.]’ (Guha, 2021: 13; translation mine). 

Daya diye hobe go mor jiban dhute/Noile ki aar parbo tomar charan chhnute‘ (I must wash my life with daya/ How else can I touch your feet?) Rabindranath Tagore’s 1910 song rang in my ears. Ranajit Guha wrote extensively on Tagore and I wonder if this was one his favourite songs? His student, the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, wrote after his death that in writing only in Bangla/ Bengali during the last decades of his life, Ranajit da was ‘returning home’.  In her memoirs Danube, Ganges, and Other Life Streams, Methchild Guha wrote: ‘Ranajit and I discussed many times what our roots were. He feels rooted in Bengali language and culture irrespective of where he lives, and, believing it crucial to maintain this sense of identity, he kept pressing me to similarly acknowledge the culture and language that had formed me,’ (Guha, 2014: 49).  

The Bengal of Ranajit’s birth is where I have travelled over the past decades, listening to songs and stories and making recordings of what may be considered ‘small voices’ of history, with my machine and in my memory. But ‘small’, says who? In the pouring rain of the monsoon month of Sraban, the women of Barisal are singing songs to the snake goddess Manasa; the song rises above the sound of the rain, then it drowns, and rises again–one female voice leads, others repeat the lines. I have heard them and imagine that Ranajit had also heard such sounds when he was a small boy, for Barisal was his birthplace. Perhaps this was also the language and culture that had formed him? Why did he not write about these little things of his own history? 

Ranajit Guha ‘turned down all requests to write an autobiography,’ wrote Partha Chatterjee. ‘He even did not want to give any long interviews on his life and work. He would refuse saying, “It is not possible to write the truth about one’s own life. Whatever autobiographies you read, know that they are full of lies.”” (Chatterjee, 2023: 86) But for some reason he did give Partha Chatterjee a long interview on 1 and 2 July 2018 in his home in Purkersdorf on the edge of the Vienna Woods; he was 95 at the time. They talked about books he read as a boy, the library at home, his grandfather, teachers, early friendships, introduction to communist ideology, Tagore, Bankim, his comrades, literature, politics, history-writing, subaltern studies and so much more, but not much about the interior of his childhood home and other realms of feeling. The conversation is marked by the stark absence of voices of women. There was an externality in that conversation, such as there is in Bengali male intellectual addas.

How to listen to that absence? How to interpret it? In The Art of Listening, Les Back wrote about the need for deep sociological listening, which is ‘tied to the art of [‘thick’] description’. (Back, 2007: 21). We must be able to listen to both the presence and absence of sound.

It is interesting that Ranajit Guha had opened up in a different way during another conversation that he had with the Bastar folklorist Harihar Vaishnav in Canberra in 1991. The master dhokra or bell metal sculptor Jaydev Baghel of Chattisgarh was also present in the room, along with anthropologist Chris Gregory. Ranajit Guha was talking in Hindi and this translation by Pritha Banerjee is from a  special volume  dedicated to him which was published after his death by Anushtup in Kolkata, edited by Simool Sen. ‘I am a Dukkhabadi (I incline towards sorrow),’ Ranajit had said to Harihar Vaishnav. ‘I see both happiness as well as dejection. I have seen both. But I perceive a sense of remorse in the unprecedented fate of mankind. […]  But the battle must be waged. It doesn’t matter whether you triumph or fail. The struggle must go on.’

Vaishnav then asked him if there was any one incident he remembered which gave him both inspiration and pain?  ‘I don’t know about any specific event,’ Ranajit said, ‘but there is one that I can recall. You people are all young, born after Independence. There is one event before Independence that has left a mark on all people’s lives — British Rule. Before our independence, the era of British rule was an era of humiliation. I cannot begin to tell you how deeply humiliating the situation was. An Englishman had the power to come to this country and demean its own citizens. My childhood was situated within this corridor of humiliation. My family was an elite, upper class family in Bangladesh. We were big Hindu landowners. When I was a child, I saw peasants being thrashed with shoes by members of zamindari (landowning) families like mine. There was a farmer who lived near my house. He was older than me. I used to call him Dada. Although I belonged to a wealthy family, he brought coconuts for me. When he went fishing in the river, he used to take me along in his boat. I saw my uncle and his servants in our zamindari family pummel him with shoes. One day, he was heartbroken and left his home and the village. He thought my family was affectionate towards him. But they beat him with shoes – that was sheer insult! He left in a small boat. My young mind was affected by this. This agony occupied my mind since childhood. This is a short anecdote. It’s not political. It is empathy. It is sympathy. My discernment, my anger come from that place.’ 

I think it was a real political act on the part of Ranajit Guha to draw from the deep well of empathy and fight the battle ‘that must be waged’, throughout his long life. 

Here is a clip from my presentation at a memorial event for historian Ranajit Guha (1923-2023) at the University of Sussex on 20 October 2023. My presentation-performance was entitled ‘Some Small Voices of History: Listening after Ranajit Guha’. The composition I sing, first setting the context, is of the Bengali poet and composer Rabindranath Tagore, written in 1910.


Back, Les 2007. The Art of Listening (Oxford, New York: Berg)

Guha, Methchild 2014.  Danube, Ganges , and Other Life Streams  (New Delhi: Permanent Black)

Chatterjee, Partha ed. 2023 Ranajit Guha Sahityer Satya (Kolkata: Anushtup)

Guha, Ranajit 2021. Daya: Rammohan Roy O Amader Adhunikata (Kolkata: Adom)

Sen, Simool ed. 2023. Ranajit Guha Bishesh Sankhya (Kolkata: Anustup)

Moushumi Bhowmik is an Indian singer-songwriter, writer and researcher based in Kolkata.

Header Image Credit: The Travelling Archive


Bhowmik, Moushumi 2024. ‘The Quality of Empathy’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):