Sunny days

Why read an academic’s memoirs? You may well wonder. The last 200 or so years have made the university, rather than the monastery, the obvious destination for those devoted to the life of the mind. And university life is all routine and convention, affording few of the thrills that might make for a life story worth narrating.

There is of course the gossip: Academics are notorious for it. And though it is easy to forget it, there is the possibility that the pleasures of the everyday business of thinking, writing and teaching might make for a good story. There is, further, the natural interest of the bildungsroman, the appeal in reading of a person’s progress from ignorance and immaturity to the polished self familiar to readers and students.

Indian social scientists have produced some excellent pieces of autobiographical writing that have displayed various of these potential virtues. An especially compelling entry in the genre is I And Other Explorations, the alternately crabby and coruscating autobiography of G.S. Ghurye, the most important of the pioneers of sociology in India. The autobiographical writings of Ghurye’s student M.N. Srinivas are more generous, and rather briefer, but they—and his essay of tempered tribute to this old teacher “Professor G.S. Ghurye And I: A Troubled Relationship"—hold some considerable interest for their stories from the early history of the Indian social sciences.

Sunlight on the Garden—A Storyof Childhood and Youth; Penguin Viking, 294 pages, ₹ 499
Sunlight on the Garden—A Storyof Childhood and Youth; Penguin Viking, 294 pages, ₹ 499

The book opens with a charming account of Béteille’s childhood in an atypical family in Chandannagar, West Bengal, one parent of French and the other of Bengali Brahmin ancestry. The tone is, throughout, personal and tender; quite the opposite of the clinical gaze of the social scientist, although every so often, we are allowed to see things through the sociologist’s more detached gaze.

Subsequent chapters give us a sometimes distressing, sometimes droll narrative of Béteille’s time at boarding school. His account of Irish schoolmasters and Anglo-Indian classmates is inflected with a retrospective understanding of the complexity his younger self had been required to negotiate. His descriptions of the reticulated snobberies of class, caste, religion in 1940s Bengal owe much not only to his future education in the social sciences, but to his own awkward position in that web: not quite Bengali enough for his Brahmo friends, yet not quite Catholic enough for the padres.

Béteille’s account of his time studying first science, then anthropology, at university in Calcutta is a gold mine of anecdotes that will satisfy the shallowest reader. The prose successfully conveys something of the intellectual and cultural excitement of Calcutta in the 1950s, its radical poets, its bhadralok (gentry) philanderers, and its undergraduate superstars. There is a particularly funny—and in parts pleasingly catty—description of the young Amartya Sen, his appeal not explained entirely by his intellectual attainments.

Sunlight on the Garden is not the most theoretically profound of Indian academic memoirs, but it has some claim to being the funniest. It is, along with Béteille’s other autobiographical writings, an essential chapter in the history of intellectual life in modern India. It proves that the life of the mind, well lived, is also a life of the heart.

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