16 November 2007

Remaking the Mahatma

Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire
Pages 672
Rs 650

Rajmohan Gandhi, one of the Mahatma's grandsons, joins the most exclusive club in India, one that admits a select band licenced to take liberties with the most untouchable of Indian icons, with this excellent, laboriously detailed biography of the Mahatma. Rajmohan's deconstruction is not just an act of daring for its refreshing iconoclasm, but for its ambition, fulfilled in full measure, to attempt to subvert a whole culture around the reductively entrenched myth in our history -- that of Mahatma Gandhi, the saint.

Rajmohan’s achievement is of collating, analysing and organising numerous extant sources into a thoroughly gripping narrative that interweaves the personal and the public personae of the Mahatma to reveal many downplayed aspects of arguably the most misrepresented man in history. And all this comes with the irrefragable ‘Gandhi’ imprimatur.

The biography is also a proof that for all the cynicism about Gandhian ideals and the silent but determined rejection of his legacy, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s story is a smacking good read and one that still inspires. And though part of its appeal lies in it being the greatest story ever told of self-improvement, the real pull is the complexity of a man who, as Rajmohan writes, “was neither simple to understand nor easy to live with.”

The story of an unruly urchin who picked beedi and cigarette butts off the streets and struggled like a wild animal to escape the orthodoxies his “worldly-wise” mother and an early marriage imposed on him; of Mohandas the compulsive dabbler experimenting with meat-eating, vegetarianism, Fabian ideas, and Tolstoy -- not to mention the much talked about experiments with sexual abstinence; of his fulfilling his sense of destiny by freeing India from foreign yoke, is an oft-repeated one, but a remarkable one.

Rajmohan duly fleshes out the otherwise sketchy account of Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth. He paints an attractive picture of Gandhi as a suave, with-it networking lawyer, and a foxy activist, who took pride in dressing well, travelling first-class, and launching grand campaigns to defend universal principles. A man with astounding physical courage (the numerous beatings he received at the hands of individuals and mobs in South Africa are the most well-kept secrets, revealed here), and uncanny ability to anticipate and pre-empt his adversary's every move, an ability which helped him in his biggest battles from winning rights for miners and migrants in South Africa, to bringing the Empire crashing down in India.

But there are darker, more human strains of the Mahatma that the biography does not flinch from documenting. These mostly have to do with Gandhi’s difficult equation with his wife and sons -- the dysfunctional relationship with his sons especially makes his other flaws pale in comparison. It begins with Kasturba and his sons joining him in South Africa where, instead of getting the benefit of western education, Gandhi forced them to study at home. This set off a long-term resentment in Harilal and Manilal.

In midst of his political crises, he would have to handle a major surprise from his sons. On Gandhi’s arrival in India in 1915, he and Harilal at last parted company. Gandhi gave him Rs 45 and wrote to an associate saying the parting was not bitter. But soon Harilal wrote Gandhi a ‘half-open’ letter, having simultaneously circulated it among a known circle. It is full of bitter charges like, “You have suppressed us (sons) in a sophisticated manner,” and, “You never encouraged us in any way.” The last perhaps referred to the fact that Gandhi had sent his associate Maganlal’s son to study law in London on a scholarship. Harilal, the eldest son had expected his father to have chosen him.

While it is easy to feel infuriated at the shabby and totally unjustifiable way Gandhi treated his sons, his relationship with Kasturba are less ambiguous, rather familiar -- the usual story of the ambitious careerist with an uneducated wife straggling in tow. One of the reasons for the conflicts with Kasturba, and generally his family, was over Gandhi’s principles.When Kasturba grew ‘restive’ after Gandhi admitted a young untouchable couple to live in his newly-established Satyagraha ashram, Gandhi is reported to have told her that “she could leave me and we should part good friends.” Kasturba relented.

Though by this time husband and wife had grown together having been through a lot in South Africa, Kasturba had remained the same untameable young wife whom Gandhi, as a jealous young husband, had tried to control and educate. Rajmohan shows us a Gandhi unable or unwilling to relate to his wife. From South Africa he wrote to Kasturba, dictating the letters to his secretary and trusted friend, Sonja Schlesin. Kasturba had to find someone to read and translate these ‘personal’ letters. He spent more time with his white friends and colleagues than with his family. Though he had managed to force Kasturba to adopt the Parsi-style sari and clothes westernised Indian women wore in those days, much to his regret Kasturba remained unconverted to Gandhi’s abstract principles.

