Thursday, October 20, 2011

Age of the socialist elite

Book Review

Of A Certain Age: Twenty Life Sketches by Gopalkrishna Gandhi (Penguin/Viking, 234 pages, Rs 499)

As a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, Gopal Gandhi could well have joined the ranks of those Indians who are famous for being famous. Pedigree, however, is the least of his accomplishments. A distinguished public servant, diplomat and man of letters, he brought to the various posts he held a great measure of old world charm, civility and erudition—commodities in woeful short supply in a country that measures achievement by the individual’s ability to be sharp-elbowed.

A professional life as interesting as Gandhi’s merits a detailed narration—and I hope he takes the hint and starts work on his memoirs. For the moment, however, he has been content with a short book of pen portraits of 20 individuals he got to know well, both socially and professionally. Given his way with words, it is a compelling and easy read—highly recommended for a lazy Sunday or a trans-continental flight.

The life sketches were initially written for newspapers and, consequently, suffer from an excess of brevity. Just when the subject starts to enthral, the word limit forces a premature conclusion leaving umpteen question marks in the mind of the reader. This is unfortunate because many of the fascinating lives encountered in the book are completely unknown to a generation that was born after the 1970s.

As a schoolboy in Calcutta, I grew up reading M.Krishnan’s fortnightly ‘Country Notebook’ in the pages of the Sunday Statesman. Subsequently, one of my earliest responsibilities as a journalist was to proof-read Krishnan before the galleys were sent to the press.  Yet, how many people not ‘of a certain age’ will be able to grasp the contribution of that unassuming nature lover in just 1,200 words or so? Without minimising the sheer pleasure this book has given me, Gandhi would have done well to flesh out his sketches for the benefit of an uninitiated generation.

Of course, there are two distinct ways to approach the book. It is possible to read the 20 potted assessments in isolation—a sort of great-men-I-have-known exercise the author charmingly describes as “that inchoate bonding which, like a slow log fire in a hill station, warms those who are of a certain age.”

More rewarding, however, is to take the cue from the author and view the life sketches as a backdrop of an age—what Gandhi calls the ‘Gandhi-Nehru age’. I disagree profoundly, but only on a chronological detail. Apart from Mahatma Gandhi, Harilal Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and, to a lesser extent, Jayaprakash Narayan and Acharya J.B. Kriplani who straddled the ages, the other 15 defined another era: the Nehru-Gandhi age. Except that this Gandhi was Indira Gandhi.

Gandhi’s collection of truncated biographies is also a wonderful commentary on the conviviality that bound the politico-bureaucratic and cultural elite from Independence till the dawn of coalition politics in 1989. Of course, Nehru was the symbol of this association of shared assumptions but despite the rough edges of her confrontational style, even Indira chipped in with her contribution.

The most striking feature of this consensus was an almost blind worship of a seemingly progressive state and, by implication, progressive politics which separated the ‘enlightened’ from the cretin. What bound the refined bhadralok sensibilities of a Jyoti Basu and Hiren Mukherjee (both cardholding Communists) with the Fabianism of K.R. Narayanan and the public service Brahminism of R.Venkatraman and J.N. Dixit was the common reverence for an activist state. This faith in an enlightened despotism, legitimised through the ballot box, was based on noble intentions and a shared disdain of vulgarian capitalism, particularly of the Yankee variety. This is where aesthetes such as Pupul Jayakar and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay stepped in with their devotion to indigenous crafts and handlooms. They ensured that India’s socialist elite weren’t infected by the grim and grey realism of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

But, at the same time, ‘progressive’ also meant being a committed friend of the Soviet Union which all these worthies were. It meant that when the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, a part of what they had lived for was lost. President Narayanan wasn’t being churlish when he gracefully questioned the unipolar world to a visiting President Clinton: he was echoing his own anguish.

What Gandhi’s book misses out is that this consensus produced its dissenters. The awkward elements weren’t packed off to a Gulag, but they were ruthlessly ostracised from an Establishment that drew its sustenance from the conviviality of the like-minded. Kriplani, for example, was barely tolerated by the ‘progressives’ and they barely protested when JP was dubbed a fascist.

The omission is striking because one of the most prominent heretics of that age happened to be Rajaji, his maternal grandfather. I would have loved to have read Gandhi’s take on the man who questioned the fundamentals of Nehruvian existence—and was vindicated by history.

I would have also loved to know why Gandhi’s roll of honour didn’t include anyone in business or involved in the generation of wealth. It might explain why this charming collection often reads like an elegy to an India that, hopefully, is history. 

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