Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Book Review: My dear Bapu

There are some things we know about modern India — that Mahatma Gandhi, or Bapu as he was fondly called, was the largest wave in the great tide of freedom sweeping across India between 1920 and 1947 and his chosen tools were civil disobedience and non-violent satyagraha. We know of leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Pt Madan Mohan Malviya, and C Rajagopalachari. What most of us don’t know is that freedom fighters — even those who agreed with Bapu — were not a monolith. They did not think or act cohesively. They even worked at cross-purposes.
It is difficult to get a full sense of the past, the pushes and pulls and shoves that won us independence; the immense struggle against splintering; the fine muslin of emotional appeal and inclusion of dissident voices that was woven into khadi.This is one of the precious reveals of My Dear Bapu, a collection of letters, mainly between C Rajagopalachari (CR) and Bapu, but also including letters to Devadas Gandhi, who married CR’s daughter Lakshmi, and grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who has edited this book.
CR and Bapu discussed khadi, temple entry for dalits, prohibition and dietary experiments. CR agrees with Bapu on abolishing untouchability, but doesn’t agree on separate electorates based on religion. Malviya seems to be aligned with orthodox priests and actually opposes Bapu’s fight against untouchability. Satyamurti wants CR thrown out of the Congress. CR doesn’t agree with CR Das. The Swarajists are a problem. There are pro-changers and no-changers and slow-changers.
It is oddly reassuring to know they were wrangling even in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Common ground had to be renegotiated on a daily basis, and this is deeply relevant to present-day readers who are disenchanted with politics itself. Through post and telegraph, friendships and rivalries and the freedom struggle is revealed. Bapu and CR explain themselves, argue about whether to fast or not, whether to drink milk or not, and with each letter, they grow more tangible to the imagination.
The first few letters are formal, but later exchanges are full of affection. They include details of how much cotton yarn is needed, but also accounts of grief. One of the most poignant threads is CR’s updates about his elder daughter, Namagiri (Papa), who fought off a long spell of illness and before she could her recover, lost her husband. Only a tiny glimpse of grief is afforded, and the reader is left to imagine how CR, a single parent, juggled family with constant travel, fund-raising, and jail stints.
The book is also charming for its literary asides — CR spending jail time translating epics, CR raving about Shakespeare and Morley; an 84-year-old CR refusing to visit the 90-year-old Bertrand Russell on the grounds that Russell was ‘too old’.
Another small joy lies in reading the footnotes, which introduce us to people who were part of CR or Bapu’s life, such as Thiru Vi Ka, Nageswar Rao Pantulu, Shankerlal Banker and Sadhu Surendra. A generation that barely knows Bapu is not likely to know Kelappan. It is easy to forget that it took many to implant the idea of Gandhi across the subcontinent.
It is also good to remember that men like Bapu and CR had a broad vision. Freedom was not just about hartals and burning foreign cloth. Freedom meant caring for your people. It meant taking responsibility for flood relief in Malabar even if it meant cooperating with the very government that had jailed them. In one letter, CR endorses Bapu’s statement to Reuters in 1931, wherein he seeks an India “where there shall be no high class and low class”, and does not distinguish being indigenous and foreign, as long as they don’t hurt the interests of “the dumb millions”.
We learn little of CR’s feelings post independence. Devadas died young and Gopalkrishna was too young to be burdened with disillusionment and systemic rot. But in his fine introduction, Gandhi writes of the time when CR fought the Congress electorally through a new political outfit, the Swatantra Party. It won most of the seats in Madras along with its ally, the DMK in the 1962 elections. “His newly elected MPs were to take their seats in the Lok Sabha. I asked him if he would not like to watch the proceedings from the visitors’ gallery. ‘It will be a sensation, Anna,’ I ventured. CR thought awhile and said, ‘It will be sensationalism.’ He went that year on a brief political Sabbath.”
CR’s erudition and Bapu’s keen, contesting mind are in fine display throughout, as is CR’s empathy and gentle reaching out to younger minds. The content of the letters alone make for an interesting read, but add the weight of history, and the new India’s aggressive polity, this book assumes greater significance.
First published here

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