So when the biography makes the disclosure about his affair with the forty-seven-year-old, married, Sarladevi Chaudhurani, Rabindranath Tagore’s, bluestockings niece, just as he began his Indian chapter on his return from South Africa, the reader hardly blinks, thanks to Rajmohan’s laying the ground for it. Sarladevi, called 'the greatest shakti in India' by her jailed husband, edited a journal who edited a journal Hindustan in his absence. Gandhi was dissuaded from it by his sons and friends as associates, who warned him of the consequences. Gandhi wrote to a 'shattered' Sarladevi ‘annulling’, what he called, their ‘spiritual marriage.’

Gandhi at his most vulnerable. A flesh and blood Mahatma. Nothing could resuscitate the Mahatma more effectively. As a man who loved makeovers and using image as strategy, Gandhi would have approved of Rajmohan’s efforts.

08 November 2007

Why Times Changed

On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape/
Random House
Pages 166
Rs 570

Why did the '70s rock? How and why were the '70s a coming-of-age decade in the West? Were the '70s inevitable? McEwan has come up with a neat little book that is a fiction-illustrated essay and social commentary to explain the inexorability of the sex, drugs and rock and roll decade. It catches a generation on the cusp of a major change to show why the change came. It shows a generation suffering from unsustainable uptightness, and how these circumstances resolved themselves.

Structured strangely, the book takes to minimal extremes McEwan's usual ploy to turn the narrative on the hinge of a singular central incident. The whole book, bar the last five pages, deals with eight hours in the life of a newly wed couple, and those last five pages bring the story up to the present and sum up a life -- a ‘whatever happened to’ history of an entire generation.

The story, simply stated, is about a newly wed couple trying hard to shed their personal inhibitions and beat their social conditioning to consummate their marriage. The year is 1963. The newly weds, Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew, to celebrate their honeymoon, are checked into a hotel on the Chesil Beach. As they self-consciously have their meal in their room waiting for the hotel staff waiting on them discreetly, to disappear, so that they could be alone to ‘in theory...to kick off their shoes and exult in their liberty,’ because ‘in just a few years’ time, that would be the kind of thing quite ordinary young people would do.’ ‘But,’ McEwan reminds us, ‘for now, the times held them.’

McEwan paints a Lucian Freud-portrait of the couple -- interpreted, like a caricature is, but chastisingly and painstakingly realistic.

Edward is poor. He is ‘not introspective’ and knows that yogurt is a ‘glamorous substance from James Bond novels.’ His father told him one Sunday afternoon that his mother is ‘brain damaged,’ a fact that made him feel a notional severance from his impoverished circumstances. He leaves his small town for London to study History. That is where he first meets Florence distributing CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) leaflets. A long sexless courtship makes Edward pop the question in the hope of sex in marriage.

Florence is rich. She is 'clever, but without guile,' ‘the squarest person on earth.’ Her father is a businessman. Her mother a philosopher. She cannot stand her father’s physical proximity but feels guilty to admit the fact to herself. Her mother is ok about Florence's CND activities but is appalled at her daughter’s soft-corner for the USSR.

Florence believes that despite its ‘clumsiness, inefficiency, defensiveness’ the Soviet Union is a beneficial force in the world. Florence’s mother just about tolerates her violin-playing. Florence is the founder and leader of the Ennismore Quartet. In life irresolute, in her quartet she is firm and decisive, a clear leader. But though she is delighted at the prospect of marrying Edward she is disgusted by the idea of having sex with him. She knows there is ‘something wrong with her.’

The book thrives on detail. McEwan’s all-knowing, Godlike narrator seem to be possessed of Dicken’s eye and Chekov’s heart: the characters’ circumstances and foibles are unsparingly observed, but never held against them. The times are everything to blame for: ‘While one heard of wealthier people going in for psychoanalysis, it was not yet customary to regard oneself in everyday terms as an enigma, as an exercise in narrative history, or as a problem waiting to be solved.’

McEwan does not shy away from the quotidian. He takes it head on. He does not glamourises it say in the way postmodernists and magic realist would. The everyday is the stuff of his fiction, and just like nondescript placards held up the right way create breathtaking portraits and sceneries in North Korean public functions aggrandising their revered leader, little details come thick and fast to flesh out a character.

McEwan also has a way with sex too. Indian writers couldn't do better than learn from McEwan how to write naturally and un-mawkishly about sex and have 'introspective' and 'erection' in the same sentence.

Do Florence and Edward do it? McEwan makes every word count before the reader is let on it. Without any showy literary tricks, McEwan uses the tools of the socio-psychological novel and English portrait to explain the times through people’s lives.

04 November 2007

Hear, Hear

The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches
Ed. Rakesh Batabyal
Penguin Books India
Pages 916
Rs 595

Great Speeches of Modern India
Ed. Rudrangshu Mukherjee
Random House India
Pages 454
Rs 395

People sometimes ask me whether...doon didn’t teach me lessons of leadership and character building and independence of mind. My answer, in a word, is No.

