28 September 2007

Doing India Deep and Personal

Inhaling The Mahatma
Christopher Kremmer
Harper Collins India
Pages 420
Rs 495

There is something endearing about the firangi pluck that emboldens them to write the big book on India, unlike their Indian counterparts who, instead of writing No Full Stops for America or America in Slow Motion, or playing Indian Daniel Laks, Edward Luces, and Gillian Wrights in western capitals, write homesick fiction. Yet, westerners writing on contemporary India seem to be doing it watching her through their taxi windows.

Christopher Kremmer is a freelance Australian journalist who also travels in a taxi chauffeured by one Lovely Singh. But what makes Inhaling The Mahatma rise head and shoulders above similar recent attempts, is his refreshing and sometimes down right embarrassing (need said risky?), penchant to leave the hard-shell of his Amby and set out on a personal quest to discover India, and himself.

And how. Early in his long stay in India, Kremmer married an Indian. His journalist-wife hails from an old-money family, one of whose ancestors, Jiwan Lal, supplied vital intelligence that helped the British to wrench Delhi out rebels’ hands in the 1857 Mutiny. In the family’s postprandial discussions, Kremmer is the odd man out, holding a pad and a pencil, taking down notes.

As if his marriage does not suffice as proof of his acquired Indianness, Kremmer has neophyte’s habit of touching the feet of every swami, guru, and granny he meets, which, instead of helping him blend in, would have the same effect as Thompson and Thomson twins in the Tintin comics, trying one of their ludicrously ‘apt’ disguises to hide their aliennness.

In fact, Kremmer uses his foreignness as a litmus strip, and often as a mirror, to reveal an India at odds with itself, its people strangers in their own land, just like him. Ready to go out for an art exhibition, dressed in a white kurta-pyjama, he uses his crusty mother-in-law’s scornful reaction to his dressing like a desi to drive home this disjoint between the land and its people.

Later, as he sheds tears watching the Ram Lila on the banks of the Ganges, the reader for a moment thinks Kremmer has indeed become a desi. Not quite though. He comes close, but does not capitulate, to soft Indophilia and to the contradictions of the Indian way of life: he remembers that his ‘dharma [is] to doubt.’

His journalistic stories benefit from this ability to weave in the personal into the foreign political. He was eyewitness to some of the momentous, and events in the recent Indian history: the demolition of the Babri masjid, where he was almost killed; or the hijacking by a Hindu nationalist of an Indian Airlines plane, in which he was a passenger.

When, in his fine-brush American Gothic-portrait of compatriots Graham and Gladys Staines, Kremmer writes, ‘thirty-four years that he lived in India, Graham Staines had little grasp of the finer points of Hinduism,’ one knows he writes with confidence of man who knows his India well.

Kremmer seems emotionally invested in the Gandhi-dynasty. Weeks before Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Kremmer had briefly sat in Rajiv’s armoured-plated Ambassador as it heaved and panted on the muddy lanes of the Cow Belt. Rajiv was seeking not just a mandate to be re-elected, but his lost honour and people’s faith in his family, thanks to, what Kremmer seems convinced, Rajiv’s ex-protégé, V. P. Singh’s betrayal.

Kremmer relates easily to the Fellini- and Jazz-loving, charismatic Rajiv with his ‘large black eyes and full lips that curved easily into a shy smile,’ than he does with Vajpayee or the ‘gadfly’ V. P. Singh trying at once to take credit and also distance himself from the Mandal politics. While following the technocratese-spewing Rahul on a trip through Amethi, Kremmer observes Rahul struggling to connect directly to the bewildered masses. Kremmer seems reassured that like his father, Rahul ‘was just himself, a well-meaning, well-bred urban Indian.’

And, that’s Kremmer too for you. The Aussie global desi. Having imbibed so deeply of the land of the Mahatma, putting his unique perspective across in this tired template hardly does it justice.

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