Vikram Seth (1952- )
On Founder’s Day (Dehra Dun, October 1992)

Cling to the simplicity and sobriety of your domestic lives. Keep its purity as it was in the ancient times and as it is still existing in your simple homes. Do not let modern fashions and extravagances of the West and its modern English education spoil your reverential humility...
~Sister Nivedita (1867-1911)
How and why I adopted the Hindu religion (Bombay, October 1902), Her advice to the women of India.

Two anthologies of Indian speeches snatch history from the dry desolation of academia and the clutches of Oblivion. One does it with panache. The other with exquisite thoroughness. Great Speeches of Modern India aims for the momentous, the heroic, resulting in a more accessible volume. The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches is high on historicity, seeks obscure speeches to fit the bill to reveal a rich and textured history of India.

Both happily betray the allegiances of their editors. Batabyal from Jawahar Lal Nehru University ensures that among the deeper and finer shades his selection includes, the Left finds suitable representation. Oxford-Harvard educated Rudrangshu is a cosmopolitan, a humanist who has seen to it that Vikram Seth, Lord Curzon, and Satyajit Ray are in.

In his excellent introduction (along with one of the most engaging acknowledgements) to the Penguin volume that serves to organise the speeches from 1877 to the present, as well as provide a short, insightful history of how the nation came to be articulated, Batabyal shows that India’s freedom struggle was a long, nuanced, and instinctive evolutionary process.

The early nationalist thinkers conceieved the idea of India. They breathed life into the single political, administartive body called India the British had created out of a ‘congeries of nations.’ They did not lustily shout slogans and burn effigies. Instead, they made reasoned critiques of the Empire like Dadabhai Naroji’s 1893 speech at the Lahore Indian National Congress session presenting his famous ‘drain of wealth’ theory. But it was still some time before some one would pick up the gauntlet one of our earliest nationalists Surendranath Banerjea threw in 1878: ‘Who will be the Garibaldi and Mazzini of Indian unity?’

The early ‘freedom fighters,’ including Gandhi before he became a Mahatma, were loyal subjects of the Empire, aware of the debt they owed the British. Like Pherozeshah Merwanji Mehta speaking in 1883, they lavished praises on the Bristish with their ponderous Zimmer-Frame usuage (first the language comes, then comes the meaning): ‘If I entertain one political conviction more strongly than another, it is that this country in falling under British rule, has fallen into the hands of a nation than which no other is better qualified to govern her wisely and well.’

With the arrival of Gandhi one would expect the induction of even more reasoned and reasonable arguements for independence and justice. Instead Gandhi, the seasoned lawyer-political activist just returned triumphant in the searing battles against inequities in another part of the Empire, introduced antagonism and victimhood in the discourse as evident in the Trail Speech, Ahmedabad, March 1922, following which he was sentenced to six-years imprisonment for the Chauri Chaura violence: ‘I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the Bristish connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically. A disarmed India has no power of resistance against any aggressor if she wanted to engage in an armed conflict with him.’

And as Batabyal explains, where earlier there had been conflict between the reformist and the nationalist as to what the country needs first, freedom from its own evils, or from the evils of the Empire, Mahatma was sharp enough to bring under his moral charge both the reformists and the nationalists for the first time in Indian freedom struggle, recognising with all the benefit of his South African experience the utility of harnessing these in appearance extreme but in reality two synergetic and complementary forces under the same yoke.

Mahatma’s speech at the opening of the Banaras Hindu University is a ringing proof. The Mahatma offends both the Hindus (‘Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are?’), and the British by protesting against being forced to speak in English. He is almost ordered off the stage by a presumably shrill Annie Besant screaming every now and then: ‘Please stop it.’

Lord Curzon’s speech, in Mukherjee’s collection, on the need to conserve and protect Indian monuments tempers the popular impression that the freedom struggle was a long monotonous, nationalist harangue. It shows why the Empire can still be argued as force for good and why the temperate Indian freedom struggle that lasted as long as it did, far from amounting to sleeping with the ‘enemy’ for 70 odd years, was an example of prudent gradualism, an irreplaceable centrepiece of our democracy.

When Mark Twain quipped that it took him more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech, he was being funny as usual, but he was also making a larger point about the vanity of speech makers--men and women not just in love with their voice, but stricken with hyper-consciousness about the historical import of their words. But the reader's pleasure comes from the knowledge that History's gaze apparaently beady, oozes nothing but indifference in the long run. No wonder the grandest of speeches is riddled with irony, given time.

For instance, Subash Chandra Bose’ thrilling speech ‘Give me blood and I promise you freedom!’ rings with an emptiness of ‘what if’ history. In other places irony is immediately apparent like in Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s most un-prescient speech, his opening address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 14 August 1947, that reads like a recant. Or was he merely homesick for his Bombay? He wishfully thought that ‘...in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims...in the political sense...’, not realising that he had just recently himself shot down that possiblity.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should pick up a copy of either book if he can’t find his own speech made in 1991 to innaugrate the economic reforms which have come a long way but have slowed since his arrival in the PMO, and it might help him tide over his 123-Agreement worries: ‘But let me say that you cannot achieve your objectives without hard sell.’ [Italics mine]

History might be bunk, but it still has a lesson or two up its sleeve.

Cry Me A River

By Julian Crandall Hollick
Random House India
Pages 283
Price 495

It’s a sign of the age we live in that a book published this year on the river Ganges is neither a travelogue, nor a glossy coffee-table book. It’s a Kafakaesque account -- complete with footnotes and an impressive bibliography -- of an 18-month roughing it down the entire 1,200-mile length of the mother of myths, faith, indeed a whole civilisation, and, not to mention, of those countless coffee-table books.

Like earlier travellers and writers taken up by this culture thrown up by the coming together of poverty, blind faith, and a river, Hollick’s Ganga is a meditation on that same culture, but one that is now being changed radically by a new element -- urban India’s increasing affluence and a matching demand on natural resources.

Initially drawn to the river for the myths she sustains, and later, after years of casual encounters, being struck by the amazing variety of personalities she could possess, Hollick found rankling the general disconnect between the mythical and the geographical river. This was most evident in the way the faithful seem to treat the two rivers differently, making Hollick ask the question: ‘How can Indians pollute Ganga and yet at the same time worship her as a goddess?’

To explore this conundrum, Hollick, along with his wife Martine and a retinue that an Indian prince would have envied, consisting of a variety of retainers (including boatmen for different legs of the journey, and cooks), guides, and scientists, sometimes abroad and sometimes carrying their boat ‘Basanti’ in Mahindra SUV, sets out down the Ganges, from its source to its mouth.

No evocative descriptions, no charming vignettes, what follows is Hollicks intense gaze on the condition of the river relentlessly seeking out those responsible for its dire straits. Will Ganges the goddess die if the river did? Is it faith, literally blind to the extreme stress it puts its goddess through, whether it be plastic bags, dead bodies, or human waste thrown in and from which the river is believed to cleanse itself miraculously, that is killing the river? Is urban India’s insatiable thirst sucking the river dry?

Hollick’s learned forays into the river’s various physical aspects -- Ganges’ miraculous self-cleansing properties; the mysterious bacteriophage that allegedly appear and vanish in seconds to cleanse large swathes of the river of deadly bacteria; the deadly Chromium effluence of the Kanpur tanneries; the self-inflicted environmental catastrophe that Farakka barrage is, built ironically to punish East Pakistan; and river hydrology -- convey her true value as a natural resource and an ecosystem.

Hollick quizzes mahants, gurus, pilgrims, environmentalists, hydrologists, and microbiologists for answers. He meets interesting characters and goes strange places. In Motipur, a veritable Village of the Damned, he finds the entire population of both people and cattle afflicted with the effects of Chromium poisoning. The president of the Small Tanneries Association, offers a bizarre explanation to Hollick: ‘It’s all caused by nuclear radiation!’

And yet, Hollick’s problem is not of lack but a surfeit of answers. Hollick might now be a convert to Nehru’s assertion that in India there are many sides to a truth. One truth that remains unchanged through out the book is that people staying along the river's banks are less and less likely to bathe in it or use the river water to wash the bodies of their dead.

Something ails the Ganges? Who and what is responsible? Perhaps the answer lies in his analysis of the still-born Ganga Action Plan started with best intentions by Rajiv Gandhi, with the help of most competent men and women. ‘[Yet] everything that could go wrong has gone wrong!’ writes Hollick. ‘There’s little deliberate malfeasance or evil intent. It’s incremental: a decision is made, a direction taken, without fully anticipating the possible consequences. It’s never anybody’s fault!’

In short, it’s everyone’s fault. A whole culture to blame for its own imminent demise.

It’s amazing how Ganga, though reading like a skittish radio-documentary script and coupled with Hollick’s inability or indifference to marshall the wealth of his material into a cogent thesis, still manages to deliver a devastating cultural critique. Ganga is one of the most acute and revealing portrait of the land and its people by a Westerner on the sheer strength of Hollick’s well-chosen metaphor for contemporary India.